It’s my pleasure to welcome friend and fellow Fireship Press author Judith Starkston as she introduces her debut Hand of Fire to the world. Judith’s book has been getting a lot of attention and deservedly so (read my review on Goodreads). Today, Judith talks about how she discovered her heroine’s profession. – Kim
By Judith Starkston
The Trojan War threatens Troy’s allies, and the Greek supply raids spread. A young healing priestess, designated as future queen, must defend her city against both divine anger and invading Greeks. She finds strength in visions of a handsome warrior god. Will that be enough when the half-immortal Achilles attacks?
Hand of Fire, a tale of resilience and hope, blends history and legend in the untold story of Achilles’s famous captive, Briseis.
That’s a “back cover” intro to my novel Hand of Fire. It’s clear this healing priestess, Briseis, has a lot on her hands, trouble both mortal and divine. But just what is a “healing priestess”?
The term is actually my attempt to translate a Hittite word, hasawa. These highly respected women did everything from officiating at major festivals where they were entrusted with the fertility of crops, herds and women, to delivering babies, to doctoring illnesses, to restoring harmony between gods and men (there’s a no-stress job!).
But Hittite? Why am I translating Hittite, I hear the readers of this blog asking. Isn’t this book about Trojans? Cue that screeching sound of a record going backward. First off, Briseis was actually a princess in Lyrnessos, a city allied to Troy—so says Homer, the epic poet from about 3,000 years ago who brings us the bare bones of Briseis’s story. Briseis ended up at Troy as a captive of the Greeks.
The Hittites come into the picture because they controlled what we now think of as Turkey during this Late Bronze Age time, and Troy was a semi-independent kingdom on the edge of the Hittite Empire. Trojans and Hittites share the same cultural, religious, and political traditions to a large extent. We happen, through the vagaries of archaeological preservation, to know a lot more about the Hittites than we do about the Trojans. Amazingly, huge Hittite libraries of cuneiform clay tablets have been excavated and translated in the last decade or two. For the historical novelist in search of accurate but vivid details about this period to build her characters and their world, the Hittite libraries are a superb place to go.
And there, on those tablets (or rather the translations of them), I found the materials for a flesh and blood version of one of these powerful, literate healing priestesses. The rites she performed, the beliefs she held dear, the roles she served within her society. These women combined recitation of sacred tales with precise rites—we’d call them magical, for the most part. They believed their words, their stories, had power in a very concrete way. This is a very appealing theme to a novelist—the transformative capacity of words.
The discovery of the hasawa came as an exciting revelation to me. I had been looking for a woman who psychologically could fall in love with Achilles (that’s what Homer claims)—a warrior who is also a poet-bard and a healer. It’s complicated, since Achilles has destroyed Briseis’s life and killed her brothers, not such a romantic introduction. But now I’d found two deep bonds—stories and healing—that could create a bridge between these two.
Sometimes history completely astounds me. There she was. A perfect job for Briseis written down by her real life compatriots.
I did find one other bond between Achilles, the warrior/poet-bard/healer, and Briseis. That was another revelation that came out of the blue, although I think its source was more primal, certainly more disturbing. It does involve weapons, but that’s all I’m telling. You’ll have to read Hand of Fire to find out how Briseis overcame the final hurdle and fell in love with Achilles, that half-immortal, brilliant hunk. Hmm? How bad could that have been?
Judith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. Judith is a classicist (BA University of California, Santa Cruz, MA Cornell University) who taught high school English, Latin, and humanities. She and her husband have two grown children and live in Arizona with their golden retriever Socrates. Find an excerpt, Q&A, book reviews, ancient recipes, historical background as well as on-going information about the historical fiction community on her website www.JudithStarkston.com. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter and visit on Goodreads Hand of Fire page.