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 (2016-21) 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.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Disability Studies and different bodies in antiquity

File:Atena e hefaisto.jpgSince beginning my blog, I have become increasingly aware of how the growing field of Disability Studies has the potential to impact both upon my myth and autism project, and upon my research into other aspects of classical mythology.  I'm especially interested currently in its potential to offer fresh insights into a pair of deities frequently connected with one another (in e.g. Hesiod's Theogony and in Athenian cult/art/literature: witness for example their representition side-by-side on the Parthenon frieze).  The deities in question are the disabled god, Hephaistos, and his technological and sexual partner, Athena.  The visual depiction that I have chosen to illustrate this posting is Giorgio Vasari's Vulcan's Forge which represents Athena as - I think - out of place in, if not superior to, the world of the smithy over which the god precides.  I'm interested in why this aspect of their relationship should have been emphasised in the sixteenth century and how far it has a counterpart in ancient representations of the relationship between the gods.

The value of examining Hephaistos from a Disability Studies perspective is easy to convey - he is the god who was either born lame, or who became lame after he fell from Olympos, when he was thrown off the mountain after he was born by his mother, Hera.  Here incidentally, we encounter one of those chicken-or-egg instances of Greek myth: his mother detested him because he was lame, or he became lame after his mother threw him off the mountain.  Athena's relevance to this approach is harder to convey initially - she is, after all, a goddess celebrated for her bodily perfection, and her roles included the patronage of hygieia, that is, good health, a quality that can be contrasted with adunatos ('disability').

I aim to look at various aspects through the lens of Disability Studies, including:

1. Why Hephaistos, born as a result of the contest between Zeus and Hera to produce a parthenogenic child, is born disabled, when Zeus' child, Athena is bodily 'perfect'?

2. The connection between Athena's body and the lost body of her mother, Metis (aka Outis: 'Nobody'), who is swallowed by Zeus when she is about to give birth.

3. The connection between the body of Athena and the monstrous body of Medusa, whose head she wears on her aegis.  Why does Athena react with horror when she catches sight of herself playing the aulos and sees her puffed-out and gorgon-like cheeks?

A key question to ask when conducing this study will be one that is engaging specialists in Disability Studies, namely: are attitudes towards disabled persons cross cultural (or even rooted in evolution) or are the Greeks' views of disability a condition of their own particular cultural contexts.  It is possible to steer between these two positions.  One consequence of the 'social model' of disability studies (refs. to follow!) has been that, to understand more deeply how disability is socially constructed, there is scope for multi-disciplinary study from specialists in areas including anthropology, literature, art and history.  From history, classical history included, we can enrich our understanding of how disability was regarded in different periods.  I therefore see the potential to do two key things:

1. Find ways to shed fresh light upon the classical world
2. Add to work being done to historicise disability

I shall build on this post in due course including by supplying references to key works in Disability Studies as applied to the Greek world.