Book Review: “The Firebrand” by Marion Zimmer Bradley

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Fans of The Mists of Avalon will not be disappointed by Marion Zimmer Bradley’s lesser-known novel about the Trojan War, The Firebrand.  With the priestess and prophetess Kassandra as her main character, Bradley paints a striking picture of life in Troy during the Greek siege.  Kassandra is much maligned by her royal family for her prophecies of doom, and is seen as an outsider despite being a princess, daughter of King Priam.  And despite her role as priestess to the Sun God Apollo, she is haunted by doubts about the powers and motives — and even the very existence — of the gods and goddesses.

Through Kassandra’s eyes, we see the great heroes of The Iliad not as Homer revealed them, but as perhaps a sister would have seen them.  Hector is bold and something of a bully, as an older brother might be.  Paris is arrogant and selfish, as a man who makes off with another man’s wife might be.  There are echoes of The Mists of Avalon here; the women – Helen, Andromache, and Kassandra — take the primary roles, while the men are the weaker characters.

Achilles, one of the greatest heroes of Western literature, is seen in the novel for what he probably would have actually have been – a sociopath and a brute.  While Homer seems to delight in Achilles’s quest for glory on the battlefield, Bradley shows us the atrocities the man committed for what they truly would have been – the actions of a man with no conscience or regard for human decency.

With Kassandra’s role as a priestess, religion plays a major role in the novel.  As with The Mist of Avalon, Bradley pays a great deal of heed to “the goddess” figure in her work.  Through several of her characters, including the Amazon warrior queen and the queen of the city of Colchis, she asserts that the Goddess came before the Gods and that women ruled before men.  This is Bradley’s signature theme, and plays out a bit more heavy-handedly in Firebrand than it does in The Mists of Avalon.

The novel is incredibly well researched, drawing on not only The Iliad, but The Odyssey, The Orestia, The Trojan Women, The Aeneid, and much of traditional Greek mythology, as well.  Fans of Greek history and mythology as well as Bradley’s other work will find much to enjoy in The Firebrand.

Buy it at Amazon

Anyte of Tegea

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Anyte of Tegea lived in the beginning of the third century BC in southern Greece.  She was listed by first-century literary critic Antipater of Thessalonica as one of the Nine Earthly Muses – an honor she shared with Sappho and Telesilla of Argos.  Antipater also gave her what was quite possibly the greatest of all compliments of the day, calling her the “female Homer.”  More of her work has survived to this day than works by any other female Greek poet.

Anyte was one of the first Hellenistic poets to write in praise of country life, emphasizing the natural world in her work. She was best known for her epitaphs, especially those for young women and animals.

Several of the epitaphs she wrote are tailored to young women who died unwed.  In Hellenistic Greece, marriage was considered the most important event in a young woman’s life, so dying unwed was considered a great tragedy:

“I mourn for the maiden Antibia, to whose

father’s house many suitors came, drawn by

Report of her beauty and wisdom.  But

deadly Fate

Whirled away the hopes of all of them.”

Anyte’s description of the deceased young woman’s wisdom shows the importance Hellenistic families placed on the education of their daughters.

In addition, her epitaphs for pets were very popular, and she was sought after to write them for families who had lost beloved pets.

Here is one of Anyte’s epitaphs for a pet dog:

“You died, Maira, near your many-rooted home at Locri, swiftest of noise-loving hounds; A spotted-throated viper darted his cruel venom into your light-moving limbs.”

While other poets were focusing on the gods or on war, Anyte was writing about the natural world and its relationship to humankind.  Here she writes of the relationship between the sea and sailors from the perspective of a statue of Aphrodite:

(on a temple of Aphrodite looking out to sea): 

“This is the site of the Cyprian, since it is agreeable to her 
   to look ever from the mainland upon the bright sea 
that she may make the voyage good for sailors. Around her the sea 
   trembles looking upon her polished image.”

 Today, we are used to poets who have written about the natural world.  What would the panoply of  Western poetry be like, after all, without Robert Frost, William Wordsworth, or John Keats?  And it was Anyte who began that long Western tradition of writing about nature and wild things.  She was a woman who broke away from the traditional standards of poetry and went her own way, forging a new tradition that thousands of poets followed afterward.  Frost, Wordsworth, and Keats all owe a little bit of something to Anyte, for she truly was a Muse.

 

Ancient History Encyclopedia

Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World

Stoa.org

Telesilla of Argos: Warrior Poet

Amazon Warriors [20x16]

What follows may — or may not — be true. But the story is compelling, and I think it deserves to be told.

Telesilla of Argos was a woman known in her day as being a great lyric poet. In fact, she was listed in Antipater’s roll of earthly muses in the 5th century BC.

But she is remembered more for her role as a warrior. Legend says that in either 494 or 493 BC, King Cleomenes I of Sparta came to invade the city of Argos. After luring the male warriors of the city out to a pine grove, he slaughtered them, leaving the city populated only by women, slaves, the very young, and the very old.

Cleomenes marched on the city, and Telesilla took action. She gathered ornamental shields and swords from temples in the city, raided the city armory for whatever equipment was left over, and provided the women of the city with arms.

According to Plutarch in his On the Bravery of Women, “With Telesilla as general, [the women] took up arms and made their defense by manning the walls around the city, and the enemy was amazed.”

King Cleomenes saw that he was facing a tricky situation. He could fight against the women and defeat them, which would bring him dishonor in slaughtering women. Or, if they defeated him, Sparta would have been bested by a group of untrained women, also leading to dishonor.

Pausanius wrote: “The women stood their ground and fought with the greatest determination, until the Spartans, reflecting that the slaughter of an army of women would be an equivocal victory, and defeat at their hands would be dishonor as well as disaster, laid down their arms.”

The Spartan king withdrew, and Argos was saved.

In memory of Telesilla’s achievement, her statue was built in the temple of Aphrodite at Argos. The Greek war-god Ares was worshipped thereafter in Argos as a patron deity of women.

As I said at the start, this story may or may not be true. And modern historians still debate over its authenticity. But as the tale was repeated by many ancient sources, it is considered to be plausible by many scholars.

Clement of Alexandria, who lived from approximately 150 to 215 AD, preserved a poem detailing Telesilla’s heroism. Telesilla’s reputation for courage was such that, almost 700 years after the events in Argos, she continued to be remembered by the people of the ancient world.

 

Sources

Ancient History Encyclopedia

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology

HellenicaWorld.com

Women’s Life in Greece and Rome