Helen of Troy

Helen of Troy should really be called Helen of Sparta since she was born in Sparta and was a Spartan princess. She was also a Mycenaen – part of the culture that swept into Bronze Age Crete. This period is probably fifty years after the period I am writing about but I did research into it anyway. We know a bit more about the Spartans and they were supposed to have been influenced by the Minoan civilization.

With that said, most of the Mediterranean cultures were influenced by this great civilization – maybe not in accordance with the wishes of the leaders since in Sparta laws were passed forbidding perfume, cosmetics and jewelry. However, girls were also educated at state expense and encouraged to be physically active. They also married later than many of their peers in other countries so maternal and infant mortality was less. They were also the scandal of Classical Greece since the women had so much more freedom than the poor wives in Athens. Although named for a Goddess, Athena, the women were kept closeted in their homes weaving with no company but slaves and other women. Even in Sparta, though, patriarchy ruled and the women had much less influence than those in Crete.

But I digress.

I think everyone knows the basic story:  that Helen was the most beautiful woman of her age. She was married to Menelaus, brother to Agamemnon. She was either abducted or chose to run away with Paris. (It doesn’t much matter if she was innocent. For most of the intervening centuries she has been considered a harlot.)They fled to Troy and a great war was fought that lasted more than ten years.  The war is the basis of the Iliad. As everyone knows, Troy was considered a myth until Schliemann excavated it.

Here’s what I did not know about Helen.

Another familiar myth is Leda and the Swan. Zeus takes the form of a swan to rape Leda. The child created by this union was Helen. Her beauty was frequently ascribed to her divine paternity. Because Zeus took the form of a swan, Helen was born from an egg. I am not kidding. Besides the painting that shows her rising from an egg, an artifact reputed to be a piece of the eggshell was a sacred object.

Since everybody in these stories are related, Helen’s half-brothers were the twins Castor and Pollux and her half-sister was Clytemnestra, wife to Agamemnon.


The Minotaur

I’m sure most of us know something about Theseus and the Minotaur. Here’s the backstory. The Greeks revered Zeus. Poseidon wanted to be honored too so he sent a white bull to Minos, the King of Crete. Minos’s wife Parsiphae fell in love with the bull. She tasked Daedalus (yes, the inventor with the wax wings whose son was Icarus) to build a special wooden box in the shape of a cow. Once inside the box, she had intercourse with the bull. Nine months later she bore a half-man, half-bull. The Minotaur.

The myth reeks of patriarchy and a desire to, in modern parlance, throw shade on Cretan beliefs.

First, in Crete Zeus was not the primary God. He was an upstart, more akin to a harvest God, who died and was reborn.

We also don’t know if Crete had a King. Certainly it was a goddess centered, matrilineal culture. Many archeologists have assumed Crete had kings, but for decades these archeologists were men. Men, moreover, who lived with a strongly patriarchal structure. It is possible the Priestess’s consort acted as a wanax, or governor. Kingships came with the Mycenaeans.

Third several ancient cultures revered the bull or, in Indo-Europe the horse. One of the rites was mock intercourse with this symbol of fertility by the Queen/Priestess. This act was supposed to guarantee good crops, lots of livestock and of course healthy children for the coming year.

But what about the Minotaur?

Well, many many ancient and not so ancient cultures employ masks in religious rites. Animals are a frequently the subject.  Is it so far a stretch to believe that the Minotaur is a masked man involved in a religious rite?

Besides painting Theseus as a hero (which I dispute but more about that later), this myth spins Crete as decadent and deserving of conquest. By the Myceneans, naturally.

Bull-leaping and Theseus

Bull leaping is probably one of the most well-known -if not the most well-known – image of the Minoan civilization. Most people believe the account written in the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. It is important to remember the Greeks (the Mycenae and forward) borrowed a lot from other cultures. The civilization on Crete was very important. With that said, the Minoan civilization was Goddess centered while the Mycenae were patriarchal and that made a huge difference in how the invaders viewed the rites and rituals they saw.

In the Theseus myth, Minos exacts a tribute from Athens of 7 young men and 7 maidens to face the bull and perform bull-leaping. Minos’s daughter Ariadne falls in love with Theseus and gives him a ball of string to find his way through the labyrinth under the city and kill the Minotaur, (The creation of this beast is another story). Theseus does so, thereby freeing himself and the other tributes from Crete. He takes Ariadne with him but abandons her on another island. Great guy.

While tributes may have been pressed into service as bull-leapers, the bull-leaping was an integral part of the religious ceremonies. The bull was a sacred animal and the Cretan youth performed. Secondly, there are no labyrinths underneath Knossos and it is thought the pattern of building residences – all interlinked and connecting rooms – gave rise to the myth of a labyrinth.

And although labyrinth now means maze, the labys (the root of the word) was the iconic Cretan double axe. It had nothing to do with mazes.

Lastly, there is a lot of speculation about Minos. Was he a king? Perhaps after the Mycenae arrived, a kingship was established. Was he a consort of the High Priestess who, it is now thought, was the earthly representative of the Goddess. The Priestess chose a – or many – consorts. There is now some thought that he or other men served as a wanax and kept the wheels of the government running.

Money, scissors and more


Much research was and is required for the Will Rees mysteries. After all, they dressed differently, ate differently and mostly lived different. Most people then lived on farms. And, of course, there were no telephones, landlines or otherwise, no computers, no cars – the list goes on and on.

But as I research Bronze Age Crete for my next series, I realize how many things there are. Money, for example. Every Western country as well as China, India and more had money. Well, there was some money in the Bronze Age. In what is now Iraq and Iran, shekels were used. They were tied to a certain amount of barley. Consistent weights for gold and silver were beginning to be set up. But can I casually say my characters in Minoan Crete went to the market with their money and purchased something? No. Something must have been used; after all, Crete was the center of trade. Did they use a barter system or a combination of both? Obviously, more research is required.

I talked about needles in my last post. Well, let’s move on to scissors. Rees uses scissors and we would recognize them. Scissors were invented during the Bronze Age but they were not the scissors we know. More like two blades attached with a copper band.

And the people of Rees’s time period ate similarly to us. More meat heavy and certain vegetables were newish such as potatoes and tomatoes but we would recognize most of their food.  The Minoans ate differently. Sure, they ate lamb, seafood and goat, lentils and other pulses, grains such as barley and wheat. But did they consume dairy products? Had they learned to make cheese? So far, although there are competing theories, no one seems to know.

And did they eat beef? The bull was sacred to them. The Classical Greeks sacrificed Cattle by burning the hides and bones so the aroma would go up to the Gods. Did the Minoans sacrifice their Bulls and do the same? Or did they treat their cattle as they still do in India today: cattle are sacred and not eaten?

But they did consume beer, wine and a fermented honey similar to mead.

Zeus and Dionysus – Cretan Version

The Cretan Zeus is not quite the same as the Classical Greek version of the God. For one thing, the Cretan Zeus is more of a harvest God who is born again each spring and dies in the Fall. Since Classical Greeks thought all Gods and Goddesses should be immortal, they changed the attribute of the God whose name they’d taken and declared all Cretans are liars. They kept, however, the story of his upbringing in a cave after his father, Cronus in Classical Greek mythology, swallowed all his children since one was prophesied as his killer. Zeus was nursed by a nanny goat – or one of several other animals. Take your pick. I’ve now read several variations. His crying was masked by the Kouretes, a group of armed men who clashed their weapons together to hide the cries.

So what does this have to do with Dionysus? Well, the Cretan Zeus is more like Dionysus. A harvest God followed by ecstatic worshippers.

When I was in Greece at Delphi I asked our tour guide why Dionysus was so different from the Classical Greek Gods. They do not embody the Dionysian wildness and several represent rationality. She didn’t know but I have the answer now. Dionysus is a very old God. He is named in the linear B tablets. And in many, if not most, of the other Middle Eastern Bronze Age religions there are other Gods like him.

These early beliefs were concentrated on fertility – not just human fertility although in Bronze Age Crete the High Priestess, as an earthly representation of the Goddess, represented that fertility. Ritual intercourse was practiced not only in the Mediterranean but as far away as Norway. For these early farmers, fertility among the livestock and of course a good harvest meant the difference between life and death.

Ancient Crete

Although I am planning to continue the Will Rees mystery series, I also want to begin a new and very different series. These mysteries will be set in Ancient Bronze Age Crete.

Needless to say, the research has been intense!

I have learned so much. (There is still a lot more to learn, not just for me but for the archeologists too. All that we know now is from the archeological record, myths and various interpretations.)

But I digress.

These ancient Minoans were a civilized society with indoor toilets, beautiful art, and some very intriguing cultural differences. For one thing, they worshipped a Goddess and appear to be matrilineal as well as matrilocal. (That means inheritance went through the mother and when she married the man lived with her.) They worshipped snakes and apparently snake handling was part of the ceremonies.

Like most of the Goddesses then, she was the deity of fertility. Women enjoyed a high rank, something that many of the early archeologists found hard to believe.

The bull was revered. A symbol of the male principle, the bull was sacrificed at important ceremonies. Yes, this is the culture with bull-leaping. Probably most people know of this from the myth of Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur in the labyrinth. It turns out that the people who became the Classical Greeks interpreted the Minoan culture through the lens of their own beliefs.

Talks and more

One of the things I most enjoy doing as a writer is going out and talking to readers. I have audiences from a few people all the way up to more than 100. Some of them are wonderful and some challenge me and make me think on my feet, (One audience member accused me of helping teach people how to murder.)

After this busy summer, I have a few weeks off and then I have a talk coming up at the Elm Street Bookstore in New Canaan, Ct. After that, on September 23, I have a talk on Genres (from the librarian side of life) to the local chapter of the Sisters and Crime.

In October I will be at Bouchercon in Toronto, then, in quick succession, at the Bookloft Bookstore in Great Barrington, Mass and the following Friday, October 27, at the bookstore in Chappaqua.

The exciting life of a writer!

Mechanicsburg Mystery Festival

The Saturday after the Suffolk Mystery Festival, I attended the Mechanicsburg Mystery Festival. And how lovely it was too. Like the Suffolk Festival, I met several new authors. I am always on the lookout for new authors and will read something by every one. Debbie Beamer was really nice and the readers – oh the readers – so pleasant and so book oriented. Definitely a wonderful experience.

The only fly in the ointment: the traffic for both. Coming home from the Suffolk festival we ran into heavy traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike. A semi flipped and the highway was closed for hours. We saw the spot. At least a mile of crushed guard rail and blackened pavement.

Traveling in the summer can be a real challenge!