A Ghost Story

The Met Bronze Veiled Masked DancerWe often tell scary stories not just to evoke screams and chills but with a message. The monsters of our creepy tales reflect our larger fears, but sometimes the point of the story is that the most frightening things are done by our fellow human beings, not by spooks or spectres. Such is the case with a ghost story told by Herodotus.

The source of this tale was a meeting of representatives from various Greek cities convened by the Spartans in the late 500s BCE to consider going to war against Athens. Athens had been in a state of political turmoil and the Spartans proposed invading the city and imposing a tyrant to restore order and stability.

The representatives of Corinth spoke out strongly against the proposal. Corinth had been ruled by tyrants for three generations, and Corinthians knew better than anyone what tyrants were like. Socles of Corinth told the story of Periander, the Corinthian tyrant. Periander had killed his own wife, Melissa. He then tried to consult her spirit when he mislaid a treasure that a friend had left with him:

He sent messengers to the oracle of the dead at the River Acheron in Thesprotia to inquire about his friend’s deposit, but when the spirit of Melissa appeared, she would not indicate, by speech or action, where the deposit lay, for she was naked and shivering. The clothes that had been buried with her were of no use to her since they had not been burned. As proof that what she said was true, she added that Periander had put his loaves in a cold oven.

When this message was reported to Periander, he knew it to be the truth, for he had had intercourse with Melissa when she was dead. He at once issued a proclamation that all the women of Corinth should gather at the temple of Hera. They came out dressed in their best as if for a festival, but Periander had his guards fall upon them and strip them all naked, ladies and servants alike. The clothes were heaped up in a ditch and Periander, with a prayer to Melissa, burned them all.

After this he sent a second time to the oracle, and the spirit of Melissa pointed out where the deposit lay.

– Herodotus, Histories 5.92.g

(My own translation.)

Some things are more frightening than ghosts.

Image: Bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer, from the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, bequest of Walter C. Baker in 1971, accession number 1972.118.95, by Eppu Jensen (Greek; 3rd-2nd century BCE)

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.


Celebrating Hidden Youth With Rhodopis

161121bendisHidden Youth comes out today! Among the many short stories in this collection about young people from marginalized groups in history is my story, “How I Saved Athens from the Stone Monsters,” about the adventures of two flute girls, one Egyptian and one Thracian, on one strange and terrifying night in ancient Athens. I hope you’ll consider picking up the collection, not just for my story but for all the other amazing work in it.

My story was inspired in part by the Egyptian and Thracian immigrant communities we know existed in Classical Athens. There were temples in the city to both the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Thracian goddess Bendis. But Athens wasn’t the only place Egyptians and Thracians crossed paths.

A famous Thracian courtesan named Rhodopis worked in Naucratis, the Greek trading city in Egypt in the 6th century BCE. She seems to have been a larger-than-life character whom people liked to tell stories about. It was apparently widely believed in antiquity that one of the three great pyramids at Giza was built for her by her lovers. Another fanciful story about her is the closest ancient equivalent to the story of Cinderella:

They say that one day, when Rhodopis was bathing, an eagle snatched her sandal from her serving maid and carried it away to Memphis. There the king was administering justice in the open air and the eagle, flying over his head, dropped the sandal in his lap. The king, moved by the beauty of the sandal and the extraordinary nature of the event, sent all through the country to find out whose it was. She was found in Naucratis and conducted to the king, who made her his wife.

– Strabo, Geography 17.1.33

(My own translation)

While this is obviously just a bit of a fairy tale, Rhodopis was a real person. One of her lovers was Charaxus, the brother of the lyric poet Sappho. Sappho evidently didn’t think much of the relationship. A fragment of one of Sappho’s poems throws a little shade the courtesan’s way (referring to Rhodopis as Doricha—it was not unusual for courtesans to use several different names):

O, Aphrodite, may she find you too bitter for her taste,

and don’t let her go boasting:

“What a sweet thing Doricha has got herself into

this time around!”

– Sappho, fragment from Oxyrhynchus papyrus 1231.1.1.(a)

(My own translation)

Herodotus reports that the rich offering Rhodopis made at Delphi at the end of her life to celebrate her good fortune—an enormous pile of iron roasting spits—was still to be seen there in his day. (Herodotus, Histories 2.135)

Rhodopis sounds like she would have been an interesting person to hang around with, and Hidden Youth is one more reminder that interesting people were everywhere in history, not just in the places we expect.

Image: Greek statue of Bendis, photograph by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia (Cyprus, currently Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 3rd c. BCE; limestone)

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Down with Dull Dystopias

The other day, Prof and I were at the library borrowing some light evening viewing. On my way to the circ desk my eye fell on the Just Returned cart and on a relatively recent SFF novel that I’ve heard good things about. (I always stop to check the cart. It’s often the best spot to pick up the popular new acquisitions.)

I picked it up and flipped over to the book description to remind myself what it was about. The novel is set in an apocalyptic or dystopic world with major environmental issues. And that made me promptly put it back down. I didn’t even finish reading the book description.

What my reaction made me realize is that, for now, I’ve reached my tolerance for dark storylines with brooding characters in dire situations.

Supermoon Lunar Eclipse Starting

My little episode at the library collided with two random online pieces.

I was reading Tor.com’s coverage on the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award. In his acceptance speech, winner Adrian Tchaikovsky praised the other five shortlisted nominees for a recurring theme:

“One of the things that struck me about the shortlist for this year is empathy as a theme that runs through a lot of these books. Empathy across races, across borders… One of the things [my] book is about is the ability of humanity to seize value in things that are different, and the danger when that doesn’t happen.”

Tchaikovsky’s comment made me conscious of not just how done I am with dystopia, but also how much I’ve been missing stories where the nicer aspects of humanity are clearly present. That doesn’t mean all feel-good stories all the time. It does mean that lifting the darker side of humanity up into the limelight is not enough if, at most, the positive universals get slapped on like a thin coat of paint on a dilapidated theater.

The next day, I ran into an article at Literary Hub by Brandon Taylor. “There is No Secret to Writing About People Who Do Not Look Like You” focuses on the importance of empathy as an aspect of the writing craft:

“Stories have many functions: entertainment, healing, education, illustration, explanation, misdirection, persuasion. Stories have the power to shape worlds and to change lives, and so there is a lot at stake when an author sits down to write. Many people fold stories like delicate paper ships and launch them from obscure corners of the world, hoping that their ships land on distant shores and spread some of the truth of their lives to strangers. It is an act of communion, an act of humanity, the sharing of your story with another person. We each contain within us a private cosmos, and when we write of ourselves, we make visible the constellations that constitute our experience and identity.


“There can be no story without empathy. Our stories begin because we are able to enter the lives of other people. We are able to imagine how a person might move through the world, how their family might operate, what their favorite foods might be, how their nation works, how their town works, and the smallest, most inconsequential aspects of their lives rise up to meet us at our desks. You can’t write if you can’t empathize. Solipsism is anathema to good writing.”

Taylor’s piece crystallized in my mind why dystopias drag me down. It’s because many dystopic stories ignore or trivialize humane acts or traits like cooperative labor or generosity, and in doing so, they omit crucial aspects of humanity. And that—unless extremely, extremely skillfully executed—makes dystopias unsatisfying for me, exactly as I tend to think many utopian stories boring.


Just like darker traits, selfless characteristics exist today because in the past they helped us survive. They still do. We need them, and we’re better for it.

So much of my reading lately has included dystopic worldbuilding. I didn’t realize quite how much that’s been subconsciously bothering me. I’m full, thank you. No wonder books like The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers—one of the Clarke nominees, by the by—make such joyful reading experiences.

Images: Supermoon Lunar Eclipse Starting by Eppu Jensen; Empathy by Pierre Phaneuf (pphaneuf) on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

Why Hidden Youth Matters to Me

There are just five days to go in the Kickstarter for Hidden Youth, the anthology of speculative fiction about marginalized young people in history. As I posted before, my story, “How I Saved Athens from the Stone Monsters,” is one of the stories in this awesome collection. I wanted to post again to thank everyone who has contributed to making Hidden Youth happen and also to say something about why this collection is so important to me, and would be even if I didn’t have a story in it.

160701frescoI teach ancient Mediterranean history at a state university. Ancient Mediterranean history is the dead-white-guy-est of all dead-white-guy history. It’s filled with the sorts of dead white guys that people make white marble statues of and that living white guys like to point to as the pinnacles of western literary, artistic, and philosophical achievement. We’ve basically had two thousand years of white guys burnishing their white-guy cred by laying exclusive claim to the legacy of the great dead white guys of the ancient Mediterranean. So successfully have they done this that a lot of people have a hard time imagining an ancient Mediterranean world that isn’t all white guys.

Now, I’m a white guy. I’ve always had the comfort of seeing myself in history. Even as a professional historian, doing my best to be objective and fully conscious of how complicated, contingent, and constructed such identities are, I can never really know what it is like to look at history and not see people who look like me. That’s a barrier I can’t cross, but I have a lot of friends who live on the other side, especially my students.

Half my students are women and a lot of them are black, Hispanic, and southeast Asian kids from working-class towns. They’ve lived their lives in the shadow of other people’s histories. They have been shown the dead-white-guy-marble-statue version of history and told—sometimes subtly, sometimes not so subtly—“This is ours. You don’t belong here.” I consider it my job to say: “Yes, you do. You were always part of this history.”

160701kantharosThe ancient Mediterranean world was multicultural, multi-ethnic, multilingual, and full of connections both within itself and to the larger world beyond. Like in my story, there were Egyptians in late classical Athens with their own Isis temple. A Sri Lankan king sent ambassadors to open diplomatic relations with Rome. And it wasn’t all a bunch of men, either. The queen of Halicarnassus was a military adviser to the Persian king. A wealthy woman of African ancestry was buried in style in late Roman York. The evidence is everywhere once you start to look for it.

The power of dead-white-guy-marble-statue history is strong and it needs to be challenged. I confront it in the classroom and my scholarly work, but we also need books like Hidden Youth out there to send the message: history is for everyone, not just people who look like me.

If you’ve already supported Hidden Youth, thank you so much. If you haven’t, please consider it. You can give as little as a dollar, and if you can’t do that, please spread the word.

On a less serious note, let me offer an added incentive to give: if Hidden Youth meets its funding goal, in honor of the collection’s theme I promise to translate and post my picks for The Top Five Greek and Latin Poems that Read Like Teenage Facebook Updates.

UPDATE: Hidden Youth got funded! Hooray! So, as promised, here you go: The Top Five Greek and Latin Poems that Read Like Teenage Facebook Updates.

Images: Bull leaping fresco (restored), photograph by Nikater, via Wikimedia (Knossos; 1550-1450 BCE; fresco). Janifrom kantharos, via People of Color in European Art History (Etruria, currently Villa Giulia; 6th c. BCE; ceramic)

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The Misuses of Myth

160208sphinxMyths, legends, fairy tales, and other stories passed down through the generations are at the root of our storytelling tradition. They are the earliest stories in our literature and some of the first stories we learn as children. It is no wonder that we keep going back to mythology looking for deeper meanings. The drive to find hidden meaning in myth leads to some misguided interpretations. Two common mistakes are Freudian theory and the “forgotten history” theory.

Freudian slips

Freudian theory holds that myths are expressions of universal human drives which we have suppressed in the name of civilization. As the things that we cannot talk about openly come out in our stories, we can hold up mythology as a mirror to our own subconscious in order to see our hidden impulses better. Sigmund Freud’s attempts to explain the human psyche by reference to dreams, myths, and other supposed insights into the unconscious are at the root of this approach, but there are other classic exemplars, such as Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, which applies the theory to the Grimms’ fairy tales. (Note that I am speaking of Freudian theory as a way of interpreting myth; I am not in any position to judge Freudianism as a psychological theory.)

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Things I Can Do Without

We all have our storytelling pet peeves: the things that make us yell in frustration at the screen or put down a book in disgust. Some things have been done to death already and we want to see something new. Some things play on outdated assumptions and problematic tropes. Some are just lazy writing.

Misery loves company, so let’s share. Here’s a few of mine.

1. Fathers and sons who have a bad relationship.

A father who was never emotionally available to his son and is now disappointed in his son’s failure to live up to his expectations? A son who resents the pressure put on him to be like his father and craves the love and approval his father never gave him?

It’s been done. Really, it has. Everyone from Homer to Shakespeare to George Lucas has done it. That dead horse has been pounded into subatomic particles by now. There is nothing new to be said on the subject. Time to move on.


160107Kirk2. Heroes who have no plan

Or if they do have a plan, it depends on factors that the hero can’t control or predict.

This doesn’t mean that plans have to be perfect or go off without a hitch. You can’t control for everything. Plans have to change in response to unforeseen events. There can be plenty of good drama in the uncertainties of chance, and I’ll even take the occasional deus ex machina if it’s clever enough. But a hero who’s counting on the deus ex machina for victory? That’s right out.


160107Moriarty3. Villains who have no goal

A good villain has a goal they are trying to accomplish and a plan for achieving that goal. No matter how fiendishly complicated the plan, if the goal is just to indulge a vaguely sexual obsession with the hero, something has gone wrong in the writing.

“Annoy the hero and force them to play with me” isn’t a goal, it’s a toddler tantrum.
160107CSI4. Weirdos who can’t tell fantasy from reality

A terrible murder has happened at an SFF convention. When the police show up to question witnesses, the bystanders refuse to speak English and answer all their questions in Klingon. It turns out a vampire cosplayer killed a werewolf LARPer. Why? Because vampires hate werewolves! No other motive required!

This one isn’t just lazy writing, it’s insulting. The usual targets are fandom or kink communities, but anyone who isn’t in the mainstream can be a victim. I’m a history professor. According to popular media, that means I must show up in class wearing a toga and insist that my students address me as “emperor.”

Writers of the world: the inability to distinguish reality and fantasy is a sign of a serious mental illness. It is not how those of us who belong to non-mainstream interest groups go through life.


160107Se7en5. “Gimmick” serial killers

This one is really just the intersection of 3 and 4, but it shows up often enough to merit special mention. These are the characters who kill people as part of some elaborate symbolic game. “My God, the killer is targeting people whose names are anagrams of Alice in Wonderland characters and staging their bodies to look like scenes from Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, and they’re doing them in reverse alphabetical order when translated into Albanian!”

That sound you hear is my suspension of disbelief repeatedly slamming its head into a wall in hopes of inducing a coma.


I could go on, but that’s enough from me for now. Your turn. Got something on your mind that you could do without ever reading or watching again? Share in the comments!

Images: Community via ScreenCrush. Kirk via Memory Beta. Moriarty via Baker Street. CSI Blood Moon via dkompare. Se7en via Crash/Burn

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

Star Wars and the Classics, Part II: The Original Trilogy

151216vaseYesterday we looked at how classical literature offers interesting ways of looking at the Star Wars prequel movies. We continue today with the original movies.

Episode IV: A New Hope – Homer, the Odyssey, Books 14-22

Episode IV can be read, from a certain point of view, as an essay in heroism. In particular, we see three different kinds of heroes: the always-was-a-hero, the becoming-a-hero, and the choosing-to-be-a-hero.

Leia is the always-was. She is a hero from the beginning of the movie straight through to the end. We never see her stop being heroic, even when being rescued. She has been part of the rebellion literally since she was born and even the destruction her homeworld doesn’t stop her.

Luke is the becoming. He starts as just a farmboy who dreams of far-off adventure. When he discovers his true heritage he strives to live up to the legacy of his father Anakin the great Jedi. Much is expected of him and he does his best to be the hero that people like Obi-Wan and Leia need him to be.

Han is the choosing-to-be. He’s a smuggler and scoundrel who isn’t in it for the rebellion. He just wants to do a job and get paid. He could have just flown away from Yavin with his hold full of cash and nobody would have been surprised. Instead, he decides to come back and help Luke blow up the Death Star.

The same three kinds of heroes appear in the Odyssey. In Book 14, Odysseus has just made it safely home to Ithaca but is still in disguise, getting the lay of the land and figuring out how to deal with the suitors who have been gorging themselves in his hall. The next few books follow Odysseus as he gathers allies, makes plans, and finally confronts the suitors in the final battle in Book 22.

Odysseus is here the always-was. He is a veteran of the great war at Troy and a cunning warrior. He begins the epic as a hero and never falters. Nothing stops him in his determination to get home and reclaim his place as king. Books 14-22 show him as a steady, crafty commander, biding his time and waiting for the right moment to strike.

Odysseus’ son Telemachus is the becoming. As the epic begins, he is just entering manhood and starting to take his first tentative steps into his father’s old role. For Telemachus, the Odyssey is all about proving that he is a worthy son to a heroic father that he knows only through stories. In this stretch of the epic he finally meets his father and proves that he can live up to his example.

The choosing-to-be hero of the Odyssey is Eumaeus, swineherd to Odysseus’ house and one of the servants who remains loyal to Odysseus, even when his master has been gone for twenty years. The sensible thing for Eumaeus to do would have been to abandon Odysseus and suck up to the suitors, like many of the other servants do, to secure his place in the household when Penelope eventually marries one of them. Instead, he sticks by his old master and helps him take back his home.

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Star Wars and the Classics, Part I: The Prequels

151215stormStar Wars takes many of its cues from mythology and classical history. Here’s some recommended reading if you want to see how themes from the classics found their way to a galaxy long ago and far, far away.

Episode I: The Phantom Menace – Homer, the Iliad, Book 1

I can still remember my feeling of anticipation when I first sat in the theatre to watch The Phantom Menace. We’d waited years to get the story of Anakin Skywalker’s fall from grace. We were going back in time to a more civilized age, a golden age of Jedi knights and the sophistication of the galactic republic.

The screen went dark. John Williams’s fanfare blasted from the speakers. The opening text began to scroll up from the bottom. This was everything we had been waiting for!

So what’s this crap about taxation of outlying trade routes? Huh? What is this, Accounting Wars?

The story began. We saw Jedi sitting in a conference room waiting for some cowardly bureaucrats to come and talk turkey. My heart sank in disappointment. (And we hadn’t even gotten to Jar-Jar Binks yet.)

It took many more years and several viewings of Episode I for me to appreciate what George Lucas was doing in this movie. There is a point here and it’s an important one: momentous events don’t start out looking momentous. Terrible things happen because no one is paying close enough attention to stop them when they’re small enough to be managed; only when they roll out of control do people realize what’s happening. Of course the fall of the galactic empire started because of a minor trade dispute and a lonely boy from a desert planet in the middle of nowhere. It could have started in any number of ways, but they all would have seemed just as trivial.

(Mind you, this doesn’t actually make Phantom Menace any better as a movie. It’s still plagued by terrible dialogue, wooden acting, and disturbing racial caricatures. But as a storytelling choice, it’s interesting.)

The classic mythic example of small causes leading to momentous and terrible events is the Trojan War. While pieces of the story are told in many different sources, there’s no single work that covers the entire war. Book 1 of the Iliad, however, puts us in the middle of the action to watch the last act of the war unfold. I’ve written about Book 1 of the Iliad here before, but it’s one of those texts that rewards going back to again and again.

As the Iliad opens, the Trojan war has already been going on for ten years. What we witness here is the conflict between two of the Greek captains, Achilles and Agamemnon. It begins when Agamemnon refuses to ransom a captive woman back to her father. By the end of the book, Achilles has withdrawn his forces from the fighting, which will swing the war in the Trojans’ favor, leading to the near defeat of the Greek forces, the death of Achilles’ friend Patroclus, and Achilles slaying the Trojan prince Hector in madness and grief. The death of Hector robbed the Trojans of their best warrior and sealed the fate of Troy. And it all flows from a dispute over the ransoming of a prisoner from an outlying village.

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The Martian and Tolkien

The Martian got me thinking about Tolkien (and not just because of the Council of Elrond reference, although I loved that bit). On a basic level, The Martian is about the same thing that The Lord of the Rings is about. No, Mark Watney doesn’t have to destroy a magic ring and Frodo and Sam weren’t planting potatoes in Mordor, but the question that both works keep coming back to is the same: how do you make good decisions when you don’t have the information you need?


I was thinking about The Lord of the Rings recently after listening in on a conversation between a couple of fantasy geeks about why they don’t like Tolkien. Their complaints were that Tolkien’s writing moves slowly, people talk about things instead of doing them, and most of the action doesn’t even happen on the page. These are all perfectly valid points, and if you prefer action to talking, they are good reasons to read something else. We all like the things we like and there’s no right or wrong about it. What struck me, though, was that the things they didn’t like about Tolkien are precisely the things I love.

There is a rich vein of fantasy literature all about heroes who charge boldly into the thick of battle and remake the world by sheer force of their will. Tolkien’s heroes are not of this kind. For him, what makes a hero is slowing down, thinking carefully, and making the best decision you can, even when you can’t be sure your choice is the right one.

My favorite part of The Lord of the Rings is the Council of Elrond. I know that I am in a minority in this and that even many people who love Tolkien find the whole chapter tedious. I understand the objections, but I can’t help loving the fact that dealing with the ring is something the heroes have to puzzle over and work out. Some fantasy writers would just slip in a helpful ancient prophecy or have Elrond drop a little exposition on the party and get the Fellowship on the road as soon as possible. (Peter Jackson, working within the constraints of film, understandably comes pretty close to this.) But Tolkien lets them take their time, piecing together scraps of information that are all fragmentary and biased. What they end up with is not a perfect answer but the best they can do with what they have. The courage of Tolkien’s heroes is less about facing the danger of Sauron and more about facing the fact that the best decision they can make might still be wrong.

And that’s what I love about The Martian. Mark Watney is a Tolkienian hero. He has to make the best decisions he can even when he can’t be certain what NASA is doing a planet away, or if anyone even knows he’s still alive. He survives not by strength or force of will but by slowing down, thinking things through, and facing the inescapable uncertainties of his predicament. He does the best he can with what he has. Or, as he puts it: sciencing the shit out of things.

I could use a few more heroes like this. We have enough heroes who swing swords, shoot guns, drive cars, and punch things. Let’s have more heroes who plant potatoes. Sam Gamgee would approve.


Images: The Martian via moviepilot.com. Sam Gamgee via dwarfsandhobits.tumblr.com

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Recommended Reading: Homer, The Quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon

150928IliadOne of my weaknesses as a writer is dialogue, particularly dialogue that needs to carry subtext. I’m not good at writing the kinds of things that people say when they’re not actually saying what they’re saying. When I need inspiration for how to write a scene in which people say one thing while really conveying something else, the place I look is the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon in book 1 of the Iliad (lines 101-244).

There are a lot of good translations of the Iliad available if you want to check it out. I’m especially fond of the Robert Fagels translation for the strength of its poetry. Richmond Lattimore’s version is good if you really want to get close to the rhythms and patterns of the original Greek. The translation on Perseus is older and less readable, but you can pick up the scene I’m talking about around the middle of this page (start after [100]). There are plenty of other choices.

To set the scene: As the Iliad opens, the Trojan war has been going on for ten years and has come to a stalemate. The Greeks are not able to breach the high walls of Troy while the Trojans cannot dislodge the Greeks from their camp on the shore. To break the impasse, the Greeks have begun trying to put pressure on the Trojans by raiding the smaller towns nearby that are allied with Troy. One of these raids carried off a young woman, Chryseis, who was awarded to Agamemnon as his prize. Chryseis’ father Chryses, a priest of Apollo, comes to the Greek camp to ask for his daughter’s return, but Agamemnon refuses and sends him away. Chryses prays to Apollo for aid and Apollo obliges by spreading plague through the Greek camp. After ten days of suffering, the Greek kings gather together to discuss the situation. The seer Chalcas reveals the cause of Apollo’s wrath.

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