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.

Friday, 22 May 2020

Pondering with Hercules as Hope flows in Arkadia

At the start of the year, when the world was so very different, I mentioned in a blog posting that I was due to give various presentations on my Hercules activities for autistic children.

Just a few weeks after the first of these – at a Mythology and Education conference in Cambridge - the lockdown necessitated the cancellation of each event, although some will hopefully be rearranged or team place via a different means. Indeed, I’m increasingly moving towards embracing the potential for “remote” ways of engaging with the world from an autistic point of view (hopefully watch this space).

This was to be the week I returned from Warsaw – from a series of workshops and papers exploring Our Mythical Nature. When I come to write my paper, what I intend to focus on is the moment when Hercules finds himself in a new landscape – a strange one, and a peaceful one.

In this place, he sits down, on a rock perhaps, contemplating what path his life should take. This is a time when how he will live his life is not fixed – when there is more than one possibility. In the case of Hercules, these possibilities are framed in extreme terms. Will he lead a life of struggle? Will he lead a life of pleasure? But there is something about Hercules than can resonate with a human experience. Between the Herculean extremes, we can reflect on what our relationships are with how we negotiate our environment. We can make choices; we can be found meditating on what these choices might be.

I have been reading more about eighteenth century notions of landscape and how these shape the gardens crated during this most curious and vibrant of periods – which has shaped our own ‘world’ yet remains alien from it too, a bit like ancient Greece in its otherness and apparent familiarity.

When people would walk though gardens like Stourhead or Arkadia – the garden I should have been walking through a few days ago – they would do so not solely as visitors but as “actors.” In an article on Arkadia as a “Garden of Allusions”, in Garden History for 1995, James Stevens Curl discusses the associations between how eighteenth century gardens were designed and theatre design in which gardens comprised of “scenes” which formed “backgrounds before which activities could take place…triggering a response in the ‘actors’” (p. 93). Gardens were a space where visitors – actors – would “decode the meaning enshrined in the scenes” (still p. 93).

Temple of Diana at Arkadia framed by "Ruined Greek Arch." 
Drawing by S. Vogel from an engraving by J. Frey (From Curl 1995: 103) 

It is just such an active engagement with the landscape of Hercules that I want to consider for the activities. On the one hand, there is Hercules as an “actor” attempting to make sense of the “scene” in which he finds himself. On the other hand, we are being invited to experience the scene through Hercules, the Every-Person figure whose choice could enable reflection for the eighteenth-century garden visitor on how to find a balance between the two paths of hard work and pleasure.

“High Priest’s Sanctuary” at Arkadia including neoclassical bas-relief of 
Hope feeding a Chimaera by Gioacchino Staggi (from Curl 1995: 102)
In ancient Greek, and then in Roman, literature thanks to Cicero, Hercules could speak to the experience of a youth moving to the challenges of adulthood.  Here is the title of my paper for Mythical Nature:
Hercules […] went out to a quiet place and sat, pondering (Xenophon, Memorabilia 2.1.21). What happened here and why it ‘speaks’ to autistic children
I shall be reporting on how the activities give an opportunity for quiet reflection, and on how what is going to to take place in Hercules’s quiet place resonates with an autistic experience. Gardens, like theatres, are curious spaces where though encounters with other possibilities and other – alien - worlds we confront or contemplate our own. This can be fun, like the autistic child who “flew” in the performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I wrote about a while back. Or this can be unsettling. To quote the inscription under a relief showing a female figure with a mythical creature on the drinking fountain in Arkadia illustrated earlier in this posting:
L’espérance nourrit une Chimère et la Vie S’ecoule 
(Hope nourishes a Chimera [or Hope nourishes a Dream] and life flows)

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