20 November 2014

Excerpt Thursday: SHE WROTE ON CLAY by Shirley Graetz

This week, we're pleased to welcome author Shirley Graetz with her latest release,  SHE WROTE ON CLAY. Join us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. One lucky visitor will get a free copy of She Wrote on Clay. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post or Sunday's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

Set nearly 3,800 years ago on the banks of the Euphrates, the novel traces the journey of Iltani, a gifted girl from a scribal family, who dreams of becoming a scribe. In order to fulfill her destiny she enters the gagû, becoming a nadītu, an elite class of monastic women. There, she is expected to lead a sheltered life and be cared for by her aunt and taught by a fellow nadītu-scribe. But life is not that simple; she is soon forced to deal with many unforeseen misfortunes.  After eventually reaching her goal, she is invited by a male scribe to take part in engraving the stele for King Hammurabi; an invitation which will cause turmoil and uncertainty in her peaceful existence.
            The unique feature of She Wrote on Clay is not only the exceptional account of the nadītu women, but also the integration into the plot of original Akkadian material (cuneiform letters, contracts etc.), vivid testimonies, which are rarely encountered by anyone outside the field of Assyriology.

**An Excerpt from She Wrote on Clay**

At this point in the novel, Iltani is living in the gagû and eagerly awaits her first lessons with her tutor (Amat-Mamu) who has been hired by her father to teach her. She is taken to her house by one of the servants.

            Translations of original ancient texts and words in akkadian are shown in italics.

* * *
            Amat-Mamu’s house looked enormous. From the courtyard, Iltani counted five entrances to the different rooms, more than her own family had. The servant led her to a room full of tablets that were scattered on wooden shelves along the wall and packed into reed hampers on the floor. Everywhere she looked, she saw clay tablets in different sizes.
            “By Šamaš and Aja!” she exclaimed in astonishment. There were far more clay tablets here then her father had. She had never seen so many in one room before.
            “Please do not touch anything until Amat-Mamu arrives,” said the servant, and with a nod of her head, she left the room.
            Iltani had to fight the urge to pick up one of the tablets. But she would never have done such a thing without permission. There were several cushions on the floor and beside them a small basket and a pile of styluses and unshaped reeds. Iltani tried to imagine what they would do this first lesson. Perhaps Amat-Mamu will be interested in what she has learned with Abu, or ask her to inscribe a few signs. That’s what she hoped at least. Whatever happened, she told herself, she would do her best and not take offense if Amat-Mamu treated her harshly, as Abu had warned she might.
            “Ah, you’re here,” said Amat-Mamu hurriedly as she walked in. Amat-Mamu was shorter by a half a head than Iltani. She was a compact, plump little woman, with grey hair secured tightly in a knot.
            “Your first lesson will consist of watching me write an urgent letter,” she said taking clay out of the hamper and a few reed styluses. “Don’t just stand there,” she said beckoning Iltani, who was too perplexed to move. “And whatever you see, you must not, I repeat, you must not say a word or make a noise, even if you’re startled.”
            Iltani followed Amat-Mamu out of the house, fearful and disappointed. Where was her teacher taking her? She was walking so fast Iltani could hardly keep up. So they would not read or write anything today, it seemed.
            Amat-Mamu did not slow down or talk as they crossed the gagû. None of the houses looked familiar and Iltani was sure, that left alone here, she would have been terribly lost. They stopped at a small house. “Not a word,” Amat-Mamu put her finger to her lips as they entered the courtyard. The house was even smaller than her aunt’s, and badly in need of repair. In the courtyard stood an older nadītu, holding a clay pot over burning coal. “She is inside; she awaits you. I have given her a soothing remedy to drink, but the bruises and wounds . . . are very bad. She will need time and my best herbs to heal.”
            Iltani was frightened. What had happened? Apparently something very bad. But who would dare hurt a nadītu? They . . . we, she reminded herself, are under the protection of Šamaš and Aja. Anyone who tries to hurt us will incur the wrath of the gods.
            As they entered a small room, Iltani, following close behind, saw a woman sitting on a mattress. The woman’s eyes were red and swollen from crying. But what was worse, there were raw lash marks on her arms and legs. It looked as though she had been severely whipped. She was dressed in a thin white shift that revealed the bleeding gashes on her back. Iltani was so distressed by the sight she wanted to run away.
            “Tell me what happened,” Amat-Mamu said soothingly, no longer brusque.
            Eli-eresa, the young nadītu, spoke slowly.
            “I sewed a garment for a man named Sin-iddinam and delivered it to him. He promised he would pay me the following day, but when I went to collect what he owed me, he did not pay. A day passed, a week passed, still he did not pay. I sent three messengers and they all came back empty handed. When three months had gone by, I went to see him again, but he would only agree to pay me half the sum.
When I went to see him again, instead of paying me what he still owed me, he gave me a thrashing.”
            The room was so quiet Iltani was afraid they could hear her breathing.
            “And what is worse,” Eli-eresa continued, “he bragged that he beat five other nadītu. How could such a thing happen? How did we not know of this?” she asked in anguish. “Why did those nadītu not report it to the overseer, Rapaš-illi-Ea?”
            Iltani was so shaken she barely noticed that Amat-Mamu had had been taking down Eli-eresa’s story on a clay tablet.
            “Here, I have written a letter,” said Amat-Mamu.
“Not to the overseer but to a judge. I’ll deliver it to him myself if you like. Shall I read it to you?”
            Eli-eresa nodded.
            To my lord say; thus (says) Eli-eresa.
            I sold Sin-iddinam son of Ilšu-bani, a citizen of my city, Sippar, a garment. After he wore the garment for three months, he paid me a lower price, holding back half a shekel from the original price of the garment. I went to him, to remind him to give me the rest of the money, but instead he beat me viciously; as if I were not a servant of Šamaš. He has treated me in a way which is not acceptable in this land! The next day I went to him, and said: “Why have you treated me this way?”
            Thus he said: “I have beaten five nadītu of Šamaš, besides you. I will pay only those I wish to pay! No one takes anything from me.”
            My lord, you are my judge, pass a verdict on the case I have with Sin-iddinam.

            As they were leaving, Iltani noticed the older nadītu was smearing a brown ointment on Eli-eresa’s wounds. This woman looked familiar, yet Iltani could not remember from where.
            Amat-Mamu was silent all the way back and Iltani was too distraught to ask any questions. Just before reaching the house, Amat-Mamu turned to Iltani and asked: “What did you learn today that is worth remembering?”
            Iltani was speechless. What had she learned today that was worth remembering? Nothing about the art of the scribe. What she had learned was that all her notions about the life of a nadītu were perhaps the notions of a silly child, provided to her by her trusting Abu. That was her lesson for today.

            Amat-Mamu observed her, waiting for a response. As none came, she said: “A scribe should be seen and not heard. And our services are not limited to those who pay us to write down and witness their business contracts. As nadītu scribes we must help our friends. I know that you will never forget what you saw today and that will make you a better scribe. A scribe whose hand competes with his mouth is indeed a scribe. A scribe who writes without error and without asking the speaker to repeat himself need never sew garments for a living.” Amat-Mamu held Iltani’s gaze until Iltani looked down at her feet and said, “Yes, Mistress, I understand.”

Find the novel here: http://www.amazon.com/She-Wrote-Clay-Shirley-Graetz/dp/0989263126 

19 November 2014

Curses and Cures: The King’s Evil: Scrofula and the Gold Angels

Ty cried out as the point of the curette burst open the smaller boil, and the surgeon twisted it in the wound to scrape away the yellow-pink mass inside. My friend shrieked again as the greater boil was lanced, kicking frantically at the hands that restrained him. This time blood as well as lumpy pus came out, pouring over the table’s leather rim.

“Cauter,” snapped the surgeon, and the student holding Ty’s feet let them go. Peter seized them quickly. Taking a rod topped with an eye-shaped lump of iron, the student thrust it into the hottest part of the brazier, then handed it carefully to his master, who laid it three times on Ty’s bleeding wounds. At the first touch Ty gasped and fell silent, his clenched fists flopping open, and the smell of burning flesh leapt up at us like scattering pigeons.
The Bitter Trade

Lymphadenopathy of the neck. Scrofula. A tuberculous swelling of the lymph glands – it’s unpleasant whatever you call it, and it needs to be cut out of your living flesh or treated with antibiotics.

In the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, scrofula was called The King’s Evil. Since the times of Edward the Confessor in the eleventh century, it was believed that the monarch’s touch could cure sufferers, and both English and French kings would hold grand ceremonies in which they touched hundreds of sufferers. This is called thaumaturgy, or miracle-working, and was derived from the divine right of kings.

Later, it was believed that receiving a gold coin called an “angel” (worth 6-10 shillings) would have the same effect, providing the monarch had touched it first. Queen Anne was the last English ruler to carry out this practice (her last “patient” was the infant Samuel Johnson in 1712!), but it carried on in France until the rule of Charles X in the 1820s.

The disease itself produces an unsightly lump, a “cold abscess” on the neck that turns the skin around it a blueish purple. If it has to be excised, there can be damage to the facial nerve, so we can empathise with victims hoping for a miraculous cure from their sovereign.

This is how the ceremony went (and one French king would treat up to 1500 people in a session!):
  The monarch touched (or, alternatively, stroked) the face or neck of the infected person
  The monarch hung the medal around the person's neck.
  Passes from the Gospel of Mark (16: 14–20) and the Gospel of John (1: 1–14) were read.. Mark 16 contains themes that confirm monarchs' immunity to infectious diseases:[. "They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." Mark 16:18
  Prayers were offered. Until the English Reformation, the prayers were addressed not only to God but also to Virgin Mary and the saints.

Charles II revived a declining tradition and was believed to have “treated” over 90,000 sufferers during his quarter-century reign: a very obvious example of his desire to reunite the country after the Civil War.

Scrofula became a rarity in the West as tuberculosis was brought under control. Sadly, the HIV epidemic has brought it back for about 5% of sufferers.

Piers Alexander is the author of The Bitter Trade, a historical novel set during the Glorious Revolution.

The Bitter Trade won the Pen Factor and a Global Ebook Award for modern historical fiction

*** Buy The Bitter Trade for 99c for until 2 December only! ***

To find The Bitter Trade on Amazon / Kindle: www.smarturl.it/UHamazon 

18 November 2014

Curses and Cures: Where Christian and Pagan Beliefs Intersect

An eighth-century pilgrim on his way to pray before the relics of a saint might recite a charm to protect his horse from injury. A midwife might whisper spells in an expectant mother's ear to hasten the birth, and if she feared the newborn was near death, she baptized the child. Such was the blend of Christian and pagan practices in the Dark Ages.

My Christian characters would insist the charms and spells were white magic, nothing to do with paganism, which they equated with devil worship. They weren’t cursing their neighbors with illness or inducing storms to destroy crops. Their intentions were good. They wanted a sick child to be cured or their fields to yield an abundant harvest.

A 13th century amuletic broach, shaped like an A and inscribed with the abbreviated prayer of AGLA: Atha Gebri Leilan Adonai ("Thou art mighty forever, O Lord"). Walters Art Museum, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, via Wikimedia Commons
Officially, the Church preached against magic and the people who practiced it such as enchanters, dream interpreters, and fortune tellers. But to the populace, magic was a tool that could be used for good or evil.

The penalty for magical bad deeds was high. In the Carolingian era, witches and sorcerers were sealed in barrels and thrown into the river, or they were stoned to death.

However, the most popular uses of magic were beneficial and sometimes profitable. Amulets and their religious cousins, phylacteries, were sold to anyone who wanted to buy them. In Rome, the heart of Christianity, women tied phylacteries to their arms or legs.

A 13th century phylactery worn for protection. Walters Art Museum, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, via Wikimedia Commons
Despite Church teachings, even clerics might ask an expert to interpret their dreams, or a manuscript copied by monks might contain a square to predict the course of an illness with the letters of the patient’s name and the number of the day they got sick.

Magic was so much a part of daily life that the Church realized it needed to take a different tack. If you can't beat them, co-opt them. Want rain? Don't use an incantation. Say a prayer instead. If you need to recite something while gathering medicinal herbs, try the Pater and the Credo.

Still, I can imagine desperate parents of a sick child praying to a saint and giving alms, then taking the child to the peak of the roof, where herbs were cooked while a spell was recited. Perhaps, they were appealing to any supernatural power who would listen.


Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riché, translated by Jo Ann McNamara

Daily Life in Medieval Times by Frances and Joseph Gies

“Capturing the Wandering Womb” by Kate Phillips, The Haverford Journal, April 2007

Magic and prayer play an important role in Kim Rendfeld's novels, The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press) and The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar (2014, Fireship Press), both set in the days of Charlemagne. To read the first chapter of either of Kim’s novels or learn more about her, visit kimrendfeld.com. You’re also welcome to visit her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

17 November 2014

Curing the Hittite Way: Analogical Magic and Powerful Words

Hittite Mother Goddess Figurine

Like many ancient peoples, the Hittites of the Late Bronze Age (13thC BCE) in what is now modern Turkey, along with their semi-independent ally, Troy, believed that illness came from the gods. Sickness revealed a lack of harmony between mortal and immortal worlds that once restored would also restore physical well-being. Their definition of illness was considerably broader than our modern one often is. A quarrel between a wife and husband was viewed as needing the attention of the healer just as much as a cough or broken limb. Perhaps in this respect they had a more progressive, holistic view.

Although there is some evidence of herbal cures, poultices and brews of various sorts as well as practical wound treatments, most of what we know about Hittite cures is more magical than practical. They were particularly drawn to analogical magic. So if a baby in the womb was turned the wrong direction, they would hold a root vegetable, perhaps an onion, that had layers within layers and turn the inner layer as they said the proper words, and the assumption was that the baby also would turn in the same manner as the onion. This is an example that strains our credulity. Certainly they noticed the baby didn’t turn? But perhaps they accompanied this magical formula with some manual procedure and attributed the benefit to the prayer and rite.
Hittite Cuneiform Tablet
The cuneiform tablet only mentions rather opaquely an unidentified root vegetable, turning and special words. For Hittites words were of utmost importance and power. They had a saying, “The tongue is the bridge.” The words are the connection between human and divine worlds. Words have transformative power.

The Hittites were also early practitioners of “scapegoating” as a healing process. If you suffered from a pain in your chest, the healer would rub a mouse on the source of the pain, transfer some red and green wool threads from your chest to the mouse, and then send the mouse away—again with the proper incantations to the gods. Your pain was supposed to wander off with the mouse. In some cases it probably did, at least temporarily. Modern studies of placebos show a remarkably high success rate, after all. If your whole belief system built trust in the efficacy of a rite, it may well have accomplished pain reduction often enough to sustain the overall belief.

Here is a brief excerpt from my novel Hand of Fire, showing a healer named Briseis trying to use her array of tools to heal her mother, divinations, rites recorded on tablets, incantations, and analogical magic:  

Briseis believed her mother had given in to this illness, accepted defeat from the beginning. Illness generally came from the gods as punishment for violations against the gods’ laws. In case her mother had neglected a sacrifice or some similar affront— any more serious sin seemed unlikely—Briseis performed a snake divination at the temple to ask Kamrusepa directly how they had offended the gods. But the swimming snakes had given only a muddled answer as they touched the words inscribed in the great basin. The snakes failed to identify anything Briseis could correct. Even before she’d tried the divination it had seemed impossible to Briseis that her mother could have sinned so greatly that Kamrusepa sent the illness, but giving in to the disease felt like a sin to Briseis. Her mother had resigned herself to death too easily, and the gods abandoned her because she did not love life enough— their gift to all. She needed to be dragged back to life.
Briseis had an idea. “You two stay with Mama. I need some supplies.”
She ran downstairs to the back storerooms, the sound of the storm growing muted as she went deeper into the house with its thick walls. Once inside the library, the comforting odor of clay soothed her. Her mother, Briseis thought, was a mixture of lavender and earthy clay. She pulled tablets from the wooden pigeonholes, scanning the words formed with a reed stylus that her brothers said looked like bird tracks. She found it, “The Breath of Life Incantation.” It hadn’t made sense to her when she’d been required to copy it for practice three years ago, but it did now. Her heart felt light. She committed the rite to memory and tucked the palm-sized tablet back in its place.
She hurried through the megaron hall, the main room of the house with its two-storied ceiling and circular hearth, out to the main courtyard and into the kitchen opposite the stables. The wind-driven rain splattered under the portico’s shelter.
The cook, a middle-aged woman with a kinder heart than her boney, hard face indicated, looked up in surprise from sorting lentils when Briseis appeared at the door.
“For Mama, hurry. I need honey, mint and sweet wine.”
The cook quickly gathered everything on a tray, and Briseis carried it back upstairs. From the carved wooden chest next to the floor-to-ceiling loom in her mother’s sitting room, she grabbed a sachet of lavender and a clay incantation jar shaped like a fig.
Iatros and Eurome looked up when she entered the sleeping chamber. She set down the tray on the table and leaned in close over her mother. Antiope’s lips were parted, her eyes closed, their lids withered like fallen leaves in winter. The space between breaths felt impossibly long.
Iatros crouched by the bed, biting his upper lip, eyes fixed on his sister.
Briseis shifted her mother’s legs aside and sat down. She closed her eyes and waited while the fear she felt emptied out with each breath she exhaled. The power of the ritual’s words filled her mind. She called to Kamrusepa, praying for her to give power to this rite.
She opened her eyes and placed both hands on her mother’s chest, then her head.
“Antiope, wife of Glaukos, mother of Bienor, Adamas, Iatros, and Briseis, you have heard death whisper in your ear. You have mistaken that whisper for the nurturing breath that flows in and out of every human being. You have gone after death. Return now. Hear the breath of life.”
Briseis poured wine and honey into the fig jar, breathed into it, and then added the lavender and mint, crushing the leaves to release their scent as she held the jar close to her mother.
“Antiope, do you smell the spring? The time of new growth and blossoms? Remember the spring. Remember your children. Remember the sweetness of life. Remember that you love life. Take a strong breath.”
Silently Briseis added, Come back, Mama, I need you. Remember how much I love you. Antiope sighed and her eyelids fluttered for a moment. Iatros cried out.
Briseis’s heart leapt like a deer. “Mama!”
Daughter and son clung to their mother’s hands. They waited for Antiope to open her eyes and reassure them that she would live. They listened for the slow rattle to quicken. Instead it faded, caught once, tangled in a last wisp of life, then fell silent.
Tears ran down Briseis’s face, hot against her skin. Gradually her wet cheeks grew cold.

About the Author:
Judith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. Ms. Starkston is a classicist (B.A. University of California, Santa Cruz, M.A. 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. Hand of Fire is her debut novel.
Find an excerpt, Q&A, book reviews, ancient recipes, historical background as well as on-going information about the historical fiction community on Starkston’s website www.JudithStarkston.com
Follow Judith Starkston on FB and Twitter   

16 November 2014

Author Interview & Book Giveaway: Maggie Anton on ENCHANTRESS - A NOVEL OF RAV HISDA'S DAUGHTER

 This week, we're pleased to welcome author Maggie Anton with her latest release,  ENCHANTRESS -  A NOVEL OF RAV HISDA'S DAUGHTER, part of her award-wining series of novels. One lucky visitor will get a free copy of Enchantress. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

Fantastic tales of demons and the Evil Eye, magical incantations, and powerful attractions abound in Enchantress, a novel that weaves together Talmudic lore, ancient Jewish magic, and a timeless love story set in fourth-century Babylonia. The author of the acclaimed Rashi’s Daughters series and the award-winning Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Apprentice has conjured literary magic in the land where “abracadabra” originated. Based on five years of research and populated with characters from the Talmud, Enchantress brings a pivotal era of Jewish and Christian history to life from the perspective of a courageous and passionate woman.

Praise for Enchantress

"A lushly detailed look into a fascinating unknown time and culture ... and a most engaging heroine." -- Diane Gabaldon

**Q&A with Maggie Anton**

How were Jewish women who practiced sorcery viewed in ancient societies?
Judging by the ubiquity of amulets, incantation bowls, and magic manuals that date to the first six centuries of the Common Era, the practice of sorcery was a large-scale enterprise back then. At the same time, the Talmud is adamant that sorcery is the province of women yet never condemns them. Indeed there is a section of Talmud on amulets that explicitly explains how to ascertain if the scribe is an expert and if a particular spell is proven. Rabbis consult various women with magic expertise, including the “head sorceress,” and recommend many of their incantations.
Why don’t more people know about the role of magic in the Talmud?

 Until recently, Talmud study was limited to those few scholars who were fluent in Aramaic and attended yeshiva, advanced Talmud academies. They concentrated on the sections debating Jewish Law, and paid less attention to the others. Still, scholars aware of the passages on magic preferred to ignore them, embarrassed to admit that the great Sages engaged in such “nonsense.”

What was Jewish sorcery used for?

There seems to have been two types of Jewish sorcery. Based on spells found on amulets and incantation bowls, most was for healing the sick, protecting children and pregnant women from harm, guarding against demons and the Evil Eye. This benign magic, for the purpose of helping others, was practiced predominantly by women. Magic to help oneself–that is to retain your learning, to influence opinions in your favor, to silence your enemies [and my favorite, to win at chariot races] was performed by men.

Over the centuries, magic has been closely identified with evil, malice, or the devil.  What is the provenance of Jewish magic?

Contrary to this stereotype, the Talmud saw Jewish enchantresses as in league with the angels.  They looked to the beginning of Genesis, Chapter Six, where it says the divine beings saw that the daughters of man were beautiful and took wives from among them. The sons of these unions were the heroes of old, men of renown, but what of the daughters? The Talmudic sages say that these divine beings taught their wives healing magic that calls upon angels, which most do, and these women taught their daughters, who taught theirs, and so on. Such spells were sanctioned by the Rabbis, who declared that any Torah Law might be broken in order to save a life. And not only to heal the sick, but also to prevent sickness.
Are there traces of Jewish sorcery in modern Judaism today?

There are more than traces. Some prayers and blessing said in synagogue today are based on incantations found in the Talmud. In addition, modern versions of ancient Jewish amulets can be found in most Judaica shops.

Although your novels are set in ancient times when women weren’t given the same opportunities as men, your heroine struggles with some modern women's issues--the right to women's independence, acceptance to participate in religious life, and the freedom to love whom she chooses. How were you able to work within her circumstances to create such a strong-willed and independent character?

Rav Hisda's daughter is the woman mentioned more often in the Talmud than any other, one endowed with wealth and learning. Thus she has opportunities not available to the average poor and illiterate woman of her time. Still she is constrained by her gender in that, despite all her knowledge, she can never be a rabbi or a priest. By learning to be an enchantress, she enters a profession where women are esteemed and powerful.

The incantations and spells you use in your novel are real.  In fact, many come from Babylonian Incantation Bowls, Jewish amulets and magical instruction manuals that archaeologists excavated from Iraq, Israel, and Egypt.  Can you tell me how they inspired you to write this novel?

At first I hadn't expected magic to play a significant role in Rav Hisda’s Daughter. My initial glimpse of this world came when, looking for historical sources of names for female characters, I discovered research on something called Babylonian Incantation Bowls. Thousands of these bowls, written like the Talmud in Aramaic in Hebrew script, have been unearthed in what is now Iraq and dated to the 4th-6th century. Clearly the product of educated Jews, they called upon Jewish angels and contained biblical verses.
When I read in the Talmud that the Rabbis consulted sorceresses, it made sense that these incantations might have been written by literate women from rabbinic families. When I also read that Rav Hisda knew spells and that his daughter knew how to protect her husband from demons, it gave me the idea that she was an enchantress herself. Which meant I'd be writing about her training and the kind of magic others were using.


13 November 2014


This week, we're pleased to welcome author Maggie Anton with her latest release,  ENCHANTRESS -  A NOVEL OF RAV HISDA'S DAUGHTER, part of her award-wining series of novels. Join us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. One lucky visitor will get a free copy of Enchantress. Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post or Sunday's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

Fantastic tales of demons and the Evil Eye, magical incantations, and powerful attractions abound in Enchantress, a novel that weaves together Talmudic lore, ancient Jewish magic, and a timeless love story set in fourth-century Babylonia. The author of the acclaimed Rashi’s Daughters series and the award-winning Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Apprentice has conjured literary magic in the land where “abracadabra” originated. Based on five years of research and populated with characters from the Talmud, Enchantress brings a pivotal era of Jewish and Christian history to life from the perspective of a courageous and passionate woman.

Praise for Enchantress

"A lushly detailed look into a fascinating unknown time and culture ... and a most engaging heroine." -- Diane Gabaldon

**An Excerpt from Enchantress**

I turned to my teacher Em. “Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael are the angels I invoke against the evil dream demons. Do you think it would help if I inscribe Issi’s kasa d’charasha [incantation bowls] during the second and third hours tomorrow?” Raphael ruled the second hour that day and Gabriel ruled the third.
“I don’t see how it could hurt. Then you could install the incantation bowls between the third and fourth hours on First Day.”
I nodded. The hours were earlier than I would have liked, but they were also ruled by Raphael and Gabriel. There was one thing that worried me. This would be the first bowl I’d done in four years, since going to Eretz Israel. Would the angels still answer me after all that time? Would the demons flee when I expelled them?
The next day I was up before dawn, and when the second hour began, I already had four small pottery vessels of similar size set up, in the garden, on a table that got good morning light. I unpacked my quills and ink, and set to work. Luckily the incantation against the demons and evil spirits that brought bad dreams was a short one.
I picked up the first cup and started writing at the top inside edge. “Sealed and doubly sealed are the house and threshold of Issi bar Aspenaz from the demons, devs, satans, ruchim, and evil liliths that appear during the night and during the day and appear to Issi bar Aspenaz when he sleeps. Sealed with three signet rings and doubly sealed with seven seals in the names of Gabriel, Michael and Raphael. Amen, amen, amen. Selah. Hallelujah.”
Though the kasa d’charasha was small, I had room at the bottom to draw a demonic figure, its arms and legs bound by chains. I repeated the inscription and drawing on the second cup and the third. By the time I finished the final vessel, I had acquired an audience.
Slaves paused briefly from their wheat grinding to watch me work, and Babata stopped by on her way to the privy, but most persistent was Abaye’s daughter, Elisheva.
Her eyes widened when I explained what I was doing, but then her face fell. “I wish I could read and write, but Father doesn’t have time to teach me, and Mother doesn’t know how.”
“A rabbi’s daughter should be literate,” I complained to Em later. “Can’t Abaye hire a tutor for her?”
“It wouldn’t be proper for a man to be alone with her to teach her,” she replied. “If Babata has a boy, Elisheva will be able to learn along with her brother. That’s how I learned.”
And if Babata had a girl, both sisters would be illiterate.
I was greatly relieved to wake up on First Day and find that I had not yet begun to bleed. That relief faded when not only Em but also Rava and Abaye prepared to accompany me to observe the installation.
I was used to installing kasa d’charasha before groups of strangers in Sura. But since few bowls were used here, I’d expected only a small number of spectators. Obviously the word had gone out about this new charasha procedure, because the entire neighborhood was waiting for me, blocking the gate.
Before I could say anything, Rava, in his most commanding voice, announced, “Everyone must stay well away, to avoid danger from fleeing demons.”
A space opened for us to walk through, but he had to repeat his warning several times before most people had retreated to the safety of their homes or the courtyard’s periphery. That was when I saw her, the woman on the boat who’d cast that spell to control the wind. She had managed to find a place near the gate, with a good view of the house. Something made me look away rather than give her a friendly nod.
Once Aspenaz showed me where Issi slept, I directed Leuton and Em’s slave  to dig the shallow holes. As each was finished, I encouraged Issi to watch as I turned one of the cups upside down, placed it at the bottom, and covered it with dirt. After the final hole was filled, I donned my charasheta’s white linen robe and veil.
As I’d done many times before, I closed my eyes and banished all thoughts of my human audience. Then I stood tall, lifted my arms, and prayed that the angels would hear and grant my request. My skin began to tingle, and when I looked down, the slaves were huddled at my feet.
The time had come to recite the incantation.
At my first installation, back in Sura seven years before, I had been astonished by the vigor and authority that had issued from my throat when I’d addressed the unseen world. Now I felt more relieved than surprised by my dominion, as the cowed demons fled before me and the angels I’d summoned.
As the incantation drew to a close, my strength slipped away. Yet my voice did not weaken as I concluded, “Amen, amen. Selah. Hallelujah.”
Fighting the urge to look for the unknown sorceress, I kept my eyes on Issi while the slaves helped me out of my white clothes. Loud enough that he could hear, I told Isaac, “Be sure that you and the boy recite both the Hashkivenu and Shir shel Negaim before he goes to sleep from now on.”
Isaac nodded reverently and led me to the place of honor at a large dining table. Gradually, wary neighbors came out to join us for the early midday meal. I searched for the woman from the boat, but she was gone.

Learn more about author Maggie Anton and her series:

Author website = www.maggieanton.com  
Author blog = http://www.rashisdaughters.com/blog/#.VGBfTfTF_og  
Twitter @MagiAnton  
Facebook = https://www.facebook.com/Maggie.Anton?ref=tn_tnmn 
Amazon page = http://www.amazon.com/Maggie-Anton/e/B001JSDKHM/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1415892226&sr=8-1 
Goodreads = https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20821076-enchantress

12 November 2014

Curses and Cures: Honey and bees

By Michelle Styles

Honey is one of the oldest foods. One of the oldest rock cave paintings is of gathering honey. We know that the first farmers kept bees. And that the bee and its honey has often had a place in religion.
8000 year old cave paint of honey gatherer source:Wikipedia
For example beeswax has been used  to shape figures and offerings as well as candles to provide light in holy places. Beeswax does not smoke in the same way as tallow. In Medieval Europe beeswax was considered pure because of the chasteness of the worker bee. 

The light was seen as symbolic of the awakened soul.The candles were made into specific shapes -- tall perchers  for altars and ceremonies and square Quarerres for funerals.  It was believed that the dead could be only at peace if watched over by the living. Beeswax candles were burnt in their memory, a custom which continues in many Christian churches today in the form of votive candles.
honeycomb source:Wikipedia

Honey was also used in many medicines. For example, the ancient Egyptians used a concoction of honey, herbs, oils and onion applied to a woman's vagina to stop miscarriages. And for contraception, they used crocodile feces, honey and saltpeter.

Honey has been used to sweeten many medicines and considering what the medicines were made of, is it any wonder?

However, one of the most effective cures  with honey was the use of honey on open wounds. When honey mixes with body fluids it produces hydrogen peroxide which in turn inhibits the growth of bacteria. Even today, certain hard-to-heal wounds do respond to honey dressings.

Honey is also useful with gut problems and with tooth ache. A mixture of cloves and raw honey can be used to cure toothache. Honey can also help with allergies and colds but it needs to be raw because ultra heated honey has lost its pollen.

Mead or fermented honey was also used a transformative. drink. Among other things, it was supposed to be a cure for impotence and the drinking of mead just after the wedding, gave rise to the term honeymoon. Drinking mead was also supposed to give a long life.

As well as honey, bee prooplis was used by the Romans to treat ulcers and tumours. Propolis is the glue  bees make to seal up their hives.  It was also used to draw out stings and foreign bodies.

Because of its importance in agriculture, both honey and the bee have long figured in medicince and cultural beliefs.

Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romance. She also keeps bees. Her next book Taming His Viking Woman will be published in Feburary 2015. You can learn more about Michelle and her book on www.michellestyles.co.uk 

10 November 2014

Curses and Cures: "God, I am commanding you!" - Baltic pagan traditions

By M.J. Neary

You don't see many historical novels set in the Baltic countries. As an author, I am always looking to break new grounds and venture beyond the Knights Templar and the Tudors. For my next novel The Gate of Dawn I chose 19th century Lithuania. Having grown up in Central Europe and visited Lithuania frequently, I have a personal link to that part of the world and have experienced elements of that culture firsthand, I feel emboldened. Many of the folk rituals had survived the industrialization and cultural intervention by the Russians. Lithuanian folklore belongs to the Baltic tradition and shares links with many other old traditions of the Northern and Central Europe (Slavs, Germans and Celts). It was uncommon for pagan practices and beliefs to be incorporated into the official Christian mainstream. Lithuanians were among the last people to become Christianized. As late as the 16th century there were pockets of rural communities where spirituality revolved around the warlord-oriented pagan customs. 

The Balts perceived a curse as something self-inflicted, almost like an addition or an auto-immune disease. It was not a result of another person's malevolence but one's own failure to fulfill a moral obligation to one's family, community or church. In that sense, the Balts held an almost Calvinist point of view that the misfortunes in one's life were a sign of one's spiritual and moral shortcomings. Curiously, one of the greatest offenses was breaking bread with one hand as opposed to both hands. It was said that since it took both hands to earn your daily bread, it was appropriate to break it with both hands as well. Bread was considered sacred, and treating it with disrespect would bring serious illness or death to the family. The idea of inanimate substance possessing vengeful tendencies is far removed from traditional Christianity. It's another manifestation of pagan influences. A farmer could be punished by a tree for cutting it down, or by the soil itself for not cultivating it properly. In Lithuanian folklore, even stones had blood and breath, and therefore, will and spirit. All these elements of nature had to be revered and appeased. Failure to do so would bring tragedy upon the offender. 

At the same time, an inanimate object could be cajoled into becoming receptacle for human suffering. The Balts believed that pain could not be destroyed, only shifted onto another bearer. Another paradoxical detail that in the Lithuanian pagan tradition, which directly opposes the Christian notion of human subordination to God, is that man was viewed as the master of the deities and could command and manipulate the higher powers for personal needs. Here is an example of a healing spell cast by a spell-binder. "God, I am asking you, I am commanding you through Dougis the Stone and Bubis the Oak: utter the word, stop the blood from running out of my veins, from tempting the soul out of the body. You better tempt the soul out of the tree that has become parched, you better let the blood out of the grass that has been cut by a scythe." With enough chanting, the Baltic deities would be cajoled into serving the mankind.

About the author

Marina Julia Neary is an acclaimed historical novelist, award-winning essayist, multilingual journalist, dramatist and poet. Her areas of expertise include Neo-Victorianism, French Romanticism and Irish nationalism. Her literary career to depicting military and social disasters, from the Charge of the Light Brigade, to the Easter Rising in Dublin, to the Chernobyl catastrophe. Neary declares that her mission is to tell untold stories, find hidden gems and illuminate the prematurely extinguished stars in history. She explores human suffering through the prism of dark humor, believing that tragedy and comedy go hand in hand. Her debut novel Wynfield's Kingdom: a Tale of London Slums (Fireship Press) appeared on the cover of the First Edition Magazine in the UK and earned the praise of the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal. Her subsequent novels include Wynfield's War (2010), Brendan Malone: the Last Fenian (2011), Martyrs & Traitors: a Tale of 1916 (2011), Never Be at Peace: a Novel of Irish Rebels (2014) and Saved by the Bang (2015).