When I found Atë, it was after a long audition. I was tired. It felt like I’d been in a school hall for days, the smell of old gym shoes and deodorant, heavy curtains shutting out the daylight, auditioning hopeful deity after hopeful deity – Mafdet, Qadesh, Eos, Hedone, Pahket – all doing their stuff upon the stage to convince me they should take the lead role of a goddess wandering in disguise among the humans. They all had commendable star qualities - and none of them were someone you’d want to piss off. But it was a big commitment and I had to be sure I was going for the right one.
Pahket had currently been in the front running – a huntress of the night, who was both gentle and ferocious; a protector of motherhood. She was feline headed and killed snakes with her claws. No one was going to mess with her when she got cross. But... the story still felt a little too straightforward with her in the main role.
So I ditched the Egyptians and considered the Greek pantheon. I wanted to avoid the heavy-hitters, as they were too well known and I wanted more freedom to weave my own tale, so then my eye landed on Hedone, smiling flirtatiously while eating a dripping mango. Well, the story would certainly be sexy with her around. And frankly, I was too tired to care anymore if the story felt straightforward. There’s nothing wrong with a straightforward story.
That’s when I left the hall and saw Atë lurking around the boys’ toilets, smoking a cigarette and offering hand jobs in exchange for a song. No one knew much about her. They just knew she was trouble and that you’d best stay away from her. Bad things happen to people who get tangled up with her.
And that’s when I knew I’d found my perfect anti-heroine.
In classical Greek mythology, on the rare occasion when Atë is mentioned, it is usually to hold her responsible for having led people astray and for compelling them to do foolish rash things. In The Iliad, she is blamed for tricking her father, Zeus, which leads to him throwing her out of Olympus. Agamemnon tells this story as an explanation for his feud with Achilles – it was because he had been deluded by Atë, you see. She is the personification of ruin, delusion and rash action – an ‘arch-destroyer of the mind’*. And, after all, if she is able to trick the king of gods, then you can hardly blame Agamemnon for being susceptible to her wiles.
Occasionally, in the classical tragedies, she is acknowledged to be an agent of justice, avenging evil deeds. Shakespeare also trots her out on occasional as an invocation of infernal vengeance.
What’s interesting though is that little more is ever said about her; she just becomes a convenient scapegoat – a devilish monster who gets pulled onto the stage whenever an explanation for a man doing a foolish or hot-headed deed is needed; only to be thrown off the stage once that job is done. We certainly never get to hear her side of the story.
And it was her side of the story that I was drawn to.
I wasn’t interested in making Atë some poor, hard-done-by doormat though. In my story, she’s definitely guilty of having done some terrible things. She’s proud, unreliable and self-absorbed – indeed, an anti-heroine; indeed, a classical god.
By the time we pick up her story in Cursed Love Blues, she’s been exiled among humans for three thousand years. And she has an incredibly rich tale to tell: mistress of kings and empresses; lover of writers and artists; consort of charlatans and magicians.
Alienated from the world of gods and the world of humans, Atë lurks around the shadowy edges of history and myth. Is she the original inspiration behind Shakespeare’s dark lady? Did she bring about the downfall of Dr John Dee? Is she the original Witch of Endor? Did she discover Billie Holiday?
During her three millennia of exile, she’s learned a lot about herself and humans; often the hard way. As a powerful woman who’s never been afraid to speak her mind and who has always been disdainful of human social niceties, it’s no wonder that she’s been so feared and maligned by ruling societies. Over the centuries, she’s been burned at the stake, drowned, stoned, lynched, imprisoned, criticised, persecuted and ignored.
In Alessandero’s diary, which is set in Venice, 1753, (here’s an in-joke for you: his best friend, Giacomo, is Casanova), we see the growing fear and hostility of this highly libertine but nonetheless repressive society towards a woman who refuses to play by the rules.
By the time, she meets up with Hako and Sue at the end of the 20th century, she has become more adept at blending in, having accepted a quiet life of anonymity and drifting namelessly from place to place. She’s still guilty of self-absorption though, and she still often misjudges people and situations, sometimes to fairly devastating effect. It would help matters also, if she wasn’t in such denial about herself and the cursed role she has played in so many lives.
But this is a tale of redemption and she has many painful lessons to learn.
*Homer. The Iliad. Book 19. 163