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.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Choosing Hercules (resource pack introduction part 4)

With this posting, I shall start to do what I promised in the last one – namely to start lifting Hercules out of the ‘elitist enclaves’ (to quote Liz Hale again) where he often resides. This rescuing is going to be difficult on one level in light of just how far it is nobles, politicians, gentlemen and so forth who have persistently received Hercules. Alastair Blanchard’s Hercules: a heroic life (Granta 2005) is an excellent account of the ‘life’ and ‘afterlife’ of a personage repeatedly appropriated by notables through ages. Looking through a gardening magazine recently, I learnt of one Scottish example of just such a reception to add to the English one on which I shall be focusing. This is the Hercules Garden in the grounds Blair Castle in Perthshire, laid out in the eighteenth century.

Hercules overlooks his Garden at Blair Castle, Perthshire
On the other hand, there has already been plenty of rescuing of Hercules thanks to the proliferation of receptions in popular culture – in film for example (including the range of examples discussed in Blanchard’s book), in graphic novels and in children’s literature.

The myth I shall be looking at is one that, as I have commented previously, is on display in what was once a gentleman’s villa. It was designed to be a talking point, I would argue, for classically-informed eighteenth-century people. But, as I have also discussed previously, it is also full of potential for ‘speaking’ to anyone, irrespective of their background.

Here is the story. As I said in the previous posting, there are only a few accounts of it in antiquity. The two ancient accounts I shall focus on below are in works by rather different authors, one Greek, one Roman, but the later one quotes the earlier one – so we are really dealing with two variants rather than two distinct versions.

The story is first told in Xenophon’s Memorabilia (2.1.21–33), a variegated work which includes several Socratic dialogues. It is in one of these dialogues, on the topic of childrearing, that Hercules’s choice features. The other speaker, Socrates’ student Aristippus, has said that there isn’t any value in raising children to be leaders, because the life of leaders is full of burdens and misery. Socrates’ response is that, if burdens are accepted for the right reasons, and freely, then they are less of a burden than those which someone merely endures.

It is at this point that, to support his argument, Socrates tells the story about Herakles (I'm slipping into the Greek spelling as I'm dealing with a Greek text). He claims that it is a story that he was, himself, told by another, the sophist Prodicus. Thus, it would go back to the fifth or very early fourth century (there are no precise dates for Prodicus) – and it is possible, though not at all certain, that Prodicus’s actual words are being quoted, or at least paraphrased.[1]

What happens is this. Herakles is a young man close to adulthood, the time when, according to Prodicus/Socrates/Xenophon:

The young now become their own masters, show whether they will take the path of arĂȘte (‘virtue’) or the part of kakia (‘vice’)’ (Emma Stafford’s translation in Herakles (Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World 2012), very slightly adapted.

Not knowing which of the two paths to take, Herakles goes to a ‘quiet place’ and, here, ‘sat not knowing which of the two roads to take’ (Emma’s translation again). While he was sitting in his indecision, two tall women appeared and approached him. One was called Arete – best translated ‘Virtue’ – the other was Kakia (‘Vice’).

As well as having names that are opposing, the women are different in appearance. Virtue is tall, slim and wears a simple robe. Vice is shorter, plumper and wears elaborate make-up and clothing. Each of them seeks to persuade the young hero to take up a lifestyle in keeping with their name and character. Vice offers him various pleasures – food, drink and sex – and a life of comfort. Virtue offers him a life of hard work, but also enduring fame. We are not told which of the two paths it is that Herakles picks. From the context in which the example is narrated, around the acceptance of burdens by leaders, it seems likely that Herakles decided in favour of the life of virtue.
But this is not absolutely clear, though it is the way that the myth tends to be understood. It is understood in this way, for example, in Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greek Heroes: Retold From the Ancient Authors (1958 – and many later editions including the left-hand one illustrated here, which I am using presently, and the one on the right, my first ever gateway into classical myth - this is something that I shall discuss in the future...)

In Lancelyn Green's account, Herakles is a cowherd, wondering whether it would be his fate in life to remain as such always. While he is resting, he encounters the two women and is offered a choice between the ways of life that match their personae. He does not hesitate in choosing Virtue’s path. Straightaway he sees a lion attacking his cows and, with his quest for this lion, so begins his heroic career.

In Lancelyn Green’s version, then, what Hercules chooses is the path of Virtue – and it is not a choice that causes him much trouble. Nicholas Lezard summaries the usual way to read the outcome of the choice as follows: ‘Hercules chooses duty, of course.’[2]

As a way of reading Hercules, this does have much appeal. Indeed, it looks like an obvious way to read Hercules’ decision. Hercules is, after all, the hero known beyond all others for his hardships. His is a life of hard work and suffering – no sooner does he complete one labour than another presents itself. Eventually, he earns a respite from his suffering, but this is only when – after death, and apotheosis, on Olympos, with Hebe (‘Youth’) as his wife – his toils are over. Such a contrast between his life of struggles on earth and his blessed afterlife is expressed, for instance, in the Homeric Hymn to Herakles the Lionhearted. In life:

he used to wander over unmeasured tracts of land and sea at the bidding of King Eurystheus, and himself did many deeds of violence and endured many (4-6)

Now, however:

he lives happily in the glorious home of snowy Olympus and has neat-ankled Hebe for his wife (7-8, tr. Loeb of Hugh G. Evelyn-White).

But there is another Herakles for the ancient Greeks – a Herakles who embraced the pleasures of life and who would take pleasure as and when he could. This is an impetuous Herakles, who sacks cities when it chooses him to do so, who has sex with women as and when he chooses, and who has a vast appetite for food and for drink and for sex. The last of these appetites is best exemplified by his fifty-night stay at the house of Thestius and his fifty daughters, having sex with each daughter in turn. Meanwhile, his appetite for eating and drinking was a mainstay of ancient drama, notably comedy but also Euripides’ Alcestis, where Herakles enjoys the hospitability of the house of Admetus, aware that the house is in mourning but unaware that it is Alcestis, the mistress of the house, who has died. The Servant, assuming that Herakles is aware of the identity of the deceased, relates his apparently outrageous behaviour:

if we failed to bring anything, he ordered it brought. Then taking an ivy-wood drinking-bowl in his hands and drinking unmixed wine, offspring of the dark grape, until the fire in it enveloped and warmed his heart, he garlanded his head with sprays of myrtle and howled songs out of tune (755-62, tr. Loeb of D. Kovacs).

Painting on a bilingual amphora, by the Andokides Painter c. 530-10 BCE
(Staatliche Antikensammunglen, Munich, 2301).
Photo details here
Further information on the vase here,
via the Beazley Archive.
On one side of a bilingual amphora (in the sense of black-figure on one side, red-figure on the other), Herakles reclines on a couch, leaning on a cushion. There are vines containing grapes around him and he wears a grapevine wreath on his head. He is holding a drinking cup – a kantharos – and to the left there is food, including strips of meat and fruits. Athena, the frequent helper during his labours, and possible model for Virtue, is his companion here as well – holding him a flower.

Therefore, there is a pleasure-loving Herakles just as there is a Herakles who endures a life of suffering. It is not vital that we follow Lancelyn Green and others and to regard Hercules as the hero who chooses the virtuous path. His is also the path offered by Vice.[3]

So: there are two possible ways to read the outcome of Hercules’ choice – that Hercules chooses the path of Virtue and that he chooses the other path, of pleasure – of Vice. Thus, the choice he faces is set up as a clear-cut one, between two diametrically opposite ways of living, but… determining the choice he makes is less easy than it might initially appear.

‘We cannot all have the experience of Hercules’: A Ciceronian detour

Another of the ancient works to discuss the Choice, Cicero’s (De officiis), emphasises just how simple this choice is for Hercules – between one clear path in life and another. For other youths: ‘this is the most difficult problem in the world,’ because, Cicero continues:

it is in the years of early youth, when our judgment is most immature, that each of us decides that his calling in life shall be that to which he has taken a special liking. And thus he becomes engaged in some particular calling and career in life, before he is fit to decide intelligently what is best for him. For we cannot all have the experience of Hercules (1.117-18, W. Miller Loeb tr.).

Thus, while it is not necessarily clear which choice Hercules makes, the choice itself is a simple one.

But, as we have seen, there is a fit with both choices in relation to the life of Hercules. Hercules is, in some respects, the hero with the life of toil who experiences more toil than any other person. But there is also the Hercules who lives life to the full more than anyone else. The choice might be simple. But does Hercules ever commit himself?

He does… and he does not… And it is this lack of clarity in terms of the outcome that makes the episode so full of potential, as a talking point and as an opportunity for reflecting on moral positions and about dilemmas one might face in life. Making choices can be difficult for anyone. It is possible to feel caught in indecision.

Looked at one way, the choice involves a clear decision between two things as opposed as Virtue and Vice, where the heroic career is reduced to a choice between things as extreme as they come, with none of the ambiguities that often accompany a choice in life.

Or there is complexity. It is not clear how to read the episode and how to determine what choice the hero made.

It is this simultaneous simplicity and complexity that I shall be drawing on in my resources for use in the autistic classroom. The episode offers potential for getting any user to reflect on a choice in life, and to think about different possibilities and what the implications of these possibilities could be including around where they fit in the world, between themselves and others.

Meanwhile, it is this simplicity of Herakles’s choice – the very thing that distinguishes Hercules’s choice from that of other children according to Cicero – that counts as one of the reasons why the story has so much potential for use with autistic children. This is because it can enable children in a range of places along the spectrum to engage in moral dilemmas and to think about contrary ways to respond to a decision in life.

By doing this, the children for whom I'll be creating the resources will have the opportunity to engage in a process that has engaged others as well, including those for whom the particular representation of the choice was likely created.

I’ll break for now – this posting is already around twice as long as my usual ones. In the next posting, I shall turn my focus to what it is about Hercules that makes this figure so appealing for use with autistic children. I'd originally envisaged introducing the resources over three postings. This is already number 4. I expect to write at least one more such posting before, finally, sharing the resources themselves.

[1] For a brief discussion of the possible closeness – or otherwise – to Prodicus, see Graham, D.W. ed., 2010. The texts of early Greek philosophy: the complete fragments and selected testimonies of the major Presocratics (Vol. 2). Cambridge University Press: 860-1. For longer discussion, see Sansone, D. 2004.‘Heracles at the Y’, in Journal of Hellenic Studies 124: 125-142 (arguing that Xenophon preserves Prodikos’ lost words) and Gray, V., 2006. The Linguistic Philosophies of Prodicus in Xenophon's'Choice of Heracles' in Classical Quarterly56(2): 426-435.  (challenging Sansone’s arguments and seeing a fit between Xenophon’s account of the Choice and sentiments elsewhere in the Memorabilia concerning service and honour). (Url accessed 29.01.18 – likewise all urls in this posting)

[3] Grayling (see previous note for reference) follows the usual way of reading the outcome of the choice, namely that the hero opted for the path of duty/virtue and rejected the other. According to Grayling, it is not in fact necessary to choose between the two ways of life – instead, he advocates a life of moderation, which strikes a balance between duty and pleasure. What I would add here is that Hercules might not have chosen just the one path either.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Out of elitist enclaves: bringing Hercules into the world (resource pack introduction, part 3)

Our Mythical Hope delegates plus Hercules, Tyszkiewicz-Potocki Palace

I built up to an ambitious claim in my previous posting, namely that there is potential for using the figure of Hercules to cut across various things that are normally at odds. As I said, this is a pretty big claim to be making in light of just how often Hercules has been co-opted by those at the top of political and cultural hierarchies – from Alexander the Great to Richelieu and beyond – and earlier still, perhaps as far back as the archaic Athenian tyrant Peisistratos. The picture at the start of this posting shows another kind of elitist Hercules, in the stairwell of the Tyszkiewicz-Potocki Palace, one of the most magnificent of the eighteenth-century neoclassical palaces in Warsaw.* What's more, in my previous posting, I didn’t stop with a claim for Hercules as one that might breech social, political and educational elites. I also raised the possibility of a Hercules that might ‘speak’ to anyone, regardless of gender, and regardless of ability or disability.

I said in that previous posting that I had been confirmed in my thinking that Hercules might be rescued from his various elitist co-optings by an experience last year, around a year ago now, at a session with a group of young women who hadn’t, previously, studied any Classics. They drew a good deal from a representation of Hercules that was in front of us – in the Adam Room in Grove House at the University of Roehampton. They found that it could ‘speak’ to their own lives, especially the choices they make in life. In that previous posting, I was commenting on another piece – which I wrote for Liz Hale’s Antipodean Odyssey blog as my ‘Saturnalian Surprise.’ The surprise that I wrote about was my surprise that the girls didn’t always look at the artefact in the way that I look at it.

When I look at it, I am drawn to its central figure because I have some knowledge about who it is – Hercules – and what it is that is happening to him as he encounters two women. The girls, instead, tended to be drawn to the two women, and to how they were responding to the man in between them. This was a surprise for me. I have always stressed the potential that myth has to be received in ever-fresh ways, including beyond the intentions of the creator. My forays into classical reception have been informed by Charles Martindale’s observation (maxim even…), quoted from memory, that ‘meaning is always realized at the moment of reception.’[1]  But this particular instance of reception is one that I didn’t see coming.

One effect of the experience was to confirm something that I had already thought, namely that myth has the potential for reaching people – for ‘speaking’ to people – irrespective of their background, and irrespective of what existing knowledge of myth that they are bringing to it. And since the experience in front of Hercules, I have made the decision to select this artefact as the basis for the first set of materials that I am creating for use with autistic children.

This is the episode in question... Once it was among the best-known of all stories about Hercules – that was in the eighteenth century. It doesn’t have such a status now – but I would hold that what made it popular in the eighteenth century is rife for being draw on now, for use with children, including autistic children. I shall soon give an overview of the story – although I am aware that some of the users of the resources will find the story hard – if not impossible – to follow. Other users, meanwhile, might be able to engage with the story and, potentially, relate it to their own experiences. In any case, those facilitating the use of the resources will be likely to benefit from a knowledge of the story.

It is very difficult to give a summary of most stories from classical myth. If, that is the teller want so stick closely to the original evidence. There are many retellings of myth, including for children and I those the author is likely to have selected those aspects that they deem suitable for their own particular audience. For example, many retellers of myth for children skate over aspects of the ancient stories with which a modern readership might feel uncomfortable. Perhaps the most striking example of this concerns the numerous examples of sexual encounters in myth which involve rape or other forms of sexual violence [examples to follow]. The myths of Hercules have, likewise, been adapted in such a way as not to upset audiences. Disney’s Hercules for example [more to follow].

This is not, in itself, either a good or a bad thing. Modern retellers of myth are also tellers of myth – they are continuing a tradition that began in antiquity of constantly updating stories to suit a fresh audience. Thus, the ancient stories were ever on the move – ever being changed for new audiences. This could include omitting some elements, exaggerating others and, even, adding new components. Even the very first extant ancient Greek author, Homer, was selective in what he drew on. The only thing that makes assessing how Homer used myth different from assessing how a later author used myth is the frustrating lack of anything earlier than Homer – this makes it difficult to know what exactly Homer was doing with a given mythical element, Hercules included [more to follow!].

It might, however, seem at times like a bad thing to those developing an interest in the stories. When someone is introduced to a myth in a certain way, it can be unsettling to find that another retelling presents the same story differently.

In the case of the episode I am dealing with here, it is possible to circumvent these issues. For there are relatively few ancient representations of the myth. Thus, when I talk about ‘the ancient story,’ I can do so with greater authority that would be possible for many others. This might be comforting to anyone who likes to be able to gain a sense of what a myth entails. It also enables any teacher to become well versed in the story, irrespective of how much classical myth they themselves have previously encountered.

I have been confirmed further in this thinking by a comment by Liz Hale in her introduction to my posting for her Saturnalian Surprise series. She comments that my work “shows us the practical and activist aspects of a classical education.’ She comments that it does this by “bringing it out of elitist enclaves and into the world.” In the next posting, I shall start to show more precisely how I aim to bring Hercules out of such an enclave.

[1] For an excellent account of classical reception as pioneered by Martindale see this BMCR review, by Sheila Murnaghan, of the following edited volume: Charles Martindale and Richard F. Thomas, ed. Classics and the Uses of Reception, Oxford: Blackwell, 2006.  

An update on 9 Feb 2018: visitors who have opened this posting before today might remember that I could initially only manage to upload a grainy, low-resolution version of the photo of the delegates plus Hercules in his enclave. I’ve now, at last, managed to put up a sharper version.