Divining the Past
One of the intense delights of writing historical fiction—even when it blends into fantasy as mine does—comes from delving into the past via research. Sometimes, before covid, that research involved travel. I write about the ancient Hittites, which took me on trips to Turkey, the location of that Bronze Age empire—to archaeological sites, museum collections, and gorgeous physical settings. Definitely fun. But other times, getting to know the past means deciphering obscure texts. You might assume “deciphering obscure texts” would not be on anyone’s list of intense delights, but you’d be wrong. Definitely on mine.
Not every moment in human history provides equal access to us today. Occasionally, the random events of war and historical preservation nearly obliterate whole cultures. This sort of erasure happened to the Hittites, a cosmopolitan and sophisticated people in the 13th century BCE whose primary rival was Egypt under Ramses II, the pharaoh in the Biblical story of Moses. Fortunately, we humans are clever about resurrecting the past through archaeology. The Hittite world thus revealed is irresistible to me for several reasons: this patriarchal society’s greatest leader was a woman, they genuinely believed in what we’d call magic, their politics and intrigue are entertaining but pragmatic, and I feel the sheer joy of escape into an exotic time and place that nonetheless feels deeply familiar.
What about those obscure texts? Among the main resources now available about the Hittites are thousands of fragmentary clay writing tablets and their proposed translations. They provide fascinating glimpses from long ago.
In my recent novel of historical fantasy, Of Kings and Griffins, I have a pivotal early scene in which the question of who will rule this vast and powerful empire rests on a divination. In the United States and elsewhere, we have elections; the Hittites had divinations. There are a surprising number of parallels. I spent hours studying the available information about divinations from tablets. Such mining into research produced a rich vein of psychological insights that I hope my readers will find refreshing.
Divinations, curses, spells, and all sorts of magic are interwoven into the Hittite way of life. In the case of my key divination scene, the diviners have determined that the gods are angry and not willing to give their blessing to a ruler until some human failure is repaired. (Imagine a scene in the White House on election eve…) The task of the diviner is to identify that failure and what must be done to fix it—and then convince the ruler-to-be to take that action. All by means of yes and no questions only. And of course, the ruler in question is listening in on this process. Tension, egos, drama. Great stuff for storytelling.
In building this scene, I faced a problem that was also a pleasure. I had to tease out from the tablets a coherent picture of what this diviner would actually say and do, and with what objects or other physical “props.” My favorite scholarly source on divinations, a dissertation by Hannah Marcuson, uses the word “opaque” of the techniques described in the tablets. Sometimes we have “scripts” of what a diviner said in a particular divination, but those words include symbolic references that are hard to interpret. Also, physical actions take place in conjunction with the words, but we can’t identify the devices used in those actions.
For a scholar, the project focuses on presenting the conflicting evidence and leaving the giant holes in it wide open. For a writer of fiction, the project requires weighing and deciding on the details to build one continuous vision, like watching a scene in a movie. No gaps or incomprehensible terms allowed. Sometimes I can fill the gaps with elements from other Hittite activities. I became a fan of Marcuson’s dissertation because she did that very effectively, gathering the actual accoutrements of my chosen divination from the known “tools of the trade” that this priestess used in different contexts. Perfect!
After I filled my head with this historical evidence, I immersed myself via imagination into the body and soul of that diviner and watched what she said and did. Writers are adults who have carried their imaginary friends into adulthood. On that writing day, my friend was a sign oracle diviner from the 13th century BCE.
Here are clipped excerpts from that scene as Kantuz, the sign oracle diviner, reads the will of the gods, with the anxious assistance of the Grand Votary and my main character Tesha, herself a priestess and political leader.
The votary leaned closer still to Kantuz’s ear. “If we cannot place Crown Prince Urhi on the throne . . . then who? Keep us from civil war. Restore the divine favor—”
“Are there forbidden questions?” Kantuz asked. Her eye caught Tesha’s.
The Grand Votary hesitated. Drops of sweat beaded on his forehead. His eyes closed for a moment and then opened again. “Listen to the gods. Ask what you must to repair whatever angers them and win them over to Crown Prince Urhi’s throne.” His voice, a whisper, nonetheless carried deep concern. In its sympathetic resonance Tesha heard genuine apprehension about the stability of the throne. She would prefer him to be easier to dislike.
. . .
Apparently, the Grand Votary trusted Kantuz, and he feared hiding the truth more than revealing it. Tesha glanced across the throne. Urhi’s posture had the hardness of ice. He and the votary might not agree on that.
Tesha exhaled and shook out her hands under the cover of her full skirts.
Kantuz lifted a variety of wooden and ceramic figurines from each relevant divider within the three boxes. Some figurines stood for a category of person, like “king” or “heir.” Others represented ideas, like “sin of the heart.” Interpreting what they meant all together when they fell onto the linen was a confusing process that took a great deal of study. Kantuz filled each of the lot vessels with these tokens.
. . .
In a strong, carrying voice, Kantuz asked, “Do the gods bless the throne of Urhi, son of Great King Muwatti?” It had never been the plan to have such a large audience for this process, but the failure of the bird augury left little choice—not for a true and honest reading.
Kantuz shook out a sign from the narrow-necked vessel and placed it at the edge of the linen cloth. Tesha stretched forward to see the carved figure—the token called the “deity.” Kantuz shook from the second vessel, and two tokens fell out. She covered each with a square of linen to mark them as the receiver tokens, the tokens that would be acted upon. Then she shook from the third vessel, and one token fell, a flat ceramic piece with a face etched into the clay and a thin gold band wrapped around it, the “king,” but with a black thread also wrapped around it to add the placement of “to the left.” Tesha swallowed, trying to free the tightness in her throat.
Kantuz uncovered the two receiver tokens and announced the answer. “The deity takes hidden anger and sickness and puts them to the left of the king. The reading of these signs is: the gods say no.” Kantuz cleared her throat and added, “I will continue the oracle to find the hindrance and clear it away.” Kantuz gave the Grand Votary a narrowed glare that pointed to the complexities she would face.
Thank you Judith for the thrilling post!
A vicious king, vengeful griffins, and a scheming goddess. Can Tesha outmaneuver foes from these three different worlds?
For Tesha, priestess and queen, happiness is a world she can control, made up of her family and the fractious kingdom she and her husband rule within the Great King’s empire. But now the Great King is dead, and his untried son plots against them. Tesha fights back with forbidden sorcery and savvy. In yet another blow, the griffin king lures Daniti, Tesha’s magical blind sister, into a deadly crisis that Daniti alone can avert.
As danger ensnares everyone Tesha loves, her goddess offers a way out. But can Tesha trust this offer of divine assistance or is it a trap—one that would lead to an unstoppable bloodbath?
Escape into this award-winning epic fantasy series, inspired by the historical Hittite empire and its most extraordinary queen.
Of Kings and Griffins, book 3 of the Tesha series, is also easily read as a standalone.