Of Greeks and Romans, and crafting worlds

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This is a guest post I’ve written for Pure Jonel’s blog. Originally published on: http://purejonel.blogspot.com.au/2016/02/GP.AM.html


Of Fantasy Worlds and Roman Gods

I have a confession. It’s about one of my pet peeves. Whenever someone casually mentions the “Greek and Roman gods”, or goes on to describe a “Roman mythology” by quoting tales of the Greek pantheon, I may or may not fly into a tirade about 19th century romanticism, and the harm Bullfinch and later Hamilton have done to the popular opinion. It’s right up there with the completely fictitious “fall” of Rome in 476.

So what did the Roman mythology look like, and how does that relate to fantasy worlds?

Roman Mythology – the Headlines

Covering the whole of the Roman mythology – and consider that in the over a thousand years from pre-kingdom to late empire, there was a lot of development – is a subject for whole books, not a short blog post. Instead I’ll cover a few interesting-yet-random facts that came up in my research, and highlight some of the differences.

A very long time ago, a group of people who probably started to the north-east of the black sea, spread out from there all across Europe, the Middle East and the down to the Indus Valley. Archaeologists and Linguists have reconstructed some roots of a common language and cultural similarities, including a possible starting pantheon, which affected a large and diverse number of people. At this point it also bears reminding that ancient religions were very different from today’s organized canon. In ancient time a religion was more of a loose collection of local patron gods and temple cults, with only a vague connection. I.e. not everybody worshiped all of the gods all of the time. There was a lot of choose-your-own within each cultural group.

As the proto-Indo-Europeans spread out, over the millennia languages evolved from local dialects into different languages. Myths and stories evolved as well. When those people met each other later, they found commonality of culture by ‘mapping’ one culture’s gods into their own. Your Zeus is my Jupiter, kind of thing.

In the case of the Romans and Greeks, this is called the Interpretatio graeca. So from a common supposed root of Dyeus Phter (sky father), the Greeks evolved it to Zeu Pater and then Zeus, while the in the Latin language it became Diespiter, then Iovis Pater, then Iuppiter (or Jupiter as it is Anglicized). Other cultures had a similar ‘translation’, like the Gallo-Roman Interpretatio Romana.

In some cases, mythologies were shared. Stories of variations of Hercules abound, as can be seen by his adventures all over the Mediterranean. Apollo is another one. However there were some fundamental differences that remained between how different groups saw the gods.

For the Greek, the gods bore much more of a human form and nature. To the Romans they were more of a shapeless, sexless spirit. There were, in fact, two words to describe gods and divinities. One was deus, and referred more to a particular godhood. The origin of this work is Proto-Indo-European, and can be seen above is the origin of the word Jupiter. The other ancient Latin word was numen (or numina, plural). It meant divine presence, and etymologically came from “nodding the head” – as if the divine presence was nodding its head at us, letting us know it’s there. While some gods had been depicted in human form (e.g. Jupiter in the statue of Jupiter Optimus Maximum done by the sculptor Vulca), most gods were numina. They had no face, no form, hardly any mythology in the Greek sense of stories of their adventures. Some of the more famous one are Vesta, goddess of the hearth (from where we get the Vestal Virgins); and the Lares, or guardians of places, homes, fields, boundaries. Examples of some lesser known such divinities are Fascinus, the divine phallus; or Libitina, goddess of death.

Were the lines clear cut? No, of course not. As much as we’d like it all to fit into nice little boxes, the old tales – from millennia of storytelling and cross-cultural influences – just don’t. That was the trap that the 19th century romantic description of mythology fell into, and glossed over. Libitina, for example, was also considered to be an aspect of Venus. Many gods had blurred lines like that, with several seemingly unrelated aspects, various levels of intricacy of mythology, different worship etc. So while the Romans understood that the Greek Zeus was equivalent to their Jupiter, their god was still a formless being, not a divine bearded lecher.

Fantasy World Building

So what does all of this have to do with Fantasy novels?

Fantasy, like everything else in life, is a whole range of shades of grey. There is high fantasy, low fantasy, historical fantasy, heroic fantasy, swords and sorcery… the list goes on. It really only matters to those obsessed with labels – the rest of us care more for the story, and how much we enjoyed it.

When authors face the problem of creating a fantasy world, there are many hours of work that go into the background of that world – many hours that sometimes have little to do with the plot. How does magic work? Who are the gods? What is the political structure? What is the food like? Arms & armor? Sanitation?

It is more than will appear in the novel, and it is more than one person can handle. Some authors are better at creating rich political scenarios, some are better at realistic fight scenes, and with some it’s the descriptive everyday life that shines.

So we gloss. We expect the reader to fill in some details. We concentrate on what’s important to our story, and let some things drop by the wayside. And this is where historical fantasy helps. Because the story world is loosely based on real history, we can use it to fill in details. We can easily research political power structures, military arms and tactics, food and culture. And gods.

The ancient Romans had god for everything. Really, every little aspect of life had its own divinity. So when Felix, the protagonist of my novels, has an adventure in the sewers (which too I could research and base on the Cloaca Maxima) he goes and makes a donation to Cloacina, goddess of the sewers…. and goddess of martial sexual relations.

See, I could never make this stuff up. Virgins dedicated to serve a goddess? Easy. But all those gods and divinities, with their sometime conflicting aspects, their idiosyncrasies, and their unique worship – they add flavor to the world. The same goes to the details of clothing (a toga is not a rectangular sheet), and arms & armor (the Roman gladius and scutum were used in very particular ways), to the convoluted political structure (did you know that the senate was not a legislative body?), to the food (from the fermented fish sauce that they put on everything to the takeaway food culture). There is a richness there that’s just screams to be used.

This is all stuff I could research. Instead of relying only on my own imagination, or glossing things with a laconic “medieval feast” description, I have stories and documents and even cookbooks from countless generations of poets, naturalists, historians. Even Tolkein – with a lifetime of work to develop the corpus of Middle Earth lore – still based it on many original English sagas.

All I have to do is decide how much of it to use, what is relevant and what is not, what has changed from real history and how (not a small task by any means, but I find it easier). When it comes together, it all adds layers upon layers to the world, and the result is a very rich background to the main event – the story of a surprising murder mystery.

 

There were, of course, many things I glossed over in the above article. My point was just to show how proper research into historical reality can help an author reach levels of details that are not possible by mere lonesome imagination. From the feedback I received, the effort was well worth it.

 

About Assaph

Assaph is the author of Murder In Absentia, a story of Togas, Daggers, and magic. It’s a genre-defying mystery that will appeal to lovers of fantasy, Ancient Rome, hard-boiled detectives, historical fiction… and generally just people who like a thumping good novel. You can find Murder In Absentia on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Murder-in-absentia-Felix-Fox-Book-ebook/dp/B015TXPPG6, and many more short stories and articles on Egretia.com.

He is also the mad genius behind TheProtagonistSpeaks.com – a site dedicated to interviewing the characters (yes, characters!) out of books. It gives a unique perspective into what we care about most in novels, and allows one to discover great new authors and works.

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