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Stealing Athena
A Novel

Karen Essex

Published by Doubleday/NY in 2008
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2008


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This is a double novel; a story of two strong women, Mary Elgin in the 19th Century and Aspasia in the 5th Century B. C. One was the wife of an ambassador to Turkey in Istanbul and the other a consort of Pericles in Ancient Greece. One will observe the marble friezes of the Parthenon being taken down and the other will watch the friezes of the Parthenon being raised into position. Inside of this majestic building and inside of each woman, the ferocious spirit of the goddess Athena throbs.

Mary is riding the chariot of Phaeton and is slammed to its deck by a lightning bolt of Athena's father Zeus as the novel lurches into action in its first paragraph:

[page 3] Aboard the Phaeton, 1799
      Mary hit the floor of the ship's squalid cabin with dull thud, jolting her awake and sending a pain so sharp up her spine that Zeus might as well have hurtled a thunderbolt into her backside. She tried to breathe, but the fetid odors — dank wood; stale, trapped air; foul clothing; and the urine and excrement of humans animals — were unbearable partners with the sickness that went along with the early stages of pregnancy.

We know immediately we are in for a tumultuous ride of classical proportions, even before we meet the fiery wench that Alkibiades is taking to Perikles.

[page 50] In the city of Athens, in the fourth year of the Thirty-Year Truce with Sparta
      "I want you to behave meekly, and not at all like yourself," Alkibiades said, dragging me by the arm at a pace faster than my tall platform shoes would allow me to walk. "If Perikles sees what you are truly like, he will promptly rescind any offer to help us."
      "Slow down! You are bringing me to him like a slave to market!" I protested.

Aspasia was to be Perikles' wife, but by the time Alkibiades arrives with the Miletus woman, he discovers that Perikles has passed a law to forbid the marriage of Athenians to foreigners. But Perikles takes her into his confidence and his heart anyway. How could he not? He discovers that her teacher in Miletus was as clever as his own when Aspasia asks why Anaxagoras was dependent upon Perikles.

[page 57, 58] "He taught me to reason and to inquire. He showed me — and many others — that the mysteries of the world had solid explanations that one might decipher with enough investigation. The world needs minds such as his. I do not want to be responsible for the loss of him."
      "Oh? I am interested in pursuing theses sorts of inquiries myself," I said. "Might you give me an example of some of the ideas?"
      He looked down at her from position of greater height, skepticism on his face.
       "He has demonstrated that the sun is not a god but a very hot rock that is larger than the Peloponnese. He taught that the universe is not ordered by the whims of the god, but by a pure intelligence that suffuses all things."
      "I believe that he must have been under the influence of my teacher, Thales of Miletus," I replied. "I am certain that he devised this theorem first."

Later Perikles and Aspasia walk toward the Parthenon and we catch a glimpse of the huge temple to Athena in the process of construction.

[page 70] We walked down the footpath toward the Parthenon, with great piles of stone flanking us all the way. The framework of Athena's temple shone through the black night. The columns and colonnades were constructed, but the rooftop was all open and the walls had not yet been enclosed.
      "The temple will be the most majestic ever built to the goddess and will commemorate her assistance in Athens's ultimate victory over the wretched Persians," Perikles said.

And we hear an ominous warning from Perikles to anyone who would dare to steal Athena's treasures from her temple.

[page 71] "But the goddess cursed them," Perikles said. "Anyone who destroys a holy image of Athena or dares to plunder her temples will come to a very bad end. That is her promise. The Persians believed that they had destroyed us, but in fact, in destroying our monuments, they were merely laying the foundation of their own destruction."

Mary Elgin, some 2400 years later, visits the same temple to watch as her husband, Lord Elgin, steals Athena's treasures to transport them to a museum in London. One wonders what fate awaits the modern day plunderer of Athena's temple. His plunder has the goal of preservation of Athena's treasures by saving them from being pulverized to recover the lead which holds them together to make bullets. The Turks who govern the land of Greece care little about preserving the antiquities in situ and are willing to allow Lord Elgin to remove whatever he wishes. Will this goal of saving the antiquities sit well with the goddess Athena or will she interpret it as an act of destruction?

While reading this book, I became interested in how Mary Elgin suffered from bouts of asthmatic choking fits. Here is the first description of her condition.

[page 5] On deck, Mary felt none of the queasiness that had troubled her every moment during the voyage. It was if the sea air, cooler than it had been for days as it moved across her face, blew away all her ailments — the asthmatic choking disease that she shared with her husband ( which was how they knew that they were inalienably meant for each other); the morning sickness, which despite its moniker knew no time of day in her body; the unrelieved seasickness; and, most incurable of all, the loneliness she'd felt for her home and for her parents since the day she told them goodbye.

As I read about the seasickness, I knew that a simple speed trace(1) would have alleviated her distress while at sea, and if she were a real person, I would have emailed her immediately as I have done for many people around the world who have asked for help. I have often helped real people with these problems, but this is my first time wanting to help a fictional person.

In addition, I would suggest that Mary do a speed trace on her next choking asthma symptoms as soon as they arise. Why? Because the symptoms as described in the novel show the classic signs of a doylic memory being triggered, that is, some asthmatic choking fit at an age below five years old occurred to Mary, which now returns at unpredictable times. But she always notices a slight restriction in breathing prior to a full-blown fit and if she began a speed trace immediately at that time, the asthmatic choking symptoms would cease and never return. In its place, she will likely recall the original event of asthmatic choking as a toddler.

Since Mary Elgin is a fictional character, the only way I know of to contact her was created by Jason Fforde in his Thursday Next novels, the footnoterphone. I would get off a message on the footnoterphone right away and to explain to Mary Elgin how to do a speed trace at the first sign of the choking/asthma symptoms. Once she does that, she will never be bothered by those onerous attacks again. Mary's life would be much improved, but the novel would suffer from loss of dramatic tension at many places during her sea voyages and pregnancies which always seemed to coincide with each other. Plus she could show Lord Elgin how to remove his bouts of coughing, asthmatic attacks, and migraine headache which plague him greatly.

Back in Athens, the sculptor of the statue of Athena which is to loom over human visitors to the inside of the Parthenon, Pheidias, is explaining to Aspasia how a huge amount of gold will be hammered over the statue, which the opponents of the expensive project insisted be easily removed in times of need.

[page 166] He shook his head in annoyance at the pettiness of their enemies. "I prefer to concentrate on the final result, which , as you can see, will be glorious. When all those fools are dead, Athena will stand(2). She will be assembled, dressed, decorated with precious gold and jewels and inlays of glass, and present for the lucky few to see. But all will hear of the majesty of the monument.

Pheidias explains to Aspasia that he wants to use her features and expression as the model for the face of the goddess Athena. Neither has any idea of the repercussions that this innocent artistic decision will have on their lives.

Already Aspasia is experiencing problems from powerful men who are whispering ugly things behind her back. Why, she asks Pheidias, do they seem to fear her more than they do Perikles? His answer is simply, "There is no sense in asking unanswerable questions, Aspasia." That may be so, but I would daresay that there are no unanswerable questions, only unanswered questions, and I have found that there is power in allowing unanswered questions to remain potent in one's mind. Aspasia's answer seems to indicate such power.

[page 167, 168] "But as a philosopher I take it upon myself to address such questions. There is no such thing as a concrete or satisfactory answer, but one must take comfort in the exploratory path that logical inquiry offers."

That sounds like something Socrates himself would say, if he were around, which in this case, he is. He is working as a young man doing sculpting work, but already we see his interest in philosophical matters.

[page 168] "Those are the first words of truth I have heard spoken today," said a strange voice from behind us.
      We turned around to see that a husky young man carrying tools and cloth had entered the room. He bowed to us and began to polish the long plinth that would eventually serve as the base of the statue of Athena. He tried to look as if he were hard at his labor, but I could tell that he wanted to listen to our conversation.

Aspasia, as a native of Miletus, describes her wishes for Pheidias to known for his great work on the statue of Athena.

[page 171] I hoped that his massive efforts would bring him the acclaim he both desired and deserved while he was still lucid and living and able to enjoy the accolades.

Aspasia could be forgiven, as non-Athenian, for not understanding the uniquely Grecian concept of kleos which is the glory that comes to one from one's work or bravery in battle after one's death. Pheidias would hope for kleos, not accolades while he was living. Diotima, in a later conversation with Aspasia, puts the case for kleos to her this way:

[page 227] "Do you think Achilles would have died for the love he bore Patroklus if it had not been foretold that it would bring him immortal fame? Every man is longing for that endless fame. The nobler the man, the greater his ambition."

A wedge develops between Lord Elgin, who literally lost his marbles, and Mary Elgin, who values other things more than cold marble slabs. Lord Elgin explains to her that the fate of his marbles are at stake.

[page 294] "I want [an] opinion on whether the marbles should be restored, or whether we should leave them in their present condition."
      "Do you mean at the bottom of the sea?"
      He did not smile. "We are the keepers of the world's greatest treasures(3). Does that mean nothing to you?"
      "My children are my greatest treasures," she said. "Stone, no matter how old, means nothing to me compared to their welfare."

What led me to read this book was that the author herself told me that it was not a romance novel. I met her in a novel way. I was walking through Octavia Bookstore in uptown New Orleans and saw this woman standing at a podium by herself in a nearby room. She seemed to be turning pages of a book, so I assumed that she was reading it to herself. There was no one else in the room, and it seemed a little strange that she should be standing up reading in a bookstore. As I entered the room, I noticed that she was not reading but making a note in a book, then setting it aside and picking up another book. She was autographing books.

"Are you the author of this book?" I asked her. A dumb question but it was what came out.

"No," she said, "I just sign her books." I understood her comment. It was funny because no author would have someone else sign her books. And yet it was true at another level. The woman signing the books is doing the equivalent of repeatedly writing "I shall not tell a lie" on a blackboard at the command of the teacher. She was not an author writing original prose, but some automaton doing punishment work as an amateur P. R. agent.

At one point, she told me, "This is not a romance novel." I suspect she sensed that I was not the romance novel type. What she said came back to me as I read this passage in her book.

[page 356] Feelings were a minor detail in the every-unfolding drama of her life. This was not an opera or a romance novel. Mary would contain this man and his ardor, which had radiated from his eyes. She had managed the feelings of the fantastically handsome Count Sébastiani, the Capitan Pasha, and other powerful men. Surely she could manage Robert Ferguson.

Mary Elgin had a large inheritance and she was devoted to her husband, but always played down the possibility that her husband was more attracted to her father's money than to her. In this next passage we see revealed the expectations of her husband, who by the time he says this has already spent enormous sums of his wife's money on his precious marbles. Elgin expected the money as his due according to the conventions of the time, but never once showed the ability to manage the money. It was Mary who managed it capably, not him.

[page 367, 368] "Your fortune is unlimited, Mary. Why do you insist on withholding it from me, whom you declare you are devoted to? Why do you allow your father to keep the control out of my hands? Every decent woman allows the control of her money to pass from father to husband. It is only right and proper. You and your father keep me in this humiliating position of appealing to you for money all the time, money that is rightfully mine."
      After all the years of suspecting it and suppressing the horrible thought, she allowed it to come fully to the surface and express itself, "You married me for my father's money."
      He looked at her as if she had just said something so nonsensical that he should not condescend to reply to it. But reply he did. "You were the prettiest and the cleverest of the wealthy girls."

Obviously his sense of entitlement to the wealth of a woman he married for her money does not sit well with Mary and an huge chasm opens between them. She refuses to bear children with him. He invokes God as the authority who says she cannot do that. From that point on, she moves toward Scotland and Robert Ferguson to begin a life with someone who actually loves her for herself, not her money.

[page 375] Robert did not hesitate. "What I hope for in my life is you. Nothing else means rats' blood to me. You know me, Mary. I despise the conventions of our society. I despise any capitulation at all to the opinion of others if it keeps you tied to this man. I will free you from him if it's the last thing I do."

Meanwhile, 24 centuries removed, Aspasia in on trial in Athens and is about to spurn the conventions of that society by simply speaking on her behalf. She argues her case with Sokrates.

[page 390] "That is not a crime in itself," I said to Sokrates. "For nowhere in th laws is it written that a woman must keep her mouth shut."
      "True. But it is considered natural law that she should. And you are a woman who is threatening to overturn the natural order of things."
      "By speaking?"
      "Yes! You are the first woman who will be allowed to be present at a trial. It is unheard of, you realize. Speaking is your biggest fault, as far as the men of Athens are concerned — speaking as a philosopher, or speaking on political matters with Perikles."

Aspasia listens to all of Socrates' arguments and finally she rebuts him, "Do you not see the contradiction? You are asking me to play the role of the good and obedient girl. But if I do so, I cannot challenge these ridiculous charges." (Page 391) The argument goes on and Aspasia asks him how she might carry off the charade he suggests as the obedient woman. In his answer, Sokrates points to Aspasia's "I" and recommends she find it and allow it to carry her through the trial.(4)

[page 392] "Personally, I am always guided by an inner daimon, which tells me how to behave at all times. I am convinced that all human beings have a spirit of this sort who resides in them, and who will direct words and actions to the highest possible outcome. I encourage you to find yours, and allow it to carry you through the trial.(5)

In a similar trial, Veronica Franco, a famous poet and courtesan of Venice, was brought before the Inquisition on spurious charges, and she demanded to speak. She spoke the truth from her "I" and made the charges seem so silly that the trial ended in merriment instead of torture(6). Her infamous trial mirrors the trial of Aspasia many centuries before. And Mary Elgin's trial centuries later. Each trial brought the judge and the jurors up on charges of oppression of their own wives and lovers: women. True, women have a different role in society than men, but they each have an equally strong "I" as any man, and can stand up to any man's "I", even when the laws of the time, written by men, say otherwise. Karen Essex's novel writes large this theme — it is emblazoned on the book's cover: Stealing Athena. The greatest female goddess is present in every female "I" and those men who strive selfishly to steal the Athena from a woman will suffer as surely as those who dared to desecrate the Parthenon, the ancient temple of Athena.


---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. The speed trace is a simple memory technique which allows one to quickly remove any doylic memories by converting them into regular memories. The technique is described here:

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Footnote 2. Athena no longer stands in the Parthenon in Athens, but a reproduction of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee contains an actual size replica of the statue of Athena today.

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Footnote 3. The Elgin Marbles, as these Parthenon sculptures are called, reside in the Duveen Gallery of the British Museum as of this date, so far as I know. Karen Essex notes on page 449, “The Greek government has built a new Acropolis Museum, scheduled to open in 2008, with the express purpose of housing the marbles, should Greece succeed in recovering them.” History goes on. One cannot imagine the return trip to Greece could be as momentous as the original trip to Britain.

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Footnote 4. For more details on the "I" inside you, read this book, "I-Connecting" at .

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Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne



Footnote 5. Socrates was to be condemned to death for later doing what he advised Aspasia to do, in fact, it was the basis of his condemnation by the people of Athens who saw his “I” (his daimon ) as a god of his own making. The people of the world in general had not learned by that time that each had an individual “I”. From page 448, “Later in life, Socrates was tried, like Aspasia, for impiety. The charges included ruining the morals of the young and believing in gods of this own making — his daimon — rather than the state-ordained gods.” It is well to remember that one dare not ignore state-ordained gods embedded in laws and policies yet today.

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Footnote 6. See this fine movie of her life, "Dangerous Beauty", from 1998, which portrays the trial vividly.

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