Classical Greek music

Music is a Greek word and comes directly from the nine Muses, daughters of Zeus who inspired men in the arts.  Mousike techne was the technique of music.  The particular Muse who inspired music was named Euterpe, a name that will be familiar to readers of my books since it's also the name of my heroine Diotima's mother.  

As it happens, we have some surviving notated ancient music.  Which means we can play it.

The ancient Greeks created a tuning system that was the direct ancestor of our major scale.  Their idea was to use a sequence of perfect fifths that wrap around at the octave boundary.  This idea was so successful that we still use it today, slightly modified.

If you check the sequence of major scale notes in our modern tuning system, you'll find that the sequence of root -> fifth -> second -> sixth -> third -> seventh -> fourth is indeed a sequence of fifths (7 semitones each jump), except for the fourth, which is only a 6 semitone jump so that the gap from fourth to the octave would be a perfect fifth and thus complete the cycle.  This was squeezing the ancient system onto a modern instrument with twelve equally spaced pitches, but it works well enough.

So the Greeks invented the white keys on the piano, but they had no idea that the black keys existed. The old tuning system is called Pythagorean, because the first person to write about it was Pythagoras. That's the same Pythagoras who did the theorem about triangle sides that you learned at school. Pythagoras's book is lost, but we know bits of it because Plato, Aristotle and a few others quoted Pythagoras in their own books.

Thus the major scale is at least 2,600 years old (and is probably much older). 

There's also a surviving gravestone on which was written a short piece of ancient music. It's called the Song of Seikilos.  That's it to the left.

The first section is a standard inscription.  It says something like:  I am a gravestone. Seikilos placed me here, an everlasting monument of deathless remembrance.

 Then the next section is a song!  This is hugely important because it's the oldest known complete song for which there is no doubt whatsoever what the notes are.  The lyrics are the engraved words (of course).  But just above the letters you'll see funny, smaller symbols.  That's the music notation.  The position of the symbol above the word shows when to play the note as you sing.  Since it has the lyrics and the melody, this is a lead sheet, in modern parlance.

This gravestone dates to zero AD, give or take a hundred years.  There are fragments of music that are very much older, but none complete, and everything older than the Song of Seikilos requires some educated guess work to reconstruct it.

The lyrics say this:

While you live, shine,
Have no grief at all.
Life exists only for a short while,
And time demands its toll.
There have been lots of renditions of the song.  Here's an instrumental only version that I suspect is very close to what you would have heard if you'd met Seikilos.  This is played by researcher Michael Levy, who built a period instrument.

Honey of Trebizond

I wouldn't recommend putting this on your morning toast, but here is how to make honey of Trebizond.
  1. Plant an entire field of deadly poisonous plants.  
  2. Introduce a bee nest.
  3. Let the bees collect the pollen.
  4. Collect the honeycomb.
The honeycomb and the honey will be toxic.  This really works.  How do we know that?  Because it happened in real life.

Back in ancient times, toward the end of the Roman Republic, the great General Pompey led an army into Asia Minor where he faced the rather competent local ruler Mithridates.  One of his detachments passed through Trebizond, or at least, they tried to.  The locals knew that the honey thereabouts was poisonous, due to the large number of toxic rhododendrons in the area.  But the Romans didn't know that.  They ate the honeycomb and became ill.  The locals immediately attacked and slaughtered the Romans.

Here's what it says in Strabo's Geography (from the Perseus version):
The Heptacomitae [those are the locals] cut down three maniples of Pompey's army when they were passing through the mountainous country; for they mixed bowls of the crazing honey which is yielded by the tree-twigs, and placed them in the roads, and then, when the soldiers drank the mixture and lost their senses, they attacked them and easily disposed of them.

Alas, if only they had paid attention to the classics.  Three hundred and fifty years earlier, the famous mercenary captain Xenophon had written about his men falling ill after eating honeycomb in the same area.

Here's what Xenophon had to say:
Now for the most part there was nothing here which they really found strange; but the swarms of bees in the neighbourhood were numerous, and the soldiers who ate of the honey all went off their heads, and suffered from vomiting and diarrhoea, and not one of them could stand up, but those who had eaten a little were like people exceedingly drunk, while those who had eaten a great deal seemed like crazy, or even, in some cases, dying men. So they lay there in great numbers as though the army had suffered a defeat, and great despondency prevailed. On the next day, however, no one had died, and at approximately the same hour as they had eaten the honey they began to come to their senses; and on the third or fourth day they got up, as if from a drugging.

The catharsis of Delos

In classical times, it was illegal to die on the sacred isle of Delos.  It was also illegal to give birth there.

Delos was the birthplace of two gods: Apollo and Artemis.  That made the tiny island incredibly holy.

There had been a sacred sanctuary on Delos since Minoan times.  There had also been a village of priests and priestesses who served the temples.  The priestly village was on the coast right next to the sanctuary, which was natural enough.  That made it a short walk to work.

But then some time around 540BC, something interesting happened.  The Athenians, who supported Delos with gifts and supplies, took it into their heads to remove all the dead people from around the sanctuary.  Nobody knows exactly why they decided to do this, but it's too weird to have been anything other than an oracle received, either from Delphi or maybe from Delos itself.

Either way, the Athenians turned up at Delos en masse.  They dug up every body in the village cemetery and relocated the corpses to a new cemetery on the other side of the island.  (This must have been fun.)

Then they dismantled the village and relocated it to the other side of the island too.

This was a catharsis.   We use catharsis for plays and books, but the original meaning was ritual purification. 

From that moment on, it seems, it was illegal to die or be born on Delos.  Fortunately the much larger island of Mykonos was not far off, so if you felt one event or the other coming on, then you could be ferried off the island.  For emergencies there was an even smaller islet called Rhenia, so close by you could almost wade there. 

You're probably wondering what the penalty was for dying, and so am I.  Presumably things couldn't get much worse for you anyway.  Alas we'll never know.

But we're not done yet.  In 426BC, the Athenians decided their ancestors of a hundred years ago hadn't done a good enough job.  They returned to Delos, dug up the bodies from the new cemetery, and carried them off the island completely. 

At that point there was not a single corpse left on the island (except for the two Hyperborean women), and this odd game of move-the-bodies ended.  Delos remained ritually pure until after the death of Alexander, when people became less fussed about such things, and a thriving community moved in.

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.