Sweet Muse of Madness
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When one hears a term like “the glories of Greece,” one is likely to think of Alexander’s conquering armies, or the great ancient philosophers, Athenian democracy, or the indomitable warriors of Sparta. Perhaps one might conjure an image of sailors wandering over a “wine-dark sea,” or a giant wooden horse with a deadly surprise inside. Or maybe the mind’s eye beholds the fantastic feats of Titans, Olympians, demi-gods and mortal heroes.

Entrance into the world of the Song of Greece Series, however, requires a journey back to a time long before all of the above imagery was refined, for the humble farmers and society builders in these novels are those who, with their independent spirits and honest acceptance of nature’s challenges, quietly yet boldly fertilized the cultural soil that generations and centuries later, finally bore a rich harvest, a harvest which, even unto our own time, breathes wonder into our imaginations, and lends substance to our institutions.

So let the sands of time stream up into the top half of the hour glass as we glide past the fourth century (Before Common Era) empire of Alexander, beyond the fifth century Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta and previous Persian invasion, over the songs of Homer in the eighth century, and through Greece’s poverty stricken and illiterate Dark Ages at the turn of the First Millennium B.C.E. . Traveling further back, we put the thirteenth century battles of Achilles and Odysseus behind us, out of the Mycenaean Age and into the Minoan, until even that beautiful sea-going civilization, more than twenty centuries before Christ, is but a dream of the future in the mind of a child living on one of the islands of the eastern Mediterranean. We have to voyage to an even more remote time prior to that daydreaming child’s birth before finally arriving on Greece’s Plain of Thessaly thirty-three hundred years Before the Common Era, or fifty-three centuries before our present.

 Photo by Yvan Pointurier.

Archaeologists describe this period in Greece as a shift out of the Final Neolithic, or last part of the New Stone Age, and into the Helladic, or Early Bronze Age. (Helladic is just a fancy reference to Hellas, an ancient name for Greece.)

We’re talking about an agricultural society made possible in part by the Pineios River which runs across the Plain of Thessaly. (This is called the River of Life in Sweet Muse of Madness.) However, since the Pineios was not as powerful as the Tigris or Euphrates or Nile, one might speculate that much of the farming here was rain dependent, rather than irrigation based, making the sowing and harvesting seasons less predictable, and therefore the gods deemed as less reliable. Accordingly, the characters in my book, while respecting the power of the gods, do not necessarily look to them for consistent moral guidance. In contrast, amid the great irrigation systems of the Fertile Crescent in what we now call the Middle East, the inhabitants worshipped deities, whether polytheistic or monotheistic, who were deemed to be far more dependable weather-wise, and therefore were more likely to be considered by mortals to be a source of moral teaching. One might well wonder whether a healthy distrust of the gods in Greece resulted in an independent mindedness that at least opened the doorway to a society governed by the People, rather than one ruled by a tyrant claiming a divine mandate.

The archaeological evidence in Early Bronze Age Thessaly reveals small farming communities with houses made of wood and stone and mud brick, and tools of stone and copper. Bronze objects may have arrived here through trade with the East, but it was not yet produced here. I go into much greater detail regarding daily life in my novel.

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The size of each community seems to be no more than a few hundred inhabitants, with apparently a few hundred such communities across the Plain. It would be a mistake, however, to think of population only in terms of continuous growth. We know that agriculture of one kind or another was in Greece at least four thousand years before the time of our story, and who can say what social ups and downs with accompanying increases and decreases of populations, actually took place over those many centuries. In my novels, the characters themselves hold in high regard monumental structures built by mysterious ancestors who may have been quite numerous.

Nothing definitive is known about the specific spiritual practices of those Europeans who lived in the Final Neolithic-Early Bronze Age. My novel is guided in part by the controversial theory proposed by some scholars that, up to around 3,000 B.C.E., or five thousand years ago, the People of the Plain of Thessaly and in the rest of Europe, worshipped goddesses who embodied the entire cycle of life and death, reflecting both the seasons of the natural world, and the sowing and reaping of the grain. The second part of the theory is that around the same time, large populations of aggressive herders from the East, who worshipped patriarchal gods, moved into Europe and, perhaps gradually, perhaps violently, diminished the presence of the Goddess in the lives of the farmers.

This theory rings true for me. Admittedly, what “rings” for one may not be heard at all by another. Nevertheless, an abundance of female figurines, many of them indicating pregnancy, have been uncovered from many pre-historic sites throughout Europe, and by far outnumbering male figurines. This is interpreted by many scholars as a clear sign of great reverence for a Female Essence at the heart of all things. Furthermore, the very processes of life confirm the female driven reality of birth, death and rebirth. It’s no surprise that, even to this day, folks do not refer to “Father Earth” or “Father Nature.” I wonder whether those scholars who reject the Goddess Theory as nothing more than fashionable feminism or eco-mythology are basing their criticism on actual evidence, or on an investment in an interpretation of history constructed over many decades by males. The debate continues.

In Sweet Muse of Madness and the Song of Greece Series, I take literary license in suggesting that psychological factors in addition to aggressive eastern herders may have had a hand in subduing the Goddess. Was there a gradual disillusionment with magic rooted in the material world, which may have led to a growing preference for a nonmaterial god? Were there proselytizers from the East specifically preaching the Way of the Patriarch? Could such preaching have been an early form of non-Biblical monotheism, similar to the quasi-monotheistic sun-god religion of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaton in the Fourteenth Century B.C.E.? These are questions, and questions only.

Let me close with a reference to another area of controversy: extreme forms of worship. No cultural or ethnic tribe likes to acknowledge that its particular group may have engaged in human sacrifice, cannibalism or orgiastic practices long ago. It is human nature to assume that “our” people were the ones who “enlightened” the “others.” Yet if we look at the sacrificial nature of Christianity, with its symbolic consummation of the “body” and “blood” of the “Lamb of God” in the Catholic Communion, the often painful rites of passage among some indigenous groups still functioning in the modern world, and the written accounts of extreme behavior during seasonal festivals in classical Greece and Anatolia, one must be at least open to the possibility that the religious practices of antiquity on every inhabited continent were, at best, highly uninhibited, and at worst, very bloody indeed. This is not to condemn those who were quite genuine in their desire to reach an accord with the world around them. Indeed, when we consider the violent sports we in the present celebrate, and the things for which we ourselves are willing to die and kill, might we not wonder which historical period was truly the most barbaric?

And so, with a respect for the discoveries of archaeologists, the written record of ancient historians, the interpretations of culture by modern anthropologists, and the speculations and suggestions of storytellers, we enter the Plain of Thessaly three millennia Before the Common Era, five millennia Before the Present, and behold a world which, paradoxically, is very different, yet strangely similar, to our own.