Valentine’s Day is coming soon, and to celebrate I’m offering a lovely selection of erotic-romantic stories for your FREE reading enjoyment! These giveaways only last for a couple of days, so get in there now before they’re done. Because everyone knows, the best way to celebrate romance is with lots of steamy hot erotica. To be enjoyed alone or en couple. 😉
Pyrena, an Amazonian warrior, lives in an idyllic society. All sisters, the Amazons share everything: work, meals, homes… and captive men. The men they keep are for pleasure; love is unknown among these fierce women. For Pyrena, things become more complicated after she captures a handsome Greek warrior, Astrastos. As she comes to know him, she begins to realize that her world is not so perfect, after all.
This collection of erotic stories features women across the ancient world, from Africa, through the Middle East, to Asia. Their stories are as diverse as the heroines. They are queens and peasants; virgins and mothers; loveless and adored. Some of their names are familiar. Others are unknown. All of them lived, and lusted, and loved. Just like us.
If you’re in the mood for some erotically imagined fairy tales, this one written just for you! Why did those princesses really wear out their dancing shoes? (It should come as no surprise that more than the shoes got some action every night!) Romantic and sexy, this remains one of my fuzzy-good-feelings favorites.
For my second “Ancients” collection giveaway, I’m going to go ahead and offer what is perhaps the best story in the entire collection: Queen of Beauty. It’s the best, I think, because of the situation and Nefertiti’s character – an older woman, uncertain in her role, battling midlife worries everyone faces. At the same time, her husband is dying, the kingdom is being torn apart from within, and if that weren’t enough, she’s falling in love!
Falling in love is the worst thing that could possibly happen to you. Also, potentially, the best. What I tried to explore with Nefertiti’s story is the many ways love can manifest, especially as we mature and grow into ourselves. (Which begs the questions: is teenage love the “real thing?” Is love ageless, or does it deepen with time? Is romantic love possible without physical attraction? At what point does friendship give way to love?)
Sink deep into love’s many incarnations (and the meaning of beauty, too) with this free story. It’s a visit to a fascinating moment in Egypt’s history, too, during the reign of the first known monotheist king.
In honor of Flowers for the Ancients’ “book birthday,” I’m doing another round of free giveaways! This time, through Amazon, admittedly the most convenient retailer around. (Ah, I remember when they were still the underdogs, a little online bookshop tapping on the behemoth of Barnes & Noble and company… how the mighty fall! How the hungry rise!)
Anyway, this time I thought I’d start off with the biggest of the bangs, if you will: A Bride for Seven Brothers. My imaginary adventure into ancient Tibet, and subsequent exploration of a polyandrous family, resulted (somewhat by accident) in a seriously kickass female character. I love this lady — she is the kind of woman on which dynasties are built, communities are founded, and empires rise.
By which I mean, she’s a housewife.
The most underestimated of all careers, and the most important. Who holds the family together? The wife. Who manages the household? The wife. Who keeps the kids and husbands happy? Yeah, you get it. While writing this story, I began to get a feeling for how much responsibility was involved in home-keeping. First of all due to the rugged, isolated, and rural nature of a Tibetan highland farm, but especially if multiple husbands are involved. A housewife who could do all that — and do it well — is pretty much a superwoman.
As a relatively aware White person — that is to say, an individual who was raised in a dominant White culture and socioeconomic group, who both presents as White on the outside and identifies as White on the inside — I am on a personal mission to challenge myself in this world where, through no merit of my own, I have been handed privilege on a silver plate. Whatever your feelings on issues of race relations, or the social construct thereof; the heavy weight of history, the state of politics, or globalization, the simple fact remains: White Privilege is real. (Still not convinced? Take a look at the classic Invisible Knapsack checklist, by Peggy McIntosh.)
While there is plenty to be said about how White Privilege manifests in the larger world, my focus today is bringing it down to the arena in which writers and artists can make a difference: noticing, identifying, and addressing White Privilege in writing. And, oh, it’s there in a big way!
Remember when The Hunger Games movie came out? And there was all this racist sputtering from people who expressed surprise and annoyance that the character Rue was Black? If they’d actually read the book, they might have figured it out on their own… but maybe not. The author Suzanne Collins included information that a thoughtful reader could use to visualize Rue as the young, dark-shinned girl she was intended to be, but because this was not explicitly stated, people were able to form their own ideas. And those ideas populated the story entirely with White teenagers, because that’s what people expect. Hollywood reinforces this with their whitewashed casts of characters, and if we are not careful, book characters can easily suffer the same fate. Poor Rue.
White Privilege is precisely that: a normalization of white-looking people; the assumption that they are “normal” and everyone else, therefore, is “different”; the classic exotic Other. (By the way, this goes for Ablism too… when was the last time you visualized a character in a wheelchair? Or with leg braces? Or an amputated limb? Yeah, you didn’t, because disabled folks are also relegated to the “other” category.) The challenge for a reader is to remove themselves from the story. However tempting it is, we cannot imagine ourselves as the protagonist in every tale, because in some cases, the main character is vastly different from us. Then, the challenge becomes one of molding yourself into another person’s body, trying to live and learn from their experiences.
This especially irks me in historical fiction. I firmly believe — and research supports — that history has always been far more diverse than typically portrayed in mainstream media. When we think about cowboys, why do we always imagine them as tall, fit, white and blue-eyed, when a large proportion of them were, in fact, Black, Latino, or mixed-race? (The answer? Hollywood. And the general, ongoing white-washing of history.) People of all shapes, sizes, and colors have shaped this world, and continue to do so. Historical fiction should reflect that.
So what can writers do? Well, the first step, I think, is to combat the assumption that characters, unless otherwise described, are de facto white people. Take the time to describe your character in a rich, illuminating way: everything from the shape of their body, the texture and style of their hair, their features, their skin color, and everything else that makes them stand out. Each person is an individual, and as a character, should be presented as such. Next, push the boundaries of what kinds of characters you’re writing. Historical fiction can be a great avenue for this, since you can research and create authentic characters of various backgrounds, without necessarily digging into the can of worms that is modern-day racism and society. (Need some ideas? Check out my blog post on writing characters of color – for white writers.) Story by story, character by character, little by little, we can change people’s expectations and views. Push White Privilege to the background by putting diverse characters first. Right where they belong.
I’m trying to do my part through writing. Some recent examples include my Flowers for the Ancients collection, which features women from ancient societies in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In writing this, I was able to develop characters from diverse cultures and backgrounds, all set in fascinating periods of history.
Also, I am currently working on a Tarot-inspired erotic romance set right here in my hometown of Seattle. Free to read on Wattpad, Major Arcana features a cast of characters I am rapidly coming to love. I had fun thinking about the diversity of my city and how that could be reflecting in writing, from the free-love Hippie momma (inspired by a friend’s mom… I’ll never reveal her name!), to the blended family and sibling relationships (there’s one in every family, right?), to the sexy, sensitive hero, a UW student from Yakima who also happens to be in a wheelchair. I had fun researching sex for paraplegic men, oh yes indeed! (Porn as education. Enough said.)
Anyway, I hope I am on the right track toward addressing and correcting White Priviledge in writing. (And in my everyday life, though that, as they say, is another story.) I would greatly appreciate any feedback and advice on how to do it better. We’re all works in progress, just trying to make this world better for everyone in whatever ways we can.
This is a bittersweet post for me. It’s been a great six weeks, researching and sharing sexy history with you. I’ve connected with new readers, pissed some people off, and inspired some great conversations. Over 500 people entered the giveaway for a print version since I opened it a month ago. And now it’s all coming to an end. This is the last planned Ancients post for a while. That’s not to say there will never be more! But for me, this is a last hurrah before I must return to the mundane modern world.
So let’s bring it all back to an early source of inspiration (and questions) for me: the Bible. In particular, the Song of Songs…
(Sources are listed at the end. Click on any image to link to its source page.)
In the Bible’s Old Testament there is an unusually erotic chapter, nestled in there between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah: the Song of Songs, also known as Song of Solomon.
As a girl sitting in church, reading through the Bible, this one immediately caught my eye. I spent many a Sunday morning reading it, wondering at the beautiful language, the poetry of love and longing, the sexual attraction that rose through the pages. You can read the full text here, but below are some snippets that stirred me during my churchgoing adolescence:
…Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; for your love is better than wine…
…I am dark, but lovely, you daughters of Jerusalem, like Kedar’s tents, like Solomon’s curtains…
…As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banquet hall. His banner over me is love.Strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples; For I am faint with love. His left hand is under my head. His right hand embraces me…
…How beautiful are your feet in sandals, prince’s daughter! Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a skillful workman. Your body is like a round goblet, no mixed wine is wanting. Your waist is like a heap of wheat, set about with lilies. Your two breasts are like two fawns, that are twins of a roe. Your neck is like an ivory tower. Your eyes are like the pools in Heshbon by the gate of Bathrabbim. Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon which looks toward Damascus. Your head on you is like Carmel. The hair of your head like purple. The king is held captive in its tresses.
How beautiful and how pleasant you are, love, for delights! This, your stature, is like a palm tree, your breasts like its fruit. I said, “I will climb up into the palm tree. I will take hold of its fruit.” Let your breasts be like clusters of the vine, the smell of your breath like apples, Beloved, Your mouth like the best wine, that goes down smoothly for my beloved, gliding through the lips of those who are asleep…
Hot stuff, right? (Especially if you’re reading it during an otherwise staid Presbyterian church service.) Of course, I had the same thought you did: what the hell is it doing in the Bible?! According to many Church sources, it was decided that this erotic union between a man and a woman – so clearly depicted in the love poem – was an allegory for God’s love towards the Israelite people. Though I am not a theologian, I find this hard to buy. For me, it’s clearly all about a passionate young couple, dreaming of one another and their future together in the most poetic words they can.
Which begs the next question. Who wrote it? And who is it about?
As usual, history is unclear. The song is generally attributed to the celebrated King Solomon – as famous for his skills as a lover as he was for serving God. And one of his most famous visitors was the enigmatic Queen of Sheba.
Sheba itself is a mysterious land, so ancient that people are not even sure exactly where it was. Some scholars have suggested it’s in the Southern Arabian Peninsula, around modern-day Yemen. In Arabic legend she is named Bilquis; a name as lovely as the woman was reported to be. However, most believe that Sheba was an ancient name for the (also ancient, and fascinating) country of Ethiopia. There, she was known as Makeda, which is the name I chose for the queen in my story.
Legend has it that the Queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s legendary wisdom and knowledge, so she went to Jerusalem with an astonishing retinue. There, she tested King Solomon with hard questions, all of which he answered to her satisfaction. And, after giving her “all that she desired,” the queen went home.
Ethiopian tradition completes the story, stating that the queen gave birth to a son – Menelik – on the way home to Sheba. When he had grown into a young man, Menelik went to visit his father on his own, and ended up making off with the Ark of the Covenant. According to legend, the Ark’s final resting place is in Ethiopia. In addition, the Kings of Ethiopia are considered, to this day, rulers by divine right of their direct descendance from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. Emperor Haille Selassie even enshrined the fact in the Ethiopian Constitution of 1955. This legend is also supported by the strength of the Jewish and, later, the Christian faith in Ethiopia. It is one of the oldest Christian lands on Earth, despite being surrounded by neighbors of different faiths. And the fascinating story of Ethiopian Jews is also one of the world’s many mysteries. Food for thought…
The idea of a beautiful, intelligent, strong foreign queen, who takes all she wants from Solomon and then caravans home in style, is of course an appealing one for an erotica author. After a while, though, you get tired of writing about royalty; they get more than their share of the limelight. So I decided to focus instead on the unmentioned characters of Sheba’s magnificent entourage: the servants.
By placing Sheba in Ethiopia, I was able to draw on my experiences with the large Ethiopian-American community here in Seattle. I go out for Ethiopian food a lot. The spices, the tang of injira bread, the sensuality of eating with your hands, all brings to mind a country of rich history. And the women are beautiful, with their rich brown skin, dark eyes, curling black hair, and white traditional dresses. In designing the Sheban women, I thought of them and all the strength, beauty, and independence they portray.
In the end, this story emerged as one of the most romantic in the Ancients collection. A fitting tribute, I hope, to the eternal beauty of the Song of Songs; and the mystery of that fabulous, mysterious, ancient Queen of Sheba.
Oh, I had fun writing this one! The tongue-in-cheek title came all by itself, inspired by the delightfully cheesy old musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. (If you haven’t seen that one yet, go out and rent it right now! A charming film.) It was delightful trying to figure out how my main character, Lhamu, would manage all seven of her husbands – and what a woman she turned out to be.
In writing this, I also discovered that seven husbands is really too much. Imagine all the sweaty undershirts; ugh. Anyway, let us hope Lhamu figured it out! (Knowing her, I’m pretty sure she did…)
(Sources are listed at the end. Click on any image to link to its source page.)
So everyone knows about polygamy (or polygyny) – Mormon fundamentalist sister-wives; wealthy sheikhs with harems of beautiful women. In many parts of the world, particularly Muslim-dominant nations, it is common to meet families with one man married to two or more wives. Not only is this still the case, but historically it’s common to hear of men with multiple wives (or, if they were only allowed one legal wife, at least multiple mistresses!)
However polygyny’s natural opposite – polyandry, where a woman shares multiple husbands – is rarely heard of. (Fun piece of news: recently a Chinese professor suggested that some poorer men share a single wife, in order to address the current gender imbalance in China… people were generally scandalized! Check out the full article here.) Amusingly, the idea this professor advocates is exactly the solution that was thought up by ancient Tibetans: fraternal polyandry.
Polyandry isn’t so unknown, but in the global scheme of things it’s culturally unusual. Some Inuit cultures traditionally had customs of “wife-sharing,” which could be considered a form of polyandry. Other cultures may have introduced it, formally or informally, to protect women when the “primary” husband was gone for an extended period of time. However, the Tibetans formalized it in a particularly strong way, and for good reason: the land.
Tibet is mostly mountains, leaving very little farmable land. From my (brief, mostly surface-level, but still interesting!) research, it seems that – like their less enlightened European peers – land ownership in Tibet was passed down from fathers to sons, not daughters. And sure enough, they must have run into the same sticky problem: only so much land, and so many sons to share it with! In Europe they solved this problem by giving all to the eldest son, and saying “too bad” to the spares (or bundling them off to the military, the Church, or the New World); in Tibet they took a different tactic of having all the sons share the land. And, in addition, share a wife.
Inheritance is always a tricky business, but at least this way the land would remain in the family. One wife sharing multiple brothers also provides some form of birth control, since a single woman can only have so many babies – one every nine months of her fertile life, at the most – while men can just keep on irresponsibly producing hungry mouths to feed. Plus, as the wife was an equal partner to all of the brothers, family harmony and brotherly affection (such that is ever is!) could be maintained with relative naturalness.
Of course I couldn’t let this fascinating cultural tidbit go! And naturally, I turned it into an erotica. (My apologies are already written to any purists of Tibetan culture: certainly I drew on it very lightly, and created the rest from my dirty imagination. However, it sure does tell a good story!)
In the process of writing A Bride for Seven Brothers, I came to understand some things:
If fraternal polyandry is to work, that woman had better be tough as nails. She will have to take control of the household, and keep control. (My character, Lhamu, finds all kinds of sexy ways to impose her will on all seven husbands…)
Seven husbands is really A LOT. Like, too many. I like a good gang bang as much as the next girl, but honestly, I would not appreciate having seven men around all the time. One is quite enough for the most part, thank you!
There would be so many chores. Dishes; mending; making the beds; and oh my god, imagine all the dirty undershirts you would have to wash! (Lhamu has some strong opinions about that, too!)
But in spite of all that, it might just be fun…
While I am not an expert on Tibet, nor have I ever visited, I hope my story still resonates. If it captures that land of mountains, of sparse farmland, snow and wind; if the saffron robes and rhythmic chants of Buddhist monks come to you, borne on the breeze; if you can imagine how a strong woman could make her polyandrous marriage work for her; then I will consider my story a success.
This story sent me out on a limb, one I don’t usually climb. The character of Buktu started out in my imagination as a pretty vanilla – if sexually voracious – girl, but pretty soon it dawned on me that that couldn’t be the case. Buktu was in there, and she had her own ideas. Those ideas, it turned out, centered on the admiration of another woman, not a man. Suddenly the story deepened and strengthened, as a complicated love triangle emerged from Buktu’s origins in the wrong place, in the wrong time.
(Luckily, she has a 21st century erotica author here to help her set things right!)
First, though, a little history…
(Sources are listed at the end. Click on any image to link to its source page.)
Timbuktu is a city straight out of legend. For years Europeans and Americans associated the name with inconceivable distance, foreignness, and inaccessibility. Before that, it was known as a center of profitable trans-Saharan trade, with a famous market for salt, gold, and slaves. In addition, Muslim saints and scholars called it home for centuries, making Timbuktu synonymous with Islamic piety, thought, and learning. It is a city of many mosques, tombs of learned saints, priceless libraries, universities, and schools for Koranic teaching. (Lately, tragically, many of these were destroyed by religious extremists. [See this CNN article on the subject.] However, the people of Timbuktu cling to their rich history and protected countless artifacts. Their bravery saved irreplaceable historic documents from senseless destruction.)
The famous Malian king Mansa Musa made his celebrated pilgrimage to Mecca in the 14th century, he passed through Timbuktu… leaving cascades of gold in his wake. A man of fabulous wealth and intelligence, his extravagant generosity brought the kingdom of Mali to the attention of Europeans, and Timbuktu along with it. (Mansa Musa – now that’s a character I’d like to read more about! Ancient Malian erotica, anyone?)
On the threshold of the Sahara desert, Timbuktu is extraordinary in its wealth relative to its location. The Niger river is some distance away from the modern-day city (which still thrives, by the way); on the outskirts there is nothing but scrub brush and desert. I had the good fortune to visit in 2008 – before the destructive gangs got to it – and admired that mysterious city for myself. It is a city of uniform color, built from the red-brown Earth beneath it, adorned with heavy wooden doors embellished with silver and brass. My friend and I spent a night out in the desert (an ill-advised, but adventurous trip with two lecherous Tuareg guides… all’s well that ends well, but it got hairy there for a night. Not recommended to young women traveling alone!), and in the morning we watched the sunrise over the Sahara. Amazing.
Actually, I lived in West Africa, in the arid Sahel region, for two years. In that time I came to understand a central theme of Buktu’s Well: water.
Without a steady source of water, life is impossible. Without water, Timbuktu could never exist. Water is the source of everything. And so water is the key to understanding the history of Timbuktu.
The clue to Timbuktu’s origins lies in its name. The most common version tells of a woman named Buktu (or Boktu, or Bouctou; whatever spelling you prefer), who lived near the banks of the Niger river. The “tim” part of Timbuktu could stand for the local word “tin” or “in,” meaning “property” or “belonging to.”This excellent article explains that, in that environment and in those days, property was synonymous with water. Therefore Buktu – whoever she was – must have had a well.
(The other suggestion that “buktu” means a person with a large belly button was, obviously, not as enthralling to my authorly tendencies as the story of a woman with a well… Luckily, writers of fiction get to pick and choose our sources!)
Water. When I lived in Africa, it was a tiny village with no electricity or running water. Every morning the women and girls would get up, gather their buckets, and head to the single village well. Together they pulled on the pulley rope, working in rhythm, hauling up full pails and divvying them up into the workers’ buckets. (I helped as best I could, but despite the time I spent there my arms never grew strong enough to really contribute. C’est comme ca…) Thinking of Buktu as a woman in charge of a well, she emerged as a strong character, both physically and emotionally. What would she have done to get that well? What depths would she have mined, deep within herself, to make that life-giving dream a reality?
And then, thinking back on the polygamous society of the region, it came to me: love. But she wouldn’t love her arranged husband; rather, her co-wife, Rama: young, sweet, and beautiful. What would happen, then?
(The idea of labeling a woman “lesbian” would have been foreign in those days, as it is now in many parts of West Africa. While gay men are attacked and widely detested, people have a hard time understanding two women in love. When a friend of mine tried to explain it, people just laughed and joked it off. Lucky for Buktu; had she been a man who loved other men, things might not have gone so smoothly for her.)
So there were all the elements, just percolating in my brain: Buktu, in love with Rama, and in need of a well. Together they struggle to make a life in an arid land. But that just isn’t enough for an erotica writer. Oh, no, it can’t be too easy for them – so a complicated love triangle emerged, organically, just as Timbuktu emerges from the ground.
It’s adventurous, and certainly different from most of my other stories. This one flew out of me during a long, feverish weekend, and it remains a surprise to me, how it turned out. I hope you enjoy it, as I did. Maybe it will take you to the mysterious land of Timbuktu…
Sometimes stories emerge from the merest whisper of a thought. How many of us have built a whole story around the refrain of a song, a particular setting, a stranger glimpsed on the bus? How many of us have grabbed hold of a fragile, timid idea, and taken it for a ride? Or, rather, let it take us for a ride; since all authors know our stories tell themselves. We are merely the vessels through which they travel.
I know that, like a parent, I really shouldn’t have favorite stories. However, I feel special affection for this one. It bloomed from the desert, survived many years of writers’ block, abandonment, and revision, and emerged into a beautiful romance. Though I have no proof that they actually lived, the characters in this story resonate with me. I hope they truly existed as I imagine them, and that their lives had a happy ending.
(Sources are listed at the end. Click on any image to link to its source page.)
To paraphrase the article: on the Iran/Afghan border, in 2007 or so, archaeologists discovered the tomb of an ancient woman. She was buried about 5,000 years ago. They guessed she was about 25-30 years old at the time of death; not bad for a woman of her time. However, a few details made her stand out from other graves of the period:
First, she was a strikingly tall woman. Nearly six feet! Women of our time rarely grow this tall, and generally people of the past were much shorter, men and women both. (This immediately got my writer’s brain churning, wondering how she would have felt to be so tall, unlike everyone else around her…)
Second, she was buried with an ornate hand mirror made of bronze. (Where did she get it? Why was it so important to be buried with her?)
Third – and most interesting – in one eye socket she wore a golden ball. Carved with lines flowing from a circle, like a sun with rays of light, it was made of some kind of paste and painted gold. A hole was bored through it, permitting it to be attached with a string. Impressions in the eye socket also suggest that she actually wore it in life, not just in death. (At this point my mind was racing. An exceptionally tall women with a golden eye? The character just appeared fully grown, like that! But then I started thinking… what would her job have been? How did she use her eye? And how did she get it in the first place? So many wonderful historical questions – that will forever remain unanswered, except through imagination…)
According to the article, archaeologists assumed she must have been some kind of priestess or soothsayer, perhaps using her shining eyeball to see into the future. In any case, she would have been a shocking character, and surely unique in her community.
Honestly, the rest is all mystery. My questions in italics weren’t answered, of course, and no amount of Google searching will make them appear. 5,000 years was a long freakin’ time ago; we’ll never know for sure, now, the truth of everything from way back then. We will just have to take this small, mysterious discovery and pack it away with all the other unanswered questions.
Except as an author I can’t stand for that! This character appeared, captured my attention, and demanded to be released. So I let her out.
Her story begins with a timid young girl, scarred by violence in an uncertain and dangerous time. Without a protector, or family, or friends to help her, she must grow into an independent woman. Like anyone in such a dismal situation, our ancient heroine must trudge through life alone… until she discovers the secret of her magic.
Magic sight – future sight – released by her pleasure, in the moment where the brain gives way to the raptures of the body, and conscious thought cedes place to instinct. The third eye opens; the eye she no longer possesses, sees again. She is a seeress. A prophetess. A feared and powerful priestess. But she is no longer a woman; not for them.
Until a chance for love comes into her life. For her to grasp, or lose. Either way, she cannot escape her fate – nor he his.
This is one of my favorite couples; I feel like they revealed themselves to me, rather than me creating them. I hope you will take the opportunity to get to know them through my story; and maybe find one of your own.
After all, with a mystery this ancient, only fiction can approach the truth.
Ah, Nefertiti. Her very name means beauty; “the beautiful one has come.” Thoughts of her conjure up visions of an opulent ancient civilization; a land of pharaohs, pyramids, gods and gold. Her mystery endures, as well as her famous bust – an unequivocal masterpiece of ancient art. However, Nefertiti was much more than just a pretty face… Here I will explore the extraordinary time in which she lived, and her role in it.
(Sources are listed at the end. Click on any image to link to its source page.)
Before I can introduce you to Nefertiti, I have to share some essential information about the time and place in which she lived. This famous queen can only be understood in context, and in her case the most influential element of that context was her husband: the controversial pharaoh Akhenaten.
He is, by far, one of the most fascinating characters in ancient Egyptian history. Although raised, like all Egyptians, with an astonishing pantheon of gods, Akhenaten soon broke the mould. Unsatisfied with the idea of multiple gods – powerful Amun, the loving couple Isis and Osiris, royal Horus, kind-hearted Hathor, vicious Sekmet, playful Bes, and innumerable others – the pharaoh cast them all aside in favor of a single god: the sun disk, Aten. Akhenaten’s devotion to the sun god was all-encompassing, spurring him to leave tradition behind and institute a single God. He is often considered the first monotheist.
Akhenaten was also a religious zealot. He built a brand new capital city, which he christened Akhetaten, meaning “Horizon of Aten” (now known as Amhara), and moved the entire court there. Upon his death this city was all but abandoned.
His spiritual conviction stretched to names, as well. Nefertiti became known as Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti, a mouthful that means “beautiful are the beauties of Aten, for the beautiful one has come.” Akhenaten’s son Tutankhamen (yes, THAT King Tut!), was originally named Tutankhaten; the child-pharaoh’s name was forcibly changed to reflect reinstitution of the old gods after Akhenaten’s tumultuous reign. (Incidentally, Tuankhamon’s young wife, Ankhesenamun, was Nefertiti’s daughter…)
Which is enough context to launch into Nefertiti’s own story:
For all of the queen’s fame, her origins remain unknown. Egyptian pharaohs traditionally married their siblings – in order to keep the godly bloodline pure – but kings did have multiple wives, including foreign princesses sent to keep the peace. From what I have read, no evidence suggests that Nefertiti was her husband’s sister. This makes her even more remarkable, for it meant that somehow she rose to supreme power, even as a woman of unknown birth.
And rise to power she did. Contemporary art depicts her standing at the pharaoh’s side as an equal, even smiting enemies. In addition, many scenes of domestic life show the queen and the pharaoh sitting affectionately together, playing with their daughters. (Altogether, they had six girls). Despite Akhenaten’s rather odd looks, Nefertiti’s care for him must have been real on some level, to have raised a large family together, shared the power and duty of royalty, and appeared as a loving couple in so many artistic renditions.
The best-known artistic rendition of Nefertiti, though, shows her alone. In fact, the years of the capital at Akhetaten birthed a vibrant new style of ancient Egyptian art, known as the Amarna style. (Click here for an excellent Brittanica article on it; fascinating history.) The Amarna style was characterized by attention to detail, changes in representation of the human body, and casual depictions of people’s daily activities. Out of this same artistic movement came the exquisite bust of Nefertiti.
Having been a fan of ancient Egypt for many years, I’ve seen my share of its artwork. Much of it is stunning, but nothing compares to Nefertiti’s sculpted bust. The detail is so realistic, it appears as if she could turn her neck to look at you. Everything – from the facial features to the paint strokes – reveals the hand of mastery. The sculptor, Thutmose, truly created a work of art that was meant to endure the ages.
However, it remains unfinished: the left eye is inexplicably unpainted.
In 2009 a CT scan revealed yet another layer of mystery. It turns out that, underneath the smooth and polished outer layer, Nefertiti’s bust hides an even more realistic face. It portrays her as an aging woman with wrinkles and a bump on her nose. Is this the true face of Queen Nefertiti? If so, it speaks even more to Thutmose’s artistic excellence… and also prompts the question of why it was covered up, then left incomplete.
The mystery of Nefertiti is compounded by the fact that she only exists in records for a short time, and then suddenly disappears from history. Some believe she changed her name, perhaps disguising herself as a man to co-rule as pharaoh. Others think she was murdered. Or exiled. Nefertiti’s star shone bright, but oh so briefly.
Until now her tomb has yet to be discovered, which I believe supports the exile theory. Still, archaeologists persist in claiming to have found her tomb. Thus far none have been confirmed; this recent National Geographic article has her lying in a hidden chamber in King Tut’s tomb. Personally I find that unlikely. Why would she be buried with her unremarkable son-in-law? The priests of Amun-Ra tried to erase her religious beliefs and story, but it seems like she would have turned up somewhere if she truly did stay in Egypt during that transitional time. That kind of thinking is for the experts, though. I am merely a curious reader, and author who likes to make it spicy! Just one of the many ways in which history obliges fiction writers, by providing a wealth of possibilities and no solid answers.
In my story, Queen of Beauty, I have chosen to give Nefertiti a second chance at life – and love – in exile. If she was anything like how I imagine her, I sincerely hope the truth was something like my fiction.
Welcome to my first “sexy history” post in the Ancients series! This week I will be exploring the tradition of foot binding in ancient China, particularly its erotic aspects for that culture.
(Sources are listed at the end. Click on any image to link to its source page.)
Foot binding endured in China for over a thousand years. China has always been a remarkably homogeneous country, with the Han being the majority ethnic-cultural group. Therefore, whatever the Han were doing became the norm. And for reasons not completely understood – though there are legends, of which I will speak later – for a millennium the Han Chinese decided that in order for a woman to be marriageable, she must have tiny bound feet. The ideal was a three-inch long, bulb-shaped foot that reflected the size and form of a lotus bud. Hence the rare and precious goal: the three-inch golden lotus foot.
My goal here is not to go into detail about how bound feet were achieved; there are many other excellent resources on that subject, and wonderful historical fiction with Chinese protagonists for those who wish to delve into it further. Suffice it to say that the process began in early childhood, usually when the girl was between three and six years old. Her feet were wrapped in silk, folded, bent, and broken, with subsequent bindings to form the desired shape. It took several years for the bones to set, and for her whole life the woman had to keep her feet tightly wrapped in order to maintain them.
Why put little girls through such agony? The answer is simple: a mother’s love. Mothers who loved their daughters wanted them to marry well – the only acceptable lifestyle for a woman of the time – and in order to get a good match, a girl must have tiny feet. So although this process sounds gruesome and cruel (it certainly seems that way to me!), it should not be looked at as simple torture. Rather, it was the expression of a family’s concern for their daughter’s future. A desperate act of love.
It is a myth that bound-footed women could not walk at all. They could; in fact, the binding produced a particular rolling gait that was considered to be highly erotic. People also thought this special walk tightened the muscles of the vagina, thus leading to heightened pleasure for men. Bound feet were an erotic body part in and of themselves, too. Entire books were written on the many ways a man could pleasure himself with a woman’s golden lotuses. A woman never willingly revealed her naked feet. They were always bound in silk and covered in beautiful embroidered slippers (Every good seductress knows that covering up – even just one small body part – heightens arousal to the boiling point. Try it sometime and you’ll see what I mean!) Even covered, people knew what bound feet looked like. The deep cleft between the heel and toes was thought to suggest the cleft between a woman’s legs…
Of course there were societal benefits to binding women’s feet, too. Tiny-footed women were more or less home-bound, unable to run around or do hard work outside the house. Thus bound feet were a symbol of social status. Also, they insured that women would stay put, engaged only in appropriate feminine tasks (that is to say, those that took place only in the home). And bound feet made it very difficult for a woman to go anywhere, keeping her safely behind walls… and away from other men. Bound feet assured a woman’s chastity.
It was for these reasons: family & cultural pressure, societal expectations, and eroticism, that foot binding endured so long. When it ended, it was in sudden dramatic fashion – causing much pain and heartbreak in the process – and was finally crushed by the Cultural Revolution.
Of course, none of that answers the most interesting questions. Why did foot-binding start in the first place? How did it even come about? Who came up with this bizarre and painful tradition?
The short answer is, nobody really knows. I had real difficulty finding scholarly articles on the topic; academics tend to stay away from the baffling and explainable. However Wikipedia, everyone’s favorite quasi-reputable resource, lists several ideas. These include:
1. A favored empress (or concubine), possibly Daji, with naturally deformed feet, called clubfoot. She jealously ordered all other girls to deform their feet similarly. Which is an unlovely thought indeed…
2. A court dancer named Yao Niang who performed on tiptoe while standing on a golden lotus pavilion. The emperor was so transfixed, and Yao Niang’s dance so graceful, that others wanted to imitate her. Which eventually led to the binding of their feet.
We may never know the true origins of foot binding. But naturally, I chose the option that allows for some beauty and seduction, that of Yao Niang the court dancer. My story blends the possibilities by giving my character, Yao Niang, the club feet. The ancient world was not kind to those with physical disabilities. (Nor, for that matter, is the modern one.)
How would she have lived? What might she have done to survive? For that matter, what would she not have done? These are the questions I explore in How The Lotus Blossoms. (Of course, because it’s me, I took the liberty of sexing it up. Yao Niang’s disability may indeed become a source of triumph, or despair… either way, she’ll stop at nothing to enrapture the emperor, in bed and on the stage.)