Saturday, December 14, 2013

Inventing a religion... or not

by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer
Authors of the John the Lord Chamberlain Mysteries 

Writers create worlds, people them with their characters -- and sometimes invent religions.

We must plead guilty to having done so. A major part of the plot of Two For Joy, the second adventure of our protagonist John, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, involves a religious movement known as the Michaelites.

Named after its leader, the core Michaelite belief is the Quadrinity, explained in a kitchen conversation between John's servant Peter and Hypatia, an Egyptian then employed as a gardener in the imperial gardens:

"I know you worship the gods of Egypt, Hypatia, and so perhaps the finer points of theology do not intrude upon your reflections," he began, quickly adding "and I see you are valiantly trying to conceal your amusement at an old man's words. However, the beliefs of these Michaelites are rather unsettling, to say the least. Their deity, it would seem, is comprised of four parts, one entirely human. It's not so long since that they would have been immediately executed for daring to even breathe such a thought." His voice trembled slightly at the very thought.

Two For Joy begins with the spontaneous combustion deaths of a trio of Constantinople stylites, those holy men who spend their lives atop pillars. Michael, camped out with a number of followers at a shrine some distance from the city, then demands an audience with Justinian before further fires occur.

The topic of the proposed audience, he is asked?

"Concerning my ascending to the patriarchy and, of course, to co-equal rulership with Justinian." Michael replied calmly.

Michael later gives an address expounding on the theology of the Quadrinity and in it predicts that holy fire will be visited again upon the city.

As indeed happens when the sea subsequently catches fire. And yes, we do provide explanations for these events in keeping with the era.

Some time after the novel was completed, to our surprise we discovered that in fact a Quadrinity, though of a different nature to Michaelism, was known at the time. We can do no better than quote an extract from the essay devoted to Pythagoras in The Hundred Greatest Men: Portraits of the One Hundred Greatest Men of History Reproduced From Fine and Rare Steel Engravings, edited by Wallace Wood and published in 1885:

The leading principles of Pythagorean philosophy are as follows: Number is the foundation of all knowledge...God is also called the quadrinity (Tetractys), which contains within itself the four elements of space, matter, time, and destiny.

Michael's destiny is not the usual one for a religious prophet, but you'll have to read the novel to find out what it is.

As in other religions, the Byzantines revered sacred relics, in some cases going to the extent of forging them. John's latest adventure, Ten For Dying (March 2014) -- by coincidence, in the essay mentioned above Pythagorean theory is noted as representing divine life -- involves the theft of one of Constantinople's most holy relics: a piece of the shroud of the Virgin Mary. Here's a brief description:

On a hot summer night in 6th century Constantinople at the Church of the Holy Apostles, an Egyptian magician tries to raise Empress Theodora from the dead and demons vanish into the darkness with one of the city’s holiest relics, a fragment of the shroud of the Virgin. As if Felix, Captain of the Palace Guard, didn’t have enough problems already between his gambling debts, political maneuverings, and an ambitious new mistress, Emperor Justinian orders him to find the missing relic.

But before he can begin investigating the theft, he becomes suspected of murder thanks to an anonymous corpse left at his house.

A former madam turned leader of a religious refuge, a wealthy and famous charioteer, a general’s scheming wife, and a superstitious man who wears so many protective charms that he jingles when he walks, all play their parts in misdirection and murder. It seems as if half the city has reason to wish to possess the relic, see Felix dead, or both.

If only Felix’s friend John were still in the city and could assist him.

Unfortunately, the former Lord Chamberlain is being sent into exile, sailing away the morning after the theft. It isn’t easy solving a mystery in Constantinople while aboard a ship on its way to Greece.

Felix is left to fight for survival in a situation where he can’t be sure who his enemies are, or even whether they are all human.

The husband and wife team of Mary Reed and Eric Mayer published several John the Lord Chamberlain short stories in mystery anthologies and in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine prior to the appearance of their acclaimed first full length novel, One For Sorrow, in 1999. John's adventures continued in Two For Joy (2000), Three For A Letter (2001), Four For A Boy (2003), Five For Silver (2004), Six For Gold (2005), Seven For A Secret (2008), Eight For Eternity (2010), and Nine for the Devil (2012). Ten For Dying will appear in March 2014 from Poisoned Pen Press. Head of Zeus publishes the series in the UK and Europe. Books in the series have won the Glyph Award and received nominations the IPPY Best Mystery Award and the Bruce Alexander History Mystery Award. In June 2003 the American Library Association's Booklist Magazine named the Lord Chamberlain novels as one of its four Best Little Known Series.

Visit the authors’ website at


Tina said...

Congrats on retroactively inventing a religion! I know that another Poisoned Pen author has predicted Greek political strife and criminal goings-on, but you're the first to work backwards.

Sandra Parshall said...

Welcome back to PDD, Mary and Eric. best of luck with the new book!

carl brookins said...

It is interesting, especially when you consider the process. Eric and Mary devised this religion to meet certain needs, based on their personal histories and everything that influenced their world view. since it has similarities to an unknown ancient philosophy, there must be parallels existing in the world, don't you agree?

Mary and Eric said...

Tina: Thanks. We always like to be different. And our backwards predictions can be checked immediately.

Carl: That's true. Pythagoras and us apparently were thinking along the same lines. Would we have been acolytes had we lived in his time, or might we have beaten him to it?

Anna Castle said...

That's what happens when you're really tuned in to your setting: time and place, but more importantly, the zeitgeist. You understand how the people of that time thought and what sorts of things they were likely to believe. How nice to get that kind of confirmation! And they both sound like great reads. I'm dashing off to the Kindle Store...

Kaye George said...

I love this! Great serendipity--or fate?