Shadows of Athens

While the subgenre of mysteries set in ancient Rome already has a number of talented practitioners, ancient Greece is a largely unexplored territory, which makes J. M. Alvey’s Shadows of Athens a special treat. In this book we follow an Athenian playwright, Philocles, whose preparations for presenting a new comedy are interrupted when a dead body turns up on his doorstep. From there the action unfolds both in the theatre—for the show must go on—and in the streets of Athens as Philocles, aided by his family and patron, investigates a shadowy conspiracy that somehow seems bent on both starting a war in the Aegean and cornering the market for leather.

Shadows of Athens is a skillfully handled mystery whose various threads are deftly woven together. The stories of Philocles’ play, his family’s leather business, and the geopolitics of the Delian League all come together in a satisfying conclusion. Along the way, we get some wonderful treats including a fully-staged Greek comedy, a sloshy symposium, and Philocles’ views of both the bustle of the Athenian street and everyday family life. Alvey’s ancient Athens is alive, full of both joy and trouble, and Philocles is a companionable guide to its twisting streets, even as he pieces together the conspiracy that left a dead body in front of his house.

For myself, as a historian, Alvey’s work is a particular treat to read. The book captures the richness and complexity of Athenian life in a specific moment—a generation after the Greco-Persian Wars, as the empires of Athens and Sparta were beginning to tilt toward war—with a liveliness that no textbook or scholarly history can match but with exacting attention to historical detail. It was delightful to be able to pick out details and know which primary sources Alvey was reading (and to recognize a cameo appearance by my dear old friend Herodotus).

I thoroughly enjoyed Shadows of Athens and eagerly recommend it to anyone with a taste for historical mystery looking for something new to pick up.

Image by Erik Jensen

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.

A Very Short Introduction to Intertextuality

Intertextuality—besides being an excellent Scrabble word—is a useful tool for thinking about literature and storytelling.

Intertextuality is when one literary work refers to or places itself in the context of another work. While different thinkers have used the term in different ways, it is often used to refer to cases in which the meaning of the later work is shaped by or depends upon knowledge of the first.

To make things a little more concrete, take the example of Arthurian legend. The early literary versions of King Arthur’s tales come from several different authors across several centuries, each of whom took certain basic ideas about a legendary king and his family and followers, and added in new characters, told new stories, or shifted the tales to new settings. Each of these literary works was engaged in intertextuality, drawing on a set of characters, stories, and ideas that their audience already knew while adding something new and different to the mix.

Or, to take it a step further, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is intertextual with the whole lot. The movie features such staple characters of Arthurian legend as King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, and Sir Gawain, and references to Camelot and the Holy Grail. Even though Monty Python’s take on the Arthurian legendarium goes in a very different direction than the traditional tales, it explicitly places itself in relationship to them. You don’t exactly have to know Arthurian legend in order to appreciate Holy Grail, but many of the jokes are built around subverting or parodying standard parts of the mythology.

By contrast, although Star Wars also makes use of Arthurian ideas—a farm boy who discovers his secret destiny, a magical sword, a wise mentor who disappears partway through the story—it is not intertextual with Arthurian legend in the same way that Holy Grail is. Star Wars does not have characters named Arthur or Lancelot. There is no planet Camelot. Even though Star Wars invokes some Arthurian themes, it does not use them to reproduce or comment on the Arthurian legends themselves: Luke does not become king, assemble a round table of Jedi knights, or go in search of a mystical cup.

We live in a great age of intertextuality, an age of cinematic universes, boundless fan fiction, and knowing parodies. It’s a useful idea to have at hand for thinking and talking about the stories in the world around us.

Images: Still from Monty Python and the Holy Grail via IMDb. Still from Star Wars IV: A New Hope via IMDb.

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.

Quotes: There Was No Room for Romance

I don’t usually like to do two quotes posts in a row, but the interview at A Mighty Girl blog with Captain Marvel co-director Anna Boden was too good to pass. So:

“We didn’t take some kind of firm stance like ‘There will be no romance in this movie’ at the beginning. But as we were exploring the character and exploring what the story was really about, it was about her humanity and, ultimately, her friendships. Not just her buddy friendship that she makes with Nick Fury over the course of the journey but that key, essential friendship with Maria Rambeau from her past that helps link her to her own humanity. And even her friendship with Talos, the Skrull leader, which is a surprising friendship, as she kind of recognizes the humanity in him as well. There was no room for romance. That wasn’t the point. The point was about her connection to these friendships. That felt like a more true story to tell for this character.” [original emphasis]

– Captain Marvel co-director Anna Boden

Bang on. It really annoys me when action movie writers deign to put in a lone Smurfette of a woman, they’ll apparently also have to squeeze in a romance—usually poorly written and atrociously justified with respect to the rest of the story. It’s like regardless of the story, the presence of Wimmin Parts Dictates That There Must Be Romance(TM) Because Otherwise the World Will End. (Although sometimes they work for me, like in The Terminator, but that was better justified, not superficially tacked on.)

Women are people, and like most people, we are able to focus on multiple issues and shift our focus as needed. A war-invasion would definitely be the kind of a situation that takes most of one’s concentration! Besides, not everyone is interested in romance.

It makes for more realistic, genuine, accurate storytelling to show people acting like they do in real life, and to show various kinds of people within a group, any group. It’s so refreshing that the writers of Captain Marvel recognized that; I can’t believe Hollywood’s taken this long to realize it (and/or listen to the storytellers that do).

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Endgame, Time Travel, and Cinderella

Note: some spoilers for Avengers: Endgame ahead.

Avengers: Endgame is a time travel story, and like many a pop culture time travel story, it has led to head-scratching and nit-picking among fans about the precise mechanics. Are there now multiple universes? Can characters cross between them? Can you change the past or not? Is Evil Nebula actually dead? Did Old Man Steve live out his life with Peggy in another timeline, or has he been living in secret in our universe for the last seventy years?

Since time travel is not, as far as we know, actually possible, we can’t invoke real-world physics to resolve these problems. We have to work with the rules as established by the story. The trouble is that the story’s rules don’t seem consistent. This is a common problem with time travel stories—Endgame even takes a few pot shots at the temporal mechanics of earlier movies.

The fundamental problem with time travel stories is that it is almost impossible to construct a set of rules for time travel that are internally consistent but also allow for change. (Consider the classic paradox: can you go back in time and kill your younger self?) Yet change is what stories are about: if everything is the same at the end of the story as at the beginning, why tell it?

Some stories edge around this problem by making the story be about making sure that things happen as they should, like Back to the Future or Star Trek‘s “City on the Edge of Forever,” but even these stories start from a premise that the past can be changed, which leads to the same problems.

Time travel may be a new concept, but these sorts of internal contradictions have been part of storytelling forever. Consider the story of Cinderella. This fairy tale is so familiar to most of us that we don’t often think about what’s wrong with it. Let’s review:

Cinderella lives with her wicked stepmother and stepsisters who treat her like a servant. One day, Cinderella’s fairy godmother gives her a magical gift so that she can go to the prince’s ball: she changes Cinderella’s rags into a wonderful gown and glass slippers, and turns a pumpkin into a fancy coach and field mice into footmen so that she can arrive with a splash. There’s a catch, though: at the stroke of midnight, the spell will end and everything will turn back into what it was before. Cinderella is a hit at the ball and dances with the prince, who falls for her, but once the clock begins to strike midnight she suddenly runs for the door. She is in such a rush that she looses one of her glass slippers on the steps and can’t go back for it. The prince finds the glass slipper and, determined to find the lady he was dancing with, searches the kingdom for the maiden whose foot fits the slipper. He finds Cinderella, marries her, and they live happily ever after.

Do you see the problem?

Why didn’t the glass slipper change back to a ragged old shoe along with everything else?

The magic in the story is not internally consistent. Without the midnight expiration date, Cinderella has no reason to rush from the ball and leave a slipper behind so that the prince can find her, but if the slipper she leaves changes back like all the rest of her magic gear, the prince has no way to know that it’s hers and go looking for her. Even though we’re talking about magic, not time travel, Cinderella runs into the same internal contradictions that pop up in Back to the Future or Endgame.

Generations upon generations of children have grown up with this story, very few of them ever troubled by its inconsistencies. Now, you could argue that that’s because children don’t have well-developed logical faculties, but I prefer a simpler explanation: it doesn’t matter.

Folklore and fairy tales are the most economical form of storytelling. Oral tradition strips tales down to their most important elements, and the most important thing in a story is what happens to the characters. All that matters in the end is that Cinderella and her prince get their happily ever after. Everything else in the story exists to serve that purpose, and can be bent, broken, twisted, or turned however it needs to be in order to get there.

Magic exists in stories to serve the human narrative. Often, serving this purpose requires consistency, to present our heroes with challenges to overcome and rules that can’t be broken (but which a clever hero can circumvent or turn to their own advantage), but when it gets in the way of the story, magic just steps aside so that the thing that should happen can happen. The same applies to time travel (which is really just magic for a technological age).

So Steve and Peggy get to have their happily ever after, and, in the end, it doesn’t really matter how or why.

Image: Steve Rogers looking at Peggy Carter’s picture via Giphy

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.

Behind the Name: Erebor

Erebor, also known as the Lonely Mountain, is a lost kingdom of the Dwarves in Tolkien’s Hobbit, reclaimed from the dragon Smaug by Thorin Oakenshield and his companions, including Bilbo Baggins the Hobbit, at the end of the story. Since Professor Tolkien was a linguist, and his Middle Earth was first inspired by his desire to create a world and history around his invented languages, it makes sense to ask what inspired him to name this important place Erebor.

The Hobbit itself does not make much use of Tolkien’s linguistic experiments. Most of the places named in the novel have descriptions more than names—the Misty Mountains, the Long Lake, Lake Town. Even the few places with proper names are fairly transparent in their meaning: the town that sits in a dale by the Lonely Mountain is called Dale, and Mirkwood is not too hard to understand as a murky wood. The term Erebor did not appear until The Lord of the Rings. By that point, Tolkien’s constructed languages were well developed and he provided a suitable internal etymology for Erebor as an Elvish translation of Lonely Mountain. Nevertheless, there are some clear real-world referents that we cannot ignore.

The obvious place to start is Erebos, a name from Greek Mythology for both a region of the underworld and a primordial god representing darkness. (Erebos is the original Greek spelling; it is often seen Latinized as Erebus.) To name an underground city cut out of the rock of a mountain, this makes sense as a starting point, but Erebos has an interesting etymology of its own.

Erebos derives from a Proto-Indo-European root *hregwos. (In linguistics, the asterisk indicates words that are not recorded anywhere but have been reconstructed based on related words or other forms.) The Proto-Indo-European language had several different consonants corresponding to the letter h, and the exact pronunciation of them all is a matter of debate, but before an r at the beginning of a word, this h regularly became an e in Greek. The gw sound became a b in Greek (for example, the Greek word basileus, meaning “king” comes from an earlier form gwasireu). Thus *hregwos became the ancient Greek Erebos.

In other branches of the Indo-European family, the same root took different paths. In Sanskrit, it became rájas, which means “dark sky.” In Armenian, it became erek, meaning “evening.” In Gothic, it became rikwis, “darkness.” And in Old Norse, it produced the verb røkkva, which means “to become dark.” Clearly, while Ancient Greek adapted the word to a new meaning, the original meaning had to do with darkness in the sky, not under the earth. The name of Erebor captures a suggestion not just of a place under the earth but also its fate to be assailed by the sky-darkening dragon Smaug.

There is one step further we can go, although it is a tentative one. It involves the Norse myth of Ragnarök, the doom of the gods and the destruction of the world. The word Ragnarök is a compound whose first part, ragna, means the power of the gods (congate with the English word reign). The second element is less certain. Linguists today prefer rök, meaning “fate,” but the early twentieth century when Tolkien was studying, some argued for røkkr, the noun for “twilight” derived from the verb røkkva and ultimately going back to the Proto-Indo-European *hregwos. Tolkien may well have been amused to hint at the chaotic, destructive final battle between the Norse gods in naming the site of the chaotic Battle of the Five Armies which brings Bilbo’s adventure to an end.

Image: Erebor as visualized in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films, via IMDb

On, of, and about languages.

I Miss Episodes

I turned 40 last year, and I think it’s starting to affect me: I’m beginning to feel the urge to rant about kids these days and how everything was better when I was young. So be warned, there is some curmudgeonliness ahead, but I do have a point here.

I’ve been thinking lately about why I find a lot of contemporary tv so unsatisfying. It’s not that tv shows are bad now. It’s been aptly said that we live in a golden age of television. Freed from the constraints of syndication and network time slots, modern shows have dared to tell bigger, more complicated stories. The proliferation of cable channels and online services producing their own original content has meant a chance for a wider range of productions, from big-budget crowd-winners to oddball side projects. All of this is to the good.

At the same time, we’ve lost something in the modern approach to tv-making: episodes. It used to be that a season of a tv show was one or two dozen short stories, each told over the course of an hour or half hour (or twenty to forty minutes, on commercial television). Nowadays, a season of television is a ten-hour movie with arbitrary breaks for theme music. Stories are not told in an episode but slosh over to the next hour or two before there’s any resolution; meanwhile, another story has started going at the same time and continues to slosh forward on its own. Every tv drama has now become a soap opera.

I miss shows that had actual episodes, each a story unto itself with a beginning, rising action, climax, and denouement all in one sitting. As much as that format could sometimes be limiting, it also had its artistic virtues. It forced the action to move along at a brisk pace. It created a sense of urgency that shaped the storytelling. There was a feeling of satisfaction that came with watching the problem of the episode be resolved. Modern shows tend to wallow in characters’ unresolved feelings, pad their running time with filler, and dive down narrative dead ends, much of which would have been cut short in properly episodic television.

Of course, lack of satisfaction is the point. Now that we can stream any show we want any time we want, the economic pressures have changed. Rather than keep us coming back every week to see more commercials, the business imperative of tv is now to keep us from clicking away to another streaming service. While new content models have freed tv from some artistic constraints, they have imposed new ones that are just as limiting. It is now tv’s job to never give us satisfying endings lest we wander off to do something else.

I do appreciate tv shows that have continuity and ongoing stories. I wouldn’t want to go back to the days when the end of an episode meant a complete reset back to status quo ante, but continuity can coexist with episodes. Shows of the 1990s like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, X-Files, and Stargate pulled it off. In these shows, episodes mostly told self-contained stories, but they also remembered what had happened in previous episodes. Characters grew and changed, major plot twists had ongoing consequences, and big multi-season arcs played out a piece at a time, and yet when the credits rolled at the end of an episode, you still had the satisfaction of a resolution.

I wish we had more shows like that these days.

Here there be opinions!

A Male Protagonist Protags; A Female Protagonist Has Things Happen to Her

An article from August 2018 produced thinky-thoughts!

Oren Ashkenazi lists “Eight Absurdities We Force on Female Characters”. Among them is this gem:

“[S]torytellers also have to constantly remind the audience how hot their female characters are, right? At least that seems to be the case, based on how often authors emphasize their female leads’ looks. Of course, this dual need makes writing women much harder, since readers don’t typically appreciate their stories being interrupted with reminders about a character’s sexy bod.”

Because Men Are Strong, Women Are Pretty, right?!? Gah!

Instead of an exhausted and exasperated rant, here’s my contribution to join the Smurfette Principle, Dainty Combat, et al.

A male protagonist gets to protag; a female protagonist has things happen to her.

The male protagonist is at the center of the story. He gets to make key decisions, call the shots, lead teams (successfully), and propel the plot forward.

In contrast, a female protagonist reacts to what’s happening around and/or to her. In addition, all too often women’s story arcs are marked as of less importance or condemned outright. (Or branded as a “women’s genre”, often with a sneer, like romance.)

One of the first that I remember noticing on screen is J.J. Abrams’s Fringe. Anna Torv’s protagonist character Olivia Dunham, an FBI agent, started out by actively investigating potential paranormal phenomena, but in later seasons she was pushed aside in favor of the father-son drama and relationship wrangling between characters played by Joshua Jackson and (always excellent) John Noble. Egad—as if we don’t have enough!

And just the latest I’ve had the misfortune to see is the tv series Extant. Despite its gorgeous visuals, high production values, and Halle Berry as the lead, the writing keeps her guessing, defending herself against gaslighting, physically running, flailing, and emoting. Two episodes from the end I was done; I didn’t want to finish that crap.

(To be fair, I’ve also come across stories that dreadfully misrepresent men. As one example, I’ve had my fill—to the fracking brim!—of stories of damaged middle-aged alcoholics who are just trying to hang on.)

This post has been edited for clarity.

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.

Jane Austen, Mystery Writer

The great mystery novelist P. D. James has noted that Jane Austen’s novel Emma has all the essential elements of a mystery novel: the plot revolves around secrets which are revealed at the climax but to which the heroine and the readers have been given clues all along. I think we can extend that idea further and say that most of Austen’s novels are, in spirit, mysteries.

The plots of most of Austen’s completed novels are about heroines becoming wiser about themselves and the world, usually by discovering things that make them reevaluate the people around them. Elizabeth Bennet discovers that Wickham is a scoundrel and Mr. Darcy has an honorable soul under his proud manner. Marianne Dashwood discovers that Willoughby is a scoundrel and her sister Elinor has feelings as deep as her own. Catherine Morland discovers that Northanger Abbey is not a Gothic haunted house. Other discoveries and reevaluations made by the heroines and other characters also propel the plots along. Darcy learns that Jane Bennet was actually in love with Bingley all along. John Thorpe learns that Catherine was not in line for a fortune after all. Anne Elliot learns that William Elliot is responsible for her friend’s financial difficulties.

Austen also leaves some clues hidden in plain sight, unremarked upon in the novels but waiting for the clever reader to put together for themselves. Why is Mr. Darcy in such an ill humor when Lizzie first meets him at the Meryton ball? Austen never lays it out for us, but once you know his history it becomes clear that only a few months have passed since his beloved younger sister Georgiana nearly eloped with the scheming Mr. Wickham. Of course the sight of young women his sister’s age freely dancing with men they have barely met puts him in a sullen mood, and it is this mood rather than his natural character on which Lizzie first judges him.

Austen’s great literary innovation, the “free indirect style” in which the narrator stands apart from the point of view character but reflects their judgments and perceptions in the narration, represents a careful balance between objectivity and subjectivity that is important in mystery writing. The job of a mystery author working in the classic style is to present the reader with all the necessary facts to resolve the mystery themselves, but to obscure those facts in such a way that the reader does not get ahead of the detective in working out what happened. Austen’s free indirect style achieves precisely this goal, letting the readers in on what is going on in the world around her characters but coloring the facts with the main characters’ own perceptions and biases.

Austen framed her social satires and ethical critiques in the genre of romantic novels since those were popular in her day. I sometimes wonder, if she were alive and writing today, would she have chosen to write mysteries instead?

Image: Portrait of Jane Austen via Wikimedia (National Portrait Gallery, London; c. 1810; pencil and watercolor; by Cassandra Austen)

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.

Favorite Kinds of Storytelling: Learning to Work Together to Solve Problems

There are some things that we can all pretty much agree are part of a good story, whether on the page or on the screen: compelling characters, an interesting setting, a well-crafted plot. These things are basic to most great stories. But then we have our own individual tastes, the particular things we hunger for and that make us excited about one story more than another.

The two of us have spent some time thinking about exactly what we most want out of stories. Here’s what we came up with.

Avengers How Do We Do This As a Team

Erik here. What I most want out of a story can be summed up as: Problem-Solving. I want to watch characters go through the process of confronting a problem, considering how to deal with it, and figuring out the best solution. I want to see not just the successful results but all the steps it took to get there. I want to know what the characters did, how it worked, and why it worked.

The obvious sort of story for me to go to is a mystery in the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle / Agatha Christie tradition, where the narrative centers around a problem that needs to be solved and the climax comes with the detective meticulously explaining how they worked out that the vicar’s charwoman is actually the long-lost sister of Lady Dudsworthy and the poison was hidden in Colonel Flusterton’s peppermint lozenges.

But I also enjoy other kinds of stories that explore other kinds of problem-solving. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is full of problem-solving and process, from Gandalf working out the magic word to open the doors of Khazad-dum to Frodo and Sam donning orc armor to sneak across Mordor. My favorite part of the novel is the Council of Elrond, when our heroes sit down and spend a chapter just talking about the problem, possible solutions, and the limits of their options, rather than rushing off into heroic battle. Jane Austen’s novels also offer a kind of problem-solving, especially my favorites Emma and Pride and Prejudice. Even though the problems are about relationships and social interactions, Austen’s characters approach them with the same attention to what is possible, what is not, and how to best go about achieving their goals.

On tv, I love shows like Leverage and Burn Notice that focus on the practical details of how their characters pull of heists or get out of scrapes. I also enjoy shows that focus on the processes of problem-solving in more human, less technical terms, like Call the Midwife and Downton Abbey. Some of the movies I enjoy the most combine solving practical problems with working out conflicts between people, like The Avengers and Pacific Rim.

 

Eppu here. My favorite story moments involve a bunch of characters learning to work together. I haven’t yet found a good existing name to describe the device with. The closest ones I’ve found are We Work Well Together (a trope) and team building, but both have a slightly different focus. For the lack of a better term I’m calling mine Learning to Work Together.

Specifically, what I like is the hard-to-capture process of the characters realising (usually after a struggle or struggles) how to fit into a working whole all the separate strengths that each person brings. Optimally, of course, it will be a well-working whole at least from the point of view of plot. It’s nice if the characters will end up at least appreciating if not outright liking each other, too, even if there might be tense moments. At the very least they will have to deal with each other well enough to fulfill their goal(s).

Many ensemble stories tack on a sequence of Learning to Work Together to explain how the characters become a unit after they find each other. Some devote more time and effort into it, but for others the process of getting to know your teammates is more or less handwaved aside to make space for the all-important plot. While plot is necessary, I don’t think it should override everything else: I’m looking for a balanced story—preferably with a good heaping of Learning to Work Together.

Some favorite screen examples include Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Hunger Games, Marvel’s The Avengers, and the series Leverage (although arguably the latter might better fit under We Work Well Together). One of the reasons I ended up liking Pacific Rim much more than I expected was the attention that was given to the formation of team Raleigh and Mako, with Pentecost hovering at the rim. (Badum-CHING! [Sorry!])

Satisfyingly protracted versions are shown in the series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Elementary. While Murdoch Mysteries concentrates more on the problem-solving aspect, now and then recurring side characters or one-off visitors get wonderful sequences of Learning to Work Together. And, come to think of it, several of my favorite Doctor Who episodes involve the characters figuring out who the others are and how to interact with them effectively (“42”, “Blink”, “Silence in the Library”, and “Midnight” to mention a few).

Examples in novels and novellas that I’ve read recently include A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers, Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty, and Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti trilogy, Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle, and Kate Elliott’s Crossroads series also sprinkle in many instances of Learning to Work Together whenever characters make new connections.

 

The best stories for the two of us to co-geek over as a couple are stories about groups of people learning to work together in order to solve problems. When we sit down to rewatch a favorite tv series or reminisce about our favorite books together, we go back to the stories about how different people can come together, learn to respect and trust one another, and use their own individual talents to work through a problem that none of them could solve on their own.

Made into a sound bite, Erik’s favorite stories are about “How do we do this?” and Eppu’s favorites are about “As a team.”

Image: screenshot from the 2012 Marvel movie The Avengers

Creative Differences is an occasional feature in which we discuss a topic or question that we both find interesting. Hear from both of us about whatever’s on our minds.

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.