Overview of the Sacred Band of Stepsons series by Janet Morris and Chris Morris

The Sacred Band of Stepsons is a fictional ancient cavalry unit created by Janet Morris and based on the historical Sacred Band of Thebes, an elite strike force of paired lovers and friends that flourished during the fourth century BCE in ancient Greece, where sexuality was a behavior, not an identity. The Sacred Band of Stepsons novels and stories take place in a myth-like milieu that mixes historical places such as Nisibis, Mygdonia and Chaeronea; warriors such as Theagenes (commander of the Theban Sacred Band at Chaeronea); gods such as Enlil, Maat and Harmonia; philosophers such as Heraclitus and Thales; cavalry tactics and customs such as age-weighted homosexuality and bisexuality with those that exist only in fantasy.

The exploits of the Stepsons are chronicled in eleven short stories and eight novels (as of 2010). In a fantasy context, this series explores the difficulties facing war-fighters in personal relationships and the enduring questions surrounding the military’s historical mixing of homosexuals and heterosexuals in combat.

Evolution of the fictional Sacred Band of Stepsons

The Sacred Band of Stepsons first appeared as shock troops in the Thieves’ World(R)  series in 1981 with the story, “A Man and  His God,” a landmark novella introducing Plato’s Sacred Band concept of an elite homosexual war-band (Hieròs Lókhos) to readers at a time when the combination of well-researched ancient history and fantasy was still rare [1] and sexuality as a topic in fantasy [2] was just emerging [3]. “A Man and His God” was subsequently reprinted in four other compilations, including “Thirteen Short Fantasy Novels Novels,” edited by Asimov, Greenberg, Waugh and Charles [4]; “The Mammoth Book of Short Fantasy Novels,” edited by Asimov, Greenberg, Waugh [5]; “Sanctuary,” Robert Asprin, ed. [6]; and “Tempus,” by Janet Morris [7]. This much-anthologized novella and other stories about the Sacred Band of Stepsons stimulated awareness of the historical Sacred Bands, the Sacred Band ethos (philia) and the subsequent inclusion of Sacred Bands, sometimes identified as Stepsons and sometimes as other war-bands, in role-playing games, including World of Warcraft[8], EverQuest II’s Sentinel’s Fate [9] and Warhammer [10] as well as more general cultural discussions of homosexuality and bisexuality in the military and sexual orientation in science-fiction and fantasy.

Because Thieves’ World was a “shared universe” where many writers could use the same characters, others wrote stories featuring the iconic Stepsons and their immortal commander, Tempus. Notable authors in the shared universe of Sanctuary who wrote stories featuring characters from the Sacred Band of Stepsons include Chris Morris, Robert Asprin, Lynn Abbey, Andrew Offutt and C.J. Cherryh.

For nearly a decade, Janet Morris wrote stories and novels, some with Chris Morris, about Tempus and his Sacred Band, taking them beyond the fantasy world of Sanctuary into real ancient, modern or futuristic locales. Morris’s first Sacred Band of Stepsons novel, Beyond Sanctuary, was the first “authorized” Thieves’ World spin-off novel and was published in hardcover by Baen Books and then the Science Fiction Book Club. Beyond Sanctuary was reviewed by Library Journal [11] and by Publishers Weekly [12], attesting to the notability of this first-ever hardcover Stepsons novel and the popularity of Morris’s characters when apart from the Thieves’ World’s mass-market paperback and shared-world milieu. Next came “Beyond the Veil,” also a Baen hardcover and Science Fiction Book Club Selection. Beyond the Veil was reviewed by Kirkus Reviews [13] and by Fantasy Review [14]. The Baen hardcover and Science Fiction Book Club publication of Beyond Wizardwall completed publication of the ground-breaking trilogy that took the mythic Tempus and his Sacred Band of Stepsons out of the shared world of Sanctuary, into historical Nisibis and Mygdonia and farther realms. Three additional Stepsons novels and a short story per year followed until 1990, when the Morrises ceased production until 2010. In the latest Stepsons novel, The Sacred Band (2010), the Stepsons rescue twenty-three couples of the historical Sacred Band of Thebes at the Battle of Chaeronea and bring them, with their Greek Fates and gods, to Sanctuary, providing one answer to the puzzle of what happened to the forty-six skeletons missing from the mass grave of the Sacred Band of Thebes at Chaeronea, where the whole band of three hundred was supposedly buried.

History, myth, and philosophy meet fantasy

The fantasy worlds (whether past, present or future) inhabited by the Sacred Band of Stepsons are always imbued with the historical, the numinous, the mythic and the supernatural. Tales of the Stepsons draw upon the historic Theban Sacred Band and on the myths and realities of Archaic and Classical Greece as well as on earlier Egyptian and Mesopotamian history and legend as far back as the epic of Gilgamesh and the ancient weather-god, Enlil.

Classical correspondences abound, as analyzed in detail by Edgeworth [15]. The Band’s commander, Tempus, rides a Tros horse, akin to the Iliad’s man-devouring white horses from Troy [16]. Tempus’s leopard-skin mantle and boar’s-tooth helmet, his choice of panoply and mount and food and drink, and many other allusions and references hark back to Homer’s Iliad. Edgeworth discusses Tempus’s choices in detail:

He wears a helmet crowned with boar’s teeth (Tempus [1987] 273), as does Pdysseus in Iliad X, and a “leopard-skin mantle…from ancient times” (Tempus 273), as does Paris in Iliad VI. For a beverage he favors a mixture of wine and barley and cheese (“High Moon” 223, in The Face of Chaos [1983; cf. Beyond Wizardwall[1986] 111), which is what Hecamede serves to Nestor and Patroclus in Iliad XI. And he rides on one of the finest horses in the universe, known as a “Tros” horse. In antiquity the finest horses were thought to have been owned by the royal house of Troy, whose eponymous founder was named Tros [17].

The web of connectivity to classical sources in this series is extensive. As Edgeworth explores at length, the authors mix historicity, philosophy and myth. Tempus quotes the philosophers Heraclitus and Thales and some other characters call him ‘Tempus Thales.’ The milieus in which the Stepsons find themselves sometimes resemble but seldom duplicate our own. Paired Sacred Banders such as Critias and Straton have historical counterparts in ancient Greece; the witch who stalks Nikodemos through many novels and stories is called Roxane, who shares that name with the wife of Alexander the Great of Macedon. Many other parallels exist, along with a wealth of detail evoking our classical world. And yet, as Edgeworth points out, knowledge of the ancient world and its history is not necessary to understand the stories, which can be read purely as fantasy.

Composition

The Sacred Band of Stepsons is a multinational force, and eventually includes twenty-three couples from the Sacred Band of Thebes who fought at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE. Like the historic Sacred Band of Thebes (378-338 BCE), the Stepsons serve as an elite strike force. Unlike today’s prevailing vision of the Theban Sacred Band, the Stepsons mix pairs and individual war-fighters in a single unit. Both Sacred Bands adhere to the ancient military model of the Sacred Bands, special units who prize honor above all and die in battle rather than desert their partners, lovers or beloveds.

The ancient viewpoint

The Sacred Band of Stepsons is a fictional Sacred Band whose initial social and military structure is based on the historical Sacred Band of Thebes, a war-band of hand-picked male couples. As the Stepsons grew, they admitted heterosexual pairs, bisexuals, father and son pairs, and single mercenary fighters. Their attitudes toward religion, sack and pillage, women and sexual roles are representative of those held in the ancient world. They are Hellenic and Homeric in nature: gods and preternatural forces are real to them. They are not only heroic in the classical sense, but believe some of their number to be descended from or favorites of the gods themselves. Like Homer’s heroes, some have god-given weapons, assistance, or attributes. They are subject to the whims of jealous deities, to curses, to numinous interventions as well as threats from mortal enemies and conventional militaries.

Constitution of the Stepsons

The Sacred Band of Stepsons was developed by their fictional commander, Tempus, from an original ten pairs of lovers and friends, plus thirty single mercenaries. These original pairs of Stepsons followed the social model of the Sacred Band of Thebes, and so did other pairs recruited subsequently. Edgeworth says of Tempus’s Sacred Band:

He commands a group known as the “Sacred Band,” warriors who pair off for life, obviously inspired by the similar Sacred Band of Thebes {….} Homosexual relations were not unknown in either group (“High Moon” 223, 242). The Band was founded by Abarsis, a priest from the North (“A Man and his God” 571, 589 inShadows of Sanctuary [1981]), whose name differs by only one letter from Abaris, a priest from the North said by Herodotus (Book IV) to have visited Greece [18].

In Tempus’s Band, heterosexual Stepsons and Sacred Band pairs fight side by side. There is no requirement to be part of a couple to serve among the Stepsons, and single mercenaries initially outnumbered the Sacred Band pairs.

The Stepsons are principally a cavalry (hippeis) squadron, not heavy infantry (hoplites) as the Theban Sacred Banders primarily were. While the three-hundred-strong Theban Sacred Band [19] was constituted by Theban law-givers and maintained by the Theban state (according to Plutarch’s “Life” of Pelopidas), the Sacred Band of Stepsons is loyal only to its members and its commander, Tempus. Among the Stepsons, fathers and sons and Platonic couples, as well as single male and female fighters, can serve. In this mixed company, couples and individual cavalry and infantry fighters are recruited as circumstances required. To this end, the Stepsons rescued twenty-three pairs from the doomed Theban Sacred Band at the Battle of Chaeronea and integrated the survivors into their force. At full strength, the Stepsons number as many as three hundred and sixty fighters and have fought in three major campaigns.

Lovers and brothers and friends: pair-bonded characters driving the fiction

Library Journal’s Jackie Cassanda said in her 1985 review of Beyond Sanctuary:

The first novel to emerge from the Thieves’ World stories features one of the notorious city of Sanctuary’s most complex and problematical residents: Tempus, a warrior who cannot die and cannot enjoy his immortality. Sworn to defend the Rankan Empire from its northern enemies, Tempus leads a band of mercenaries, wizards, and an extraordinary woman against the mages of Wizardwall. While showing a fine flair for the sword-and-sorcery genre, Morris succeeds as well in making her more-than-human characters more than entertaining [20].

Throughout the subsequent series, pair-bond and commitment drive the plots. Paired fighters of both sexes, trainees and veterans, horses and riders, mortals and immortals, wizards and witches, deal with the stresses and strains of their various attachments. Bound by the Band’s rigid code of honor and its demands for unflinching determination and unswerving devotion, Stepsons face war, death and treachery while struggling to tread safely among higher powers. Tempus himself finds refuge from his god and his curse in the philosophical perspective of his alter-ego, Heraclitus of Ephesus, incarnating the Heraclitan maxim “Strife is justice.” His off-again-on-again pair-bond with Nikodemos informs much of the action. Nikodemos strives to maintain a mystic balance which attracts meddling gods and goddesses, witches and a demiurge intent on securing his allegiance. Critias and Straton, paired senior officers from the cadre, struggle against Straton’s compulsive infatuation with a necromant. Loyalties are often strained to the breaking point as the Band evolves and their commander challenges the gods themselves.

Novels

  • Beyond Sanctuary, (1985)
  • Beyond the Veil, (1985)
  • Beyond Wizardwall, (1986)
  • Tempus, (1987)
  • City at the Edge of Time, (1988) (with Chris Morris)
  • Tempus Unbound (1989), (with Chris Morris)
  • Storm Seed (1990), (with Chris Morris)
  • The Sacred Band (2012), (with Chris Morris)
  • the Fish the Fighters and the Song-girl (with Chris Morris)
Short Stories
  • “Vashanka’s Minion,” Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn (1980), Asprin, ed.
  • “A Man and His God,” Shadows of Sanctuary (1981), Asprin, ed.
  • “Wizard Weather,” Storm Season (1982), Asprin, ed.
  • “An End to Dreaming,” Whispers #5 (1982), Schiff, ed.
  • “High Moon,” Face of Chaos, (1983), Asprin and Abbey, ed.
  • “What Women Do Best,” Wings of Omen (1984) (with Chris Morris), Asprin and Abbey, ed.
  • “Hell to Pay,” The Dead of Winter (1985) Asprin and Abbey, ed.
  • “Power Play,” Soul of the City (1986) (with Lynn Abbey and C.J. Cherryh)
  • “Pillar of Fire,” Soul of the City (1986) (with Lynn Abbey and C.J. Cherryh)
  • “Sanctuary is for Lovers,” Blood Ties (1986) (with Chris Morris), Asprin and Abbey, ed.
  • “Wake of the Riddler,” Aftermath (1987), Asprin and Abbey, ed.
  • “Red Light, Love Light,” Uneasy Alliances, (1988) by Chris Morris, Asprin and Abbey, ed.
  • “The Fish the Fighters and the Song-girl,” (2010) by Janet Morris and Chris Morris, Morris and Morris, eds.
  • “Speaketh Like Men,” (2010) by Janet Morris and Chris Morris, Morris and Morris, eds.

References

  1. Edgeworth, Robert J. “Poverty of Invention: or, Mining the Classics with Janet Morris and Harry Turtledove,” Extrapolation 31(1):15-23 (Kent State University Press). Spring 1990
  2. Heldreth, Lillian M. “Speculations on Heterosexual Equality: Morris, McCaffrey, Le Guin” in: Palumbo, Donald, ed.Erotic Universe. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1986; pp.209-220
  3. Tilendi, Robert M. “Emergence: A Personal History of Gay and Lesbian Characters in Fantasy and SF,” Wilde Oats, Spring, 2010.
  4. Asimov, Isaac; Greenberg, Martin H.; Waugh, Charles G. (eds.) Thirteen Short Fantasy Novels (1984), Greenwich House
  5. Asimov, Greenberg, Waugh (eds.), “The Mammoth Book of Short Fantasy Novels” (1986), Robinson Publishing
  6. Asprin, ed., “Sanctuary” (1992) Science Fiction Book Club
  7. Morris, Janet, “Tempus,” (1987) Baen
  8. World of Warcraft Sacred Bands
  9. EverQuest II’s Sentinel’s Fate
  10.  http//:www:gamerdna.com/groups/profile/Sacred-Band
  11. Cassada, Jackie. “Beyond Sanctuary (Book).” Library Journal 110.11 (1985): 75.
  12. “Beyond sanctuary.” Publishers Weekly 227 (1985): 69
  13. Beyond the Veil (Book), Kirkus Reviews, Copyright VNU Business Media, Inc.
  14. Beyond The Veil (1986), reviewed by W.D. Stevens in Fantasy Review, March 1986, Volume 9, No.3, whole #89 (Florida Atlantic University)
  15. Edgeworth, Robert J. “Poverty of Invention: or, Mining the Classics with Janet Morris and Harry Turtledove” Extrapolation 31(1):15-23 (Kent State University Press)
  16. Farnell, Lewis Richard, Greek Hero Cults and Ideas of Immortality, Oxford at the Clarendon Press (1921), pp.289-293
  17. Edgeworth, Robert J. “Poverty of Invention: or, Mining the Classics with Janet Morris and Harry Turtledove”  31(1):15-23 Extrapolation (Kent State University Press)
  18. Edgeworth, Robert J. “Poverty of Invention: or, Mining the Classics with Janet Morris and Harry Turtledove” Extrapolation 31(1):15-23 (Kent State University Press)
  19. DeVoto, James G. “The Theban Sacred Band” The Ancient World XXIII.2, (1992), pp. 3-19
  20. Cassada, Jackie. “Beyond Sanctuary (Book).” Library Journal 110.11 (1985): 75

Portions of the material above appears in significantly altered form in Wikipedia.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s