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, 29 July 2020

"Respect animals" - and how a chapter on the Hydra might inform activities for autistic children

As I admitted in my previous – short – posting, I’ve not regularly posted to this blog for a few weeks. Here’s why!

In the time since I lasted posted in earnest, I have been throwing myself into writing a paper that bears on the autism and myth activities. And, indeed, it would not have come into being without the project. Over the years, if there is one episode relating to Herakles that I have kept returning to – in addition to his “Choice” – it is the encounter with the Lernean Hydra, including because of how widely received this episode is in children’s culture. I have found there to be lots of scope for engaging not so much – or not just – with what the hero experiences but with the Hydra herself, including as a figure of fascination, and as the mother of babies: her serpents. 

Fig. 1. Helmet with serpent - or serpent with helmet.
Detail from 'Choice of Hercules' chimneypiece panel,
Grove House, Roehampton. Drawn by Steve Simons.
The chapter I have been writing is for a handbook of classical monsters. It is mostly on the Hydra as constructed in ancient Greek sources. I have been looking at the kind of creature that the Hydra is depicted as, though I have also asked whether “creature” is the right term for her – I have been asking, too, whether “monster” is the right term. 

On Friday of last week, I completed a draft of the chapter. I’m going to take a break from this chapter now while letting everything digest though also while reading around various topics that bear on it. These topics will include classical creatures and their heroes, caves in antiquity, mystery cults – Lernean Mysteries included – the region of Lerna and the Argolid more broadly, not least as the domain of Hera, who rears the Hydra.

This reading I’ll be doing will inform the next version of the chapter. I’m also expecting that it will inform the autism activities, especially because it is so often the creatures of classical myth – as much as the hero, perhaps more than the hero – that are a source of interest. Think, for example of how the lionskin of Hercules on the Choice chimneypiece that is the focus of the activities has been turned into a creature in its own right on more than one occasion. A great example is this drawing by Anna Mik, produced at one of the Our Mythical Childhood workshops in Warsaw:

Fig. 2. 'Choice of Hercules' panel (details in fig. 1) coloured and animal-ed by Anna Mik.
The helmet-serpent from Fig. 1 is in the bottom left.
“Respect Animals” says Hercules – usually, unlike here, the slayer of beasts.

Now that I am returing to the autism activities after a couple of months exploring ancient Greek depictions of the Hydra, I am wondering whether there is scope for some reimagining of the scene in relation to the Hydra too. Such a reimagining could draw from the range of serpent-related aspects that surround Hercules. The Hydra is one of these. Arguably, indeed the Hydra is the most significant of the serpents encountered by Hercules, as I consider in the handbook chapter (e.g. he kills her - she kills him...) Others include the serpents that Hercules finds, in his cot, as a baby. And for another serpent - from the 18th century reception on the panel - there is the serpent on the helmet.

The project I’ll next be focusing on is a book of the autism activities. I'm aiming to post regularly to this blog in this time - including on Hydras and serpents....

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