gillpolack (gillpolack) wrote,

Writing ancient women: The Priestess and the Slave (guest post from Jenny Blackford)

I've always found the ancient world far more interesting than the modern world – but not the wars, the revolutions, the kings and generals (or even the occasional queen). Instead, I'm fascinated by the tiny details of the daily life of ancient people – what they ate and drank, what they wore, who they worshipped, and how, and why.

One of my favourite university subject was Greek Daily Life, in which one of my assessable assignments was making a long strip of woven cloth. This was more sensible than it sounds: my learned but eccentric teacher Rhona Baere was insistent that we understand that all respectable ancient Greek women, and many of the less respectable variety, plus most female slaves, spent most of their lives in interminable spinning and weaving. (After the hours watching the cloth grow, painfully slowly, I've never forgotten.) She also taught us how Greek pots and furniture were made, and read Plato's Symposium with us, so we could see how the men behaved without respectable women around.

When I gave up my day job in 2001 and started to write fiction, I also got back into reading as much as I could about life in the ancient world. I was particularly keen to work out from primary sources, purely for my own satisfaction, just how the Oracle at Delphi had really operated. Despite this, I was somewhat stunned when Eric Reynolds (the publisher behind Hadley Rille Books) asked me to write him an archaeologically-accurate novella set in fifth century BC Greece – which became The Priestess and the Slave.

I had no interest in writing a story centred on philosophers, statesmen and generals, or anyone who moved in the aristocratic circles around Sokrates, Perikles and Alkibiades. Instead, I wanted to write from the point of view of ordinary ancient Greek women, people I could relate to. At the same time, I wanted them to be undergoing something extraordinary - and I wanted to do it as accurately as I possibly could.

So, how to go about that?

I browsed through Thucydides and Herodotus until I found some events I could hang a story on: from Thucydides, his excellent description of the terrible plague of Athens (he was one of the few who caught it and survived); and from Herodotus, the amazing story of the mad Spartan king who corrupted the Pythia Perialla.

I narrowed my possible central characters down to two. For the Plague of Athens, I decided on a youngish female slave who lives in a household struck by the disease. I wanted to portray life in a respectable Athenian household as I'd come to understand it after all my reading, with its interminable women's work (weaving, spinning, cooking...), and the many relationships involved – master and wife, owners and slaves, parents and children, slave and slave, and even in-laws.

Even in a modern family, it's almost always a woman who carries, holds, empties and washes the vomit bucket. In the ancient world, that function would have been performed by a female slave. But except in a highly dysfunctional family, the slave would have wanted her owners to survive; for most slaves, the family she lived with would have been the only family she knew. Their death would mean being passed down to their heirs, or sold. For the owners, too, the household slaves were genuinely part of the family. For respectable women, constrained for much of their lives to the interior of their fathers' or husbands' houses, their female slaves were the people whom they spent their days with. It was a fascinating situation to work with – and having the Plague to intensify all of the relationships was even better.

So I started with a dramatic situation: the son and heir is sick, and after some days it's looking serious. So, I wondered, who would be watching the boy, wiping his fevered brow and carrying the vomit bucket, by night and day? What room would he be in, how would it be decorated, and what were the bed and bedding like? How would his parents be reacting? What medical treatment would they be using? I looked for the best available answers to all of these questions, and plunged in.

It wasn't possible to use all of the research, of course. A viewpoint character should only describe things that she specifically notices. I was particularly sorry not to be able to describe the ceramic curved-back potty-chairs that were thought to be ritual implements until unmistakeable pictures of them were found on vases, with a baby sitting over the hole in the base, stretching his hands out to his mother, saying "I'm finished." However beautiful they were, to a character they would be simply potty-chairs.

For my other viewpoint character, I wanted a Pythia, an oracular priestess of Apollo at Delphi – but not the Pythia who was corrupted. Again, I'd read widely and formed a considered opinion of what it must have been like to serve the mantic god. In classical times, there were usually two or three Pythiai at one time, menopausal women who lived together. That sounded like an interesting hothouse situation. What made it even more interesting was that the Pythiai didn't come from a priestly caste, and were definitely not aristocrats. Rather, each of them was just an ordinary farmer's daughter and wife from the districts around Delphi until she was chosen – by the current Pythiai, not the priests of Apollo – to join them.

Of course, I wanted to write as accurately as possible about what the texture of these women's lives was like: what they saw and did every day, what vessels they used, and so on. Basically, I read a huge pile of books (both primary and secondary texts) before I started writing; then, as I was writing, I tried to feel as clearly as possible what each situation would be like for the viewpoint character – and went back to the sources to check my facts every sentence or so. Where there were no definite facts, I made the best guess I could.

Indeed, after a while I knew more about fifth century BC Greece than I ever had during my degree. I'd never cared about the connection between the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian War, for example, back then – but I came to realize that it really would have mattered in the day-to-day life of my viewpoint  women. I used primary sources as much as possible, especially Plutarch and Pausanias on Delphi, and Aristophanes on family life. Comedy is a wonderful mirror of society, and Aristophanes' plays were the Kath and Kim, or the Simpsons, of his day – as well as biting political satire.

There were some excellent secondary sources. On food, for example, I read and reread many wonderful books, some of them really rather specialized. The French collection of academic articles titled The Cuisine of Sacrifice among the Greeks might be the oddest. Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece, by Andrew Dalby (classicist and librarian), is still my favourite; it's charmingly erudite and always enthusiastic about the food involved. Another favourite with a somewhat different subject is Mirko D. Grmek's appallingly fascinating Diseases in the Ancient Greek World. And I cannot explain how much I love Martin Nilsson's extraordinarily insightful and erudite works on Greek religion.

Of course, I woke at 3am night after night, convinced that people would check my carefully-researched text against the misinformation on the Interwebs, and blithely assume that I was ignorant of basic facts. For example, the internet in general is convinced that watermelon and musk melon weren't known in Europe until well after classical times, but Siren Feasts says they were eaten in classical Greece, and Dalby notes that "the seeds of both have been found at prehistoric Aegean sites", with scholarly citations to ancient and modern experts. However, to my extreme relief, there have been no such responses to the watermelon that accompanied the olives and sheeps cheese as a light lunch.


More about me and my book:

Various people said lovely things about The Priestess and the Slave; for a few reviews, look here. But I was amazed when Fiona Hobden, lecturer in Greek Culture at the University of Liverpool, gave me a long and excellent review in the latest HerStoria magazine, including this: "[Blackford's] attempt to reveal the historical reality of women’s lives takes us much closer to seeing ancient women as real people. For this reason, as well as for being an intelligently-executed novel, The Priestess and the Slave is thoroughly recommended."

I still feel awed by the short review that legendary sf feminist Pamela Sargent wrote on Goodreads in 2009, including this wonderful statement: "The author... brings authority and detail to this story of those so often neglected by history, those without power. Women in classical Greece led especially limited lives, but Jenny Blackford brings both suspense and compassion to Harmonia's tale, which is restricted entirely to her master's house, and to Thrasulla's, when she must confront the madness in a Spartan king and the greed of a sister priestess."



  • (no subject)

    Blogging has had to fade into the background recently. First I didn't have time to read blog posts and then I didn't have time to write them. Now you…

  • (no subject)

    Right now, I spend between 30 minutes and 180 minute a day, every day, answering questions, listening, chatting about subjects of concern. Mostly…

  • Just thinking

    I wrote this before I did all my travels. Given it's IWD today, it's not a bad time for pondering from my (very female) perspective. In case someone…

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.