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, 20 April 2020

Hercules reaches the garden but is then expelled, de-centered or omitted. So... do Pleasure and Virtue need a man in the middle?

In the previous posting, I got to a point I’d been aiming for for a while. I wrote about the curious place Hercules reaches – the place when he encounters two women, each of whom offers him a particular way of life.

If he picks the way offered by one woman, Pleasure, he will get precisely what her name indicates – a life of food, drink and other pleasures without needing to toil for them. Should he choose the other way, offered by Hard Work or Virtue, toil is just what he will need to do. His life will be one continue toil, but with the reward at the end of enduring fame.

Detail of Choice of Hercules panel, Adam Room,Grove House, Roehampton.
Adaptation of photo by Marina Vorobieva for Our Mythical Childhood
The episode looks to be very much about Hercules. The women are each seeking to persuade him to choose their particular set of gifts. What Hercules chooses will determine the course of his future life. It is perhaps the most pivotal moment in the mythical career of the hero.

But what I said in the previous posting is that Hercules is not actually necessary to the scene. In this current posting, I shall explain what I mean by this. I’ll do this by setting out three different things I’ve experienced in relation to the episode. Or, at least: two of the things I’ll share are specific responses to the scene. The third is likely to be a response to the many artistic representations that were popular in art from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century.

The women approach Hercules

The first of the responses took place several years ago, in spring 2016, a few months before the ERC-funded project for which I’m creating the activities based on the chimneypiece panel began.

The academic year 2015-16 saw the University of Roehampton celebrating 175 years of providing Higher Education, particularly Higher Education for women – as Whitelands, now one of the colleges of the University, was founded in 1841. To mark this anniversary, the “Class of 2020,” 175 young women aged 14-15, were chosen from schools in the local area to come to campus on a series of Saturdays during the academic year, each time to take part in activities organised by one of the academic departments.

When it was the turn of my department, Humanities, colleagues and myself, led by Dr Marta GarcĂ­a Morcillo, put together a set of activities based on the history of the campus, including its classically-inspired features. Included among these neoclassical elements was the chimneypiece in the Adam Room. I was based in in the room, to discuss the chimneypiece, particularly the panel, with the girls.

The Adam Room, Grove House, Roehampton with chimneypiece
panel bottom, middle. Photo by Marina Vorobieva
As a classicist interested in Hercules, my eye had always been drawn to the man in the middle, to Hercules. I saw the scene as something concerned with the hero and the Choice he is asked to make between two opposite paths in life. I’d considered the panel to be showing Hercules caught in the process of trying to decide: his face turned towards Virtue and his body towards Pleasure.

But it was not the man in the middle that the young women were interested in. What interested them were the two women and how each of them was making a play for the man – by their gestures, and the gifts they offer.

Thus, for the girls, it was possible to respond to the scene without focusing on Hercules, but on the two other figures on the panel.

Hercules is removed

The second thing happened at a workshop in Warsaw during one of the conferences linked with the Our Mythical Childhood project. This was a stage of the project before the creation by Steve Simons of his high-quality drawings of the panel. As a temporary measure, I had made what came as close as I could manage to a line drawing via the photo editing facility on my computer. The resulting image was far from ideal, but enough to give some sense of what scene entailed and what the activities involved.
Choice of Hercules workshop creations, Life is Cool cafe, Warsaw 2018
including Hercules cut out: middle of lower photo. 
At the workshop, I gave out A4 copies of the image along with things like colouring pencils, highlighters, post-it notes, stickers, glue and scissors. I encouraged people to cut out particular aspects of the scene that appealed to them. When I saw one of the participants cutting out Hercules, I thought it was because he wanted to make some specific use of Hercules, as a key figure amidst what is taking place. But, in fact, he was removing Hercules – cutting him out to get rid of him as an intruder. By cutting out Hercules, what could be left were the two women and the things that surround them.

Virtue and Pleasure come together

With this in mind – that is, an intervention which leads to a scene between Pleasure and Hard Work, without any man in between them – I would like to introduce something I found out about just over a week ago while I was looking at the website for Emma Stafford’s Hercules Project. What I’d been especially interested in was the public engagement event I wrote about in an earlier posting, where the participants updated Hercules’s labours by creating postcards showing the hero dealing with various contemporary issues.

The website also includes a presentation on the Choice of Hercules, where Emma presents Hercules as a figure of Virtue and then, as one caught between the two women. But what Emma also includes is the following badge, where there is Pleasure and Virtue but… no man in the middle – no Hercules:
Gold admission badge presented to William Hogarth in 1733.
Design attributed to Richard Yeo. Now in the British Museum.
More details 
here.
The badge was the “Perpetual Pass,” presented to Hogarth for Vauxhall Gardens, the most extensive and most visited of the London Pleasure Gardens. Visitors would need to be respectably turned out for entrance into the Gardens which were, as described in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (1848), set during their heyday, intended for:
The delight of all persons of reputation and taste.
The Gardens were spaces for Pleasure, but a Pleasure for respectable-looking people – people of ‘Virtue’ though, and this would be very Hogarthian – once darkness fell, the Gardens were known to become space where ‘Vice’ took over…

Francis Jukes, A Concert in the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens (1732)
after watercolour by Thomas Rowlandson
On the badge, there is Voluptas (Pleasure) taking the hand of Virtus (Virtue). Virtue turns in part towards Pleasure, her gaze at once ‘demure’ and directed towards the other. The inscription, beside each woman and on the scroll below, reads:

VIRTUS         VOLUPTAS 
FELICES UNA 
VIRTUE         PLEASURE  
ONE HAPPINESS
Without Hercules, there can be a coming together of Pleasure and Virtue. As early as the eighteenth century, the two women could be envisaged without the man in the middle.

What the group of twenty-first century young women focused on was not the man but on the women – though they did see the women as making advances towards the man. On Hogarth’s badge, meanwhile, the women are interested not in some third person – some person who chooses one or other of them. But there is a unity (‘una’).

Conclusions: Hope without Hercules?

There is a lot in all this that’s relevant to my activities. For one thing, the three things I’ve discussed all signal that the activities don’t need to centre on, or even include, Hercules. They can be concerned with Hercules – the hero who can stand for classics and for classics as communicated to children, and the hero who keeps speaking to ‘Western’ culture and all that can imply.  But they don’t have to be. There is a strange place, a site of pleasure, a site of hard work and where the two come together.

I shall be doing two things. I shall be embracing Hercules as one who can speak to autistic experiences. I shall also be doing what the participant at the workshop did: envisaging a scene without the hero at its centre.

The ‘Hope’ I have been looking at over recent weeks is concerned with Hercules as a Hope-Bearer but also with other sources of Hope – a Hope that comes with the fostering of autistic spaces, where choices can be made, but also where the terms of the Choice come together in a common happiness.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Hercules reaches a strange place... finally

In the previous posting, I said that what I am especially interested in is not the Labours of Hercules, but an episode that is less well-known – less well known now that is. I’ll say what the episode is in the current posting.

It’s a story that is known from several ancient sources, and it was maybe the story about Hercules in the Renaissance though to the eighteenth century - when the key image I am focusing on was produced:

This is where Hercules comes up against a task, and it is a task that is linked to the labours – possibly it is the task that will be followed by the labours. But the Hercules who is involved in this task is not the great man of action, at least not yet. It is a Hercules who is caught between two possible options - between two paths, each of which is represented by a woman or goddess.

One of these female figures is Arete or ‘Virtue’. In the eighteenth century, she came to stand for Hard Work. What she offers Hercules is a life of struggle – of hard work. There will be a reward, but only after his years of toil. The other woman is Kakia, ‘Vice’ in ancient Greek sources though also, later on, when the story came to be popular in eighteenth century Britain, the woman is Voluptas or Pleasure. What she offers him is a life of pleasure of various kinds: all the food he can eat, plenty of drink, plenty of lovers.

According to the earliest account, account in the fourth century BCE Memorabilia of Socrates by Xenophon, Hercules (my translations from the ancient Greek): 
went out to a quiet place and sat not knowing which of the two roads to take (2.1.21)
Two “tall women” appeared. The one, Arete, was
attractive to look at and of free-born bearing.
In addition, 
Her body was adorned with purity, her eyes with modesty, her figure with sobriety and she was wearing white clothes. 
The other, Kakia, was
grown into plumpness and softness, with her face embellished so that it looked whiter and rosier than it actually was (2.1.22).
What does Hercules choose? People I’ve discussed this with often assume, given what they know about Hercules, that, tempted though he is by what Pleasure offers, he picks Virtue or Hard Work. But, does he? In the account in Xenophon, the teller, Socrates never says. Socrates sates that he has heard the account from his fellow philosopher Prodikos. Socrates doesn’t say how Prodikos concluded the story.

This lack of a clear outcome might well be what made the story of this Choice between two extremes so popular in the Renaissance and then into the eighteenth century when there was a lot of concern over how to get the right kind of balance between of hard work and diligence and enjoyment and pleasure (on this, more in a future posting). So, what Hercules experiences on the one occasion is something that people in the eighteenth century were persistently concerned with.

Why I have kept returning to the eighteenth century is as follows. The version of the Choice that is at the heart of the activities is this one, drawn in 2019 by Steve Simons:


This is Steve’s drawing of the eighteenth-century representation of the Choice illustrated earlier in this posting - a panel created by an eighteenth century workshop of two generations of sculptors, the Carters, and situated in the chimneypiece of a room in Grove House in Roehampton in South West London, now on the campus of Roehampton University – where I work!

Look at Hercules. In a scene where there is a lot going on, he is perhaps caught in indecision, perhaps in panic. His face is turned one way, his body the other way. It is the women who are making efforts – efforts to attract his attention. So this is not the hero as he is elsewhere often shown: battling some foe, carrying out labours.

One reason I have spent all this time introducing the story and then the Carter Workshop panel is to stress that the activities are not solely going to focus on the Hercules who is most known from classical sources and from recent ones. This isn’t the Hercules engaged in carrying out labours. What is more, and this is something that is going to be relevant to what I am going to do, Hercules isn’t, in fact, absolutely necessary to the scene. 

I am going to explain why Hercules isn't necessary in the next posting now. I need a bit of time to collect together my thoughts! More asap...

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

The labours of Hercules - why and how they still matter, though not necessarily for my project

I’m still not quite ready to do what I promised a few postings ago, namely to discuss “Hercules in a strange place.” This current posting will, however, do what I promised in the previous one, namely to continue looking at the relevance of Hercules for my topic. 

Since that previous posting, of Thursday of last week, just before the easter weekend, I’ve been thinking more about Lisa Maurice’s article in Hercules in children’s literature. I’ve also been mulling further over Alastair Blanshard’s exploration of the figure of Hercules in Western culture, and how far Hercules has been used by a range of receivers to express certain things about that culture. I’ve also been thinking further about Emma Stafford’s work into receptions of Hercules and their ongoing relevance.

Just over a year ago, Emma and her team at Leeds ran an event where people were invited to make postcards updating the Labours of Hercules to show the hero vying with contemporary problems. On resulting cards, the participants came up with depictions of Hercules battling such issues as climate change, corruption in politics and Brexit – indeed above all I think Brexit. As I looked at the postcards included on the Hercules Project site, I wondered whether, a year on, a key issue might be in relation to the current coronavirus pandemic. I took a break from looking at the website to check the BBC News. The first headline phrased the problem over getting enough personal protective equipment to NHS staff as “Herculean.”

So: Hercules continues to be relevant, or, at least, the labours of Hercules continue to resonate. I am going to run a little during this posting with the labours, and how and why they continue to “speak” and what the fit is – and is not…  – with my project.

When I’ve been talking about the activities I’m developing, I’m often asked why I’ve specifically opted for Hercules as the focus. And one thing that’s been asked is whether I chosen Hercules because he is always overcoming hardships: have I picked Hercules because he is the great doer of deeds - always coming against some hardship or other?

My answer is – “yes, in part”, and there is potential in Hercules’s labours in relations to the hardships that autistic people encounter and, but with a message of Hope: that they can be overcome. But this isn’t really where I am starting from with Hercules. But before getting to where I am starting from, I have been thinking about why the labours of Hercules should be the first thing that comes to people’s mind. And one reason is just how much the labours have been used to express different issues, and to show how it is possible to battle some issue in question – and to ty to vanquish it.

The labouring hero: Herakles and Lion wrestle on an Attic oinochoe
in the British Museum (E 621) of circa 520-500 BCE from Vulci.
In the pubic engagement event just over a year ago in Leeds, as I’ve said, it was the Labours and how they can speak to contemporary concerns that were the focus. The participants – both children and adults – enabled to become active receivers of classical myth, created postcards where Hercules deals with particular modern problems. The cards included Hercules facing a Hydra whose six heads were labelled B-R-E-X-I-T. For one participant, Hercules was “Remain” seeking to stop Brexit. For another, Hercules was managing to achieve Brexit. For one child, Hercules tries to save the world from its leaders, depicted as monsters. On another card, the Augean stables are the world, which Hercules’s tasks is to clean up. For one other, it is the daily labours of being a twenty-first century person that is the focus, and Hercules sits reading a long list of Terms and Conditions.

An exercise where children draw Hercules dealing with some challenge or danger or problem that speaks to them as autistic people might have potential. It could be something ‘huge’ or more ‘everyday’, like the Terms and Conditions-reading Hercules. After all, everything can be hard when you are autistic.

Plus, what about an activity from the point of view of the Hydra, the Lion, the stables even, where some feature of the natural world or the wilds is resisting the invasion of a hero intent on harness it, or defeating it? At a time when, during the coronavirus pandemic, pollution levels are dropping and dolphins are returning to the Venetian lagoon, this might be all the more timely.

But what I am especially interested in is not the labours but an episode that is less well-known, less well known now that is. I’ll say what the episode is in the next posting, when I will finally get to the strange place, and what Hercules is doing in this place and why what happens here – rather than the labours - will be my main focus.

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Inching towards Hercules – while sharing some obstacles, including 'Classics'

In the previous posting, I got the closest so far over this current set of blog posts to Hercules – via “Phil,” one of the sidekicks through whom Owen Suskind would work through issues and communicate with his father, Ron. I’m inching towards putting the focus on Hercules. I’m going to do this inching forward with care.

I said at the end of the previous posting that I’d be turning next to “Hercules in a strange place.” But I’m going to defer getting to the strange place until the next posting now, as I want to spend a bit of time first reflecting on what it entails to pick Hercules as a topic for activities for autistic children. I’ll do this against the backdrop of Ron Suskind’s book and of a problem that runs deep in classics as a discipline whose elitism runs deep.

Where there would be footnotes, I’m going to put details in the text in response to a comment form Adelaide Dupont on how the footnote links aren’t working in my recent postings.

Adelaide has also made several other comments on these postings and I’m currently reflecting on these and thankful for them – and without them I might not have decided on this ‘intermission’ posting.

The good guy?

Firstly, what autistic people sometimes like are not the heroes of a story, or at least not those generally regarded as the heroes, but the outsiders: those on the margins, anti-heroes… villains. What Owen Suskind really liked are sidekicks as reflected, for example in the subtitle of his father’s book about Owen and his journey through childhood and young adulthood: Life Animated: A book about sidekicks, heroes and autism. When I was sharing my project at an event where I consulted with autism specialists in October 2019, one of the participants – an advocate for autistic people’s participation in research into autism – said that what he has always responded to are ‘villains, such as the black-hat wearers of Westerns.

The greatest hero of all?

The hero for children
But Hercules is more a ‘hero’ – in the modern sense of the term – than a sidekick or a bad guy. As one of the best-known of mythological heroes, whose popularity was, and is, beyond that of any other in classical myth, he gets everywhere. There are the stories which centre on Hercules, for instance, notably those concerning the twelve labours – on which there are some really good, recent, materials here, from the Leeds Hercules Project (on which Project, more below). In addition to the twelve labours, there are many other adventures centring on Hercules the hero, along with numerous appearances by Hercules in stories linked with other figures, as where he pops up to rescue someone: Theseus, for instance, or Alcestis. He is among the Argonauts under Jason, at least for a while. He is involved in stories associated with Troy. For an overview of the array of stories where Hercules figures, see for instance the information here on the Perseus website.

Beyond antiquity, stories about Hercules have been, and continue to be, retold and recast more than any other figure from classical myth. As Alastair Blanshard writes in his book exploring various times when Hercules has been received since antiquity:

“The myths about Hercules have exercised a fascination for Western culture ever since the time of the Ancient Greeks…Hercules stands at the boundaries of our imagination” (Hercules: A Heroic Life, London: Granta, 2005, xvii.). 

And, when Emma Stafford wrote the volume on Hercules for the Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World series, which I edit, the book, like all others, had an ‘Afterwards’ section which traces moments in reception after antiquity. (As I write this posting, the publisher’s pages are down, though Emma discusses the book here.)


With Alastair Blanshard during an afternoon sharing Hercules activities
at a showcasing public engagement event, CA/FIEC congress, London, July 2019 

Emma’s ‘Afterlives’ section was necessarily longer than in any book to date in the series, and it’s longer than any other such section will likely ever be. But, still, Emma was able only to scrape at the surface and she began the Leeds Hercules Project after that to explore the phenomenon of Hercules as received since antiquity.

Can there be a place for Hercules in autistic culture? Can there be a place for this hero who is at the heart of so much – as the ‘civiliser,’ and as the epitome of culture who keeps defeating those who challenge it? Can the hero at the centre be relevant to autism?

I am going to make a case for a ‘yes,’ including because it is possible to pull from classical uses, and postclassical uses, of Hercules topics relevant to autism. I’m going to set out, starting soon, that it is possible to use Hercules to explore what it is to experience the world as autistic: to show non-autistic people what it is like to be autistic and to explore ways to negotiate such issues as dealing with difficult choices, helping understand how people behave and helping deal with anxieties and obstacles.

Epitome of ‘Classics’ and ‘Western Civilisation’?

But that still leaves me with another problem: Classics. When, last week, I presented my autism and myth activities to a class of Special and Inclusive Education students, one of them commented on just how elitist classics is. I completely agree. Indeed, I’d add that the figure of Hercules is bound up with what ‘Classics’ is and what ‘Western Civilisation’ is. Hercules, indeed, is a figure who has long been taught to children because his stories are deemed worthy ones, a trend that Lisa Maurice explores in the latest edition of the Journal of Historical Fictions.

When Hercules is received, ‘Classics’ is being received, and ‘Western Civilisation’ is being received. As Alastair Blanshard says in the quotation I included earlier in this posting, Hercules has provided a source of “fascination” since ancient Greece for Western culture” (emphasis added). As Alastair continues, Hercules “stands at the boundaries of our imagination” - the “we” being the receivers of Western civilisation.

And, so, in designing activities for autistic children, what am I doing? Am I offering classics as some kind of gift to autistic children, to give an access to key aspects of Western culture? This is what Nicola Grove and Keith Park discuss the possibility of doing in the case of another key classical mythological hero, Odysseus, in the activities for people with learning disabilities they present in their Odyssey Now.  And, as they say – as I discuss in a posting from February 2017 - one reason they picked Odysseus was precisely because of that hero’s deep-rooted place in Western culture.


When I pick up again after the easter weekend, I’ll continue to explore why, as the epitome of the hero, Hercules can be relevant to autism, I’ll also look further at Hercules as a figure who forms part of a set of stores – indeed provides the best example of a set of stories that epitomise ‘classics’ and classics for children. One option would be to turn away from anything classical. The route I’m going to adopt is to engage with Hercules to help critique and reflect on the state of the discipline and its role in children’s culture.

Monday, 6 April 2020

“Autistic kids are not supposed to do that” - Sidekicks, being autistic and... Hercules (Hope-bearer 4)

In my previous posting, I looked at a way of seeing autism that's been proposed by a range of autistic people, namely that it's a world. Here, in the current posting, I'm going to look at how this world might be glimpsed by others - and how, from the other perspective, autistic people might be able to engage with a 'non-autistic world.' I'm going to do this by surveying how the American journalist Ron Suskind came to a gateway between his world and the world of his son, Owen. By dong this, I'll lead into Hercules... a figure who might speak particularly to what it is to be autistic.

A few postings back, I referred to Ron Suskind’s memoir, where he sets out how the hope he had held of a future for his son, Owen, as a football player, lawyer etc. evaporated when Owen began to show traits that led to a diagnosis as autistic. But the memoir is also about the hope that was kindled when Ron Suskind realised that he had stumbled on a gateway between Owen’s “world” and the world of the non-autistic people around him. This gateway was provided by characters from Disney films which Owen had loved since he was very young and which he would watch regularly, even obsessively.

A first “aha!” moment came, as Suskind relates, with his realisation that when Owen would repeatedly exclaim, “Juicervose,” he was not, as his parents initially thought asking for juice. He was actually quoting the character Ursula in the Disney film The Little Mermaid (1998) who says “just your voice.” After Ron realised that Owen had been trying to communicate via Disney he began using Disney characters to communicate with Owen. Ron was able to see that Owen wasn’t engaging in “scripting” that is, memorising then repeating lines without understanding them.[1] This wasn’t echolalia either, namely repeating back words spoken by someone else without understanding them. [2] 

When Owen was seven, Ron had the inspiration of picking up Owen’s puppet of Iago, the villain’s sidekick from Aladdin (1992) voiced by Gilbert Gottfried, and began talking as Iago, and Owen responded:

“So, Owen, how ya’ doin’?” I say, doing my best Gilbert Gottfried. “I mean, how does it feel to be you!?”
“I’m not happy, I don’t have friends. I can’t understand what people say”
I have not heard this voice, natural and easy, with the traditional rhythm of common speech, since he was two. (54)

So began a process of discovery from Ron Suskind into how Owen was experiencing life and working through various experiences. One time, by quoting lines from the sidekick Phil (Philoctetes) from Disney’s Hercules, Owen showed such emotional awareness that a therapist, taken aback, commented:
“autistic kids are not supposed to do that that” (183).
Autistic children are often thought to be unable to show emotions, let alone to understand the emotions of others. But Owen, via the medium of Disney characters, often showed theory of mind, and understanding of emotions and how to process and manage emotions.[3] As Ron Suskind relates at one point, it was though the words of Phil from Hercules that Owen was able to deal with a distressing experience of bullying at school (207-9).

And so... to Hercules! 

The example of Ron and Owen’s discovery of a means for opening up a portal between the worlds of an autistic child and a non-autistic adult eager to communicate with the child resonates with what I am seeking to do with the activities for autistic children. What happened between the Suskinds resonates on a more specific level too, since one of the Disney characters who offered a means for Owen to communicate with his father and to deal with difficult experiences, was from Hercules

From now on, I am going to turn from a sidekick, Phil, to Hercules himself though retaining a focus not just on Hercules but also on those around him – some other sidekicks for instance and various beasts he encounters and, above all, two women he meets at a strange place at the convergence of two roads. It's this encounter that is focus of the activities I'm putting together for autistic children.

Coming next: ”Hercules: in a strange place”



[1] On ‘scripting’, see Suskind Ron Suskind, Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism, London and New York: Kingswell, 221.
[2] On echolalia and autism see Laura Sterponi and Kenton de Kirby, “A Multidimensional Reappraisal of Language in Autism: Insights from a Discourse Analytic Study,” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 46.2, 2016, 394–405.
[3] On autism and emotions, see e.g. Rebecca Brewer and Jennifer Murphy, “People with Autism Can Read Emotions, Feel Empathy,” Spectrum, 12 July, 2016 https://www.spectrumnews.org/opinion/viewpoint/people-with-autism-can-read-emotions-feel-empathy/ (accessed March 17, 2020).