Bunnies, eggs and Easter

It seems to have become a tradition that every year at this chocolatey time I talk about what Easter bunnies and Easter eggs have to do with the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The answer is, nothing at all!   The word Easter comes from a Germanic pagan fertility Goddess called Eostre, if you speak Old English, or Ostara, if you speak Old High German. It just so happens that the month we call April, the people who spoke Old English called Eostre's Month.

The first mention in history of the original Easter festival comes from no less than the Venerable Bede, a brilliant monk who lived in England in the 600s AD. Bede was a major player in the hot subject of his day: how to calculate when the death and rebirth of Jesus should be celebrated. He wrote a book about it called De Ratione Temporum which means On Calculating Time.

Bede's calculation landed the Christian event in Eostre's Month (April!). Bede commented in the same book, in an almost offhand way, that Eostre's Month traditionally saw the locals hold festivals in honour of the pagan goddess Eostre.

Bunnies are particularly good at doing the fertility thing, and eggs have the obvious meaning.  Bunnies and eggs therefore are the symbols of the German fertility goddess.  This all got mixed up with the Christian event and since no one in their right minds turns down chocolate, I don't think they'll be separating any time soon.

I went looking for a decent translation of Bede's original comment and the best I could find was from tertullian.org, who in turn got it from a translation by Faith Wallis, Liverpool University Press 1988, pp.53-54.
Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated "Paschal month", and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month.  Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.  

Happy Eostre / Ostara / Easter !

Military reconstructionists

I've previously said that for book research I prefer to trust original ancient sources over modern ones, but there's one field where I would never dare to question the modern experts, and that's the people who are into military re-enactment.  I don't think there's anyone more into getting details right than these guys.

You've probably heard of the Society for Creative Anachronism.  SCA is more mediaeval than ancient, though it does have its ancient enthusiasts.  SCA covers all the aspects of past times, but anyone who's ever been to a SCA festival could tell you it's the skirmish combats that get the crowds.

There are similar re-enactment groups who're more ancient oriented, though the organisations don't seem to be as closely knit so if you're interested you'd need to google around for what's in your area.  Most of them are into Roman army reconstruction but there are some Greek Hoplite groups too.

A good place to start would be Ancient Warfare Magazine.  I'm pretty sure most of the people who write or read it are into doing re-enactments.  (No, I don't do this myself, but it's fun to watch.)

Despite its name, the Roman Army Talk forum has a substantial Greek section.  These guys are awesome for minute details about how people used to slaughter each other.   If you want the pros and cons of holding your spear overhand vs underhand, then this is the place to be.  Their knowledge of military history would  rival that of any Oxford don.

I don't need this sort of information very often, because Nico's not into regular army life.  When he gets into a fight, it's invariably a street brawl in some grotty back alley, or else a tavern brawl (I had such fun writing the barroom fight in Ionia Sanction).

But when I do need soldierly detail, the re-enactors have the advantage that they've actually tried out in real life the stuff that's mentioned in original sources.  They bring a certain practicality to the subject that makes it easier to sort out from the original sources what's likely true and what might be false.

The Brazen Bull

Here's another exotic way to die horribly.  (If you're wondering why I so often return to this subject...you've come to the web site of a murder mystery author.)

The scene is Acragas, a city in Sicily. The time is about a hundred years before Nico and Diotima, so we're talking 6th century BC.   Back then Sicily was Greek and Acragas was ruled by a tyrant named Phalaris, who was renowned for his cruelty.  

In fact, the reputation of Phalaris was so well-known that an Athenian by the name of Perillos came to the tyrant with a suggestion.  Why not, he said, build a bull out of hollowed bronze?  The tyrant's enemies could be shut inside and then a fire set underneath the brazen beast's body so that the tyrant's enemies roasted to death.  

Phalaris thought roasted enemy was a terrific idea.  He commanded Perillos to build the brazen bull.  The statue had a door in the side for easy access.  Pipes were installed inside that ran to a horn in the bull's mouth, so that the victim's screams would emerge as a bull's roar.  

Quite why Perillos came to the tyrant with the idea in the first place is unknown, but presumably he was either in it for the money or else was a fellow-traveling sadist.  Either way, legend has it that when the bull was ready for its first run, that Phalaris the Tyrant ordered Perillos be the first victim.  This is so neatly according to the usual narrative that it's probably an invention.

The brazen bull, however appears to have been a for-real instrument of torture.  No less than Pindar mentions it in a praise song, a hundred years after the event.  (This is the same Pindar who appears in Sacred Games, which is what brought the whole story to my attention.)  Pindar had this to say:
The kindly excellence of Croesus does not perish, but Phalaris, with his pitiless mind, who burned his victims in a bronze bull, is surrounded on all sides by a hateful reputation.
Pindar takes it for granted that everyone knows the story of the brazen bull.  Phalaris clearly had a public relations problem.

Cicero and Diodorus get into the act a few hundred years later.  Between them they say that the brazen bull was eventually captured by the Carthaginians who took if back to Carthage.  Since the Carthaginians most certainly did practice human sacrifice, there's a fair chance the brazen bull saw continued use.  It was later returned to its home by Scipio after he conquered Carthage, after which the brazen bull somewhat thankfully disappears from history.

Publishers Weekly starred review for Sacred Games

"Corby integrates the political intrigue of the day with fair-play plotting and welcome doses of humor.  Fans of Steven Saylor's Gordianus novels will be enthralled."

This review of Sacred Games appeared in today's issue of Publisher's Weekly.  The review was starred (which is a cherry on top) and placed in its own box (which is extra whipped cream).  Reviews are always a précis followed by a verdict, and let me tell you, it's the verdict that an author's eyes always lock onto in the first micrososend.

Here's the entire thing:
The Olympic Games of 460 BCE form the backdrop for Australian author Corby's third mystery featuring Athenian investigator Nicolaos (after 2011's The Ionia Sanction), his best thus far.
Before they even begin, Nico's oldest friend, Timodemus, a martial arts champion, is goaded into a public fight by his fiercest rival, a Spartan named Arakos.  That confrontation makes Timodemus the prime suspect after Arakos is found battered to death.
Desperate to save his friend from summary execution, Nico manages to convince "the ten Judges of the Games" to give him several days to find the truth.  Doing so could avert a war between Athens and Sparta.
Partnered with a Spartan, Markos, to avert bias in his findings, and aided by his feisty fiancée, Diotima, Nico has an especially twisted path to tread to reach an answer in time. 
Corby integrates the political intrigue of the day with fair-play plotting and welcome doses of humor.  Fans of Steven Saylor's Gordianus novels will be enthralled.

Free copies of Sacred Games for US readers!

The lovely people at Soho Press are giving away 40, yes forty, copies of Sacred Games.

To enter, you need to go to the giveaway page on GoodReads by clicking on this link.  Then follow the bouncing ball.

These copies are all ARCs. Which means Advance Reader Copies. Which means they were printed before copyedits.  Which means you get to see the Genuine Typos™ that were in the manuscript when I submitted it.  (In fact, it's remarkably clean.).

Offer closes 5th March!