The famous folksong
There is a famous Greek folksong titled “The Lay of the Dead Brother”. It is about the tragic story of a mother with nine sons and a daughter of renowned beauty. The mother fears that she will lose her daughter to marriage in a faraway land. An eligible suitor from abroad does appear, and the marriage takes place at the insistent urging of her youngest son, Konstantinos, who dearly loves his sister. Konstantinos swears to his mother that should a need arise, he will go abroad himself and bring back his sister. Time goes by and all the nine sons, including Konstantinos, are slain in a raid. His mother calls to Konstantinos from the grave to rise and go to fetch his sister. The story is about the forcefulness of a son’s oath to his mother, that transcends the rules of life and death.
The Angel of Ashes is based on “The Lay of the Dead Brother,” but it goes beyond to create a new myth.
The hero of the novel is Konstantinos of the folksong. After dying, he has wandered for a thousand years seeking his identity and purpose. Now, in the society of the 21st century he is closer than ever to unlock the secrets that will enable him to fulfill the promise to his mother, by retrieving from Hades his beloved sister. Instrumental to this effort is Phoebus, a famous musician striving to escape from the superficiality of modern life. And he comes to live near the Gates of Hades*, at the Acherousian Lake*.
Phoebus’ music and affection hold the key to Konstantinos’ purpose.
The two principal characters of the story, Phoebus and Konstantinos, are emotionally united in that they both share a profound uncertainty about their purpose in life. They carry with them different worlds and different memories. Konstantinos’ quest is to remember his thousand years wandering, Phoebus’ is the outcome of his frantic ascent to glory and fame and his subsequent disillusionments. They approach each other through tenderness and compassion and together help each other along the paths leading to self-knowledge.
They seek their soul by different ways, Konstantinos coming from erebus*, Phoebus as a contemporary man, who with his music will obliterate the inaccessibility of Hades.
* Gates of Hades: A site in northwestern Greece known from Homeric times as the mythical place of the Dead;
Its ruined structure exists even today.
* Acherousian Lake: The Lake on which traveled the boat carrying the souls to the Hades.
* Erebus: The darkness of Hades.
- Development of the myth
Konstantinos appears to Phoebus with all the alluring charm of a being who has existed for a thousand years, and who is endowed with supernatural powers.
He seems to function regardless of the laws of nature.
Phoebus is fascinated by him and trusts him, despite his questions about Konstantinos’ origins and history. In turn, Phoebus’ devotion is the key that liberates Konstantinos’ body and memories about his past and purpose, breaking the vicious circle of remembrance and forgetfulness that he has had to endure so many centuries. Each memory is triggered by different experiences, such as a smell or a sound, which function like codes that help Konstantinos guide his mind into his past. He re-discovers his initiation into Orphic knowledge and the power to control the mysteries of matter.
The stronger he becomes, the more Phoebus’ devotion moves him.
But remembrance is also grievous. He relives the centuries of thirst, persecution, and the revenge of the Dark God, the Invisible* Hades. Eventually, he reaches the final stage of his thousand-year-long wanderings: he remembers his death and his rising up from the tomb at his mother’s anakalema*. He remembers all the rituals of Hades, the Asphodel Meadow of the Souls, the mythical narcissus, the laws that govern the darkness. He also remembers how he escaped and wandered for a thousand years. With this knowledge, Konstantinos’ strength grows. Towards the end, Phoebus looks at him and feels awe: Konstantinos resembles a god or an angel.
The novel is brought to completion as Phoebus’ music of love and compassion, with the aid of the actual seven-stringed lyre of Orpheus, allows Konstantinos to descend to Hades and confront the Dark God.
* Invisible: The word “Hades” means “invisible” in Greek
* Anakalema: In Greek folk tradition, the dead may be called to rise from the grave, still dead, through the ritual of “anakalema.”
Phoebus comes from the culture of material success provided in the 21st century western society. He thus provides the reader with a rational, mortal view of Konstantinos. The Stone Tree, the White Cypress, descended from the cypress trees of Hades themselves, and Teiresias, a magical bird which Konstantinos knows as Threnopouli,* give us the supernatural perspective of Konstantinos’ wandering. The Stone Tree, which suddenly blooms that spring, and Teiresias function as the chorus of the ancient Greek tragedies, as they transcend reality. Both beings have witnessed the turning points of Konstantinos’ existence, and their lives are now intertwined with his.
The novel’s main theme is of course “The Lay of the Dead Brother” folksong. Several elements in the novel relating to existence after death have been inspired by ancient Greek texts relating to Hades and the soul. Orphic texts, Homers’ rhapsody about the geography of Hades, the ancient Greek tradition on the journey of the soul to Hades, have also been invaluable.
Character of the novel
I tried to base the mythical element in the novel, the supernatural, on contemporary science, so that the story would be solidly rooted in current knowledge. The ancient texts and Orphic materials were intended to bring together ancient myth and modern perception about the psyche and its wanderings. Even the reader who does not believe in an afterlife of the soul will find in this novel material that will be of interest, as it will cause him to reflect.
The story develops an ancient tradition of what could be the nature of existence after death. It aims to stimulate readers’ imagination in a way that is deeply routed in our intellectual history.
*Threnopouli: The mourning-bird.
Why the Angel of Ashes will interest a Western audience:
1. There is great interest today in magic and in the mythical, the supernatural, as science and technology themselves almost touch upon those realms. Today, existential questions are stronger than ever, and everyone seeks to acquire a different truth, to learn what exists in the world beyond, as established through the experience and poetry of the people.
2. All cultures across the ages long to know about the world beyond and to communicate with their departed loved ones, to acquire an image of Hades. The Angel of Ashes provides just such a poetic geography of the dwelling place of the souls, based not only on the Homeric descriptions and the imagination of the folk across the centuries, but also on current technology.
3. Despite its metaphysical dimension, the novel is a contemporary love story, human and tender. It contains tenderness, compassion, cruelty, and boundless solitude. It springs from a climate of poetry and realism.
A timely novel
In an age when death has become the ultimate humbling act, this novel explores the inner sanctum to uncover the roots of the psyche, that sacred element which comes from the wanderings through the centuries. It explores the ways of the soul prior to its ephemeral present existence. It is the other version of truth that the contemporary reader, oppressed by the arrogance of terrorism, seeks. The thousand-year-old hero is an infinitely alluring, solitary being, a forbidden creature, who nevertheless will inspire great affection. That is the power of the novel.
The Angel of Ashes gives the contemporary reader that other version of truth, through an enticing text of poetic realism.
* Adyton: Homeric word referring to the innermost sanctuary of the temple, which was not accessible to ordinary men. The term is still used today as the deep holy.
I can remind you the thought of the great man of spirit George Steiner from his book Antigones, Oxford University Press, who writes:
“Why the unbroken authority of Greek myths over the imagination of the West? Why should a handfful of Greek myths recur in the art and thought of the twentieth century to an almost obsessive degree? Why is there no end to Oedipus, to Prometheus, to Orestes, to Narcissus, no laying to rest in archaeology? Explicitly and implicitly, this has been the question underlying this study.
Poets, philosophers, anthropologists, psychologists, and even theologians have answered. Greek myths encode certain primary biological and social confrontations and self-perceptions in the history of man, they endure as an animate legacy in collective remembrance and recognition. We come home to them as to our psychic roots.
(…) Greek literature is the first we recognize and experience as such. Its identification with myths is so immediate and fertile that Greek mythology has become a constant centre or pivot of reference for all subsequent poetic invention and philosophic allegory”.