THE TORCH OF OLYMPIA Chapter One: EASTERN SPICE
"The problem with writing about Ancient Greece," said George, "is that it's all been written about before."
"Actually," I replied, "I'm not sure about that."
It was about five in the morning and it had been a somewhat decadent night, largely due to the extravagant generosity of persons whose aquaintance I had made only that evening, the most generous being a shadowy fellow originally from Cyprus who I shall refer to simply as The Greek.
"Yes, I suppose you can introduce Ancient Greece to a new audience," said George, discussing my interests as if talking about a business, which was understandable since he had, just prior to this, been giving me the low down on his own next business venture.
I did my best to focus a slightly addled mind, and then maintained my position:
"Actually I don't feel like that's what I'm doing. It's a bit more than that."
George gave the appearence of being a fairly normal ex-public school boy of oriental extraction, and that is what I would have taken him for had I not been told earlier in the evening by an old friend that he was 'practically a billionaire' due to links with the royal family of the Asian country from which he hailed.
It was here in the kitchen of a comfortable three-story house in the centre of Brighton that he had just decribed to me the ins and outs of his proposed business venture, which was something to do with programming and the Internet, and I can tell you that the description involved frequent use of the word 'outsourcing'. Beyond that I cannot tell you anything, not because I'm bound by a code of secrecy, but because it was somewhat beyond my field.
"What sort of thing do you write about?" he'd then asked me.
"Ancient culture, that sort of thing."
"Asian cultures?" he'd asked to check he had heard correctly, which of course he hadn't.
I corrected him: "Greece, Egypt, that sort of thing."
"The trouble with writing about Ancient Greece," he said, and that brings you up to speed, as that's where this book started.
As if on cue, The Greek appeared, bearing gifts.
A little later I was half-seated, half-sprawled on the kitchen floor - a floor worthy of some note since it had a peculiar fissure in it, a tear in the material revealing a dark, mysterious space underneath. Seated just across from me was a young woman whose name I forget, who had studied Fine Art or Art History or something, in Florence, of all places. Again the conversation lead naturally to my own interests, and I was just beginning to tell her about the Bull-Leaper theory - which you shall hear about shortly - when a reveller called us down to the basement to play a computer tennis game that involved swinging some sort of electronic racket.
"I can't really see the point," I complained.
The Greek, slumped in a big beanbag and observing the proceedings with a wary eye, agreed with me:"Why don't you just go down to St Anne's Well Gardens and have a real game of tennis?"
It must have been getting on for eightish by the time I finally got round to leaving.
"Yeah, I'm starting to feel a bit tired myself," said the Greek.
My gaze swung to the well-off Asian guy: "We must do this again," he said.
As I made my way home I thought over what George had said. As I see it, each age has its own blindspots, as if from its location on the landscape of time certain things cannot be seen, hiding behind hills and mountains in the middle ground. The ages in which Greek culture was assimilated in Western Europe were not ages free from certain kinds of blindspot and blinkered perspective, and we are now ascending to a place where other wonders come into view. At the most practical level, we have recently seen how academic views of ancient history can be radically shifted by new science, as for example where DNA evidence shows that the Celtic peoples did not come to the British Isles from southern Germany in the Iron Age, as has been claimed by scholars for a century, but from the Iberian penisula in the Neolithic and before.
And it's not just that, as experience has taught archaeology, any low hill may turn out to contain the treasures of a lost culture, a Minoan palace or a Troy. The interpretive side of archaeology may also strike gold from time to time, as for example when Egyptian hieroglyphs were finally decifered and the doors of vast treasure houses of ancient thought were finally flung open to those curious to know on what shoulders our civilsation stands.
Blindspots may be healed as we take the time to extract ourselves from the limmited views of the age from which we ourselves are emmerging, and the resultant new perspectives on the past are frequently exciting.
It would have been highly impressive, I fancy, if I had come out with the above on the spur of the moment as I stood there in the kitchen talking to George at five in the morning.
One by one the computer tennis players might have ascended the stairs from the cave like the initiate in Plato's simile, seating themselves at my feat to feast their ears on my stirring rhetoric and their mouths on pieces of toast:-
"...as when the doors of vast treasure houses of ancient thought were finally flung open to those curious to know on what shoulders our civilsation stands. May we find the keys to more such treasure houses?"
Such would be my question as, trailing my toga on the floor while pacing dramatically around the kitchen - hopefully avoiding the hole in the floor - I then proceeded to answer my own rhetorical question:-
"Yes we may, as I shall now reveal to you!"
Rapturous applause would have followed, and cheers muffled by mouthfulls of toast, as I put the kettle on and then took them through the theories and discoveries from which this book is constructed.
So put that kettle on and settle in for the duration.
You yourselves are, I trust, an intelligent, prudent, well-rested and sober audience, and therefore demand no doubt a fuller explanation of this business of the blinkered views of certain ages. And to furnish you with such an account, I shall in fact take you back to another meeting with interesting gentlemen from the exotic East.
"I can't be doing with your spoons."
The immaculately dressed Indian gentleman picked up the massive T-bone steak with his fingers and lifted it to his mouth. The Nishi tribe of North-East India do not hold the cow sacred in the same way as the vegetarian Hindus.
Robinson was busy chatting to the other Nishi gentleman about his business interests Southern India; Allie and Vikki were at the other end of the table debating whether or not to get ice-cream; Robinson and Allie's young daughter Ophelia was somewhere under a table engrossed in play, leaving Henry and I taking in the spectacle of a well dressed man setting about getting outside of a steak in the most time-honoured and hands-on manner.
All in all our party dominated the bar of the Star Inn, Alfriston, as a festive fire roared in the hearth and a red-faced barman looked on in mild bewliderment.
"I can't be doing with your spoons."
I loved the juxtaposition of an easy command of English idiom - "I can't be doing with..." and, at the same time, a shelving of our traditional eating implements even to the point of a carefree disregard for exactly which implement it was that was being shelved, the spoon not being the usual tool taken up when a Britisher is faced with a well-done steak. The use of the hands, though not the norm in Alfriston et environs, is an accepted manner in some parts and has been since campfires began, and so seeing it did not fill me with any of the sick, lurching feeling I get if I see someone from my own nation holding a knife as though it were a pen. It's just not good form! A knife is a knife and a pen is a pen. Do you mean to write an epistle in tomato ketchup? Can we not save the creativity for the conversation, the cuisine, the flirtation, without squandering it on the cuttlery?
(You understand that I don't speak directly to a 'you' meaning you, the audience, in the above, but to the fellow I spied profaning his supper with a needless revolt against the collectively agreed form in the Half Moon, Plumpton last Saturday evening.)
How had our party come to be seated in the Star in Alfriston? Earlier that day, as I had been leaving work, I had picked up a voicemail from Henry which informed me that the two Nishi gentlemen were due to meet him soon, one of them being the Minister for Culture, or some such, from that region of India.
"I've promised to show them some of the local Sussex countryside," Henry had said in his message, "have you got any ideas?"
I phoned back to suggest they took a drive down to Cuckmere Haven, the idyllic eastuary of the Cuckmere between Seaford and the Seven Sisters. Henry then furnished me with some more of the particulars. It was in fact I, I now learnt, who was to be the chauffeur - Henry didn't have access to a car that evening.
"Just give me a moment to have a little clear out," I had said, an image forming in my memory of the extensive midden heaps that would have to be cleared from both passenger side and rear sections alike. Afterall, one feels something of an effort should be made when receiving a Minster of Culture into one's country. Were his department agriculture, defence or trade and industry he would have been of hardy disposition, and would have been made to like it or lump it, but a man of culture is more refined and sensitive.
I should explain that Henry spent quite a bit of time living with the Nishi people - two day's from the nearest road - to fulfil the field-work part of his anthropology PhD. This is why the two gentlemen had looked him up when they landed in town.
When I picked up Henry and the two visitors from Henry's place in Lewes I was gifted with a rather fine bright navy blue Nishi shirt. Too small for myself, but it was intended for my wife, as soon as I found one. This was to become a theme in fact, and I was assured that if I returned with them to India a wife could be found. This didn't really fit with my plans and I declined the offer despite the fact that Henry got right behind the notion and was all for me booking a plane ticket there and then.
Anyway, off we'd headed to the seaside in my palm-green Clio Versailles. Out on foot by the river, miles from any significant settlement, the face of an ex-colleague loomed up out of the mist. She must have wondered what Henry and I were doing accompanying a couple of briefcase-carrying businessmen in smart suits down towards the shore. Perhaps she surmised that we were due to receive goods by boat from the poppy fields of the East under cover of darkness.
We continued our stroll.
"Mittun! English mittun," cried Henry, pointing at some cows by the path and seeing with Nishi eyes for a moment with admirable intent, but not a bit of it, for our guests perceptions had taken up residence in the landscapes of Thomas Hardy's novels. Lights glimmered through the gathering gloom of dusk in the windows of a small cluster of cottages up on the clifftop, and to the visitors these were straight out of a Hardy story, as was the Star Inn, Alfriston, once we arrived.
Alfriston met with their approval, but we were told: "You can keep your London." The reason for their visit to England was in fact to attend a tourism trade fair in London, and this was also the reason for their smart attire, but they were now glad to escape.
But what about this Hardy business? The English take on the novel was spread to the corners of the Empire because the two things coincided in time, and it can also be said, with some truth, that to a degree the same arrogance inspired both movements. We were the new Romans, or according to the British-Israel movement the new chosen people, the rest of the world would read our literature - the most developped - and they would eat their meat with knives held in the propper manner.
As it happens I had an Indian lecturer of English Literature at University, and I say with some warmth that - certainly if one takes audibility into account - his lectures seemed to me to be utterly, utterly dire. He generally introduced Hardy, even if the book being discussed had no direct link to the writer, and when he introduced Hardy he also chanted the formula of Hardy's plots: "One damn thing after another." This was trotted out in one damn lecture after another, and truly not one ounce of enthusiasm for the Wessex writer's novels was instilled in me by this lecturer.
There arer some fine, upstanding people I know who speak with fondness or respect for Hardy's novels, but seeing good in that type of plot must surely be down to a charitable generosity beyond my comprehension. These are generally the same queer folk who think highly of Shakespeare. My grandmother was one of them. My friend Henry is another. I feel a mixture of curiosity and exhasperation about their perverse charitability, wanting simultaneously to to fathom the bizare mystery of their pity-full devotion and to wake them from their macabre dream with a slap around the face with an uncooked turbot.
"Apparently you can tell the moment when Hardy falls in love with his own character, Tess, in the middle of the book, and then he felt great pain about what had to happen to her, for the sake of the plot," Henry informed Robinson and I while we were picking up a Thai take-away from Lewes recently. That's the point where I glaze over. Why did the plot have to go that way? What rule book says it had to?
The rule-book is called Presctiptive Realism and it came to be regarded as the only 'serious' type of literature in 19th century England. Its basic idea was that the novel should represent 'real' life only, whatever that may be. The absurdity of this limmitation is starting to seem self-evident in our age, but until quite recently it was seen as the English 'contribution', as a step forward, progess, a development making all things that came before somewhat obsolete. Now we can see that forbidding the fantastic from literature is like forcing ballet dancers to keep both feet on the ground at the same time; it ignores the greater potentials and essential nature of the medium. How could we have missed that for so long? What created the blindspot? The notion of Empire is based on a belief in cultural superiority. Threaten that and you shake the very foundations. Surely this is why it is still considered practically sacriligous to admit to not enjoying the works of that playwright whose popularity was rescued from obscurity just at the time we were building our own empire and needed a Homer to be our our 'bard', as the Romans had needed Virgil.
The danger is that Prescriptive Realism has been so thoroughly accepted that it has become a kind of invisible standard by which to judge works of literature. "I don't believe in fairy tales," Robinson will tell me, but why does belief have to come into it?
All great steps forward begin with imaginative contemplation. Literature can be an excercise for this most powerful of tools.
Myself, I had the good fortune not to study English Literature at A-Level, and once I had started at University I knew my own mind well enough to see that the lecturers didn't know their arses from their elbows. Besides which, I'm not a fan of modern architecture. How one could be expected to apply oneself to scholarly pursuits in boxes raised in a modernist mode I simply cannot imagine. So the nincompoops of University washed by me largely unnoticed as I began my own researches in accordance with my fascination.
It should be pointed out here that it's not Realism that I'm questioning, but Prescriptive Realism. You can't have a novel without realism, and I'm all for it. In the field of fine art, Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne is a work of aweinspiring realism, but the subject is mythological. Greek sculpture was similarly exceptional because of its realism, though it depicted gods, nymphs, satyrs and centaurs. The ancient novels were much the same.
We British certainly didn't invent what we call the novel. There are sophisticated examples from the Ancient Greeks and Romans, as has been well noted by scholars such as Margaret Anne Doody in her recent The True Story of the Ancient Novel. And now what I intend to show in this book is that there are amazing ways which have not previously been recognized in which the writers of the ancient novels were capable of an outstandingly brilliant marriage of the universal and the particular, the Mysteries and the mundane world, the sacred and the secular. That these ancient novels related to the ancient Mystery traditions has been suggested before, by the likes of Carl Kerenyi, but now it is possible to present proofs that are as elegant as they are exciting. This is how how I shall show that Ancient Greece has not all been written about before.
The novels may not have been written during the Golden Age of 5th century BC Athens, but that does not mean that they are not a product of it in a different way. The novel, because it has so much space for full descriptions of things, has the ability to contain the other arts within it, hinting at them or using allegories from them, as with the theatre, or simply describing them as in a description of a building, a temple, a sculpture and so on. It is fitting then that the novel should come along after the other arts are fully formed.
The Allegory of the Chariot
From what we know about the way crafts were learnt in Ancient Greece we can hazard a pretty good guess that novelists received and later handed on some kind of formal training. The command of plot and the existance of strong parralels between the novels that have come down to us support this supposition. In Ancient Greece all forms of art and craft were felt to have some touch of the divine. Dionysos revelled in poetry, dance and song; Apollo loved harmonious music, was a leader of the Muses and an expert on the lyre, an instrument invented by Hermes, as the Panpipes were invented by Pan; one form Athena took was as a goddess of skillful craft; the smiths had their patron in Hephaestus; statues in the temples were felt to be places the gods could take up residence. So in a world where crafts were handed down, often from parent to child, even in fields like stagecraft, it was natural for each craft to develop its own Mysteries. In the ancient world the word Mystery was used for a private, cult initiation based on a movement through formal patterns. Each of the arts and crafts had its own sacred form-ality, whether it was the verse structure of poetry, the different shapes of urns intended for particular purposes, the proportions and underlying geometry of architecture, or the plot structure of a play.
We can see from various statements in the works of Plato that this sacred formality, grounded in the mystic philosophy whose aim was to achieve sight, understanding and appreciation of the Realm of Forms, of universal, intelligible, eternal Ideas, extended up to, or perhaps we should say cascaded down from even those Mysteries that were less applied, more abstract in nature, more purely religious. In other words, we gather from Plato's various hints that something similar to Socrates' philosophy of Forms was taught by certain priests and priestesses.
It is not clear how much of this philosophy reached Socrates - the Socrates whose image is painted in Plato's books - via direct contact with the officials of such over-arching Mysteries, and how much came to him through the teachings of the craft of stonemasonry that his father must have begun to hand down to him before he decided to go off and live the life of a free-wheeling philosopher. Socrates himself, in the Symposium, says that he learnt this philosophy of the Realm of Ideas from an Arkadian priestess called Diotyma, which might seem to answer our question. Yet the young Socrates cannot have failed to notice commonalities between the philosophy and his family's craft, since formal canons of proportion underpinned by sacred geometry were the blueprints of the works of the sculptors. Either way, and no matter how Plato moaned about the non-philosophers who were blind to the subtle light of the Realm of Ideas that is perceivable to the mind's eye, the fact is that the Socrates of the dialogues voices a philosophy which is an abstracted expression of what had long been applied in the various arts and crafts of the ancient Greek world, just as it had previously in Egypt for well over two millenia.
So much for the sculptors, but what about the novelists? From the evidence it looks as though novelists appeared on the scene a little later than the 'Golden Age' of Socrates and co. Therefore we will need some further evidence before we can be conclusive about a connection between the novels and the Mysteries.
Both Plato's school, the Academy, and the Mysteries continued for many centuries, making a connection entirely feasible. Doody presents a strong piece of evidence when she notes that at the time many of the novels that have come down to us complete were being written it had become common for philisophers to interpret existing works of literature along allegorical lines. Is it not likely then that the same would have been done in reverse, asks Doody: would it not have been natural to adopt this approach in the writing of new literature, if such was what was hoped for in the old? The Neoplatonist Porphyry recorded an intelligent interpretation of a part of Homer's Odyssey in an essay called The Cave of the Nymphs, based on Plato's Simile of the Cave and the Mystery initiations of the Persians.
Yet it is possible to go considerably further than this. It was not just the philosphers that were making references to these matters, but also the novelists themselves, within the novels, certainly in the case of The Ethiopian Story by Heliodorus. In this novel we see an Egyptian priest called Calasiris relating to the Athenian Cnemon a bold speculation about hidden meanings in Homer, to which Cnemon replies "You have admitted me here to a Mystery, most reverend sir." Take note: we have a novelist - a creator of literature - depicting the presence of an encoding of a Mystery within literature. Is this not to be taken as a hint that this is in fact exactly what Heliodorus himself was doing in his story? And indeed he was, in pretty explicit ways, for a section of the book refers in only the most thinly veiled ways to another famous Platonic simile.
The two lovers in The Ethiopian Story meet during a ceremony at Delphi held at the time of the Pythian Games, and the text says that "at the moment of meeting the young pair looked and loved, as though the soul of each, at first encounter, recognized its fellow and leapt towards that which deserved to belong to it." J.R.Morgan's notes to Sir Walter Lamb's translation, published by Everyman, point out that this is reminiscent of the idea that romantic desire was a memory of beauty seen by the Soul before birth in Plato's Phaedrus. Morgan then adds that "this whole scene is full of Platonic connotations." Though Morgan doesn't tell us what they are, they are easy enough to find.
Calasiris describes riders on horses taking part in the procession at Delphi, where the "gallant steeds...chafed at the bit...spitting on it and foaming amain; and yet they suffered themselves to be guided by the rider's intent." Plato used the horses pulling a chariot as symbols of erotic desire, showing how if driven well - in other words with an honourable goodness of heart - they could pull the chariot up into the skies to the very gateway of the Realm of Forms. Diotyma describes the process that is initiated with the perception of beauty in the other, and which then expands into a perception of Beauty in general. In other words erotic desire could be the start of an initation through Beauty into a recovered apprehension and appreciation of the trancendant Realm of Ideas. This is the initiation process that Socrates says was described to him by the Arkadian priestess. Plato relates how the twelve gods - the signs of the Zodiac - travel this ascending path in the sky from the east towards their highest point, the place where they 'culminate', namely where their path - the ecliptic - reaches the meridian due South. This point, in Plato's system, is associated with the portal to the Realm of Universal Ideas, and the initiate, the philosopher, travels in the train of the gods towards this place.
Extending the allegory of the driver of the chariot, Plato's dialogue turns its attention to the chariot races of the Olympic Games, and says that the real wreath of success is awarded on an inner level to those who can successfully steer these horses of erotic desire along this path of initiation. This too is refered to directly in the narrative of Heliodorus' Ethiopian Story: "On the following day the Pythian (Delphic) Games were to come to their end, but those of the young couple were coming to their height. The god of love, I imagine," says Calasiris, "was acting as their marshal and umpire, and was determined to prove, through the particular case of these two athletes, paired off by him, that his own kind of contest is the greatest of all."
Delphi is well worth a visit even now, but in the age of Classical Greece it was wonderful indeed. I've been there myself a few times, and the time I recall with the greatest affection was a weekend stay while I was living in Volos on the East Coast. I stayed in a campsite a little walk along the valley from Delphi, at the time of the March equinox before the Summer season had got underway. I wanted to collect some water from the sacred spring, and it didn't seem appropriate to store it in a plastic bottle, so I bought a bottle of wine. Actually it was an especially large bottle, perhaps double the standard volume. Having done so I had to dispose of the wine inside to make room for the water. This took me more than a whole day, and it resulted in my strolling down a little way from Athena's circular tholos temple into the cover of an olive grove on the mountainside. Here I thought I'd have a bit of a lie down, maybe sleep off a little of the wine, so I lay myself down on the ground in the dappled shade of the olive trees and settled into a somewhat hazy state. After a time I was surprised by the sound of hooves drumming on the ground, and opened my eyes to see a group of sheep running through the grove and heading straight towards me. There wasn't time to run out of the way, so I just kept my fingers crossed and none of them actually trod on me as they came leaping past. It had all seemed very dreamlike, and a kind of satisfied glow came over me as I thought to myself, Byron-like, how wonderfully Greek it all suddenly was.
Nor was the wine finished. In fact as I walked back to the campsite in the darkness later in the evening I was still under Dionysos' influence. More sheep-related excitement followed. I heard some strange calls and was aware of a commotion, and straining my eyes in the darkness I worked out what was going on. Some local shepherds were driving their sheep back into the fold. I happened to be wearing a fluffy white fleece at the time, and one of the shepherds came careering up to me uttering his bizare calls until he got close enough to realise I wasn't a member of his herd. "How wonderfully Greek!" I thought to myself.
I was the only person staying in a tent at the campsite, and that night I found out why. A storm blew up, with great winds whistling along the valley, and I spent a slightly peculiar period of hung-over confusion as I sobered up and wondered what I was doing there in a little tent on a mountainside in a wild gale.
Calisiris the Egyptian priest in The Ethiopian Story has this to say about Delphi. "The city impressed me in general as an abode for the higher powers, but especially from the nature of its site...the natural acropolis of Mount Parnassus, impending aloft, closely enfolds the city within its flanks." He goes on to say that he was "highly pleased with the city's public walks and squares and fountains, and with the Castalian spring itself," from which he besprinkled himself.
So Heliodorus' certainly based the story on this Platonic description of erotic initiation, and the good drivers of the powerful horses are in fact symbols of the whole story of the pure and true romantic love of the two protagonists. This is an area upon which Prescriptive Realism can make no comment, because a person has a choice in any moment to become more honorouble and good of heart, so that there is no particular depiction of the quality of a relationship that can be considered the most 'realistic'. The ultimate aim of the arts is Beauty. In fact all the surviving Ancient Greek novels are centred on this same theme of ideal romantic love.
Doody points out that escape from a cave is also a recurring motif in the novels, and she suggests that this again may have been representative of the ascent from the cave in the Platonic simile. Porphyry in The Cave of the Nymphs pointed out that caves were used as places of initiation and also refered to constellations being assigned to parts of the cave. He also spoke of the South Gate of the cave pointing off towards the Sun's position where the ecliptic crosses the meridian at noon, portraying this as the ascent to the Realm of Universal Ideas. Plato's Simile of the Cave in The Republic also has animal shapes cast onto the walls of the cave and those in the cave receive their initiation when they see the Universal in these figures and in other shapes. When we add to this Plato's linking elsewhere of the constellation patterns - the animals of the sky - to the Realm of Forms we begin to get a picture of an initiation involving images of these animals painted on cave walls. As we shall see later, such traditions stretch back to very, very early times here in Europe, and their survival over such enormous tracts of history may be seen as a validation of their efficaciousness. Afterall, the constellation figures are in pragmatic terms eternal, being extremely old and unchanging, and they are universal in that one still seems the same pattern in the sky when travelling to other nations, and we have given them a kind of intelligibility in seeing them as join-the-dots animal figures with associated mythological stories. Being ancient, universal and intelligible these patterns fit the description of a Form, so might they not facilitate a connective mental morphic resonance across time to those ancient generations of star-gazers and story tellers? This resonance with perceptions beyond our own particular way of seeing leads to expanded sight, making these forms seem very numinous and trancendental, and through this they can trigger perception on a more universal level, just as Socrates says is the purpose of the initiation. This collective perceptual repository is called the Dreamtime, since initiation into collective ancestral resonance through contact with ancient rock art is a feature of the Australian indigenous culture. Exposure to these Forms is the essence of all Mystery initiation.
So much for the background. The purpose of this book now is to uncover these keys to the Arcadian Dreamtime. We shall start by looking at how the Ethiopian Story encodes constellation imagery.
The Perseus Mystery
The philospher Aristotle, who studied under Plato at the Academy, wrote about the art of plot in his Poetics. He recommended that a story should have a key idea and that all parts of the story should in some way work towards the demonstration of this idea, just as all the limbs of a body have a function to fulfil within an organism as a whole. The Ethiopian Story achieves this admirably. The core idea is simply that human sacrifice is wrong and unnecesary and that the gods themselves do not desire to be sacrficed to in that way. Aristotle also recommended the plot type that involves the recognition trope, the lost-and-found child story, for the pleasing relief that it facilitates. Heliodorus' brilliant idea based on this formal plot was this: the gods do not desire human sacrifice, so what if there was a people in some distant land who still practiced the barbarous rite, and how about if the god to whom it was offered was looking for a way to communicate to them the fact that he did not want it, and would a wonderful way for that to be communicated be if the person about to be sacrficed was suddenly to be recognized at the last moment at the lost child of the person about to offer the sacrifice? From this central moment of genius he then began to weave the story together, using as his core matter the story of Andromeda, the princess rescued by Perseus from sacrifice to at the hands of her own father, the Ethiopian King. He added to the simple story by making the princess a lost-and-found child, and then had a priest interpret the extraordinary events as a situation orchestrated by the god in question - the Sun - to show that such an act was not desired by him. Then Heliodorus set about working out what such an orchestration might be, and this proved fairly easy since Apollo, the god of prophesy and patron of Delphi was also a Sun god. It is easy enough for the god behind the oracular proclamations of Delphi to orchestrate events, and sure enough it is such an oracle which brings about the princesses return to Ethiopia.
In such a non-linear manner did this master of plot build up the story, with the result that the reader only comprehends all of this at the very end of the book. Had Aristotle lived on to read the novel he would surely have been as well pleased with it as would Plato and Socrates.
The indentification of the female protagonist Chariclea with Andromeda is strong in the book, and that of her lover Theagenes with Achilles is equally strong. Here we see more of this business of all the parts having a function to play in accordance with the one central idea, because Achilles, a millenia before the time in which The Ethiopian Story is set, protected Iphegeneia from sacrifice at the hands of her own father. A version of the story held that Iphegeneia and Achilles then had a son, Neoptolemus, and in Heliodorus' story it is this Neoptolemus to whom the ceremony at Delphi is dedicated and from whom Theagenes is descended, just as Chariclea has Andromeda as her ancestor.
But just as, by making Theagenes a latter day Achilles, Chariclea in turn becomes linked to Iphegenia as well as Andromeda, so too does Theagenes play the role of Perseus as her heroic consort. It is this more covert association that becomes the key to unlocking the big Mystery of The Ethiopian Story.
[then into Perseus bull-leap as in blog posting]