08 June 2015

Weddings in History: Briseis Weds Mynes - Reconstructing Trojan Wedding Rituals

My novel, Hand of Fire, set within the Trojan War has a key wedding early on. It isn’t going to be a happy wedding—the reader has plenty of foreboding about it. But for me as a writer, it had to be a correct wedding. That is, it needed to follow accurately the rites that would have occurred in such a Late Bronze Age (1250 BCE) wedding in Troy or any of the satellite, semi-independent kingdoms of the Hittite Empire.

For all things Hittite we have thousands of clay tablets describing religious and political procedures. But do you think that those piles of clay happened to record a wedding? Nope. Not that I could find. The closest Hittite information is on a vase in the Çorum Museum, Turkey depicting several religious celebrations including a wedding.
Hittite Vase in Çorum, Turkey
I've used photos of this vase to illustrate this post. But the vase isn't terribly informative.

So what is a historical novelist who cares about historical accuracy supposed to do? Go comparative. I scoured the surrounding cultures (also literate, helpfully enough) and I picked up the constants, the things that repeat across these cultures. You may find it interesting to note any similarities to the weddings you’ve witnessed. Some things don’t change much.

I designed as legitimate a ceremony as I could and wrote it down. And then I cut almost all of it. Much later, of course, but still, all that research and thought on the chopping block. The wedding stayed but most of the details needed to go. The story must leap along, not get overloaded with unnecessary stuff, and I had weighed mine down. The historian gave way to the novelist. All that knowledge still echoes behind the details I did include and makes for a much stronger scene. But when Lisa Yarde, the trusty leader of the Unusual Historicals blog group, asked for a post about “Weddings in History,” I opened up an ancient version of my novel and thought. Hmm. Here’s a post where I can include what my informed guess about what a Hittite/Trojan (or most Near Eastern cultures of the Late Bronze Age) wedding looked like. That’s fun to read for the historically enthusiastic.

So here is my reconstruction as I wrote it originally (well, this time I cut a lot of the emotional stuff because I was going for the wedding details in this post—reverse novelist, maybe). If you’ve read Hand of Fire, you’ll notice characters who are no longer in the book and other wisely edited-out strands. But you’ll also find all the rich details of the ceremony itself. In my novel, I kept the elaborate bathing and dressing ritual, so if you want to know about how the lovely, sexy bride was attired and prepared, you can find that part in the printed pages. For the ceremony itself, here it is, the wedding of Briseis to Mynes:

Ana and Eurome lead Briseis into the courtyard. Ana made a few minute adjustments to her drapery, and then on either side, Eurome and Ana pulled open the double doors so that Briseis was revealed in one dramatic moment. There was an appreciative intake of breath as the large assembly caught sight of her. She stepped into the megaron hall, and her father came forward to walk her to her groom.
She caught sight of Mynes: his eyes were locked on her. She felt her father’s hand on her lower back as he guided her toward the family shrine. 
When they were a few steps from Mynes, Glaukos stopped and said, “I give my daughter, Briseis, to be led into marriage by Mynes, son of Euenos. I grant her the goods and lands as agreed for her dowry. This tablet, a catalogue of all that I send with her and marked with my seal, will go with her as proof of her dowry.” Bienor placed the tablet onto the offering table that had been set up next to the wooden shrine. 
Glaukos stepped back. Mynes moved forward so that he and Briseis faced each other. He gazed up and down her veiled form. 
Priests making offerings on wicker offering table
There were many prayers to the gods—two priests and one priestess laid breads and grains on the offering table and poured libations while asking for the blessings of the gods and goddesses—but Briseis was only partially aware of this long process. For the first time she could look closely at the man marrying her and study him without shame. 
The offerings and prayers were done. They had reached the final part of the ceremony. One of the priests nodded to them. They came closer together. The priest drew a circle around them on the floor with barley meal. Mynes reached for her right hand and breathed in sharply as his hand touched hers. His hold tightened. Her long fingers suddenly seemed small inside his powerful hand. He spoke the traditional words that sealed their marriage. “You will be my wife.  I shall be your husband.”
Hatepa handed Mynes a small silver bowl filled with cedar oil, and he let go of Briseis’ hand to receive it. Briseis turned towards Ana so that she could fold the veil back into a frame around Briseis’ face and then pin it into place with two golden pins, their tops shaped like bees. When Ana stepped back, Mynes looked directly at Briseis’ face. For a moment he seemed to waver as though wind had struck him full in the face. Then, as required by the ceremony, he dipped three fingers into the oil and anointed her forehead. The fragrance of freshly cut cedar filled the air. His fingers lingered on her skin and his eyes met hers—consuming her as a starving man devours food.
Briseis did not hear the final blessings spoken by the head priest. She did not know for how long she was locked into Mynes’ gaze, but when he dropped his eyes, the musicians were accompanying the singers in a hymn to Kamrusepa, praising her for bringing fertility to women. She was grateful when her father led the two families to the seats of honor near the hearth, and she was able to conceal her discomposure by attending to her dress as they moved through the crowded room. 
Mynes sat in the chair next to her.  In a state of confusion, Briseis watched Ana and the servants settle the guests into seats around the megaron hall and flowing out into the courtyard. The big double doors had been thrown open to make the guests outside feel part of the celebration. Immediately trays of food came out and wine was poured for everyone. This was her home—or had been until today—but she felt as if she were observing a completely strange place and people. 
The feast went on. Mynes occasionally put his hand over hers when she rested it on the arm of her chair. She dared to look at him and smile when he did.  Gradually she overcame the blushing that followed each glance. She tried to imagine being in a room alone with him, but that made her too nervous, so she let her mind go still.  Many people came to greet them and wish them well. She smiled and bowed her head modestly in thanks. 
When the food was cleared away, the musicians started to play again and the dancers beat out rhythms with their feet and hands, their swaying bodies drawing lines through the air as they moved together in sacred circles. The movements were prayers of thanksgiving for this new union; the dancers raised their hands to the heavens and pulled the gods’ blessings down towards the couple so that they would have many children. Then they began to spin ever faster, drawing down the gods’ goodwill.
Acrobats in religious procession
Next the acrobats performed, drawing cries of delight from the crowd with their antics. Their movements were occasionally suggestive of the coming nuptial night, and the guests responded with laughter and jokes. They directed much of their ribbing at Mynes, and, as was expected of him, he laughed and turned aside the jesting by pretending to be completely unaware of its intended meaning. Briseis was grateful when her father announced that it was time to accompany the bride to her new home.
Ana arranged her veil back over her face for the procession to the palace. Her father and brothers guided the bride and groom out of the house behind the musicians and dancers. Guests formed a loose tail behind them, often singing joking songs and throwing figs and almonds towards the newly joined couple to bring them sweetness and fertility.


Judith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. She is a classicist (B.A. University of California, Santa Cruz, M.A. Cornell University) who taught high school English, Latin and humanities. She and her husband have two grown children and live in Arizona with their golden retriever Socrates. Her debut novel is Hand of Fire.
Find an excerpt, book reviews, historical background, as well as on-going information about the historical fiction community on www.JudithStarkston.com
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