Of Blood and Lions


Before Of Blood and Lions, if I had been asked to make a list of characteristics to describe myself it would have looked like this-- scientist, recycler, gardener, animal lover, stitcher, daughter, sister, mother, wife--anything but a writer. I still constantly ask myself “How did I become a writer?” My novel seems to have appeared from out of nowhere like in a transporter scene from Star Trek. Oh sure, I’ve written hundreds of memos and reports during my thirty years plus at the biomedical company where I work , but I didn’t really consider that writing, at least not creative writing. My technical notes were no more than a draft following a standard scientific outline, consisting mostly of page after page of tables and graphs filled with numbers. The drafts were passed from me to my supervisor, for one or two re-writes, and then on to the next level for the next set of re-writes. Each reviewer made an effort to add some flair to the reports, but it was a challenge to make words like dilution points, linearity or precision as exciting as being chased down by a demon or as romantic as a first kiss.

Even now when I look back on the events that led to this new path in my life I’m astounded at the many twists and turns that might have accidently strayed my course. It had to be fate! And as much as the main character Of Blood and Lions may scowl at the thought of fate, there’s no doubt in my mind that it exists.

It all began in 2008 on an innocent visit to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. My parents, Richard and Joan Chelman, have been members of the MFA for over twenty years and every year they take two guests to one of the events at the museum. It just so happened to be my turn that April. After dinner, the four of us headed for the MFA’s latest exhibit, “Art and Empire: Treasures from Assyria in the British Museum.”

As we drove toward the museum my only thought was getting through the Assyrian exhibit as quickly as possible, the night’s ultimate goal being the museum’s collection of mummies. Uncovering the secrets of a three-thousand-year-old preserved body is an undeniable lure for any biologist. I was bored and anxious as we made our way to the main exhibit, past hall after hall of famous paintings. I was pleasantly surprised, and instantly fascinated, by the numerous relief carvings of lions in the Assyrian exhibit. But it wasn’t until I came across a small wooden carving titled “The Lioness and the African” that I forgot all about the mummies. The powerfully sensual way the lion held the man’s neck, as if to kiss rather than kill him, whirled in my head for the rest of the night.

The only souvenir I purchased during that visit was a postcard size picture of the lion carving. But that 6 x 6 piece of paper was the catalyst that changed my life, and I treasure it to this day.

At first I tacked the postcard over my desk at work. Whenever I was having trouble getting through one of my technical reports I would look to the ancient masterpiece for inspiration and dream about the possibilities of the story surrounding the events in the carving (please don’t tell my boss). Finally, with my husband’s encouragement, I sat down one particularly snowy January day, using my daughter’s discarded laptop that was as slow as molasses, and began to compose my story. It took many re-writes, just like the reports at work. Nikki Andrews, my editor, has the patience of a saint. She spent most of her early edits fixing my horrendous punctuation, but the subtle comments she put in throughout the revisions were enough to point me in the right direction. Before I knew it the jumble of pages actually began to read like a real novel.

The Assyrian Empire (2400 to 608 BC) was one of the greatest kingdoms of the ancient world, and like Sparta, Rome and Greece, it flourished mostly due to its great military prowess. This advantage also gave it the means to become the cultural center of its time. King Ashurbanipal (685-627 BC) is most famous for his magnificent library in which he employed an academy of scribes to record history on its forty thousand clay tablets. One of the very first “super-human” stories, the Epic of Gilgamesh, was found among these tablets.

The great respect Assyrians had for lions can be seen throughout their extensive carvings. Lions were considered to be the fiercest of all animals. To kill a lion was a remarkable feat--a feat reserved mostly for the Assyrian monarchs.

“The Lioness and the African” is one of two identical jewel-inlaid carved ivory panels, thought to be part of a throne from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC). The carvings are Phoenician in style and were most likely given to him as tribute or a spoil of war. One of the carvings is held presently by the British Museum. Unfortunately, the second carving was looted from the National Museum of Iraq in 2003 during the US attacks on that country and has not been found to this day.


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Of Blood and Lions