Black Ships by Jo Graham: A review

The fall and sacking of Troy and the founding of Rome happened more than 3,000 years ago and yet they still fire our imaginations. They certainly fired the imagination of Jo Graham and she decided to write a book that would be a retelling of Virgil's The Aeneid, the story of how Aeneas, the last prince of Troy, left that ruined city and sailed with a remnant of his people around the Mediterranean until they came to a place situated between seven hills. There he founded Rome.

Graham's story would be different though. It would be told by a woman.

The girl-child, Gull, was born in Pylos, the Hellenic kingdom of old Nestor, after the fall of Troy. Her mother had been a woman of Troy who suffered the common fate of women in war in the Bronze Age. (Actually, not much has changed in 3,000 years.) She was captured by the victorious Achaians (Hellenes), raped repeatedly, and finally given to King Nestor as part of his share of the booty. She would be his slave.

By the time she arrived in Pylos, she was pregnant by one of her Achaian rapists with Gull and her child was born there where she served as a flax slave, one who tended the flax that was turned into linen. As Gull grew she followed her mother in her chores, but one day an accident changed all that. Her leg was run over by a chariot and was broken, never to be straight and strong again. Gull's mother, fearing for her future as damaged goods, took her to a nearby shrine and gave her to the care of the Pythia. Thus, she became an acolyte of the shrine and grew up to be the new Pythia when the old one passed on.

In time, another attack on Troy brought Aeneas and his remnant to Pylos and there the new Pythia encountered the people of her mother and joined with them as they continued their peregrinations. Their voyages took them to Santorini (Island of the Dead), and on to Millawanda, Halicarnassus, Ugarit, Byblos, and on down to the Egypt of Ramses III. (In her author's note, Graham admits that this is a difference from The Aeneid which had Aeneas landing in Carthage and dallying with Queen Dido, but, in fact, Carthage was not founded until four hundred years later and so she substituted Egypt and an Egyptian princess.) The oracle Gull, now Pythia, tells us about all of these places and cultures. When they finally come to rest in Egypt, she feels at home there and is loathe to leave, and yet she must in order to serve her prince.

This is such a well-known story, but it is intriguing to see it through the eyes of a woman. Graham's Pythia is a remarkable narrator. I admit that I am a sucker for stories about this turbulent period in history when there was so much upheaval in the Mediterranean world. The old world was dying and a new one was being born. I am able to find enjoyment even in something that is poorly written about the period. But this, I thought, was very well done.


  1. This is one of my favorite books! I really enjoyed the story told through a woman's eyes.

    1. Me, too, Susan. It was a refreshing perspective.


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