Friday, December 12, 2014

Bread and Beer:

The staples of the ancient Egypt

Just how staple?

The mouth of a perfectly contented man is filled with beer. -- 2200 BC inscription

[She] sent you to school when you were ready to be taught writing, and she waited for you daily at home with bread and beer. -- Instructions of Ani, regarding his mother

Most historical sources indicate workers received payments of bread, beer, grain, meat and cloth rations -- the necessities of life. Most frequently, these rations were actually expressed in units of bread and beer, which were most basic to the Egyptian diet. It is probable that the lowest wages were actually paid in bread and beer.

One might consider bread the staple of staples as it was often used to make bread. By the New Kingdom, there were names for at least 50 different kinds of bread. There were probably that many types of beer as well, although we might not recognize it as beer. It was not very intoxicating, nutritious, sweet, without bubbles, and thick, so it had to be strained with wooden syphons, used as a straw. See the following illustration.
Beer strainer
Although it's impossible to literally recreate the bread and beer recipes of Ancient Egypt, here are some educated guesses:

Baking bread from a hieroglyphic recipe

Recreating ancient Egyptian bread

Pharoah Ale: Brewing a replica of Ancient Egyptian Beer

Tutankhamun Ale Story

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Sharp Hook of Envy

First of all, I highly recommend this book.  Of course, I knew about Abélard and Heloise, but their fascinating story never really piqued my interest until I read The Sharp Hook of Love by Sherry Jones.

Second, as an aspiring novelist writing about star-crossed lovers, this book made me (no other phrase for it) green with envy. Abélard and Heloise  star in one of history’s most passionate and romantic true love stories. The affair of the 12th century philosopher and theologian and his female student, both considered to be among the most brilliant minds of their time, scandalized the community in which they lived. The consequences were both dire and transformative.

Unlike so many historical novels that seem like books about someone, Jones's tour de force puts you immediately inside Heloise's head and in her world. You might not like that world, because 12th Century France is a misogynistic, bitter world where the mix of politics and religion is volatile. (A cautionary tale?) Nonetheless, Jones, through Heloise, makes us feel, hear, taste, and smell it. The secondary characters (and even Abélard becomes almost secondary when compared to the passionate Heloise) are well-drawn  and provide even more insight into this alien (to the modern reader) world. Seeing it from Heloise's point of view, her journey is inevitable, even though you, the reader, might be screaming NO! NO! NO! Don't go there, girl friend!

The Sharp Hook of Love.  Read it. Now!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Happy Birthday, Ramses

If you go to Abu Simebel, try to go on October 22 and celebrate the birthday of Ramses the Great and see this rather phenomenal "solar" event.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Dead Egyptian Blues: Oh, Mister Tut, what good's it do?

"Oh, Mister Tut, what good's it do? 
They love your chair, but nobody cares for you. 
Egyptian nights were never colder, 
And all your friends are thousands of years older..." 

A surrealistic interpretation of the classic song by Michael Smith.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Finding Osiris (and inspiration) at a thrift store in Austin, Tx

A friend and I were discussing how the universe sometimes offers "odd things," and how they can reaffirm what we're doing. She discovered her totem animal in one of those weird quirks of fate. I found this object in a thrift shop for twenty-five cents. I bought it because I like strange things. Seriously, I do. Here's another odd purchase:

Do we see a pattern emerging? Yes,I think we do, but that's not my point.

As steeped as I am in all things Egyptian from writing my novel, I should have immediately glommed on to the fact that the first object is meant to be a representation of Osiris or maybe the trilogy of Isis, Osiris, and Horus.  Amazingly, it took me almost a year to have this sudden insight. (We're all slow sometimes.)

What did I base my insight on? In my humble opinion, this object has
  • An eye of Horus. Horus was the son of Isis and Osiris. In one version of the story, when Set and Horus were fighting for the throne after Osiris's death, Set gouged out Horus's left eye. The majority of the eye was restored by either Hathor or Thoth (with the last portion possibly being supplied magically). When Horus recovered, he offered his eye to his father, Osiris, in hopes of restoring his life. Hence, the eye of Horus was often used to symbolise sacrifice, healing, restoration, and protection.

  • A Djed pillar. The djed is one of the more ancient and commonly found symbols in Egyptian mythology. It represents stability and is associated with Osiris. It is commonly understood to represent his spine.

  • A man wearing the Hedjet (white crown) of Upper Egyptt. Osiris is considered the original King of Egypt. The Atef crown of Osiris is a combination of Upper Egypt’s white crown and ostrich feathers on either side. According to Egyptian beliefs, this crown represents Osiris as the god of fertility, ruler of the Afterlife, and a representative of the cycle of death and rebirth.
  • An Ankh or Knot of Isis. Can you see the key at the top of the three circles? The ankh was known as the key of life or the key of the Nile. The knot of Isis also meant life, but its symbolism revolves around the idea of binding and releasing, the joining of opposites, and protection. The Knot of Isis is often present with a djed pillar. Pretty sure the three rings  represent the divine trinity of Isis,Osiris, and Horus. Truth be told, I'm still fuzzy on this one, but I'm sure the meaning is there somewhere.
  • So what do you think? Am I right? And who (besides me) might make an object like this? 

    Final note: Sometimes, when I'm stuck writing my novel, I look at this odd little piece for inspiration and can feel power emanating from it. Twenty-five cents? It's priceless.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Discovering ancient Egypt site

My name, Michalea Moore, from the Hieroglyphic Typewriter.

The Petrie Museum Facebook page called Discovering Ancient Egypt one of their favorite websites. I can see why. In addition to the just-for-fun typewriter, you can find more information about hieroglyphics, pyramids, temples, mummies, and kings and queens.  It also includes some general interest videos as well as  building famous temples in 3D. If  you don't want to miss anything, you can sign up for a newsletter.

Go there, now!  You'll be glad you did.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Romancing Sobek the Crocodile God

Ancient Egyptians feared and worshipped Sobek, Lord of the Crocodiles. They kept crocodiles in their sacred lakes and sometimes decorated them with jewels, no doubt to entice Sobek's minions not to eat them while they were out on the Nile. The strength and speed of the crocodile was thought to be symbolic of the power of the Pharaoh, and the word "sovereign" was written with the hieroglyph of a crocodile. It was thought that Sobek could protect the Pharaoh from dark magic.

Sobek is often associated with Isis and Horus. Some myths suggest that he might have been present at the birth of Horus and helped Isis find the dismembered parts of Osiris. Other myths, undoubtedly playing on the fear factor, align him with Set, the god of Chaos. Some even go so far as to suggest that Set fathered Sobek.

With such a juicy background, I decided Sobek had an interesting role to play in Queen of Heka. He is a companion of Heru (Horus) and suffers from his unrequited love of Iset (Isis), which has some fatal consequences. In this excerpt, Sobek "woos" Iset.

Iset tucked the hem of her skirt into her sash and waded into the sedge marsh, sinking to her ankles in mud. The river lapped at her knees, making the sun’s steady drizzle of heat almost bearable. Spikes of yellow-green flowers swayed in the sporadic breeze and released the rich, heady scent prized by perfumers. Filling a basket with sedge, she paid little attention to her dog until a sharp bark trailed into growls, then whimpers. An enormous crocodile lumbered from a thicket. The dog, hackles rising, stood stiff-legged between them. She dropped the basket and pulled the dog by its scruff onto the riverbank. 

“Sobek?” She held her breath, dreading the answer.

“Glorious Iset.” The creature, evolving with every step, confirmed her worst nightmare.  By the time Sobek reached her, he was fully man. He patted the dog’s head. It collapsed as if its 
bones had melted. 

 “What did you do to my dog?” She ignored Sobek’s outstretched hand.

“It’s sleeping.” He grabbed her wrist and pulled her against him. He reeked of river water and something pungent and feral that overpowered the sweet sedge and singed her nostrils. His breath scalded her ear. “There’s an island near PaSabek where crocodiles come in the afternoon. Would you like to see it?” 

“I thank you, no.” 

Another shadow darkened the water. Nostrils and eyes emerged. The second crocodile’s indifferent gaze, pupils floating like black spears in a gold field, chilled her blood.

“I thought you might say that.” Rejection did not cool the heat in Sobek’s eyes. 

She tugged her belt. The wet skirt plopped around her muddy ankles. 

“I often see Light and Asar hunting out here.” Sobek’s thumb, cold and scaly, caressed her pulse. She shivered even though sweat beaded her forehead. “He handles a spear like a full grown man. Asar must be proud.” 

Two crocodiles lumbered onto the bank. At least ten bobbed in the water. She licked her lips; her tongue was dry and parched. 

“Asar adores him, and Heru worships his father.” 

“No doubt, but what does that leave for you, darling Iset?” Sobek growled. The circling crocodiles, at least twenty by now, swung their heads toward him. “Your child no longer needs you, and your husband cannot be a man with you.”

The crocodiles’ bobbing heads and yawning mouths stifled her tart response.

“Poor Iset.” He stroked her cheek, his fingers incredibly cool against the heat that blossomed there. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Finding Egypt. . . not in Egypt

When we were in Egypt, my son and I had a running joke (that was really not at all funny) about plaques in front of statues, artifacts, and temples that said, "The original is in name that European museum." The British Museum and the Louvre were mentioned most often.

When I was in London, there was a billboard for an exhibit at the British Museum that said Celebrating 300 years of Empire!  An Irish friend of mine muttered under her breath "Celebrating 300 years of stealing from the locals."

Just how much of ancient Egypt came to live in London? Well, the British Museum is the motherlode of Egyptian artifacts, including the Rosetta Stone and a really nice (and big) Book of the Coming Forth by Day (aka Book of the Dead). On one visit, I came directly from Egypt (where I presumably might have gotten my fill of Egyptian antiquities) to London, but I still spent half a day enjoying their collection. This article, Ancient Egypt in London, skims the surface of Egypt in other parts of London. There is no doubt the Brits love their Egyptomania. As do the French and the Germans.

Of course, the US has its share of Egyptian treasures. My first encounter with real Egyptian "stuff" was at the Field Museum in Chicago where I saw my first mummy at the tender age of 10. As an adult, my husband was on the board of the Illinois Arts Council; they arranged a private, after hours tour of the 1976 Tutankhamun exhibition in the Field Museum. Thanks to the Field Museum, I had a goal in life: Get myself to Egypt. And I did. Twice. I hope to go again.

For a glimpse of the Egyptian joy you can find at the Field Museum, may I suggest An Egyptian Tomb and the Winds of the Afterlife: Chicago’s Field Museum.  Looking for Egypt near you? Check out this list.

While fully sensitive to and more than a little embarrassed by other countries amassing Egypt's treasures, I confess I am always excited when I encounter Egypt outside of Egypt. It's a confirmation that without that great and grand society that lasted (depending on your definition of when it ended) between 2500 to 4100 years, civilization as we know it simply would not exist.

July 9 update: Lest you think stealing antiquities is some19th Century phenomenon, Gleaming in the Dust, an audio documentary, reports on what has happened to Egyptian antiquities since the 2011 revolution.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Cleopatra's Daughter review

Reading historical novels is like going to a Hollywood premiere.

There is a cast of thousands, but only a few people eat up the scenery. They're called stars.

In many historical novels, you already know the star, and you probably already love/hate her/him. You know the story. The ending is rarely in doubt, although you often find yourself hoping against hope things will turn out better than you know they did. Take Cleopatra, for example. I always want her not to end up in that mausoleum with Antony dying on the floor, the asp in the basket, and Octavian at the door. I want it, but the end never changes, no matter how much I hope.

Then, there are some novels about the supporting actors, the  people who don't spend much time in history's klieg lights. Hitler's niece, the woman who read to Marie Antoinette,  the fictional daughter of Elizabeth I, or Charlemagne's wastrel son.  Just as Wolf Hall offered Cromwell's very welcome and fresh perspective on the Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn saga, books told from the POV of the supporting actors can reignite our passion for familiar stories.

Enter Cleopatra Selene, daughter and only child of THE Cleopatra and Mark Antony  to survive into adulthood, captive and ward of Augustus Caesar, and finally Queen in her own right. Selene mingled with some major stars who have fascinated us for centuries and became a star in her own right in the following novels:

I'm a BIG Michelle Moran fan. I loved her previous novels about Nefertiti and Nefertari. I also really liked her novel about the French Revolution told through the eyes of Madam Tussuad. Which is to say, I was pre-disposed to like Cleopatra's Daughter.

I liked it. I'm glad I read it. I just didn't love this novel. Given the subject matter, I wanted it to grab me by the heart, and it didn't.

The books opens strongly with Cleopatra's children playing dice and waiting for news about the outcome of their father's final battle with Octavian (Augustus). The ominous overtones of the family gathering quickly disintegrate into chaos in the palace with faithful servants fleeing, Mark Antony dying, Cleopatra committing suicide and abandoning her children to their fate, and the arrival of Octavian who may or may not kill Selene and her two brothers. Tension. Excitement. Life changing drama. After that scene, I almost felt the tension and drama melting away.

What didn't bother me: Numerous reviews talk about a lack of historical accuracy. I found the story close enough for a work of fiction. The intricacies of an ancient society are hard to convey to a modern audience. Yes, patrician women took their clan names; so Mark Antony's two daughters were literally Antonia Major and Antonia Minor. I'm OK with nicknames, which they probably had. No, women probably didn't become architects in Rome (as Selene does); but she had an indisputable impact on the architecture of Mauretania when she became its Queen. So I'll let that slide, because she might have had a few lessons in the subject. Yes, it does read rather like a YA novel, but we are seeing this world through the eyes of a 12-15  year old girl. Numerous reviews touched on what they thought was Selene's too modern sensibility about slavery; but as one reviewer pointed out, her opinion might have changed when she became a captive and potential slave rather than a princess.

What bothered me:  The writing is steady and even, but there are few highs or lows. Selene's character  is likable. Other characters are also likable, and some are despicable. They just don't have enough THERE there to make me love or hate them, which meant I didn't care much about what happened to them or root for their triumphs and downfalls. For example, in another of the Selene books, I wept at the death of Selene's youngest brother. His character was so finely drawn, his death left a hole in both Selene's world and my impression of that world. In this book, the brother's character is so one-dimensional and Selene's reaction so ho-hum, it feels like a check-box to tick on the plot outline. Ditto the drama with her twin brother's homosexuality; her antagonism toward her future husband, Juba; the prolonged mystery of the masked avenger; and her feelings about Octavian and Livia. Even Octavian's high-spirited daughter Julia (who surely deserves her own novel) is a rote character, and so are hints at what the Tiberius character will become.

In short, this Selene has about an inch of emotional depth, and her struggles (which surely must have been great) come across as petulant teenage angst. So, if you want a quick read about what happens after THE Cleopatra dies, this novel does a good job, but don't expect any stars, red carpet, and klieg lights.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Friday the 13th and ancient Egypt

Not all superstitions about Friday the 13th are bad. The ancient Egyptians believed that life was a spiritual journey that unfolds in stages. They believed that 12 of those stages occurred in this life, and the last, the 13th, was the ascension to an eternal afterlife. So the number 13 represented death to the Egyptians, but not death as in decay and fear, but as acknowledgement of a glorious eternal life.

There are two main Egyptian gods of the afterlife: Anubis and Osiris.

Osiris is usually identified as the god of the afterlife, the underworld and the dead. He was considered a merciful judge of the dead and  the underworld agency that granted all life, including sprouting vegetation and the fertile flooding of the Nile. He was described as the Lord of love, He Who is Permanently Benign and Youthful, and the Lord of Silence. The Kings of Egypt were associated with Osiris in death since Osiris rose from the dead. They would, in union with him, inherit eternal life through a process of imitative magic. By the New Kingdom all people, not just pharaohs, were believed to be associated with Osiris at death, if they incurred the costs of the funeral rituals. Oh, and Osiris is the love interest in my novel, Queen of Heka.

Anubis, the older god of the dead, was originally the most important one. He was replaced during the Middle Kingdom by Osiris. After his demotion, he was associated with the mummification and protection of the dead for their journey into the afterlife. During embalming, the head embalmer wore an Anubis costume. The critical weighing of the heart scene in the Book of the Dead also shows Anubis performing the measurement that determined the worthiness of the deceased to enter the realm of the dead (the underworld, known as Duat). He's also a character in the novel.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Those Romanov Girls

Reading about the last Romanovs always feels a bit like driving past a fatal car wreck. You don't want to look because you know what happens, but you can't help yourself. Just one peek, you say. Suddenly, there you are rubbernecking like the worst person in the world (or reading another book about the end of the Romanov dynasty).  A couple of months ago, I read a British review of The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport and pre-ordered the book. I'm glad I did. I still might be rubbernecking, but I learned some new things and came away with a better understanding of the daughters and the world in which they lived.

When reading about the Romanovs, the sisters -- Olga, Tatiana, Marie, and Anastasia -- always get lost in the shuffle of larger personalities. The less-than-prepared-to-be-tsar  father and the tragically flawed, sickly mother, both nonetheless buying into the whole notion of divine right and autocracy. The long-hoped-for but chronically ill brother about whom so many decisions were made that increased the trajectory of  the dynasty's downward spiral. The larger than life figure of Rasputin. The sisters themselves seem to even buy into this notion of being second-class characters by referring to themselves collectively as OTMA and publicly presenting themselves as a group.

Some critical reviews say this book still has a dearth of information about the girls. Relatively speaking, this is probably true. However, it's worth mentioning that the sisters were highly sheltered and not considered all that important by their family and friends during their lives. (They were not the heir and never would be, although for the first time you get a hint that Nicholas felt one of his daughters might have been a more worthy successor.) So, no one felt very compelled to write about them, and their parents took great pains to keep them out of the spotlight. Moreover, the girls themselves destroyed many of their diaries and letters n the days leading up to the revolution. The Bolsheviks who clearly didn't want anything left that might cause people to sympathize with the family destroyed many more artifacts that might have brought them into sharper focus.

What's left for us, the readers, is a basic, yet compelling account of four young women caught up in a maelstrom not of their own making. You come away with a sense of their ordinariness, their piety, their great love of family, and their very real patriotism. With the bits of information that are left to us, you can wonder if the revolution had not happened, might they have broken out of their cocoon as so many young women did after WWI shattered the old order?  What would they have been like if that had been the case? You can sympathize with their longing to be loved by someone and then falling in love with the guards who surrounded them, because who else did they ever see or meet? (When their loyal guards are replaced by Bolsheviks, you also sense their confusion as they try and fail to make friends with these new men as they always had done.) You can almost feel the mind-numbing boredom of their imprisonment and the growing sense of their own doom. In the end, you come away thinking they were really sweet, naive girls who must have gone into that cellar wondering exactly what they had done to deserve such a fate.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

You thought gardening was hard?

I  an a gardener. Like all gardeners, I sometimes employ helpers who sometimes drive me crazy and vice-versa. Sometimes, I even call upon the gods (or at least the eye of a god) to help me in my gardening endeavors. Exhibit A: My garden last spring.

But, make no mistake about it, we modern gardeners and gardener helpers are rank amateurs compared to ancient Egyptians. Exhibit B: the "Gardening Agreement" between Talames and her gardener Peftumont, c. 500 B.C, Egypt in this delightful post from the gardenhistorygirl blog.

Gardens were essential to  ancient Egyptians. Those who could afford to do so laid out gardens in front of both their houses and tomb chapels. The gods were even thought to enjoy gardens, and most temples were surrounded by lush greenery.  (See The Gardens and Ponds of Ancient Egypt.)

In my novel, Queen of Heka, Iset (Isis) is a gardener par excellence and often sees the world through gardening metaphors. Is it any wonder when she wants the attention of her lover, Asar (Osiris), she sends him a poem in which she is the garden and he the gardener?
Summon me like the sedge summons the bee.
I belong to you like the plot of ground
Where you plant flowers and sweet-smelling herbs.
I will come to you like a sweet stream, dug by my own hand,
To wander in a lovely place as refreshing as the north wind.
The preceding poem is based on an actual  New Kingdom love poem ( Poem 2, from IIc, The Third Collection, Papyrus Harris 500).

Friday, May 30, 2014

Write like an Egyptian: words of the gods

The ancient Egyptians called hieroglyphs the words of the gods. Two god had a special connection with writing.

The least known is Seshat (Sashet, Sesheta), the female scribe. She was the goddess of writing, historical records, accounting and mathematics, measurement, and architecture. (All Egyptian gods are overachievers.) She assisted the pharaoh and kept a record of his life. She also recorded the time allotted to him by the gods for his stay on earth.

The most well-known was Djhuty (Thoth), an ibis-headed god. Some say he created himself through the power of language. He is the creator of magic, the inventor of writing, teacher of man, the messenger of the gods, the divine record-keeper, and mediator par-excellence. (See what I mean about over-achieving?) The Book of Djhuty contained all the knowledge in the universe. It was hidden at the bottom of the Nile and locked inside a series of boxes guarded by serpents. Egyptians believed the gods' knowledge is not meant for humans to possess. Not that several didn't try, most famously Setne Khaem-waset, the fourth son of Ramses the Great.

Djhuty is often associated with Isis as her mentor, friend, and the arbitrator between her and the other gods during the Contending of Horus and Seth. In this scene from Queen of Heka, Iset (Isis) meets Djhuty for the first time:

    An ibis emerged from the fog. With each step, the bird lengthened into a man. The long, webbed feet became well-muscled legs. White feathers molted into an elaborately pleated kilt. The transformation ended at the neck. When the bird’s beady eyes fixed on me, all the noise in the world stopped. 
    Heru spoke into the inhuman silence. “May I present the teacher of all teachers, Djhuty, Lord of Truth and Time.”

    The great god bowed. His beak opened like a black crescent moon in the white mist. “Hail, Iset wer-Heka, Mistress of the Throne.” 
    “I’m just Iset.” I giggled for the first time that day. Daily commerce with Heru clearly had not prepared me for the company of other gods.

    “You are the lady who will learn words of power,” Djhuty said.

    “From the Book of Djhuty?” The prospect chased away every dismal thought. All the priests longed to read the scroll filled with heka and mysteries not even Ra knew. I bounced up and down on my toes, almost taking flight.
    “Pain and tragedy come to any mortal who reads my book,” Djhuty said.
    “Pain and tragedy also come to those who do not read it.” My whole body practically vibrated with anticipation. Heru snickered.

    “My book is dangerous.” Djhuty directed an anxious look toward Heru.

    “My life is already dangerous.” I thought of Seti and Oso, and I wanted to shake him for making light of my predicament. I might have if he hadn’t put his cool hand on my forehead. My heartbeat slowed straight away, keeping time with the waves lapping our feet.
    "So it is.” 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

I am Livia. . . just not the Livia you think I am

We've all played the game. You can invite # historical figures to dinner. Who would you choose? Chances are good that Livia Drusilla, the second wife of Augustus Caesar (a marriage that lasted over 50 years), doesn't make the cut for most of us.

In popular history she was reviled as an ambitious schemer not above poisoning those who got in her way, and that was when history was being nice to her. For me, Siân Phillips sealed my impression of Livia as a woman of "glittering malice" in the popular BBC series, I, Claudius.

I am Livia by Phyllis Smith changes the equation. In Smith's well-written and well-researched novel that masquerades as a memoir, Livia is every smart girl who wants a place at the political table and is denied because of gender. That, of course, is not at odds with how history sees Livia. What is different is the probity with which Smith's Livia pursues her ambitions. Or as the aging Livia best puts it  in the opening paragraphs:
I wonder sometimes how I will be remembered. As mother of my country, as men call me to my face, or as a monster? I know the rumors none dare speak aloud. Some believe I am a murderess many times over. They envy me, and they hate my power. In Rome, a woman's power,  however circumspectly exercised, arouses revulsion. . . . .
Oh, I have transgressed. But not in the way they think. It is when I remember my youth that I find myself recoiling. Do I recoil when I think of him, my beloved? No. But I paid a price in my soul, for loving him.
Throughout the novel, Livia struggles with moral dilemmas. She wants to be a respectable Roman matron, but she is obsessed with a man (Augustus) not her husband. She ultimately sacrifices her children and family's good will to be with him. She wants to do good and sponsors civic works, but she is not above the scheming to get her own way or theatrical gestures. She agonizes over the long Roman civil wars and reluctantly embraces the notion that the Republic, a cherished dream of her beloved father, must end if Rome is to know peace. She grudgingly respects, Cleopatra, her arch-enemy and the other smart girl of her time. After the battle of Actium and Cleopatra's death, Livia wonders if what she wants is any different than what Cleopatra sought and if her own methods were any more noble.

For maybe the first time ever, readers catch a glimpse of the passion between Livia and Augustus, who often appears in fiction as rather a cold fish that nobody loves. From the moment they first lock eyes, these two are possessed. Livia rhapsodizes over Augustus's beauty, something unique in my reading experience where he is often described as sickly and less than manly. In return, Augustus wants her and wants her bad.

Like their more well-known passionate counterparts, Antony and Cleopatra, Livia and Augustus are one of history's original power couples. Some of the best scenes are a post-coital Livia and Augustus plotting to make Rome a better place and dealing with those who stand in their way. As Livia recounts her role in making Augustus great, we can relish how she tells the tale with equal parts modesty, intensity, and something akin to a conscience.

Ultimately, I found this book both enjoyable and satisfying in its portrayal of a woman who dared to be powerful in life and love.

Oh, and that dinner party? I think a Women Who Dared in the Ancient World might be the ultimate girl's night. My guest list: Livia, Cleopatra, Hypatia (philospher, mathematician, and astronmer), Hatsheput (the first female Pharoah), Nefertiti, Helen of Troy, Cassandra the prophetresss of Troy, and the goddesses Isis, Hera, and  Ishtar

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

What's in a hat? A lot if you're an Egyptian goddess

I've gone on record (at least on Facebook):


I was looking for a hat that combined steampunk as well as Egyptian elements for a banquet I attended.  This one was SO perfect!

Alas, it cost $500, and my budget did not allow for such sublime wonderfulness.
After some near frantic searching on eBay and other places, I decided to make a hat. The one you see to your left. It cost a lot less than $500. I received a lot of compliments. At the end of day, I was left with one overriding question.

Question: "What's in a hat, anyway?"
Answer: A lot if you are an Egyptian goddess.

Consider these two.

They look a lot alike. Both women
  • Are kneeling in front of hieroglyphics.  
  • Have wings. 
  • Have black hair, parted over their shoulders. 
  • Have nearly identical faces. 
  • Wear headbands. 
The difference: one wears a feather on her head, and one wears something like a chair. (Hint: it's really a throne.) We know them by their hats.

Ma'at always wears a feather, which she uses when she weighs the heart of a dead soul. The name Isis means The Throne, so she wears her name.

In this statue of Tutankhamen, Isis carries the young Pharaoh. Notice his body is in the shape of  the throne as he becomes the hat Isis wears. Tutankhamen came to the throne during a turbulent period in Egyptian history, right after Akhenaten tried to get rid of all the old gods. By showing Isis carrying Tutankhamen and making him her crown, the artist is sayingTutankhamen returned to traditional religion, and the gods recognize him as the rightful king.

As the Goddess of 10,000 Names, Isis wore many different hats. She became one of the supreme goddesses of Egypt, so she took on many aspects of other goddesses, just as she assumed the wings of Ma'at. In the following crown, she blends her throne headdress, with a solar disk and cow horns that itypically belongs to the goddess Hathor, all on top of the traditional vulture crown of an Egyptian queen. I'm sure there's a kitchen sink in there somewhere.

What would your hat be if you were an Egyptian goddess?

Monday, May 12, 2014

YA romantic suspense via Neil Gaiman's American Gods (with Isis and Osiris content)

First, let's set the boundaries. . . .

I read almost anything about ancient Egypt and everything that even remotely touches on Isis and Osiris. I call it research for my own novel.       :-)

That being said, I'm remarkably picky. A whiff of a camel plodding by the Pyramids or a description of those tombs baking in the sand under the hot Egyptian sun as cool and shady (ok, they ARE shady), and you've lost me. And need I mention there are so many ways to go horribly wrong with Egyptian mythology?

That being said, Kiersten White's The Chaos of Stars just delighted me!

Like Gaiman's American Gods, it satisfies our prurient interest on what happens to the protagonists of the world's first great love story (Isis and Osiris) 6000 after the fact. From the POV of a teenage girl who just happens to be one of their many human offspring. All born to keep their worship alive. Kiersten White had me at hello!

Because really, how do you cope when the Great Mother is your mother? Set alternately in Abydos, Egypt and San Diego, CA, Isadora, their human daughter struggles with life, love, the modern world, and ancient enemies in a way that kept me turning the pages into the wee hours of the morning.

White's mythological research is top-notch. I had no quibble with her using the stereotype of Isis as the interfering Mother and the usual depiction of Osiris as the feckless Father. What teenager doesn't think of her parents like that, and it worked for the character arc of this novel. I didn't figure out the bad guy until the very end, which always pleases me. There was a "surprise" twist about the love interest that wasn't that surprising, but it gave me hope this novel actually might be the beginning of a series.

I highly recommend this book.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Happy Mother's Day to the Great Mother

Before Princess Diana, Joan of Arc, Mary of Nazareth, or Cleopatra, there was Isis — goddess, lover, healer, mistress of magic, patriot, queen, and mother.

She was the mother of Horus, the god of Kings. Every pharoah of Egypt claimed her as their divine mother, which made her the Motherof Egypt itself. She is often depicted nursing Horus. There is a wide belief that this image served as inspiration for the classic Christian portait of the Madonna and Child.

What did it mean to be the Mother of the God of Kings, who was also known as Horus the Avenger and Lord Horizon?

I tried to imagine how Isis (Iset) reacted when Horus (Heru) informs her about her future motherhood in this snippet from Queen of Heka.

          “I’ve searched a thousand lifetimes for you.” The cocky grin disappeared. “I was there the day you were born, and I knew right away you’d be my mother, Iset wer-Heka.”  
          Iset wer-Heka. Iset great of magic. The epithet perplexed me, but not nearly so much as the idea of mothering a god. That was a million times more frightening than marrying Seti. Maybe if I didn’t acknowledge it.
           “Stop calling me wer-Heka. I have no magic.”
          “Don’t you feel it in your veins?” He peered into my eyes. “Remember when you grabbed my hand in Abydos? You pulled me here. I had no choice; your heka demanded it. Visions are heka. Your talent with herbs is heka. Even this moment is heka; you willed it so.”
. . .
          I asked the easiest question. The one I hoped might liberate me from his expectations. “Why do you need a mother? You’re a god.”
          “I want to know what it’s like to be human,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to know. It’s like you wanting to be an ordinary girl.”
          My chest felt like it was caving in. I was pretty sure no one ever uttered mother of a god and ordinary girl in the same breath. My unruly tongue snatched another thought from the babble in my head. “I suppose you already selected your father.”
          His grin lit the cabin. “Sobek offered. He sometimes comes with me when I watch you.”
          “Sobek? Lord of the Crocodiles?” Really? Someone worse than Seti wanted to marry me? This was getting worse with every answer.
          Heru nodded cheerfully. I made a sound halfway between a squawk and whimper.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The very ordinary villain

Advice in writerly blogs goes in cycles. Lately, several posts discussed villains/antagonists with the usual admonition to not make your villain a stereotype and humanize him/her. After all, even Hitler loved his dog.

The Joker need not apply; but Jack Torrance, come on down.

It's good advice. Notice how whenever someone commits some atrocity and the neighbors are interviewed, they mostly say how ordinary the person was. How they would NEVER have guessed. Not in a million years.

I am one of those neighbors. I dated the brother of a serial killer, last estimated body count was up to 60. Disclosure: he was a serial killer in training when I dated his brother, but I also had contact with him years after his brother and I stopped dating.

If someone had asked me about him, I would have said he was a really nice, polite, young man. Good looking. Smart. Thoughtful, even.

He attended the college where I worked as an administrator. Since we were acquainted, he occasionally stopped by my office and chatted for a few moments. Nothing earthshaking. Hi! How's it going? Read any good books? Heard from your brother lately? He sometimes brought me a donut and a cup of coffee. Thoughtful, right? I sure thought so.

Later, when someone told me what had become of him and gave me the book about him, I learned one of his first attempts at poisoning was when he worked as a med tech. He often brought in donuts for his co-workers, and those donuts were laced with arsenic.

Do I think he tried to poison me? No, I never had any symptoms of poisoning. Although, for all I know, he might have been testing how readily someone accepts food from an acquaintance. Because that's all we ever were. Acquaintances. In retrospect, our interactions probably would have been a moment of high drama/tension in a movie. It still sends shivers up and down my spine when I think about it.

So, for me a very ordinary act takes on a level of horror that I never imagined. It's very human horror that has nothing to do with supernatural powers, drooling and cackling, or overt acts of evil. If I ever get around to writing my Wiccan mystery novels, I know where to look for my villain.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

What drew me to this photo?

Beyond the obvious :-)

Neil Patrick Harris with a Dumeril’s boa and a diamond python, photographed by Annie Leibovitzat at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood

Then, it occured to me that I wrote the following opening for a scene in Queen of Heka a few weeks before I saw this photo, and it was eerily similar.

     Dawn painted the fields with a splashes of green and gold. The hum of insects and the flow of the rain-swollen river filled the air. A man wearing nothing but a loin cloth and gold belt stood directly across the river from where I sat beneath a tree. His face was turned from me and the rising sun.  
     He lifted his arms like a priest summoning the gods. The river turned to sludge, and the breeze reeked of an open grave. Birds, feeding on small insects in a nearby stand of papyrus, took wing. In a heartbeat, they were a distant gray wedge on the horizon, a ghostly chorus of rustling feathers.

     The man turned and slithered toward me. A crimson birthmark coiled around his body from knee to hip bone. As he came closer, I realized the birthmark was actually a cobra carved and painted into his finely scaled flesh. The cobra’s flaring head, fangs bared and ready to strike, nestled in the hollow of his belly. The man’s yellow eyes fixed on me, and my thoughts went muddy and slow. The next thing I knew, he was right in front of me, his toes touching mine. I scrambled to my feet and laced my fingers together to conceal their trembling.

     “Isssset wer-Heka, I have long wanted to meet you.” His blue tinged lips scraped back over his teeth into a smile. He extended his palm, open like a trap.

     I didn’t take it. “You have the advantage, my lord. I don’t have the pleasure of knowing of you.”

     His shoulder brushed mine, but I never saw him move forward. Heat radiated from his skin. The leaves of a nearby sycamore shriveled. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Bumper stickers for books. . . or fans in unlikely places

First, ignore the dirty car and concentrate on the bumper stickers.

Now, picture this: I'm in one of those endless three-lane queues at the airport to pick up my daughter. A woman snakes forward beside me and starts gesturing wildly for me to roll down my window. I'm a little nervous as airport queues can turn nasty in a heartbeat, but I do it.

She leans across the passenger seat and shouts, "I LOVE those Isis bumper stickers. What do you know about Isis?"

We're standing dead still, so I holler back, "A lot. I'm writing a novel about her."

She: "I so want to read that. Where can I get it? What's the title?"

Me (sadly): "Still in progress, but there's a sample chapter on my website."

She pulls out a pen and piece of paper writes down the title of my book (Queen of Heka) and my website  (

Will she actually follow up? Who knows? Still, it made my day. It also made me think I must invest in book bumper stickers when the time comes. Maybe bumper stickers will place the ubitiquous bookmarks that used to be so popular at book signings. Who needs a bookmark for their Kindle?

This lovely banner from Titan PublishingTitan InKorp looks like the perfect bumper sticker for me.

Disclosure: This is not the first time my bumper stickers have generated a discussion. It is the first time  someone asked for information while the car was still moving (moving in theory, anyway).

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Searching for a synopsis. . .a short survey

Figuring out the synopsis is somewhat like Waiting for Godot, an absurdist play by Samuel Beckett, in which two characters wait endlessly and in vain for the arrival of someone named Godot. As Becket himself famously said about the meaning of the play, "It is a game; everything is a game."

Naturally, everyone in this game has an opinion on a synopsis. Don't believe me? Just fire up the Google, type synopsis, get out the popcorn, and start reading.

Some key questions:

  • What is it exactly?
  • How long should it be (1 line or 10 pages)? 
  • Is it the same as a pitch or a log line?
  • Do you need one or not? (A very important agent told one of my writer friends, "#$@&%*! the synopsis. Nobody wants to read that $h1t. Just send the manuscript." )

    Note: My friend was very happy, because nothing makes a writer melt down faster than writing a synopsis.

You can see where I'm getting the Waiting for Godot theme, right?

The one thing everyone agrees on (well, everyone but the very important agent) is that this thing is what entices people to want to read more of your book.

So with that in mind, I used a  couple of the standard templates for synopses and created a few of my own for Queen of Heka.

Which of these would make you want to read more?
  1. When a young woman rejects the son of the King of Gods, she must change the course of a civilization and remap the boundaries of heaven and earth to save herself and the man she loves.
  2. A woman overcomes her shortcomings learning magic, challenging death and the gods in the name of love, and remapping the boundaries of heaven and earth.
  3. After a young princess rejects the son of the King of Gods, she learns magic that changes the course of a civilization and remaps the boundaries of heaven and earth; in the process she brings her lover back from the dead, gives birth to a savior god, and becomes the goddess Isis.
  4. Can one woman challenge the gods and remap the boundaries of heaven and earth to reflect the goodness she discovers in her lover's face? Will her enduring passion for this man give birth to a savior-god and bring her lover back from the dead? Queen of Heka: The Autobiography of Isis is a saga of love and magic on the harrowing path to divinity. After 6000 years, the goddess Isis reveals the woman behind the myth.

  5. And finally, this from my website:

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Reblog: Commitment is the Cure–From “Aspiring” Writer to Professional Author

"It’s been amazing and terrifying to watch the changes in our industry just over the past six years. For generations, there was only a handful of items a writer needed to do. Write a book. Query. Get an agent. Land a deal. Hopefully continue writing more books. Though this was far simpler, there was a horrific failure rate and most writers never saw their works in print."

This post is an excellent read for those of us who are aspiring!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Daughters of the Nile review

on both Goodreads and Amazon
Daughters of the Nile (Cleopatra's Daughter, # 3)Daughters of the Nile by Stephanie Dray
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An admission: I'm a dyed in the wool Egypt-o-phile and my interest in Augustan Rome isn't all that far behind. I read a lot of novels about those cultures/time periods. (I also read a lot of non-fiction in the same area.) Most of the novels aren't very good. They either totally blow the history, or they nail the history at the expense of the writing. There are a wretched few that blow the history and the writing.

Stephanie Dray's final volume in the trilogy about Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, is the happy exception. Even though the actual historical facts about Cleopatra Selene are somewhat sketchy, Dray beautifully brings to life a woman who stood in the shadows of some of history's greatest legends.

If you want a love story that encompasses a heroine's journey against the  vivid background of Imperial Rome (and an exotic Roman vassal state) and a heroine who wields heka (magic) with the skill of Hermione Granger with sometimes tragic consequences, this is the book (and trilogy) for you.

Unlike many trilogies with only have enough material for one book but stretched to three to satisfy some market niche, I found myself alternately not wanting this trilogy to end and being completely satisfied with how it did end.

This third book can probably stand alone. Having read the previous two books and knowing the bones of the historical story, however, I can't say that for certain. And really, why cheat yourself out of the experience of reading all three?

If I have any complaints, and I have very few, my main one was that at times Cleopatra Selene seemed a bit strident. Of course, that made for a nice character flaw.

View all my reviews

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The winner. . . .

Winning cover Queen of Heka
. . . by a hair.

Thanks to all of you for your input!

As many of you know, I asked people on my Queen of Heka page which cover they liked best for Queen of Heka. The results were pretty evenly distributed, but the cover on the right was the clear choice.

I am obviously torn between the two images or I wouldn't be asking. I like them equally and for different reasons.

I like the winning image because:

  • It is striking.
  • The focus is on Isis, and Queen of Heka is her autobiography.
  • It shows the vulnerability of Isis as a young girl/woman

I like the non-winning image because:

  • It's a classic depiction of Isis and Osiris.
  • It shows the great love she has for Osiris
  • It shows the fertility motif of the novel.
  • It's just plain pretty.

In case you don't remember the choices, here is the original image I posted:

Potential covers for Queen of Heka

The first image has been with me a long time, and I always think of it when I need inspiration for my novel. However, one of the reasons I have always doubted whether it was the right image was best said in one of comments:

 the left makes me think of those racy romance novels despite how it probably has more to do with the story

Yep. That's the problem. Or at least, it's the niggling doubt I have always had about the image.

The story of Isis and Osiris is one of civilization's great love stories. It fuels much of Queen of Heka's story line, but it is not the entire story. That is to say, the novel has romance, but it is not a Romance novel. (Not that I have anything against Romance novels; this just isn't one.)

One of the nicer results of posting the question, a free-lance graphics designer has offered to help me make the cover more professional looking. Thank you, Donna!

Once again, thanks to all of you. Stay tuned. . . .

Thursday, January 30, 2014

My to-do lists

I'm a big fan of to-do lists. Ask anyone who works with me. I have an electronic to-do list that covers everything I'm supposed to do that isn't addressed by some other entry on my calendar. I consult it when I begin each day. I use it to write my status reports. I use it to nag people who owe me topics to be edited. I live and die by my to-do list.

As a result, most people think I'm really organized and efficient. That is the end result, of course. The truth is, I know I'm not very efficient or organized. (I have the personality tests to prove it.) Left to my own devices, I'd forget everything and happily piddle away the day on the internet. So, my to-do lists are mostly in self-defense.

I realized awhile back, however, that the books I buy are another type of to-do list. There are books I think I'm interested in. There are books that I think I should or will be interested in. There are books about things I once thought I might be interested in and might be interested in again. . . . someday. 

Don't get me wrong. I read. A lot. I average 1.5 books a week. Sometimes more if the book is really gripping or I'm sick in bed. I sometimes read two or three books at the same time. Still, against all the books in the world, that's a small dent.

I suppose I could make a list of all those books I want to read, but I'd probably lose it since I can't think of a digital reminder that works as well as the little alarms that go off for my online to-do list. So, I buy the book instead. 

Before the advent of Kindle, I brought home stacks of books from Borders, Barnes and Noble, Half-Price Books, Goodwill, and garage sales. I'm even organized enough to mostly alphabetize them by author last name; hardbacks in the living room book shelves; paperbacks in my office. I occasionally purge a few when I realize I will never read them, but I'm never as heartless with books as I am with shoes. 

Now, I have three Kindles that are slowly filling up with books that I am reading or will someday read. 

All these books are the to-do list of my future life. Proof that I have a future. Sometimes, I think I keep books in reserve against a time when I might not be able to go out and get books or can no longer afford them. I'm a book survivalist. It makes me happy. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Love-ArtistThe Love-Artist by Jane Alison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was initially excited about this book. The opening was catchy and the writing very descriptive. I always like the idea of turning a mysterious actual event into fiction. In this case, Ovid, the Latin poet of the Roman Empire, was banished  from Rome by decree of the emperor Augustus. The reasons for his banishment are not known. Alison demystifies the historical event by making the exile the result of a smashup love affair between Ovid and a witch named Xenia and a plot by Augustus's granddaughter Julia. The love affair, she posits results in Book VII of the  Metamorpheses: Medea.

At some point, I became aware that I was "plodding" through the book. Almost nothing happens on the page, but rather one feels as though one is reading about events that happened long ago. Now, this IS a historical novel, but I want to feel some immediacy when I'm reading it.

The writing became overly florid. Or as one reviewer said: The writing IS lyrical - and many times too much so. You're left floating in a sea of prose and often the ground of reality is left so far below you can't even see it.

Ovid and Julia had no (for lack of a better word) character arc. Xenia was more complex, but rather predictable. In the end, I wondered if one of Rome's greatest writers wrote only because he worried about being forgotten. I suppose if the result is The Metamorphoses, he might be forgiven for that.

I also wondered if people unfamiliar with Augustus's Rome would follow some of the events that are only obliquely referred to? I have read a lot of novels and studied the history of that period, and I was left scratching my head.

View all my reviews

Friday, January 24, 2014

That Liz Taylor/Cleopatra/Isis Costume

The fabulous Liz Taylor costume in Cleopatra is a mash-up of two of the outfits typically worn by Isis.

What Liz wore

This costume comes from the epitome of old Hollywood epic movies. I loved those movies, and I nearly fainted when I saw this costume on the big screen. 

What Isis wore

Naturally, the greatest goddess in the Egyptian pantheon could come nowhere near the fabulousness of Liz Taylor, but she did her best. The first picture is of Isis in one of the depictions of her with wings (not easily seen in Liz's costume, but definitely there). In the second one, Isis is on the throne, and the goddess Ma'at (also winged) kneels before her. (Yeah, the ancient Egyptians did some mash-ups of their own.) There you see the vulture crown and scale-like texture of the dress. 

The movie 

If you don't remember or have never seen the gaudy spectacle for which the costume was designed, well thank god for youtube. Liz isn't actually on stage until about 6 minutes in.

Old Hollywood, what a trip!

Now you know why young Michalea threw a hissy fit to see this movie.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Why I write about Isis and ancient Egypt

The old Quincy Public Library
A long time ago (circa 1960) in a city far, far away, I had a home away from home in the Quincy Public Library. As you can see, it was an amazing building. I particularly appreciated the location of the children's reading room in the tower. (Thanks to Tiger Imagery for this amazing photo of the old library, which really captures the magic I felt as a child, and for all the other beautiful photographs of my home town.)

There were three books I checked out so often that the librarian restricted me to checking them out once a month; no renewals. One of those books was Cleopatra of Egypt. (I now own my own copy, so this is no longer a problem.)

Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke as Rob and Laura Petrie
I might have been obsessed. I recall making a scrapbook of everything I could find about Cleopatra, including a quote I heard on the old Dick Van Dyke show when Rob and Laura played Antony and Cleopatra. (I can't remember if Richie had a role as Caesarion.) Needless to say, I was out-of-my-mind-happy when Liz Taylor made a feature film, and I might have had a temper tantrum to convince my mother that I needed to see that movie.

Eventually, my obsession expanded to include other books about ancient Egypt. Somewhere along the line, I learned that Cleopatra considered herself an incarnation of the goddess Isis. She considered Julius Caesar the new Osiris and their son Caesarion the incarnation of Isis and Osiris's son Horus. After Caesar's assassination and when she fell in love with Mark Antony, she simply adjusted the story to make Caesar the murdered Osiris and Antony the resurrected Osiris. One of the few existing images we have of Cleopatra and her son Caesarion shows them as Isis and Horus on the temple walls at Dendera. And you thought I was obsessed.

Cleopatra and Caesarion as Isis and Horus at Dendera temple

With all of that going on in my feverish little brain, I began studying the myths around Isis, which proved to be even more fascinating to me than the stories about Cleopatra. Of course, once you jump into Egyptian mythology, there are gods and goddesses than you can shake a stick at, and all of them have the potential to be a great character. Voilà, you have the beginning of a novel.

How about you? What was your source of inspiration?