Guest Post by Judith Starkston, author of Hand of Fire

Please welcome to the blog today Judith Starkston, author of Hand of Fire. Judith is here to share a fascinating guest post & excerpt from her novel as part of her Virtual Book Tour!

The Care and Feeding of the Gods

We contemporary citizens of the world do not understand how much daily service the gods demand of us. Perhaps this explains the dismal state of things. But seriously, the divine welfare was given far more attention in the ancient world, particularly the Late Bronze Age world of Anatolia (now modern Turkey) where my novel Hand of Fire is set against the backdrop of the Trojan War.

First, for convenience sake, let me explain that much of what I’ll describe comes from the Hittites, one of the largest empires of the Late Bronze Age. This empire and its people held sway in central Anatolia just east of Troy, which was located on the coast of what is now Turkey. The Hittites and the Trojans turn out to be cultural cousins with similar religious traditions, among many other commonalities. We know a great deal about the Hittites because they left behind huge clay tablet libraries, but a Trojan library didn’t happen to survive so we have to get by with what we know about Hittites and apply it. Fortunately, it’s a fair application.

Hittite goddess and child 15th to 13th century BC © PHGCOM Wikimedia Commons
 Just what did a city in those days have to do to appease the gods and ensure their protection of the people? (Apparently the Trojans didn’t follow the instructions very well because we all know things didn’t go well for them.) Many of us will picture sacrificing animals, burning them up on altars, pouring libations—and these are all part of the picture.

But the Hittites and other Near Eastern peoples also had an intimate and quite literal program for pleasing their gods. They viewed the gold and silver statues they formed of their gods and goddesses as if these statues were living beings. Priests and priestesses daily bathed and dressed the statues. They wove beautiful clothing. Precious jewelry bedecked the statues. Meals were laid out at the appropriate times of day.

It does appear that at least in some cases those meals were later eaten by the temple staff. It would be hard to notice that the food didn’t disappear. I’ve always marveled at how dead serious this process was. In some ways this care seems like a parent’s care of a child. To me it does not inspire a sense of awe and dread.

Yet the Hittite prayer formulas often open with the beseecher stressing his relationship to the gods as that of a slave to a master, even when it was the king or queen who delivered the prayer. To the Hittites, this need for daily intimate care indicated the power of the gods.

Any transgression that displeased the gods could result in ill health for the individual, or on a societal level, crop failure or plague. Transgressions could be as small as negligently allowing a dog to wander into the god’s sanctuary. We also hear in Hittite prayers from men and women who, in trying to win the gods’ approval, remind the divinity that they never kept bread away from another or denied them drink, so apparently greed and a lack of charity was also a transgression—just as serious as the dog’s, by the way. The gods didn’t seem to have a sliding scale. If you ticked them off in any way, woe to you and quite likely everyone around you.

In the case of the Hittites, intimacy did not breed contempt. Quite the reverse. But this relationship is hard for a modern writer such as me to portray. In the excerpt below, my main character, Briseis, comes to the temple to perform the daily care.

The stakes are very high for Briseis. She has taken over the job of priestess of Kamrusepa from her deceased mother, but one of the temple priestesses challenges her ability to communicate with the goddess. And their city of Lyrnessos very much needs Kamrusepa on their side at that moment because the Greeks have landed with a large army and a half-immortal warrior named Achilles. So far none of the tales about Achilles that have come to Lyrnessos from across the Aegean include anyone defeating the mighty fighter. If this small town on the far side of Ida, an ally of Troy, has a chance, it will come from divine protection. Briseis’s devoted rites have to work. With all this tension sitting on her shoulders, Briseis walks into the sacred space of her goddess.

Excerpt from Chapter Five, Hand of Fire:

Briseis entered the sanctuary with its soaring midnight blue columns trimmed in red, took a deep breath, and slipped behind a gold-plated door into the goddess’s inner sanctum. Kamrusepa rested on a throne covered in tin, a precious metal brought by traders from a land far away. She had heard her father negotiating for it many times. Milos used tin in his workshop, mixing it with native copper to make bronze. The throne stood on a base of red stone carved as twin stags. The goddess wore a blue woolen robe with a tall, cylindrical hat decorated with lapis lazuli rosettes. A gold necklace set with precious stones hung from her neck. Briseis peered into her lapis eyes, but their deep blue wore a distant expression.

On the green nephrite altar, Briseis placed an ivory box of linen drying cloths and the golden basin for washing, then turned back to the goddess, bracing herself for the undressing. At the sound of the inner sanctum’s door opening, she looked with relief as another priestess entered, bearing a pitcher of perfumed water for the sacred bath. She didn’t know this woman’s name, but she recognized her. The priestess had a lame foot, turned under in a way that must be painful, but Briseis had noticed how swift to volunteer for tasks this woman had been each time she’d seen her. A priestess like this devoted her life to serving the goddess. Briseis bowed her head in respectful greeting. The woman returned only the merest dip. Her lips formed a stern line. She held her thin, off-kilter body with stiff formality.

Briseis sighed and returned to her duties while the priestess stood to one side watching. The rose perfume filled her nose in a pleasant way as she poured water into the basin. She hoped the goddess enjoyed it. She dampened a linen cloth, caught by the iciness of the water, which came from a grotto underneath the goddess’s courtyard. Her fingers ached from the cold as she wiped each part of the goddess’s form as the rite required.

Briseis finished the bath, hoping Kamrusepa did not notice her trembling hands. The goddess’s lips were pursed in a small, secret smile. What was she thinking? She dried the statue quickly, wanting desperately to be rid of the cold. Instead of dressing her in the same gown, Briseis searched through one of the chests at the side of the room and found the garment she herself had woven for Kamrusepa as an offering upon her initiation into the goddess’s service six years earlier. She saw a look of annoyance on the priestess’s face when Briseis brought it to the altar. Perhaps Kamrusepa had been wearing the priestess’s own offering and now Briseis was putting it aside, but whether the woman liked the change of costume or not didn’t matter. What mattered was Briseis’s connection to the goddess. She hoped the goddess would give her a sign of approval.

The robe for the goddess had taken her the whole of a winter to make—the first fine thing she had made by herself. She had loved to weave from an early age, standing at the loom creating tapestries with her mother. The rich colors, fine wool and linen threads she’d spun, her increasing skill and her mother’s praise, had combined to form the one inside activity she adored. The loom she shared with her mother stood in the upstairs women’s hall. Its tall upper beams were braced against the ceiling and its feet rested on the floor two strides out from the wall. Stone weights suspended just above the ground held the warp threads in place, and the tapestry grew under her fingers, gradually being wound around the upper beam.

For Kamrusepa’s gown, her father gave her sun disks hammered out of gold to sew on once she’d completed the weaving. She sewed all the disks he gave her onto five of the ten pleats and then asked for more to cover the rest. At the time she did not realize how extravagant her request was, but her father did not complain, instructing Milos to make more. Each sun looked as though it rose from a deep blue sea. She was glad her robe glistened with so many suns, the wool a soft caress to the skin. Briseis prayed skill and splendor would suffice to show the depth of her devotion.

She bowed to the goddess, her service complete. The priestess scowled and Briseis fell back a step.

About the Book

Publication Date: September 10, 2014
Fireship Press
Formats: eBook, Paperback

Genre: Historical Fiction/Mythology

The Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god. Will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks? Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.

Advance Praise

“But what is the difference between a good historical novel and a brilliant one?
I suggest you read Judith Starkston’s Hand of Fire and you’ll discover the answer." Helen Hollick, Historical Novels Review Editor and author of Forever Queen

"In Hand of Fire, Starkston's careful research brings ancient Greece and Troy to life with passion and grace. This haunting and insightful novel makes you ache for a mortal woman, Briseis, in love with a half-god, Achilles, as she fights to make her own destiny in a world of capricious gods and warriors. I devoured this page-turning escape from the modern world!" -- Rebecca Cantrell, New York Times bestselling author of The World Beneath

“In her portrayal of Briseis, Judith Starkston has cast a bright light on one of the Iliad's most intriguing sub-plots. With her fast-paced story, three-dimensional characters, and fascinating cultural details, Starkston has given historical fiction fans a tale to remember.” –Priscilla Royal, author of Covenant with Hell

Buy Links

Amazon UK

About the Author

Judith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. Ms. Starkston is a classicist (B.A. University of California, Santa Cruz, M.A. Cornell University) who taught high school English, Latin and humanities. She and her husband have two grown children and live in Arizona with their golden retriever Socrates. Hand of Fire is her debut novel.

Find an excerpt, Q&A, book reviews, ancient recipes, historical background as well as on-going information about the historical fiction community on Starkston’s website

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