Why classical myth and autism?

Why classical myth and autism?

The idea for this project started to take shape at a meeting in 2008 with a special needs teacher, who mentioned that, in her experience and those of her colleagues, autistic children often enjoy classical myth. I began to wonder why this might be the case, and whether – as a classicist who researches, and loves, classical myth – there was anything I could contribute. I started this blog to report on my progress which was often sporadic until the launch of the Warsaw-based European Research Council-funded project Our Mythical Childhood (2016-22) to trace the role of classics in children’s culture.

My key contribution to the project is an exploration of classics in autistic children’s culture, above all by producing myth-themed activities for autistic children. This blog shares my progress, often along Herculean paths, including to a book of lessons for autistic children focusing on the Choice of Hercules between two very different paths in life. The image above, illustrating the homepage of this blog, is one of the drawings by Steve K. Simons, the book's illustrator, of a chimneypiece panel in a neoclassical villa at Roehampton in South West London. The lessons centre on this panel.

Thursday 23 November 2023

On reading the review of my 2022 conference at Leicester by Emma Astra AKA The Disabled PhD Student

A colleague got in touch recently to ask whether I knew about an article written about a visit I made to the University of Leicester last year to talk about where autism, neurodiversity, disability and classics cross and connect.

I didn't know about it. But when I clicked the link, what I found there floored me, in a wonderful way.

The article is here

It's by Emma Astra AKA The Disabled PhD Student. Emma sets out what it was like for her attending the different phases of the day, starting with an informal drop-in, continuing with lunch at a cafe on campus, then having tea and cakes in the foyer of one of the university buildings and finally attending a more formal presentation from myself, though where participants had the option of a colouring in activity.

File:University of Leicester - Percy Gee Building - geograph.org.uk - 2730645.jpg
Space to connect at Leicester University's Percy Gee Building.
Photo Ashley Drake. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons

The article beings with the header: 'How and why I changed my perspective of Greek Tragedy because of Professor Susan Deacy'.

I'm not going to summarise what Emma says because I can't do justice to it. Here, though, are a few points I want to get down - including so that they can serve as actions points for myself:

  1. Informal drop-in sessions: these should become a thing!
  2. The 'crossroads' image is worth keeping pursuing
  3. Opportunities for conversations in non-formal settings like such are worth having. As Emma writes, it's here that 'the most connecting and experience arises'
  4. Colouring in is 'therapeutic'. There need to be more colouring in opportunities
  5. Hercules can resonate in unexpected ways
  6. Emma's medium site and PhD blog are wonderful places
  7. So too is the work of Andrew Hugill, author of the Autistic Professor blog 
  8. 'Hybrid events are important' for disabled people just as Emma says.
University road sign
University Road Sign designed by Freepik.
Attribution here

As I mentioned in my previous posting, I am off to Leicester again next week both to look back over the Hercules phase of my practice and to look ahead to what I'm planning concerning Medusa. The crossroads image will be all the more important for me to think through in like of Emma's insights.

Tuesday 21 November 2023

On getting to 'every crossroads' in Leicester on November 30th

I'll be heading to one of my academic homes next week, the University of Leicester, to talk about two 'paths' in my autism-related activities to date.

At a workshop at the University, I'll be presenting my - nearly out! - book of lessons for autistic young people based on Hercules. 

Poster for my session at Leicester on November 30th, designed by Dan Stewart

I'll also be introducing my next project, which will pursue a 'Medusan' path. 

Here I shall propose Medusa as a figure who can resonate with autistic ways of being. I'll set out how Medusa does this differently from Hercules, but at least as significantly. I plan to focus on how Medusa fits, notably, with being autistic and:

- self stimulation

- movement

- emotional intensity.

I visited Leicester in September 2022 for a Hercules-focused session which included an (opt-in) interactive activity. I'm planning to same this time round as well.

It's possible to attend online as well as in person. Email the address on the poster above or me via susan.deacy@bristol.ac.uk for information.

It is very likely that I shall be discussing several crossroads-rich images. Here's a taster:

Zbigniew Karaszewski, The Choice of Hercules 4 (2022) based on a 1603 illustration of the constellation by Johann Bayer sourced from Wikimedia Commons 


A crossroads on the Zeus Housing Estate in Warsaw photographed by Maria Makarewicz

The cover of my book :)
Anya Laura, Medusa at the Interface Between Science and Arts, from S.Goffredo and Z. Dubinsky (ads.), The Cnidaria, Past, Present and Future: The World of Medusa and her Sisters, Springer 2016: ii

Sunday 5 November 2023

What Would Hercules Do? On why the answer to this question is now imminent - my book is nearly out

I write with news! 

The book of lessons for autistic children that I have mentioned many times over the last few years is very nearly out. It is advertised by the publisher HERE and due out by Christmas. 

It will be available in print form and online (for free, via Open Access!). 

More news as I receive it, but as a taster here, first, is the cover:

And here, secondly, are some endorsements:

Monday 25 September 2023

Live blogging Hera's Terrible Trap in the Hopeless Heroes series where, TLDR, I'm half way through and taking a pause to process after some experiences to date of Medusa-receptions for young people

I’m now about to start reading Hera’s Terrible Trap, the second book in the Hopeless Heroes series while blogging about it.

Getting ready to take out volume 2 from the box set of Hopeless Heroes by Stella Tarakson 

In the first book, which I blogged about last week, Hera was set up as the enemy of the hero, Tim, as an extension to her enmity for Hercules.

From looking at the cover of the book, Hera is looking set to continue to be put in the role, standard in classical receptions for children I think, of the bitter enemy of Hercules who is dedicated to persecuting him. 

To be fair, there are classical precedents for this in ancient sources including Hesiod, where Hera is responsible for rearing several of the creatures whom Hercules comes up against.

The dedication of the book to the author’s mother, Helen, ‘a migrant who brought her mythology with her’ offers a perspective who it is who ‘owns’ classical mythology which raises some big questions.

The book opens in a garden centre with what it’s like to be a child taken to a garden centre reminds me of own memories of being taking to them. Here, described from the perspective of Tim, the place is full of adults exclaiming delightedly as they look at plants as though they’d never seen any before.

It is due to what happened in the first book, it turns out – nice exposition here – that Tim and his mother are in the garden centre as they need to buy new plants to replace those that Hercules blasted treating them like the (botanical – I loved that!) Hydra.

Tim has grown in confidence since the first book. When he meets the school bully – Leo, the name has to be significant… – at the garden centre he responds to being tripped up by tripping Leo up.

Oh yes on the depiction of Hera as the standard dedicated evil goddess one. She’s the ‘evil goddess’ on page 27 continuing how, at page 8, ever since Hercules had been born, ‘Hera had decided to hate and resent him’ – emphasis added.

There has been some rushed exposition: how Hermes came into the story as the helper of Hera out of fear for her is rehearsed. But now we are I think into the plot of the new adventure when, after Tim returns home to find Hermes flying off in his winged sandals with the ancient Greek vase that Hera desperately wants back, Tim grabs the vase and is transported away holding onto it (p. 30).

He is transported, it turns out, to Hera’s sanctuary in ancient Greece. Preceded by a flock of peacocks – introducing for the readers quite nicely Hera’s sacred birds – Hera appears, asks Tim his name, and reveals – this is great! – that, echoing the meaning of name of Hercules and its connection with Hera (though this isn’t stated here), the name Timothy means ‘Honouring God’ (40).

Tim runs away from Hera’s temple – so while in the first book Hercules was transplanted into the modern world, this time round Tim is going to be transplanted into the world of classical myth. 

In what is a missed opportunity not to evoke this world of classical myth, Tim runs straight into Hercules who takes him to his home and his wife who is called Agatha – in this regard the author is making her own intervention I assume.

I’ve now met Hercules’ daughter, Zoe, and lacking the subtlety of the first book where Tim and his world are gradually evoked, here Hercules thinks girls should stay indoors while Zoe wonders whether, in the future, girls are able to leave home to have adventures. I’m anticipating similar presentism as the book continues.

I’m skimming a bit as this book lacks the subtlety and world-evocation of the first one.

Tim has just met Theseus, who has killed the Minotaur already but whose father is still alive. Theseus – in the role of a self-loving teenager, which is about right I guess - has come to meet Tim having heard on the ‘GGG’ (66) that he needed help. 

I need to turn the page to find out what GGG is going to stand far. I’m going to guess ‘Greek gods something’. Ah – p. 70: ‘Greek God Grapevine’.

Zoe has revealed that this is how gods pass on messages to heroes.

As a take on magical properties of grapevines in ancient sources – as on vases where everyday people seem to have become transported into the realm of Dionysos – this is super.

There’s a nice twist on stories being narrated within stories as in Ovid’s Metamorphosis when Zoe, star struck, asks Theseus, to narrate how he killed the Minotaur and only snippets are given as Tim filters out his arrogant boasting. 

But the rehearsal of the story serves to help Tim decide how to get the vase back as it reminds him of a computer game he used to enjoy playing which was set in a maze.

The three of them – Tim, Zoe and Theseus – go through a garden full of statues that lack the perfect bodies that Tim has become accustomed to seeing. Their faces look scared too, One statue is crying actual tears.

When Tim sees a woman in tattered clothes with snakes for hair coming towards them, Zoe warms him not to look at her, revealing that she is a gorgon. Thanks to the illustration by Nick Roberts on page 89, the reader is shown just what the gorgon looks like with big snaky locks of hair, slanted eyes (!) and large pointed teeth.

Zoe reveals that Hercules has told her about how his grandfather killed a gorgon, Medusa, but that she had failed to listen to how.

But it turns out that the relative, Perseus, Zoe’s great-grandfather, now lives in the gorgon’s garden and tends it contentedly.

I’m half way through and going to pause now. 

Hera's Terrible Trap: half way through

A heads up that it’s when I got as far (about a quarter way in) as Percy Jackson and his (again, two… this is interesting!) friends encountering Medusa that I stopped reading – due to how Medusa is treated.

Another heads-up: last week I was loving reading Show Us Who You Are by Elle McNicoll including for its evocations of the Medusa myth until the end with which I had several issues which made the whole experience unravel.

So I need to take a pause before reading more about what will happen next in the garden.

Wednesday 20 September 2023

Announcing Modern Argonauts, a hero for our times, and a 'proof of concept' to help young people deal with challenges of today

I still recall the sense of excitement at the impending launch of Our Mythical Childhood, a five-year continents-wide quest to chart Classical moments in young people's culture. 

Along with the team assembled by Katarzyna Marciniak, we planned extensively, assembled teams and got going. That was in 2016. 

The quest didn't always quite as we had planned, not that this was a bad thing. In the end we not only accomplished all our tasks - we also managed to carry out more than we had dared to dream. Even when Covid left us isolated in our various localities we found other means to connect.

With the end of the project - after six, not five, years, to deal with the challenges of Covid - we found ourselves ready to get going again. 

And right now I'm feeling a new sense of excitement. Katarzyna is now the holder of a 'Proof of Concept' grant from the European Research Council. This is the about to be launched The Modern Argonauts: A Multicultural Educational Programme Preparing Young People for Contemporary Challenges through an Innovative Use of Classical Mythology. 

Professor Katarzyna Marciniak smiling
The hero: Professor Katarzyna Marciniak

Following from the 'citizen science' aspect of the first quest, The Modern Argonauts will continue to bring young people along with us. 

The project will, to quote Katarzyna, explore "antiquity as a living element of contemporary culture, important for the development of the identity of children and young people". 

This "innovative use" of mythology will be an interactive educational programme for young people. 

My contribution will be a Herculean one which builds on the Choice of Hercules activities that I designed for young people for the autistic 'wing' of Our Mythical Childhood.

I will be getting started soon and plan to share my progress here.

In the meantime, for more on the Modern Argonauts, please read this notice from the University of Warsaw, from where the quotation from Katarzyna is taken, and which in turn links to a video about the new project. Please also see this piece on AcademiaNet.

More news to follow too on the Choice of Hercules activities whose publication will take place very soon now. The companion webpages are live and growing, and this very week the book goes to the printer.

Tuesday 19 September 2023

ACCLAIM update including new member bios

There's been quite a bit of activity in the ACCLAIM (Autism Connecting CLAssically Inspired Mythology) Network lately including with the new or edited member bios. 

ACCLAIM Members - the link for this site is below: please scroll down

New to the network are following wonderful people, all of whose interests and lives connect - in some way - autism and mythology:

Alexia Dedieu (Grenoble)

Effrosyni Kostara (Athens/Roehampton)

Oisín Parsons (UCD, Dublin)

Aneirin Pendragon (St Andrews)

Jerome Ruddick (Newcastle)

Meanwhile, the bio for David Welch (Texas) has been updated to reflect the two milestones of gaining a PhD and an academic job 🎓🎉

Please check out our bios plus photos showing us in touch with our younger selves and if you'd like to join, send me an email (susan.deacy@bristol.ac.uk)!

Sunday 17 September 2023

Here Comes Hercules - with me live blogging and finding the book as good as it was recommended to be with Hesiodic moments

Around a year ago, I spent a very pleasant afternoon in the Ure Museum of Classical Antiquity with the members of the Reading branch of the YAC: the Young Archaeologists' Club. 

For the session, I adapted one of the lessons from my book of lessons for autistic children based around the figure of Hercules. When I blogged about the session last year,* I mentioned that as well as being very engaged with the figure of Hercules and with the challenges of making sense of this figure as well as other mythological figures, some of the young people recommended to me some reading I could do as a follow up. 

The most enthusiastic suggestion made was that I should read a book in series called Hopeless Heroes on Hercules. The kids seemed quite sad that I didn't yet know this book - or any of its companions. They were excited for me that I could now discover the world it conjures up.

I went ahead and bought the full set. 

Hopeless Heroes series, by Stella Tarakson illustrated by Nick Roberts, Sweet Cherry 2018-2020

Now, finally, I'm reading the books - and I'm going to do something I've done previously. As I read, I'm going to live blog, or at least this is the plan. I've not blogged recently - while I've been focusing on some other projects. I've been missing it.

So here goes volume 1: Here Comes Hercules.

We start in the modern day, presumably in the UK, where a young boy called Tim is alone in the house doing housework while his mother is at her second job as a cleaner. As he starts doing a task that he dislikes doing - dusting - he manages to knock over and break one of the many objects that clutter the house, a large vase. 

What makes the breakage especially unfortunate is that it's the one object that, his mother has told him, is worth anything. Indeed, were she to sell it she wouldn't need to be doing the second job. The thing is: it was a gift from her husband, Tim's father, before he died. 

As Tim contemplates mending the vase, on which a strong man is depicted with a huge bull, he's aware that there's a huge man in the room with me, Hercules, relieved to be released and a bit surprised that Tim doesn't have a clue who he is,

I'm wondering why it's so often Hercules who figures in time travel fiction - either where classical myth intrudes into the modern world or where someone goes back in time. There's Francesca Simon's Helping Hercules for instance. One possibility is the popularity of Hercules, not least in children's culture in the wake of the 1997 Disney film - after which Hercules has never been the same like Barbie presumably never will be the same in the wake of The Barbie Movie

Because anything can be made Herculean, here's a picture of Ryan Gosling from Barbie since - helping contribute to Hercules in youth culture in the 1990s - he was Young Hercules.

File:Ryan Gosling by Gage Skidmore.jpg
Ryan Gosling in 2017 - details here

Another possibility could be what it is Hercules does, namely carry out difficult tasks.

Having Hercules explain who he is is a nice way to introduce classical myth to readers who don't 'have' any knowledge as they start reading...

I have to write down this from page 23 between Hercules and Tim: which is beautifully Hesiodic - gods never were, always are...

'My father is lord of the sky and ruler of Mount Olympus', the man said, pulling himself to his full height. 'You must know of him.'

'Mount Olympus? Like in mythology? Greek gods and stuff? [...] They're just stories. They're not real.'

Ooh it's got interesting - channeling something not I THINK in ancient sources for Hercules but a trope used e.g. for Andromeda, Hercules explains that he's been trapped in the vase since Hera put him in there out of jealousy for his mother 'who is far more beautiful than her' (p. 24).

Oh and I've just got to a theme that I think I've seen in children's receptions, namely what is the usefulness of Hercules - Tim says (still 24): 'Flexing muscles and wrestling cattle wouldn't get the housework done'.

Ah very Herculean now - he's realised he is hungry and eating enthusiastically.

And a nice touch at p. 38: Hercules takes to the task of clearing the garden of weeds by decapitating dandelions and on realising that, as Tim tells him 'that only makes them come back faster', that 'They must be like the many-headed Hydra. Every time you (39) chopped a head off, it would grow right back'. 

I've just made the same point in an academic article (on the Hydra for the Oxford Handbook of Classical Monsters - not out yet): that is on the Hydra being botanical-like - though I went further and considered how far she is not just plant like but a figure with plant features.

Right now Hercules is doing to the flowers what he did eventually to all the hydra's heads - namely, sear them with vividly humorous results leaving the garden devastated.

And now Hercules is trying to help again by slaying a tiger skin he thinks is a living tiger, showing, Tim thinks that - fitting the usual way of receiving Hercules as non-intelligent strong man - 'Hercules might be super-strong, but he wasn't super-smart' (62).

Oh and he wraps the tiger skin round Tim saying it will protect him from arrows.

I didn't mention that the only other character so far, Tim's mother, hasn't been able to see or hear Hercules. Now on the way to school, recalling the dogs in the Odyssey who can sense the invisible Odysseus, a large black dog - who I assume will be taken to be Cerberus - being walked by its owner senses Hercules.

Yes Cerberus: a really good way to introduce classical myths in a hands-on way.

Now at school, we meet the school bully Leo - who will presumably become the object of a first labour for Tim to parallel Hercules's encounter with the lion. The teacher is Miss Omiros. The best friend is Ajay - equalling Ajax?

They get home and, suggesting the cleaning of the Augean stables, Hercules has cleaned the whole house - but overdone it.

Several sets of quests then unfold - Hercules, who deeply wants to get back to his wife and daughter, realises that the ancient Greek inscription, now hard to read because of the fragmentary state of the vase, contains the means to get him back. But the solution of how to get him home is in the form of a riddle which Hercules doesn't have the ability to decipher. Tim can't work it out either and Hercules gets despondent, not even wanting to eat. 

When the depressed Hercules doesn't come to Tim's aid when Leo is bullying him, Tim manages to trick Leo, concluding that issue.

Meanwhile, Tim's mother, who has had a novel rejected 10 times, successfully pitches a book called Hercules the Housekeeper based on the stories Tim has told her about Hercules whom she considers to be made up by Tim - or does she - she has just told Tim (158) that it's a 'wonderful secret' that he has shared. 

Right now I am stuck that this book is really good - better than most: less clunky, more immersive - better than the first Percy Jackson which I didn't get far with (more for another time), more nuanced...

It turns out that the 'secret' is the answer to the riddle - nice! After Hercules is transported back to Greek myth, and Hera and Hermes come to try to get the vase, Tim manages to get to the vase first, aware that he now needs to look after it well. 

Here the book ends but with a preview of Tim's next adventure which turns out to the next book in the series: Hera's Terrible Trap.

So the books are all connected - I hadn't realised. Well: to book two soon... But so far so good, very good indeed. This might even be the most immersive, inventive and yet engaged-with-ancient-versions classical myth book for young people (7-9) I've read.

* I went to add the hyperlink to the blog posting on the Ure session, but I must have only drafted it and not typed it up. That is something I need to put right: a future task then...