Why mythology and autism?

Why mythology 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.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

How to liberate Hercules (resource pack introduction part 2)

In the Iliad (book 8 lines 360-9), Athena complains to Zeus about the number of times she spent saving Herakles from some disaster or other. In this posting, I am going to continue my exploration, begun in my previous posting, into rescuing this figure (mostly Hercules in what will follow). The rescuing in question will concern saving – perhaps liberating – the hero from the elitism that is so often invoked in postclassical receptions of classical mythology. I might even be moving between scholarship and activism in doing this: I have received some supportive feedback on the previous posting, including from Liz Hale, another member of the Our Mythical Childhood team, commenting that such an attempt at rescuing Hercules constitutes ‘not just pioneering work, but activism too.’

My previous posting concluded with the observation that another hero, Odysseus, can be rescued from any elitist associations. I then asked, ‘Can Hercules?.’ I continued: ‘In a sense, it is harder to rescue this particular hero. In another sense, it is significantly easier – so much so that even a representation in a room in a gentleman’s villa can be made accessible to a wide audience – a more diverse audience that those for whom it was created.’ Here I begin to attempt such a rescue.

The story of the reception of Hercules is very much the story of high culture and of elitism. Hercules has been the subject of many paintings, such as Caracci’s Ercoleguidato dalla Virtù, illustrated at the head of this posting. Episodes from the life of Hercules have figured in works of classical music. What is more, if we turn to the kinds of individuals who have received Hercules, the elitist associations appear compounded. 

This is a tradition that has been evident over the centuries of postclassical reception – but it is a tendency that begins in antiquity, at least with Alexander the Great, as depicted on the coin illustrated here. It might, possibly, be traced further back, to the Athenian tyranny of the sixth century BCE. Alexander the Great did not just draw on imagery of Hercules: he actually dressed as the hero/god. So, too, did the Roman notables Mark Antony and, later, Commodus. Then, after antiquity, a series of leaders had themselves cast as a modern Hercules, including Charlemagne, Richelieu and Napoleon. In the twentieth century, this was continued with Mussolini.[1] Moving into the current century, Vladimir Putin was represented performing the twelve labours of Hercules at an exhibition in Moscow in 2014.

This brings up to date a tendency that has been evident at least since the fourth century BCE. And what it points to is Hercules as one whose superhuman abilities raise him far above ordinary mortals. Hercules is one who can capture or kill monsters and who can carry out wonderful feats of strength. What is more – and this is something that might be suggested in the various examples of notable leaders representing themselves as Hercules – Hercules does not just possess a strength that exceeds that of ordinary people. Rather, it is where he gets this strength from that also places him above the rest of us, for it is god-given. And, what is more, gods intervene in his life – to aid him or to frustrate him. Athena, as noted earlier in this posting – and possibly intimated in Caracci’s Virtue – is one such deity. As Hercules carries out his adventures, he does so on a level that exceeds anything that can relates to the possibilities of ordinary mortals. By being equated with Hercules, the list of notables mentioned above are cast as superior to their country-people.

There were times when their audacity in casting themselves as Hercules was turned against them. For example, Mark Antony’s opponents engaged with Antony at his own game and likely outplayed him, by saying that Antony was indeed like Hercules, but rather than embodying his virtues what he showed were the flaws of the hero (reference in progress!). However, this only reinforces the elitism at play here: for Hercules is still being used as a model for a leader. It is just that, rather than being imbued with the qualities of good leadership, it is as a bad leader that the hero is being received.

Hercules, then, has been received as one superior to others. This has its roots in the classical past and it has continued through the ages and into our own age. However, it is possible to rescue the hero from his associations with leaders – good or bad – while, also, acknowledging that with his extraordinary qualities, Hercules is likely to remain a superior figure – a fantasy figure. This rescuing has been underway for some time and it is a rescuing that has been effected at least as well as that of Odysseus; indeed, the rescuing of Hercules is likely more advanced than that of Odysseus. For Hercules has been repeatedly received in popular culture. There have been several films of Hercules for instance and it is
one of these, Disney's Hercules that has opened up the classical world to a new generation – so much so that, in my experience and that of some of my colleagues, it is that that is providing a pivotal moment for those who, as young adults, go on to study classical subjects at university.

Above all, there is a particular episode from the life of Hercules that has particular value in this regard. It is an episode that is at least as valuable in this respect as the episodes from the life of Odysseus that Grove and Park (see my previous posting) draw from. This is because, for all that Odysseus is read as an everyman figure, this particular Herculean episode has even greater appeal, one that can cut through class or gender. Hercules is, here an ‘everyman’ figure – and an ‘everyhuman’ or ‘everywoman’ as well. This appeal also extends beyond ability or disability.

It is this episode that will be at the centre of the first set of resources that I am developing, with a view to opening up classical myth to autistic users who may, in some cases, lack access to a traditional education.

This episode in question has kept cropping up over the past year or so on this blog – and so some readers might be very aware of what is coming next. But I’ll stop here all the same, and in the next posting I shall turn to this episode. In this next posting, I shall provide the fullest discussion of it to date on this blog.

[1] The appropriation of Hercules by various notables through the ages is well explored in Alastair Blanshard’s Hercules: A Heroic Life (Granta 2005) and in Emma Stafford’s Herakles (Routledge 2012).

Thursday, 14 December 2017

How to rescue Hercules (resource pack introduction part 1)

I mentioned in my previous posting that I was engaged in preparing my first set of classical mythological resources for the Our Mythical Childhood… project for use with autistic children. I also said that this blog will report on my ongoing progress towards this first set of resources, which will be ready in February 2018. This posting, along with others that will follow shortly, will be doing just this – by providing preliminary comments on the rationale behind the mythological material I shall be using for these resources. As I have said previously, these concern the figure of Hercules and I have begun to explain why I have made this particular choice. Here I shall say more about why this hero will form the subject of the resources. I shall also say more about the particular Hercules-related artefact that I shall be centring the resources around. I shall also make clear – here and in subsequent postings – what the link is between these resources and the picture of a sculpture collection in Merseyside that heads this posting.

I have mentioned previously that a major inspiration for the resources I am creating has been a volume by Nicola Grove and Keith Park. This volume, Odyssey Now, presents a set of resources around the adventures of a particular ancient hero. In the introduction, Grove and Park detail what led them to a focus of this hero and his adventures. And here I shall think about their resources, and how it might bear on the Herakles-Hercules, the hero that I have chosen for my particular focus. I do this so that those who use the resources will be able to see the potential that I see in the choice I have made for work with autistic children.

Grove and Park say that, when they let others know that they were planning activities around the adventures of Odysseus, some surprise was expressed. This was because Odysseus is the paradigm of the classical Greek hero, and thus he is from a culture that is deeply imbued with elitism. And I can see the validity of such a response. The world of classical heroes might appear to be inaccessible for those using the resources – for several reasons. Firstly, Classics has often been the preserve of the elite – and the very name ‘Classics’ is full of elitist associations. Classical myths have remained popular since the end of the classical world, but the receivers have tended to be leaders steeped in ‘high’ culture. For example, country houses and landscape gardens are packed full of classically-themed imagery – in statues through houses and grounds for instance and in the paintings that adorn the walls of the showpiece rooms and staircases, or at least once adorned them.[1]

A ‘classical education,’ including an education that provided young people, men especially, with knowledge and appreciation of myth was the preserve of those educated to be future leaders. This can be seen, for example, in the games that were played by young men in Georgian and Victorian times. These included writing nonsense verse which involved drawing from a deep familiarity with various classical events, myths and personages. For these young men, myth was flexible – and it could be used flexibly. Each user could create their own new version, with wit and humour. But it was an activity preserved for those who had the schooling that would enable such an engagement. (For more on this see this posting, which includes a discussion of this topic by Rachel Bryant Davies.) 

The classical world forms part of our world – but generally with the more elite side of that world. As I have just surveyed, when it is used by children the children are those who will grow up to be leaders – the diplomats and politicians of the future. Such receptions in children’s culture are echoed in other modes of reception. I have already mentioned landscape gardens and country houses.  Many of our cities are also full of classical-rich imagery. But these tend to be to convey messages about leadership and imperialism. They are often found, for example, adding adorning such institutions as banks, libraries, museums and parliaments – institutions that can appear inaccessible to non-elites.

As I said above, Grove and Park’s choice of Odysseus elicited some raised eyebrows. The hero I have chosen might elicit still higher raised eyebrows, for one thing, the hero I have selected is popular in one of the elite contexts I have mentioned above – the landscape garden. And the materials I am presenting here are in a room in a gentleman’s villa, which, like other houses of the time was designed to look like a Roman temple as though the grandeur of the classical past has been transplanted onto the English countryside. Moreover, the artefact would have been part of the decorations of a room designed to accompany any actual antiquities designed to accompany actual antiquities brought back from the Grand Tour.

Yet, as Grove and Park mention, they were able to deal with the concerns of their colleagues in various ways, including by stressing just how strong a place can be occupied by their subject. They were able to draw attention to the vivid retelling in the 1980s (they were writing in 1995) by Tony Robinson. This updating of Odysseus has been continued since then as well – and this shows that it is possible to rescue Odysseus from centuries of elitism. For instance, just this year, there was a one-man performance of the Odyssey [details to follow!] where the audience members were the Phaeacians, listening to the hero’s tales about his adventures. So accessible were these adventures to children that they asked such question as ‘what happened to your shoes?’ 

Odysseus, then, can be rescued from any elitist associations. Can Hercules? In a sense, it is harder to rescue this particular hero. In another sense, it is significantly easier, so much so that even a representation in a room in a gentleman’s villa can be made accessible to a wide audience – a more diverse audience that those for whom it was created.

I shall discuss why this is the case in my next posting...

[1] I don’t usually opt for footnotes in blog postings, but I didn’t want the main text to get too crowded. But here is an instance of where topics relevant to other blogs I write bear on the current one. Thanks to one of my PhD students, who has a family tie with the house in question, I’m currently developing an interest in Ince Blundell Hall in Sefton in Merseyside, now a nursing home. Its collection of antiquities was given to the National Museums Liverpool, while most of its paintings have been sold. I have a longer-running interest in the antiquities collected by the second Earl of Bessborough, and that were once on display in his 18th-century neoclassical villa, Parkstead House in Roehampton. Since they were sold by the third Earl, these have resided in several collections, including at the British Museum, Sir John Soane's Museum and – I have just discovered – the Ince Blundell collection. Just a few weeks ago, I took part in an event that formed part of the 2017 Being Human Festival. In line with this year’s ‘Lost and Found’ theme, we included photos of the artefacts now in the BM and the Soane. I shall now start to put together photos from the collection in Liverpool. I haven’t exactly gone off topic with this footnote:  the key artefact I shall be using in my first set of resources was also in an 18th-century neoclassical villa in Roehampton.