Beware the Ides of February: Cupid, Eros and St Valentine's Day

Today is Valentine's Day.  Happy Valentine's Day!

St Valentine in a spot of bother

St Valentine in a spot of bother

As an author of murder mysteries I feel I must point out that February 14 is Valentine's Day because it was on this day that the real St Valentine was beaten with clubs, stoned, and then had his head cut off. Not perhaps the most auspicious beginning for a day to celebrate love.

Oil Flask showing Eros as he plays the  aulos

Oil Flask showing Eros as he plays the aulos

However that was during the Roman period and I am an author of classical Greek mysteries.  There is a surprisingly strong connection between Greek mythology and our day of Love.  It comes via Cupid, the little fellow with the arrows, who we see on so many Valentine's Day cards.  

Cupid is the Latin name for the Greek god Eros.  Here he is, from a vase at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The wings for the little god of love were there right from the beginning.  It's not shown here, but the bow and arrow are original equipment too.  Some early pictures show the god blindfolded as he shoots his arrows, hence the meaning that love is blind, a common saying which is thousands of years old.

The earliest mention of Eros is, incredibly, from Theogeny, a book written by Hesiod in about 700BC.  It was the first ever attempt to describe the Greek Gods.  Eros gets a major mention.

Hesiod listed Eros among the very first of the gods, right at the start of Creation.

In the beginning there was Chaos.  From out of the chaos came Gaia, the Earth, the foundation of all things.  Then came dark Tartarus, the Underworld.  And then came Eros, the god of Desire, who is fairest of all the deathless ones.

So Eros, our god of falling in love, is one of the most primordial of all deities.  Zeus doesn't even appear for another two paragraphs. 

Eros then reappears a little later in Theogeny, emerging from the sea behind his mother Aphrodite.   Yes, I know that's a paradox.  Eros arose before the Olympian Gods, but Aphrodite is his Mum.  Welcome to Greek Mythology.

That, then, is the little deity who appears on our Valentine Day cards.  Oh, and he helped start the Trojan War.  But that's another story.


Napoleonic era journal discovered in Tasmania, of all places

Here's a great example of how the most unexpected things can turn up in the unlikliest places.

John Squire was a British army engineer who was involved at the siege of Badajoz in the Peninsular War.  Like all the best army officers of the time, he was a gentleman scholar. He personally knew Wellington, traveled all over the place, and kept a fascinating journal.

Which has turned up in a second hand bookstore in Hobart, Tasmania; about as far from Badajoz as you can get and still be on the same planet.  My family and I were there just last year. I must have walked within twenty meters of that journal and never knew.


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!

So now I'm listed in a book of quotations

Here’s an odd thing.  I am now listed in a book of quotations.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Tweet: Five Hundred 1st Lines in 140 Characters or Less is a compilation of opening lines of various novels.  

The opening line of The Pericles Commission is included. She’s also used it as one of three samples in her book description.  (along with John Scalzi and John Miller; I am in good company).

What's the line?  Well, if you read this blog, then you've already seen it once or twice.  The first line of my first book was

"A dead man fell from the sky, landing at my feet with a thud."

When I created the blog, I was stuck for a title.  I used the opening phrase, intending to change it later.  I did change it later.  But people said that they preferred the dead man, so I put him back.  And that's why this blog has such a funny name.