The Hyperborean Problem

Hyperborea will be known to you if you're a Conan the Barbarian fan.  What is less well known is that this fantasy land might have existed for real.

Hyperborea in Greek means "beyond Boreas".  Boreas was the name of the cold north wind that blew across central Europe.  So Hyperborea is a land far to the north, beyond the cold. (Which is how it ended up being stolen for Conan).

At first glance Hyperborea has about as much reality as Atlantis.  There isn't a shred of archaeological evidence for any such place. 

The difficulty is that, unlike Atlantis, a lot of very credible men talk about Hyperborea as if it exists.  Herodotus says that Hesiod wrote about the Hyperboreans.  Unfortunately that piece of Hesiod has been lost, but Hesiod was Europe's first non-fiction author.  If Hesiod wrote about them, then he thought they existed, rightly or wrongly.

There's also an archaic poem that talks about Hyperboreans, that probably wasn't written by Homer but which is the same sort of time period.

Herodotus himself provides the best evidence, with a short tale that is quite bizarre.  Apparently the Hyperboreans decided to send gifts to the sacred isle of Delos, the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis and possibly the most holy sanctuary in all of Greece. 

Their gifts were carried by two young women, who were sent on the long journey with five male warriors to protect them.  The young women died while on Delos.  It's not clear what killed them, but disease rather than violence is kind of assumed since the women were greatly honoured.  Herodotus states point blank that their tomb is on the left as you enter the temple of Artemis at Delos, and that teenage boys and girls sacrifice to them. 

Now this is a very precise detail!  There might not be two Hyperborean women in that tomb, but the Greeks think there are.  If you ever visit Delos, by the way, you'll be able to go to exactly where the tomb was, because the ruins of the Artemis temple are well known.  Just walk to the entrance and look left.  Sadly there's nothing there now, but you'll also be standing on a spot where Herodotus himself certainly stood.

Herodotus states that when the Hyperboreans realized that their emissaries might not return, they decided to continue to send gifts every year, but to pass them on from one people to the next.  To protect their gifts the Hyperboreans wrapped their gifts in sheathes of wheat.  Then they gave the gifts to their neighbours, with a request to hand them on to the next people to the south.

The Hyperborean Gift thus turned into an international game of pass-the-parcel.  The gift was handed along until it reached Delos.  Multiple authors speculated about the paths the gift took, in an attempt to work out where exactly was this Hyperborea.  The ancient people themselves were none too sure.

But what is undeniable is that the gifts were arriving from somewhere!  Herodotus states, very clearly, that the Hyperborean Gift was still turning up on Delos right up to his present day.

This is a detail impossible to ignore.  Herodotus first "published" his work at the Olympics of 440BC.  There were obviously people from Delos present.  If the gift was not turning up as described, they surely would have put up their hands and pointed out that he was wrong.  It doesn't absolutely prove that Hyperborea existed.  But if not, then someone was playing a strange game (which might be the case).

I think the general consensus among sane people is that the whole thing is a myth.  Personally I have trouble getting past the apparent fact that the gift was arriving in classical times.  Yet Herodotus himself seems doubtful.  I speculate that a quite different and probably well-known tribe was sending the gift and being mislabeled Hyperborean.  But either way, there's a puzzle there for someone to solve!


A fun TED-ED animation about tragedy

Thanks to Monty on twitter for pointing this out!  It goes rather well with Death Ex Machina, and talks about three of my characters.




Book stand as art

This looked so nice, I couldn't resist ripping it off my editor's facebook stream. It's the Soho Press book stand at a recent conference, and it looks like a work of art. This is the creation of Rudy Martinez, Abby Koski, and Meredith Barnes. Well done, ladies and gent.



A lovely review of Death Ex Machina

The American Library Association has a magazine and a web site where they post reviews of books.

This review of Death Ex Machina just came online, and it is rather nice for the book's author to read!

Corby is adept at delineating ancient Greece without sounding professorial. Having Nicolaos as a first-person narrator helps; he’s the ideal tour guide to the theater and the city around it. The characters are a mix of fictional and actual, with the latter including Pericles, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and the child Socrates, who drives everyone crazy with his questions. 

This works on every level.

Death ex Machina Happy Release Day to me!

If murder mysteries set in the ancient world are your thing, then the good news is Death Ex Machina went on the shelves today.

I'm very pleased with this one.  It's the first adventure for Nico and Diotima as a married couple.  For a running series that's a big transition!  How will they cope with the marital state?

The murder is decidedly theatrical, as you can tell from the cover.  Since our heroes are living right at the birth of theatre, there are plenty of big names to make an appearance.

Plus I'm always fond of a good pun, and Death ex Machina was too good to pass up.

I hope you enjoy it.

What do bunnies have to do with Easter?

Happy Easter to you all!

I thought I'd talk about that very important subject: what do bunnies have to do with Easter?

Actually, bunnies have everything to do with Easter.  Bunnies are very fertile little creatures, as we all know, and Easter began life as a Germanic fertility celebration.

The first mention of pagan Easter was in a book written in 703AD by the famous English mediaeval monk The Venerable Bede.  Bede mentions that in Eostre's Month the people celebrated with feasts in honour of the Goddess Eostre.

Eostre was a Germanic goddess, (definitely not classical), possibly also known as Ostara.  It's slightly odd that she doesn't get a mention anywhere else other than Bede, but it's not a huge problem.  Early Germans weren't exactly literate, early Christians weren't exactly fond of pagans (and in any case were very busy expropriating their festivals), and the fact that Easter got taken over complete with original symbolism demonstrates the existence of the original festival.

It didn't take long for Eostre / Ostara to morph into Easter.  Eggs are also a fertility symbol (obviously).  Somewhere along the line the two got mixed together and the Easter Bunny ended up dealing out eggs.

And so here we are, painting eggs and eating chocolate bunnies.  There are worse fates for a goddess.


Death Ex Machina: Publisher's Weekly starred review!

I woke this morning to find congratulations emails in my inbox, because this lovely review has just appeared in Publishers Weekly.  Here it is:


In Australian author Corby’s superior fifth whodunit set in ancient Greece (after 2014’s The Marathon Conspiracy), the city of Athens is preparing to host the Great Dionysia, “the largest and most important arts festival in the world.” 

But the success of the event is in doubt after a series of accidents on the set of Sophocles’s play Sisyphus. The cast members believe this is the work of a ghost. Pericles, the city’s most powerful man, asks Nicolaos, his inquiry agent, to get rid of the ghost. 

Unfortunately, not long after Nico arranges for an exorcism ritual, one of the actors is murdered, suspended from the machine designed to hold the character of Thanatos, the god of death, in midair during the performance. 


Under pressure to find the killer quickly as the festival start date looms, Nico resorts to a clever and amusing ploy to buy more time. 


Corby again manages to effortlessly integrate laugh-out-loud humor into a fairly clued puzzle.




The Silk Road, and the earliest silk out of China

The Silk Road officially opened some time around 200BC, when ambassadors from China turned up in Bactria and Parthia.  They were looking for allies in a war, but they returned to China with tales of strange lands further to the West.  Shortly after that Chinese merchant caravans started arriving in Persia, and the most fascinating trade route in history was well and truly in business.

Two things made the Silk Road possible.  The first was the highway system that the Persians built.  I've previously written about the King's Messengers.  They could get a message from one end of the Empire to the other in an incredible three days.  The main east-west arterial was called the Royal Road, but it wasn't long before it turned into the Middle East section of the Silk Road.  The other building block was that the Han Dynasty took over in China.  The Han assigned troops to keep the roads safe, so that traders had a chance to cross the steppes without being hit by nomad bandits.

By far the biggest trading item was the Chinese wonder-material, an astounding item called silk.  Persians, Greeks, and later on, Romans, were willing to spend very large amounts of gold to get silk.  (Or more accurately, the wives were willing to spend very large amounts of their husbands' money.)

My heroine Diotima acquires some silk in The Ionia Sanction, which she later uses to make a dress.  I made a comment at the time that this made her the first woman in Europe to wear a silk dress.  But my stories are set in the fifth century BC, and the Silk Road didn't open until the second century.   Can Diotima possibly get silk 300 years before the Silk Road exists?

Yes she can.  There was informal trading before the famous road opened.  The reason we know this is rather interesting.

Wherever you find silk in an ancient site, you know for sure there's been contact with China, one way or another.  Because China was the only source of silk.

The earliest known silk outside China occurs in the grave goods of four people in Uzbekistan (Bactria, as it was back then).  The date on those graves is an incredible 1200BC.  That's a minimum, they might be a few hundred years older.

Now Uzbekistan is not far from China, but it's definitely not a silk-producing region, so the silk only got there by trade.  Whoever got that silk to Bactria was a serious adventurer, but it's certain someone did it.  From about 500BC onwards, once the silk makes it to Bactria it can get onto the Persian road system.

The next appearance of silk comes in 1070 BC.  In 1993, a team reported that they had found traces of silk in the hair of an Egyptian mummy.  That's an Egyptian mummy, with silk in 1070BC!

I personally rate the abilities of ancient people highly, but even I found this hard to believe.  I traced the claim.  It appears in correspondence to the science journal Nature.  It's correspondence, not a refereed paper, but as far as I know the claim was never refuted, but nor was the test confirmed.  Nevertheless that makes the idea highly credible.  That's good enough if you're a writer of historical fiction.

So it seems possible if not likely that Chinese goods were trickling into Persia and Egypt starting five hundred years before the time of Nico and Diotima.

The Marathon Conspiracy on sale for $1.99

The Marathon Conspiracy ebook version is on sale at both Barnes & Noble and Amazon for a mere $1.99.

Believe it or not, I didn't know this was happening until people mentioned it on twitter.  It's part of a promotion of detective stories, that ends on 23 March 2015.

Hurry now while stocks last!


A Corinthian helmet with a skull inside, found at Marathon

This picture has been doing the rounds on twitter.  It was pointed out to me by the excellent Loretta Ross (who as it happens is a debut author!), taken from the twitter account of @History-Pics.



The skull at bottom was found inside the helmet!  It was found on the plain of Marathon, where as you surely know was once fought a famous battle.   The helmet and skull therefore is usually described as being from the Battle of Marathon.

So are we looking at one of the heroes of Marathon?  Well, probably not.  But maybe.  Since my book The Marathon Conspiracy recounts the battle at once point, I thought I'd go through the pros and cons of this rather remarkable find:

First off, it's genuine.  This is a for-real Corinthian helmet that dates to the time of Marathon, plus or minus a few decades.  We are absolutely looking at a classical Greek warrior.

The Corinthian style was very popular so it's no problem that it was found at a place where only Athenians fought.

This helmet and skull is old news.  It was discovered in the 1800s by inquisitive amateurs.  They claimed they found it at Marathon.  By modern standards the provenance is horribly broken.  By the standards of Victorian England there's no problem; they're probably telling the truth.

After the battle the Athenians counted their dead.  There were 192 fallen heroes.  They were buried under a mound at the southern end of the battlefield.  The dead were cremated, a little unusually for the time but not outrageously so.  This skull was found elsewhere on the battlefield.  The only way this could be an Athenian from the famous battle would be if the Athenians somehow managed to miss one of the dead.  Since they also buried the Persian dead (their bones were found underneath a vineyard to the north of the battlefield) and since the site was revisited several times over the following days, it seems hard to believe they missed one of their own.

The Athenian casualty list was made public at the time (and parts have been recovered).  If a casualty wasn't on the list, but never came home, someone was bound to say, "Where's Uncle Bob?"  Bob would have been found for sure, because the men who fell at Marathon were treated like Trojan Heroes.

Here's a big problem: in those days, armour was always recovered before a burial.  This was expensive stuff.   It would typically go to the warrior's heir, or be snaffled by someone from the other side.  It might seem a little creepy to go into battle wearing armour that someone had died in, but that's how they did it.

So for those reasons it's far from obvious that this guy fought at Marathon.  He might have died on the plain any time from a few decades before to a few decades after.  He probably wasn't murdered (though that thought crossed my mind) because the helmet is still there.  Any criminal would have taken it.

So the skull in the helmet remains a mystery!