Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

As a historical fiction writer, I’m often asked what parts of the story are “real”.  That is to say, what parts are research and what came from my own imagination.  In many regards, it’s quite a compliment that the reader could not ascertain the difference between truth and fiction.

As a writer of ancient cultures, and an amateur researcher, I will be the first to admit that there will be some inherent fallacies in my stories.  It’s simply not possible to know every detail for certain, especially in a time period where it was common practice to use multiple names, or spellings of the same name.  The lens of the historian who documented the tale can also taint the story, by the very act of writing it through his or her own perspective.  Some details were embellished, or given more prominence, as ultimately, my job is to tell a good story.

My stories have been researched from several perspectives, resources and historians.  Some of them are rooted in historical documents, ancient texts or even art and artifacts.  All are based in some small part, in mythology or commonly held legends.

So, the task is to determine, what to leave in– and what to take out.  Let me assure you, that is no easy feat.

THE BEGINNING: PART ONE Egyptian-Cinderella

I plan to discuss several historical references in the book, starting with where it all began.  In my early years of writing, I worked as an elementary art teacher.  I’ll discuss the importance of that in an upcoming guest blog post for historical author Christy English later in March. But suffice to say that while pulling out some fairytale references, I stumbled across a great book by Shirley Climo titled “The Egyptian Cinderella”.

In HETAERA, multiple sources, from Herodotus to Strabo have recorded the legend of Doricha/Rhodopis.  Although these sources may have questionable validity, the similarities (despite the fact they were recorded some 500 years after Doricha/Rhodopis would have lived) were astoundingly similar.  It’s been summarized on Wikipedia (again, not the most scholarly of sources, but convenient for the purposes of this blog) much better than I can summarize for you:

rhodopisRhodopis (Greek: ροδωπις, real name possibly Doricha) was a celebrated 6th-century BCE Greek hetaera, of Thracian origin. [1] She is one of only two hetaerae mentioned by name in Herodotus‘ discussion of the profession (the other is the somewhat later Archidike).[2]

According to Herodotus, she was a fellow-slave of the fable teller Aesop, with whom in one version of her story she had a secret love affair; both of them belonged to the Samian, Iadmon. She afterwards became the property of Xanthes, another Samian, who took her to Naucratis in Egypt, during the reign of Amasis II, where she continued to work as an hetaera for the benefit of her master. This led to her meeting Charaxus, brother of the poetess Sappho, who had gone to Naucratis as a merchant. Charaxus fell in love with her, and ransomed her from slavery with a large sum of money. Sappho later wrote a poem accusing Rhodopis of robbing Charaxus of his property.[3]

Rhodopis continued to live at Naucratis after her liberation from slavery, and tithed a tenth part of her income to the temple at Delphi, where ten iron spits were dedicated in her name; these spits were seen by Herodotus.[1]

Some 400 years after Herodotus, Strabo stated that Sappho called Rhodopis “Doricha”. And 200 years after Strabo, Athenaeus maintained that Herodotus had confused two separate women.[4] As “rhodopis” means “rosy cheeks”, it was probably a professional pseudonym,[5] but it is unclear whether “Doricha” was her real name.

There was a tale current in Greece that Rhodopis built the third pyramid. Herodotus takes great pains to show the absurdity of the story, but the story kept its ground, and is related by Pliny the Elder as an unquestioned fact.[6] The origin of this tale, which is unquestionably false, has been explained with great probability by Georg Zoega and Christian Charles Josias Bunsen. In consequence of the name Rhodopis, she was confounded with Nitocris, the Egyptian queen, and the heroine of many an Egyptian legend, who was said by Julius Africanus and Eusebius to have built the third pyramid.[1]

Another tale about Rhodopis related by Strabo and Aelian makes her a queen of Egypt, and thus renders the supposition of her being the same as Nitocris still more probable. It is said that as Rhodopis was one day bathing at Naucratis, an eagle took up one of her sandals, flew away with it, and dropped it in the lap of the Egyptian king, as he was administering justice at Memphis. Struck by the strange occurrence and the beauty of the sandal, he did not rest till he had found the fair owner of the beautiful sandal, and as soon as he had discovered her made her his queen.[1] This is the Rhodopis story, famed for being the earliest Cinderella story.

Indeed, here is specifically what Herodotus specifically had to say on the subject.

[2.134.2] indeed, it is clear to me that they say this without even knowing who Rhodopis was (otherwise, they would never have credited her with the building of a pyramid on which what I may call an uncountable sum of money was spent), or that Rhodopis flourished in the reign of Amasis, not of Mycerinus;

[2.134.3] for very many years later than these kings who left the pyramids came Rhodopis, who was Thracian by birth, and a slave of Iadmon son of Hephaestopolis the Samian, and a fellow-slave of Aesop the story-writer. For he was owned by Iadmon, too, as the following made crystal clear:

[2.134.4] when the Delphians, obeying an oracle, issued many proclamations summoning anyone who wanted it to accept compensation for the killing of Aesop, no one accepted it except the son of Iadmon’s son, another Iadmon; hence Aesop, too, was Iadmon’s.

[2.135.1] Rhodopis came to Egypt to work, brought by Xanthes of Samos, but upon her arrival was freed for a lot of money by Kharaxus of Mytilene, son of Scamandronymus and brother of Sappho the poetess. 749px-Alkaios_Sappho_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2416_n2

[2.135.2] Thus Rhodopis lived as a free woman in Egypt, where, as she was very alluring, she acquired a lot of money–sufficient for such a Rhodopis, so to speak, but not for such a pyramid.

[2.135.3] Seeing that to this day anyone who likes can calculate what one tenth of her worth was, she cannot be credited with great wealth. For Rhodopis desired to leave a memorial of herself in Greece, by having something made which no one else had thought of or dedicated in a temple and presenting this at Delphi to preserve her memory;

[2.135.4] so she spent one tenth of her substance on the manufacture of a great number of iron beef spits, as many as the tenth would pay for, and sent them to Delphi; these lie in a heap to this day, behind the altar set up by the Chians and in front of the shrine itself.

[2.135.5] The courtesans of Naucratis seem to be peculiarly alluring, for the woman of whom this story is told became so famous that every Greek knew the name of Rhodopis, and later on a certain Archidice was the theme of song throughout Greece, although less celebrated than the other.

[2.135.6] Kharaxus, after giving Rhodopis her freedom, returned to Mytilene. He is bitterly attacked by Sappho in one of her poems. This is enough about Rhodopis.

And what about Sappho? sappho

Sappho herself supposedly blasted her older brother for owning her (and referred to her as Doricha), which only added to my suppositions.  Ovid paints the poetess as short and dark in complexion. Alcaeus calls her ”violet haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho”.  I admittedly attempted to portray Sappho as simply a “Lover of the idea of Love” rather than insinuating any judgments about her sexual inclinations, as I felt it was more appropriate for the time period and to the story.

So, you can see from the above where I began the research for the book, notwithstanding the need to gain an understanding of the life of courtesans, the difficult and much disputed hierarchies for prostitution in ancient Greece, and simple daily life and customs.  In the next posting, we’ll move on to Ahmose/Amasis and the role of legend in a good story.

Tell me what you think!