Lugh and the Lunasad

Mercury by Hendrick Goltzius, 300 pixelsLugh or Lú was a Celtic god with a long pedigree. He was part of Irish mythology in pre-Christian Ireland, that is, the centuries before 400 AD.

But the Celts arrived in Ireland around 275 BC, bringing their culture and their religious beliefs with them, including Lugh.

The god’s name gives some indication of his journey through time.

The Celts in Gaul and Iberia called him Lugus. The syllable “lo” in Apollo may indicate some connection between Lugh and Apollo, especially because the Indo-European root word of leuk means “flashing light,” and Lugh is believed to derive from leuk.

Yet the meaning “flashing light” seems more likely to refer to lightning than the sun. Indeed, the Breton luc’h and the Cornish lughes both mean “lightning-flash.” (Lugh may have been a predecessor to the Norse god Thor.)

Of even more interest to me was the well-established fact that the Gaulish Lugus was considered by the ancient Romans to be the Gauls’ version of Mercury. Mercury was the patron god of commerce, contracts, eloquence, messages, travelers, and trade.

While the Gaulish Lugus was a master of all arts and oversaw journeys and business transactions.

Vercingetorix  throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar

These mentions of Lugus and Mercury occurred during the time of Julius Caesar in the 1st century BC, roughly 280 years after the events in Fate’s Door. The thing is, while the ancient Greeks of the 4th century BC make mention of the Keltoi, they do not describe the Keltic religious beliefs. I was going to have to do some extrapolating.

My first decision: Lugh’s name. The western Celts in later periods seemed to move toward the ending sound of “g” as is given or “ch” as in chosen. How might the pronunciation of earlier Keltoi who moved east to settle have changed? Did they stay with the “k” sound from from leuk?

Lugus altar stoneSince I really had no true indication – I’d have to guess – I decided to stick with the name used in pre-Christian Ireland, Lugh, rhyming with Hugh. Perhaps we moderns might have spelled the name of my 4th century BC Keltic god as Leu. But I decided to keep it simple. So, Lugh.

There are many stories about Lugh in Irish mythology, but the one that caught my attention concerned Lugh and his foster mother Tailtiu. Tailtiu was the goddess who cleared the plains of Ireland for agriculture.

What if this were a very old story that traveled with the Celts as they left central Europe and was modified to relate to their new surroundings? I could imagine the myth as originating in the lands along the Danube river, where Lugh’s foster mother cleared the plains of what is now Hungary and Romania for agriculture.

Like the Hellenes who created lesser gods associated with local springs and valleys (in addition to their supreme Olympians), so did the Keltoi revere local features. And the most dominant nature goddess would have been Danu, the spirit of the mighty Danube river.

Therefore I mapped the story of the Irish Lugh onto the territories of the Keltoi.

In the 4th century BC of Fate’s Door, Lugh was fostered by Danu. Like the Irish Tailtiu, Danu was exhausted by her labor and unable to fight off the demons of blight and famine. Her son Lugh fought in her stead to preserve his mother’s legacy, but he was overcome and imprisoned. Yet just as the stalk of grain is cut down and springs renewed from the earth after its seed is planted, so does Lugh prevail. He rises to new strength after his capture, defeating the demons, and then presiding as sovereign over the agricultural cycle of fertility.

The Irish Celts celebrated Lugh in a festival that marked the beginning of the harvest season, around the beginning of August. This was the Lunasad, which included visits to nearby holy sites, athletic contests, dance, feasting, trading, and a ritual play enacting Lugh’s fight against the demons of blight and famine.

Hermes LogiosI decided that my Keltoi would celebrate a similar festival. As it happened that Nerine – the heroine of Fate’s Door – would arrive at the stronghold of the Keltic High King in early August, she would naturally participate in that festival. The dancing, the feasting, and the High King’s courtesy to her would delight Nerine, but one of the religious rites would disturb her deeply and propel her further along her inner journey.

Early in my research on the Keltoi, I learned of the connection between Lugus and Mercury and decided that a similar connection existed between Lugh and Hermes. Hermes, as the patron of orators, poets, athletes, invention, travellers and trade, would possess a similar affinity to Lugh. It also worked beautifully with my choice for Nerine to travel across Europe under the protection of an elite cohort of Hermes’ warriors.

For more about Nerine’s world, see:
The Keltoi of Európi
Vertical Looms
Names in Ancient Greece
Warships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Calendar of the Ancient Mediterranean
Ground Looms
Lapadoússa, an isle of Pelagie
Merchant Ships of the Ancient Mediterranean



Crossing the Danube

In the 4th century BC, a well-established trade route led from the Aegean Sea across Europe to the southern shore of the Baltic Sea. It was called the Amber Road, because amber washed up on the beaches of the Baltic was brought south along it to the Mediterranean civilizations, where that substance was greatly prized.

Baltic amber with fossil inclusions

The route was not a nicely paved continuous road, of course. Rather it was an established route through the terrain that avoided difficult mountains and hostile peoples, and likely included arrangements with friendly tribes for the purchase of shelter, food for the traders, and fodder for the horses.

One route postulated for the Amber Road connects Italy to the Baltic, but it probably came into use during the dominance of the ancient Romans. My story, Fate’s Door, takes places when the Hellenes were more influential, as well as ancient Persia and other city-states in the eastern Mediterranean.

Map of Europe and the Amber RoadAdditionally, there were established trade routes north from the Aegean following the Vardar River and then the Great Morava River to the Danube.

From the Danube, the River Tisza leads up to the Carpathian Mountains, a relatively gentle, non-alpine series of ridges. The Vistula River flows from the Carpathians to the Baltic, providing a simple last leg of the journey north.

This is the route I envision my heroine Nerine following when she travels with her escort of guards across Europe.

Not all the rivers or all portions of the rivers are navigable by boat, so I have the group riding along roads and paths beside the rivers. Indeed, the Keltoi living in central Europe at the time were famous for their network of roads and the trade that passed along them.

Because the route follows the Vardar from its mouth to its source, and the Great Morava from its source to its mouth, I reasoned that Nerine and her guard would find places near the sources of these streams where the water was relatively shallow and safe to ford. The same could be said of the Tisza and the Vistula.

This was an important point, because the ancient Hellenes focused more on travel by sea than travel by land, and were not the great bridge and aqueduct builders that the ancient Romans were.

The Danube River gave me serious pause. Clearly, since amber was regularly traded during this time (and before), the ancient traders possessed a way to cross the Danube. But there would be no fording it or wading it. How would they get themselves, their supplies, and their trade goods to the other bank?

Danube River in Ritopek, Serbia

Nerine comments that the Danube must more than 4 stadia wide when she first sees it. That is, more than half a mile, or close to a kilometer, from bank to bank.

I researched river boats in the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age, and discovered that the peoples of central Europe had them and made extensive use of them for both fishing and river trade.

But what were these boats like? Could they have carried the horses of traders (or those of Nerine and her escort) across the Danube?

Luckily for me, a group of experimental archaeologists decided to construct a “sewn-plank” boat from the Bronze Age. It was a sea-going vessel, but seemed a reasonable proto-type for the boats the Keltoi may have plied on the Danube and the navigable reaches of the Great Morava and other rivers, for trade and for hunting the vast sturgeon that swam those waters on the cusp between pre-history and history.

Bronze Age Morgawr

Their boats were no mere hollowed-out tree trunks, but skillfully constructed vessels using thick planks, an intricate system of cleats and slots to fit the timbers together, and “ropes” of yew withies, passed through holes in the wood and knotted to bind the planks together.

Moss was used to fill the seams between the planks, and beeswax to seal the yew withy “stitches.” The video below shows how these stitches were made.

The experimental archaeologists were successful in their project, and they used authentic tools and methods in their building of the Morgawr. The news coverage of the boat’s launch calls it a shaky maiden voyage, but I believe they were taking some journalist license to gain an attention-catching headline. The Morgawr was expected to ship water until the timbers swelled and shut the inevitable leaks.

These sewn-plank boats were large, roughly 50 feet long (16 meters) and 8 feet wide (2.5 meters).

But, but, but!

Their method of construction meant that the bottom was chock full of blocky cleats. As I stared at the photo, I couldn’t imagine a horse stepping into the vessel easily and then standing there patiently on the uneven footing, while the boat swayed and moved on the water.

Nerine, her guards, and their material goods could cross the river in these boats. I would have to find another way for the horses. Could they swim?

The first thing that came to mind were the ponies of Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia in the United States. The ponies are tough and semi-wild. And every year in the summer, they are rounded up to swim across the sea channel between Assateague Island and Chincoteague Island.

How wide was this channel? And how long did it take the ponies to swim it?

That information was readily found. The channel is roughly half a mile across and it takes about 4 minutes for a pony to swim it.

The mounts of the ancient Greeks were small and tough, like the Chincoteague ponies, closer to the primitive horse than the highly bred horses of our modern era. They had black manes, tails, and legs. Their body color was golden brown with a black stripe along the back from the neck to the tail.

It seemed clear that just as the Chincoteague ponies could swim the Assateague Channel, so the horses of Nerine’s cohort could swim the Danube.

Equus ferus caballus pony

I had found the way for Nerine, the Poniró Peltastés (Nerine’s escort guards), their supplies, and their mounts to cross the Danube.

But the Danube is a mighty river with the powerful current that a large roil of water produces. Adventure awaits those who dare its dynamic flow! 😀

For more about Nerine’s world, see:
Vertical Looms
Names in Ancient Greece
Warships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Calendar of the Ancient Mediterranean
Ground Looms
Lapadoússa, an isle of Pelagie
Merchant Ships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Garb of the Sea People

For more about sewn-plank boats, see:
Noth Ferriby’s Bronze Age Boats
The Ferriby Boats
The Morgawr

For more about the primitive horse, see:
The Polish Primitive Horse
The Mongolian Wild Horse

For more about the Chincoteague ponies, see:
The Chincoteague Pony
Assateague Island National Seashore
Chincoteague Island Pony Swim



The Keltoi of Európi was very late to this party.

For decades I thought of Celtic culture as located in the British Isles. You might tour Scotland to see sites and artifacts of the Picts and the Gaels, or Ireland to hear Celtic music, or Wales to visit Celtic burial mounds.

I remember I was confused when I saw that the album notes in Loreena McKennit’s The Book of Secrets referred to her exploration of Celtic music in Spain and Morocco. “There were Celts in Spain?!” I thought. “That makes no sense!”

Yes, I was clueless. I did enlarge my idea of where Celtic culture might be found on the globe.

But it was not until my heroine in Fate’s Door was due to travel across Európi that I adjusted my skewed view to mesh with reality. Why I didn’t remember that the ancient Greeks referred to the tribes north of the Hellenic penninsula as Keltoi, I’ll never know.

No, that’s not true. I have a terrible memory. Of course I didn’t remember a detail like that.

The moment Nerine set off from the Isles of Pelagie (the three islands in the Mediterranean between Italy and Tunisian), I started researching. First the geography around Mount Olympus, because she would come to land there, and then the Keltoi living in lands both north and south of the Danube.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the origin of the Celtic peoples was in central Europe in the 8th century BC. I studied various maps showing the spread of their cultural ideas, expanding slowly from what is now Austria, to encompass France and Hungary, and – eventually – Persia, Spain, and then the British Isles.

Celts in Europe

Once Nerine reached the Great Morava River (the Moirios), she would be traveling through the lands of the Keltoi, the Keltic tribes. And she would not leave the Keltoi until she crossed the Carpathian Mountains.

(I use the word Celtic when referring to modern day Celts, but Keltic when referring to the ancient Keltoi.)

So what about these Keltoi of Európi? What were they like? There’s a fair amount of archeological evidence from which to draw knowledge.

Celtic_Gold-plated_Disc,_Auvers-sur-Oise,_Val-d'OiseThey possessed the fiery temperament one associates with the Celts, liking a good fight, and some portion of them were red-headed. More were blond. They wore plaid cloaks and golden torcs. They used spiraling patterns or decoration on their jewelry, weapons, home furnishings, and grave goods. In fact, they were recognizably Celtic, even to my modern eye.

The ancient Greeks viewed the Keltoi as barbarians, yet their cultural mores were not barbaric, but rather remarkably civilized. They possessed a monetary system, they maintained extensive trade routes through their territories and traded tin, lead, iron, silver, and gold for amber from the north, silk from the east, and copper from the Aegean. Women’s roles were less circumscribed than for their counterparts in Hellenic society, some of them pursuing warrior’s training, a few even holding power as kings.

Pliny credited the Keltoi with the invention of soap, saying that they cleansed themselves regularly and often – but with soap and water rather than oil and strigil.

golden torcThey were sophisticated enough to have evolved differentiated social classes: a warrior aristocracy; an intellectual stratum including druids, poets, and jurists; and everyone else.

Of course, what primarily interested me were the elements that my heroine Nerine would notice. What did their houses look like? What clothes did they wear? What hospitality would they offer guests?

I discovered that one of their gods, Lugh, was equated with the Hellenic Hermes, the god of trade, roads, and travelers, among other things. Since Nerine was traveling under the protection of Hermes, this seemed an excellent motive for friendly relations between her party and the Keltic leaders, especially since the Keltoi engaged in trade so thoroughly.

Thorsberg costumeThe Keltoi wore clothing woven of wool and linen and, sometimes, among the wealthy, silk. The weave of the fabric was often very fine and even. Men wore tunics and trews, the trews sometimes footed, to cover the feet as socks might. These inner garments might be either solid or plaid, but the cloak worn over them generally was plaid. In especially bitter weather, another cloak of sheepskin went atop the wool cloak.

Nerine’s travel garments were modeled after those recovered from the Thorsberg moor, fine garments deposited as votive offerings, but likely of the quality worn by kings. The Thorsberg tunic and trews were solid cream, while I made Nerine’s a soft plaid of white and cream. The Thorsberg cloak was woven in blues, Nerine’s in greens.

0877_Keltische_Frau_im_3._Jh._v._ChrKeltic women wore dresses or a tunic and skirt, often with a plaid scarf pinned by a brooch. Like the men, they donned a light wool cloak in summer, a heavier one together with sheepskin in winter. Both men and women wore belts, leather for ordinary folk, braided gold or silver for the nobility. Boots were rare, but carefully fashioned leather shoes, common. Women wore trews when they rode horses.

I found two reconstructions of Keltic dwellings. The one – in Havranok, Slovakia – features log walls and roofs seemingly formed of stacked twig bundles. I took this style for my Keltoi living in the lands south of the Danube along the Great Morava.


The other style – from a reconstruction in Altburg, Germany – showed half-timbered walls, with panels of plastered wattle-and-daub, and thatched roofs. I took these buildings as models for the Keltoi villages north of the Danube along the Tisza River.

Bund-ro-altburg-BAll of the Keltic settlements were clustered around the hill fort of their chieftain or king.

The Keltoi as a people venerated hundreds of gods and goddesses, because their gods tended to be local: the deity of a particular lake or spring or grove. River goddesses were particularly popular, and thus the goddess of the Danube would have been honored by many tribes. Certain skills – such as smithing, the use of weapons, and the gift for bardic poetry – were also believed to possess an animating divinity, giving rise to gods such as Lugh, reputed to be many-skilled.

Nerine arrives at the settlement of the Keltic high king on the day of Lugh’s festival and participates in the celebration, much of which enchants her, although its conclusion disturbs and disgusts her.

For more about Nerine’s world, see:
Names in Ancient Greece
Warships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Calendar of the Ancient Mediterranean
Ground Looms
Lapadoússa, an isle of Pelagie
Merchant Ships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Garb of the Sea People
Measurement in Ancient Greece



Vertical Looms

Nanjing brocade loomMy fates in Fate’s Door are spirits of time and thus less anchored within time as is everyone else. Many of the materials they weave into their tapestry of the world come from sources in the future or the distant past. Their loom is itself from the future, a vast floor loom in the style used by weavers of Nanjing brocade.

But Fate’s Door is set in the 4th century BC, which means that the peoples of the Mediterranean world are using vertical looms.

Icelandic warp-weighted loomMy heroine, the sea nymph Nerine, is familiar with the ground loom – the earliest loom developed, dating from 6000 BC – because one of her land dwelling friends prefers the ground loom. But when Nerine visits the land palace on Lapadoússa, she sees only vertical looms in use.

Now the scenes of my story, when they include work at a loom, feature only Calla’s ground loom and the massive beast of a loom at which the three fates weave. The vertical loom remains merely an offstage presence. But I wanted to know more about it, because it would set Nerine’s expectations for what a loom is and what she would imagine the fate’s loom to be.

On a vertical loom, the long warp strands hang from a high bar which is supported by two sturdy posts. This frame can be upright and steadied by framed footings or leaned against a wall.

The warp threads themselves are kept taut by weights tied onto the end of each bundle of threads. Often extra thread might be wound around these weights. Since the cloth was woven from top to bottom, the weaver might wind the finished cloth around the top bar and then unwind more thread from each weight, allowing her to weave a cloth longer than the loom was high.

Saxon Loom Weights

A heddle bar at roughly waist height allows the weaver to pull every other warp thread forward and then pass the weft thread across, with half the warp on front of it and the other half behind if. Moving the heddle bar back allows the foremost warp threads to fall back, creating an alternate “shed” through which to pass the weft.

Heddle on a Vertical Loom

Using a vertical loom required more strength than weaving at a ground loom, because the weaver must stand, she must reach up to weave the first portion of her cloth (a tiring position), and she must walk back and forth, if her cloth is wide.

Ancient Greek vaseArtemidorus Daldianus, a Hellene diviner of the 2nd century AD, said that dreaming of a vertical loom meant an upcoming journey, while dreaming of a ground loom or a backstrap loom meant rest. No doubt because of all the walking that weavers did during their days.

In the video below, the weaver (in ancient Hellene garb) is weaving a coarse cloth with coarse thread, but the ancients were capable of spinning their flax and their wool very fine. And their cloth of these threads or of imported silk could be a very high quality, especially if it was destined for the use of a wealthy household.

For more about the world of Fate’s Door, see:
Warships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Calendar of the Ancient Mediterranean
Ground Looms
Lapadoússa, an isle of Pelagie
Merchant Ships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Garb of the Sea People
Measurement in Ancient Greece
Horse Sandals and the 4th Century BC



Names in Ancient Greece

The_Three Fates - Paul ThumannThe first stages of dreaming up a new story, for me, usually start with the question, “Where?”

When I wrote Troll-magic, the answer to that question was, “The enchanting place I see in the paintings by Kay Nielsen.” I had to invent that world, of course, and it became my North-lands.

Fate Door began a little more strangely. I was trying a writerly trick known to spark stories a little different from what a writer normally comes up with.

The trick?

Look around the room you are in. Pick an item that catches your attention. Use it to generate a story.

I’m not going to tell you the object that caught my eye. It would act as a spoiler, and I definitely don’t want to spoil my own story for you!

However, the object very quickly led me to my usual question, “Where?” The where was the cottage of the three fates. And the who was the sea nymph working as the fates’s handmaiden.

forest cottage

Once I got that far, I needed a name for my sea nymph. I decided to look amongst the names of sea nymphs mentioned in Greek mythology. There are hundreds of them! The nymphs in Poseidon’s harem. The nymphs in Tethys’ retinue. The nymphs who reared Hera as a child. And on and on. I made a list of the ones I liked best.

Most of them had meanings, many of the meanings quite similar. There was Romy ‘dew of the sea,’ Inara ‘ray of light,’ and Marilla ‘shining sea.’ But the one I chose was Nerine, meaning simply ‘sea nymph.’

Since the first scenes of my novel took place in the cottage of the fates, I needed names for the fates, a good idea of what the cottage looked like, and then I was ready to write.

Gregale_cliffs_lampedusaI wrote the events in the cottage, and I discovered that I needed to take Nerine back into her memories and write about her childhood in the Middle Sea (the Mediterranean). So long as she stayed within the bosom of her family, her first name alone was enough. But when she ventured further afield, I needed more.

Since the Greek gods and their attendant nymphs were creations of the Hellene culture, I decided that my people of the sea would follow Hellene naming conventions. Which meant I needed to know what they were. My research took some persistence. I didn’t immediately find what I needed. Finally, after much digging, when my frustration was rising, I found the information I sought.

It described the Athenian convention, and the Athenian way seemed good to me, even if other city-states might follow a different variation.

An ancient Athenian would have three names. The first was a personal given name, such as Hypatia, meaning ‘highest’ or ‘exceptional.’

The second name derived from the father’s name. Thus, ‘child of Amyntas.’ (Amyntas means ‘defender.) ‘Child of Amyntas’ would be rendered as Amyntiou.

The third name was the demotic name. That is, it indicated which deme or region of the land around Athens that the family belonged to. Thus, if the family was from Sounion, the demotic name would be Sounieus.

Which gives us Hypatia Amyntiou Sounieus.

Coral Reef

What does this mean for my heroine?

Her father’s name is Meren, and she lives in the region of Pelagie. Thus . . .

Nerine Merenou Pelagieus.

When Nerine meets Altairos’ restless older brother, Hilarion, he asks Nerine her name. She must answer in full. It would be improper not to. And my research – eventually – yielded up what she would say. 😀

For more about Nerine’s world, see:
Calendar of the Ancient Mediterranean
Ground Looms
Lapadoússa, an isle of Pelagie
Merchant Ships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Garb of the Sea People
Measurement in Ancient Greece
Horse Sandals and the 4th Century BC
Knossos, Model for Altairos’ Home

Photo credit for the woodland surrounding the cottage above: Forest by Ian Britton, used under a Creative Commons license from



Warships of the Ancient Mediterranean

Siege of TyreThe ancient Phoenicians were seafarers, and they created the first real maritime civilization in the Mediterranean Sea around 1550 BC.

The ancient Egyptians had mounted various sea expeditions earlier, but the Phoenicians established regular trade routes between their numerous city-states, from Tyre in the east to Tingis in the west on the Strait of Gibraltar, and everywhere in between.

Thus the Phoenicians were the first to develop truly sturdy, seaworthy ships and all the arts that go with shipbuilding and sailing. The later Mediterranean civilizations learned from the Phoenicians, and individual sea captains recognized the Phoenicians – even after their dominance faded – as masters of the sea.

The first warships – needed to protect the sea routes – were slim craft with a shallow draft and propelled by oarsmen, but possessing a sail to take advantage of favorable winds when possible. The ancient Greeks named these warcraft for the number of oars propelling the vessel.

Thus the early 30-oared warship (15 on each side) was the triaconter, from triakontoroi or “thirty-oars.”

And the later 50-oared warship (25 on each side) was the penteconter, from pentekontoroi or “fifty-oars.”


By the time of my novel Fate’s Door (352 BC – 329 BC), warship technology had advanced considerably. The early warships served more as fighting platforms for the warriors, who would seek to board an enemy ship and subdue its warriors in man-to-man combat. Later warships had catapults aboard for assaulting the enemy with missiles. Even more important, their prows possessed bronze-clad rams for ramming enemy ships and sinking them.

This meant that swift maneuvering was essential, as well as increased power and speed. The only way to get that was by adding more oars to the ship. And the best way to add oars was to add another bank of oars, one bank of rowers on a lower level and another bank of rowers on an upper level.

These double-banked warships were soon made obsolete by triple-banked warships. The ancient Romans called them triremes, and that is the name we modern folk use as well. But the ancient Greeks called them triereis or, in the singular, a trieres, literally meaning “three-rower.”

These were peerless warships, and the ancient Greek city-states built fleets of them, cementing the Hellene domination of the Mediterranean Sea.

Greek Galleys

As history unfolded, the desire for ever more powerful ships grew. Adding a fourth bank of oars was impractical, but adding another man to each oar was not. When the extra man sat on the top bench, the ship was known as a tetreres or “four-rower.”

When one extra man sat on the top bench and another extra man sat on the middle bench, the ship was a penteres or “five-rower.” At the time of Fate’s Door, the penteres was a new development. Most fleets had but one, and it was the flagship of the fleet.

Altairos boasts to Nerine (the protagonist of Fate’s Door) that each of his father’s warfleets has at least one penteres, reassuring her that he will not be in danger when he accompanies the fleets to challenge the pirates preying on their trade ships.

Oarsmen diagram

The diagram above shows the rowing arrangement for a trieres. One thranites sat on the top bench with his oar passing through a lock in the side of the projecting outrigger of the ship.

One zygites sat on a middle bench, recessed into the deck, with his oar passing through a lock in the floor of the outrigger.

And one thalamites sat on the lowest bench with his oar passing through a lock in the side of the ship.

In 1985, the reconstruction of an ancient trireme was started by a shipbuilder in Piraeus, using drawings by naval architect John F. Coates. Coates developed his drawings through long consultation with historian J.S. Morrison.


In 1987, the Olympias was launched and put to sea trials. In the most successful of these, the ship achieved a speed of 9 knots (10 mph or 17 km/h). It was able to execute 180-degree turns in less than 60 seconds and within an arc of two and a half ship-lengths.

Given that this maneuverability was achieved with an inexperienced crew of volunteers, there was reason for the enthusiasm of the ancients for the trireme. It was indeed the “Dreadnought of the Mediterranean.”

For more about the world of Fate’s Door, see:
Ground Looms
Lapadoússa, an isle of Pelagie
Merchant Ships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Garb of the Sea People
Measurement in Ancient Greece
Horse Sandals and the 4th Century BC
Knossos, Model for Altairos’ Home

For more about the Olympias, see:
The Olympias on Wikipedia
The Trireme Trust, dedicated to disseminating information about the Olympias
The Sea Trials of the Olympias on YouTube



Calendar of the Ancient Mediterranean

sundialThe people of the ancient Mediterranean world did not follow a common calendar.

For example, in Athens the year began just after mid-summer. But in Boeotia – a mere 50 miles (80 kilometers) away – the year began in mid-winter. Nor were their names for the months (or moons) the same.

Fortunately, as I wrote Fate’s Door, I found I did not need month names. The people of the ancient world were not nearly as tied to a written calendar or a strict accounting for the passage of time as we moderns are.

The season was a much more relevant concept. The land dwellers needed to know when to plant seed and when to harvest crops. The seafarers needed to know how the weather would behave. My sea numeni – living beneath the waves – were interested in the temperature of the water and the behavior of the currents.

Written calendars of the time tended to get out of sync with the seasons and then require an arbitrary jump to make them match. Paying attention to the natural world, rather than the man-made calendar, was much more useful to the folk who really needed to know what was upcoming.

Thus my characters in Fate’s Door tend to refer to the spring, the summer, the autumn, and the winter. Or the morning, the noontide, the afternoon, and the evening.

I didn’t need month names. Nor did I need precise measures for minutes or hours.

Full MoonBut I did need months and weeks. A journey might take three months. An event might be planned for next week.

The months were easy. The ancients definitely used the moon to plot the passage of time. Thus they might say that travelling overland from Thérma to the coast of Balder’s Sea (the Baltic Sea) would take three moons.

But the weeks were harder, because the ancients of the Hellenic world didn’t divide their moons into 4 weeks. In my story, I had started out as referring to weeks as sevendays. Halfway through the manuscript, it occurred to me to check my assumption.

Moon waxing, 100 pixelsIn my North-lands stories, the lowlanders have 7-day weeks, but the mountain dwelling Hammarleedings have 8-day weeks. Perhaps the ancients of our world used some number of days other than 7.

Oh, wow, did they ever! It was good I checked. The Athenians, at least, divided the moon (or month) into thirds!

This is how it worked. A moon was either 29 or 30 days long. The short ones were known as “hollow,” while the long ones were known as “full.”

The first day of the month was called noumenia or “new moon.” The next 9 days were called “2nd rising,” “3rd rising,” all the way up to “10th rising.” These first ten days were grouped as the “moon waxing.”

Moon full, 100 pixelsThe next 10 days were grouped as the “moon full.” In this group, the numbers of the days ran from 11 to 19, but they were usually called “first over ten” (for the 11th) and “second over ten” (the 12th) and so on, up to “ninth over ten” for the 19th. The 20th day was called “earlier 10th,” not “the 20th” or “tenth over ten.”

The last 10 days were grouped as the “moon waning.” And the numbering of these days is the most confusing to my modern sensibilities. It goes backwards!

The first day of this group was called the “later 10th.” Next came “9th waning” and “8th waning” all the way down to “2nd waning.” The very last day of the month was called hene kai nea, meaning “the old and the new.”

Moon waning variants, 211 pixelsIn months with only 29 days, “moon waning” counted down from “later tenth” to “3rd waning” and then went directly to “the old and the new.” A “hollow” moon simply did not have a “2nd waning.”

With this emphasis on tens – “10th rising,” “earlier 10th,” and “later tenth” – it seemed pretty clear to me that the unit of 10 days was the important one. And as I envisioned the communities featured in Fate’s Door as following the lead of dominant Athens, I chose that 10-day unit for my “week.” What general term did the Athenians use when they spoke of their “moon waxing” or their “moon full” or their “moon waning”?

Alas, I could find no mention of such a term. Perhaps a scholar of the classics might be able to enlighten me, but none of my circle of acquaintance – that I know of – has studied ancient Greek.

I thought about choosing tenday, just as I might use sevenday for a 7-day week. But I wanted something a little more evocative of my ancient Hellenic setting. I decided to borrow from the traditional Greek numerical prefixes.

Di- or duo- for 2. Tri for 3. Tetra for 4. And on up. Deka- is 10. So I coined the deka-day.

Then I went through my manuscript replacing every use of sevenday with deka-day! 😀

For more about the world of Fate’s Door, see:
Lapadoússa, an isle of Pelagie
Merchant Ships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Garb of the Sea People
Measurement in Ancient Greece
Horse Sandals and the 4th Century BC
Knossos, Model for Altairos’ Home



Ground Looms

Linen Handkerchief, 300 pixelsWhen I started writing Fate’s Door – a book in which the three fates who weave the destiny of the world play important roles – I expected that I would need to learn a lot about weaving. What I didn’t expect was that weaving would enter the story before my heroine got anywhere near the cottage of the fates.

But so it was.

Nerine is a young sea nymph. She makes friends with a boy who lives on land: Altairos. And Altairos naturally introduces her to his nurse, Calla. Calla begins teaching Nerine to weave. And there I was, needing to know more about the textile arts. 😀

The culture of the Mediterranean in the Hellenistic era used vertical looms, and I’ll be writing a blog post about them soon. But Calla prefers the more ancient style of loom: the ground loom.

Women at a loom. From a tomb at Beni-Hassan.There is archaeological evidence that Neolithic peoples as far back as 6000 BC used ground looms, but the ancient Egyptians used them as well, from 5000 BC until sometime after 1550 BC, when the vertical loom was developed.

Calla could have requested either type of loom for herself. She is greatly honored and loved by the royal family of Zakynthos, and they would have provided whatever she wanted. But the vertical loom requires greater strength from the weaver, as well as a lot of standing, and Calla is old. She wants to weave while sitting.

Calla’s loom is a much finer version of the ground loom than the original instrument used in 6000 BC.

The very first ground looms were simply four sticks plunged into the soil, one pair placed roughly 3 feet apart in front of the weaver and another pair – also 3 feet apart – placed 6 to 10 feet away from the weaver.

Narrow beams at each end were secured to the sticks, and the warp threads were tied to the beams. Two sticks (lease rods) were used to lift the long warp threads on these early looms, allowing the short weft threads to be passed across the warp.

Later on, the heddle was invented, providing a more convenient way to separate the warp strands.

Two Heddles

As looms became more sophisticated, so did heddle design. But the heddles for a ground loom were essentially two rods with loops of string attaching every other warp thread to one and the alternate every other warp thread to the other.

The weaver would lift one heddle into the heddle jacks – two Y-shaped sticks, one on either side of the warp threads – and pass the shuttle through. After beating the weft thread firmly against the previous weft thread, she would lift the first heddle down, lift the other heddle into the jacks, and pass the shuttle across again.

Nomadic people still use these simple ground looms, because they are so portable. You just pull the sticks out of the ground and pack the whole kit and caboodle up.

But Calla weaves in the comfort of her own home, and her loom is created by finely smoothed wooden cylinders set into a raised platform faced by tiles. Brackets along the sides of the platform allow her to move the heddle jacks as the fabric progresses. As the working edge of the fabric moves away from her, she can either sit at the side of the loom to continue weaving, or place a cushion below the fabric and sit directly on it.

The fabric in the video below is a very coarse one, woven loosely of coarse thread. But it is possible to weave very fine cloth on such a loom. The ancient Egyptians used flax threads so fine and smooth, and wove it so skillfully, that the resulting linen was fit for royalty. Indeed, it was in great demand for export to Arabia and India due to its high quality.

For more about the world of Fate’s Door, see:
Merchant Ships of the Ancient Mediterranean
Garb of the Sea People
Measurement in Ancient Greece
Horse Sandals and the 4th Century BC
Knossos, Model for Altairos’ Home

For more about ground looms and weaving on them, see:
Nomadic Looms
Flax and Linen in Pharaonic Egypt
Ancient Egyptian Linen
Types of Looms



Lapadoússa, an Isle of Pelagie

The first scenes of Fate’s Door take place in the cottage of the fates, in Scandia (Scandinavia). So I didn’t worry too much about the exact location of my sea nymph heroine’s home while I wrote those scenes.

Oh, I knew that she grew up in a reef palace offshore from a Mediterranean island. But precisely which island and where didn’t need to be determined. Not yet.

That changed the instant I finished Part 1 and wanted to begin Part 2.

“Where the heck is Nerine’s island?” I asked myself.


I knew it was not in the eastern reaches, the Levantine basin. Nor the western portion near the Pillars of Herakles (Strait of Gibraltar). Nor right off the coast of Greece itself.

No, it was centrally located and not too near the coast of either Europe or Africa.

I started searching maps and googling locations. And the island cluster I was looking for turned up pretty quickly.

Pelagie_Islands_mapThe Isles of Pelagie are located in the broad Strait of Sicily that separates the western basin of the Mediterranean from the eastern. To the north is Sicily, to the south, Tunisia. The waters of the strait are shallower, with a deep current that moves from east to west, and a surface one that moves from west to east.

Honestly, the moment I spotted the Isles of Pelagie in one of the three atlases we have in the house, they felt right. I crossed my fingers that when I checked the details, one of them would be right.

The first thing that caught my attention was the name. It has a French sound to my ear, but it actually derives from the Greek word pélagos, meaning ‘open sea.’ That seemed a promising sign. A name deriving from Greek, rather than French or Italian, might mean the ancient peoples were aware of these islands.

My next step was to look specifically at each island. There were three, and I needed one that could support a sizable population, because Nerine’s friend Altairos is a land-dwelling island prince.

I envisioned his setting as a city-state grown wealthy from trade. The Isles of Pelagie certainly had a great location for trade. The ancient sailors always stuck close to shore. As a narrower section of the Mediterranean, the Strait of Sicily would be a natural place to cross the sea, and the Isles would serve as a natural stepping stone for that crossing.

The island of Lampione (Lamptír to the ancient Greeks) was clearly much too small. Altairos’ city-state might trade for a lot of its food, but some would need to be produced locally. Lampione is a rocky islet with tall bluffs and no good harbor, measuring a mere 656 feet by 591 feet (200 meters by 180 meters). The palace alone would sprawl over the entire ten acres, with no room for either a city or farmland or pasturage.


Strike Lampione.

Linosa looked more promising. It’s considerably larger and, from the photo, looks to have a sheltering cove to serve as a harbor. Even better, Strabo (an ancient Greek philosopher and geographer) referred to it as Aethusa.

During the Punic Wars, the ancient Romans used it as a military base. The ruins from 150 water cisterns from this period still remain. 264 BC to 146 BC is somewhat later than my time period, 352 BC to 329 BC. But if the Romans could set up and run a permanent settlement, that would indicate that my fictional city-state might thrive there as well.


On the other hand, if the Romans took the island in 264 BC, it meant Altairos’ city-state fell to them in what might otherwise be Altairos’ happy old age. My book ends before such a gloomy happening, but why set my characters up for even unchronicled tragedy? I decided to pass on Linosa.

Lampedusa_2Lampedusa, the third island I considered (Lapadoússa to the ancients), turned out to be perfect. It is the largest of the three, with plenty of room for a modest city, a sprawling palace similar to that at Knossoss, and lots of land left over for orchards, vinyards, farming, and the grazing of livestock.

Apparently the ancient Greeks found it an excellent source for a particularly desired oyster. Historically, it hosted settlements of ancient Phoenicians, Greeks, and so on through the centuries.

My fictional city-state might not be so fictional after all. The Greeks started many colonies throughout the Mediterranean world, and there are many Greek ruins (along with ruins from other civilizations and times in history) on Lampedusa. Just because this particular settlement is not named in the surviving chronicles of the ancients does not mean it did not exist. Indeed, the ruins indicate otherwise.


The island has high cliffs on its western end, so I placed my city-state and its palace along the gentler southeastern shore, with Nerine’s reef palace in the sea farther west beside the southern coast.

This was an exciting moment. I had found the island where Altairos lived and the waters in which Nerine’s reef place was carved!

For more about the world of Fate’s Door, see:
Garb of the Sea People
Measurement in Ancient Greece
Horse Sandals and the 4th Century BC
Knossos, Model for Altairos’ Home



Merchant Ships of the Ancient Mediterranean

Kyrenia Ship from Naturally CyprusWhen Nerine – the heroine of Fate’s Door – went aboard the Lily of Aegyptus with her friend Altairos, I needed to know more about the trading vessels of the ancient Mediterranean.

Studying ships that sailed more than 2000 years ago is a difficult proposition. They were made of wood and usually ended their days on the bottom of the sea, where their timbers rotted.

Luckily for me – and interested scholars – in 1965, a sponge diver named Andreas Cariolou discovered the well-preserved wreck of an ancient trading vessel near Kyrenia, Cyprus.

More than 50 underwater archeoligists, students, and technicians cooperated to photograph the site and then retrieve the artifacts from the sea floor. Every piece of the ship itself and its contents has been extensively studied, with the result that we now know much more about sea trade in the Hellenistic era than we did before.

Kyrenia Postage StampThe Kyrenia ship was 48 feet long (14.7 meters) and 14.5 feet wide (4.4 meters), quite a bit shorter and somewhat narrower than a warship. (The ancient triremes were 121 feet long and 18 feet wide – 37 meters by 5.5 meters.)

The Kyrenia ship was propelled by one square sail, and only four mariners managed her: a captain and three crew. There were four oars aboard for maneuvering within harbors and other tight quarters, but she depended on the wind to travel from port to port. She possessed two steering oars at her stern, but usually only one of them was needed to guide her.

Stacked AmphoraeDecking at the stern provided a level surface on which to stand in addition to a smaller deck at the prow. But most of the ship was reserved for the cargo she carried. When she sank – probably scuttled after pirates captured her, took her crew to sell as slaves, and stole the captain’s store of coin – she was carrying 404 amphorae, containing wine, olive oil, almonds, and fruits.

Carbon dating tells us that the Kyrenia ship was built around 389 BC and probably operated by three generations of a merchant family. The almonds she was carrying when she sank were picked around 288 BC. Which means she was exactly the sort of trading vessel in use during the time of Fate’s Door, which takes place between 344 BC and 329 BC.

I modeled my Lily of Aegyptus after the Kyrenia ship.

There’s a fun sequel to the discovery of this ancient vessel. Experimental archaeologists have taken to reconstructing artifacts using the methods of the original creators to better understand how these old cultures functioned. The Kyrenia ship has generated three such reconstructions, one focused on the original construction methods (the Kyrenia II) and another focused on the ancient sailing methods (the Kyrenia Liberty).

The video below tells the story of the discovery of the Kyrenia ship and the construction of the Kyrenia II.

For more about the world of Fate’s Door, see:
Measurement in Ancient Greece
Horse Sandals and the 4th Century BC
Knossos, Model for Altairos’ Home

For more about the Kyrenia ship, see:
The Kyrenia Ship on Wikipedia
The Kyrenia Ship on HellenicaWorld
The Kyrenia II
Cyprus and the Sea
The Kyrenia Ship Project