Giving Briseis her Voice by Judith Starkston

Posted by on Jan 19, 2015 in Ancient Greece, Featured Book, Historical Research | 2 comments

Hand-of-Fire185x280The 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 quick introduction to my novel, Hand of Fire. But how did I ever think of writing about this semi-mythological woman, Briseis, whom we know about only from a few lines in the Iliad, an epic poem composed by Homer more than 3,000 years ago? (By the way, there’s no need for readers of Hand of Fire to have read the Iliad or know anything about this exotic time and place before reading—that’s my job to provide the effortless time machine.)

It may sound strange but I started Hand of Fire to answer a question, and in the process I found such an engaging young woman that I had to give her the voice Homer denied her—to let Briseis tell her story.

For years I’d taught the Iliad, Homer’s poem of the Trojan War, and kept wondering with my students how Briseis could possibly have loved Achilles—which is what Homer shows us. The half-immortal Greek had killed her husband and brothers, destroyed her city and turned her from princess to slave—hardly a heartwarming courtship. She is central to the plot of the Iliad and yet she gets only a handful of lines. In those few words, the one clear notion expressed is her sorrow at being parted from Achilles.

I should say I always liked Achilles, the existential hero who calls the whole war into question—which shows he’s no brainwasher—so the answer wasn’t some ancient version of Stockholm Syndrome. I wrote Hand of Fire to solve this psychological puzzle.

I also had to find a vivid, historical source to fill in the many gaps in Briseis’s life story. Homer’s fragmentary bits weren’t enough. He tells us simply that she was a princess of Lyrnessos, a city allied to Troy, and Achilles destroyed that life. Who was she before Achilles came crashing in? What kind of woman can stand up to this semi-divine, but immensely conflicted man and hold onto her own sense of self, as she must have, to form a genuine bond with him?

Fortunately modern archaeology in the area where ancient Troy was located, that is modern Turkey, and the excavation and translation of extensive libraries of clay tablets have provided a richly detailed portrait of life in this exotic time and place. I mined this treasure trove and created a heroine who is both very much of her era, but who also represents the hope-inspiring resilience of women through the ages. Briseis faces the personal violence against her and her family that is the fate of women in war, but she finds strength to guide herself and others back to an affirmation of life.

Judith Starkston, January 19, 2015


  1. I recently had a chance to go to the Getty Museum in Malibu, CA, the one that is an imitation Roman Villa where they keep rooms and rooms of Greek, Roman and Etruscan Art. There were many vase paintings of the Briseis story that made me think of your book. Have you ever been there? I think you would enjoy it. We were there on a rainy day but it was still wonderful. Right now they have a special exhibit of glassware from that era. Imagine! It was just fabulous.

  2. Love your post, Judith–you set out to do for Briseis what I did for Arthur’s queen in my Guinevere Trilogy so I very much appreciate where you’re coming from. (Surely ‘euhemerists,’ like code-breakers, are a breed apart, and we never make it easy on ourselves.) I just finished reading Miller’s “Song of Achilles” so am much in the mood for hearing the priestess’ side of things. Wishing you much good luck and fine reviews…you’re already ahead with an engaging cover.