Divining the Past: Bringing the World of Ancient Hittites to Life through Historical Fiction

Guest blog by Judith Starkson

Map of Hittite empire

One of the delights of writing historical fiction—even when it blends into fantasy as mine does—comes from delving into the past via research. My fiction is set in the world of the ancient Hittites, a powerful Bronze Age empire (1600-1200 BCE) that stretched across what is now Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. The main military rival of the Hittites is likely to be more familiar to most readers than the Hittites themselves: Egypt under Ramses II, the pharaoh in the Biblical story of Moses.

Not every era in human history provides equal access to us today. Occasionally, the random events of war and historical preservation obliterate whole cultures. Such an erasure happened to the Hittites. And to further muddle our historical understanding, sometimes there’s confusion—as there was for generations of historians—between the Hittite empire and a small later group of people mentioned in the Bible who called themselves Hittites. Fortunately, decades of archaeological excavation have resurrected this fascinating civilization, and scholars now understand quite a lot about this cosmopolitan and sophisticated people. 

Painted relief of Pharaoh Ramses with prisoners

My novels focus on the high point of the Hittite empire in the 13th century BCE and especially on their most colorful and highly-regarded leader—a woman named Puduhepa who reigned for decades with great success despite the patriarchal culture of the Hittites. She was both a queen and a priestess. Her religious devotion to the Hittite goddess of love and war was expressed through visionary dreams in which the goddess spoke to her. The Hittite word for dream is Tesha, and that became her name in my fiction.

In trips to Turkey and surrounding areas, I’ve explored the ruins of my Tesha’s hometown and capital, viewing what is left of the palaces and temples across the empire that she lived and served in. But the richest source of information about Tesha’s world comes from the archives also excavated from those ruins.

Cuneiform tablet of Hattusili’s “autobiography”

The Hittites wrote on clay tablets using the cuneiform script. Cuneiform is written by pressing a reed stylus into the clay at an angle so that it leaves triangular wedges. The wedges are grouped in complicated patterns that represent a mixture of whole words and syllables. A clay tablet covered with cuneiform looks a lot like the tracks of birds. This writing system, first used to write Sumerian, was old long before the Hittites used it. The Hittites adapted this writing system to their own, very different language. That uneasy fit makes for difficulties translating these intriguing tablets—even when they aren’t fragmentary and cracked, as they usually are. The tablet in the photo shows part of the “autobiography” of Tesha’s husband, which he actually intended as an extended prayer to his goddess. Fortunately for history, he included a summation of many of the key events in his life as he demonstrated how the goddess had stood by him through his life.

The excavated tablets cover a wide range of topics: instructions for religious rites—many of which we consider magical, letters, myths, treaties, court and military procedures, and diplomatic interactions. These court records reveal an exotic time and place that nonetheless will feel familiar to readers in its human concerns and themes. The magic found in the tablets forms the basis of the fantastical threads in my stories. I give free rein to these elements in ways that the historical people believed could happen, following the “rules” embedded in their culture. So, for example, the Hittites were obsessed with curses cast by sorcerers that brought illness and other suffering. The curses in my novels function in similar ways but have an enlarged dramatic scope—which makes for great storytelling that still immerses my readers in the Hittite milieu.

Divination model of a sheep liver

Divination is another aspect of Hittite life described on the tablets that feels on the surface completely foreign to us. The Hittites sincerely believed they should consult the gods with every major decision, especially if they feared they’d committed a sin and angered one of the gods. They put yes or no questions to the immortals and looked for the answers in the flights of birds, the spots on a sheep’s liver, the pattern of swimming snakes, or the fall of thrown “lot signs.”

I delved into that last type of divination, “lot signs,” for my latest book, Of Kings and Griffins, when the diviner must find out whether the gods will be angry or pleased if the crown prince takes the throne. That’s a tense question to ask, especially when the hopeful ruler in question is standing right there. Hostility, insults, egos, drama. In the United States and elsewhere, we have elections; the Hittites had divinations. I discovered a surprising number of parallels when the scene began to unfold in my imagination.

Studying the available information about divinations, I sifted through symbolic phrases the diviner priestess used, such as “sin of the heart” and “the deity takes hidden anger” and “to the left of the king.” Even less clear than the spoken words was the question of what physical form the “lot signs” took. I borrowed the necessary “props” from other less obscure rites described in the tablets: small wooden and ceramic figurines wrapped with colored wool and gold bands. Such research produced a vivid scene, incorporating both a long-ago world and psychological insights that I hope my readers will find refreshingly original.

Of Kings and Griffins, begins with a crisis of leadership: the ruler for twenty-some years, the shrewd and crafty Great King Muwatti, has just died. The young, headstrong Prince Urhi mourns his father but bristles at the idea of being consoled or guided by his Uncle Hattu, who had been the king’s trusted advisor. As the book opens, my powerful heroine Tesha, uneasily observes this triangle—the dead king on the bier, his bellicose son, and her wise husband Hattu, who commands the loyalty of the empire’s army and controls an independent kingdom within that empire. Hattu wants nothing more than to mentor his nephew and honor his late brother’s wishes to confirm Urhi on the throne. But Tesha suspects Urhi views Hattu as a threat not an ally, and the gods exacerbate these tensions—through that divination—by throwing in their doubtful view of Urhi. Tesha uses her forbidden sorcery to repair this volatile situation, but that may not be the sure path she believes it to be.

Of Kings and Griffins is available on Amazon. For more about Judith Starkston and the historical background of her novels, go to her website.

Of Kings and Griffins, book 3 of the Tesha series, is also easily read as a standalone.

Judith Starkston has spent too much time reading about and exploring the remains of the ancient worlds of the Greeks and Hittites. Early on she went so far as to get two degrees in Classics from the University of California, Santa Cruz and Cornell. She loves myths and telling stories. This has gradually gotten more and more out of hand. Her solution: to write fantasy set in the exotic worlds of the past. Fantasy and Magic in a Bronze Age World. Hand of Fire was a semi-finalist for the M.M. Bennett’s Award for Historical Fiction. Priestess of Ishana won the San Diego State University Conference Choice Award. Judith has two grown children and lives in Arizona with her husband. For a free short story set in her Bronze Age historical fantasy world (and a cookbook of foods in her novels), sign up for the newsletter on her website.


Message from P.K. Adams: if you enjoy historical fiction based on real-life characters, check out my novel The Greenest Branch, a Novel of Germany’s First Female Physician. It is out now in ebook and paperback on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and several other Amazon marketplaces. It’s also FREE on Kindle Unlimited.

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