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 (2016-22) 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, including to a book of lessons for autistic children focusing on the Choice of Hercules between two very different paths in life. The image above, illustrating the homepage of this blog, is one of the drawings by Steve K. Simons, the book's illustrator, of a chimneypiece panel in a neoclassical villa at Roehampton in South West London. The lessons centre on this panel.

Tuesday, 1 November 2022

In Arkadia: an alien world where Hope feeds a Chimera evoking where Hercules 'went out to a quiet place and sat, pondering' - a second Arcadian posting, this one taking a Stourhead turn via Poussin in ways I didn't anticipate...

I said at the end of my previous posting that I didn’t intend a long gap before publishing a second ‘Arkadian’ posting. A week and a day has passed – not a long delay but longer than I’d anticipated thanks to a few things that delayed me, including trying to get the paper I’m writing in shape, and, then, acting on an idea I had at the end of last week to revive 30th October as the ‘International Day of Medusa’.

I did this, along with several colleagues in the Our Mythical Childhood community, and the results are on twitter at #InternationalDayOfMedusa


One reason for Medusa having being in my thoughts is this: once I have made further progress with activities for autistic young people involving Hercules, I am planning a second set, involving Medusa. But for now… more Hercules – this time a Hercules introduced via Arkadia: an Arkadia I was preparing to visit in May 2020.


‘I will be in Arkadia’?


What a month May 2020 looked set to be for the Our Mythical Childhood community as we prepared to gather in Poland for the last of a series of conferences. This one was to follow in the wake of ‘Our Mythical Hope’ (May 2017) and ‘Our Mythical History’ (May 2019), marking the ‘Our Mythical Nature’ phase of our collaboration. We were to meet in various venues at the University of Warsaw for workshops and panels on, among other topics: 


-       environmental issues in classically-informed works of children’s culture 

-       how nature is expressed variously as escapist and dangerous

-       how nature is represented as somewhere whose otherness can resonate with the experiences of children as they negotiate the world. 


We were also going to be directly experiencing nature as a contradictory, cultivated, seemingly ‘natural’, allusive space where the natural world, the landscaped world and what it is to be human collide. For we were going to go to Arkadia. 


The Arkadia in question was the garden of Helena Radziwiłł (1753-1821), located around an hour’s drive from Warsaw, near Nieborów. The garden was designed at the time of the eighteenth-century thirst for creating and experiencing landscape gardens as spaces for contemplation. 

File:Arkadia staw panorama 80 16595-600.jpg
Helena Radziwiłł's garden Arkadia in Poland.
Photo by TenKobuz, sourced from Wikimedia Commons here

A few years previously, I had read Michael Moran’s reminiscences of his visit in the early 1990s in his A Country in the Moon: Studies in Search of the Heart of Poland. Here, Moran recalls ‘[l]ying on the grass in the sun’ amid ‘[a] world of intense impressions, melancholy, poignancy and reflective thoughts’ (pp. 284-5). More recently, I had read James Stevens Curl’s study of Arkadia as a ‘Garden of Allusions’ where visitors could become ‘actors’ in a landscape dividing into ‘scenes’ against a backdrop where ‘activities could take place […] triggering a response’ as they were invited to ‘decode the meaning enshrined in the scenes’ (p. 93). As I put it myself, around the time I had been due to visit Arkadia, ‘Gardens, like theatres, are curious spaces where though encounters with other possibilities and other – alien - worlds we confront or contemplate our own.’

File:Arkadia Dom Arcykapłana 3.jpg
Sanctuary of the High Priest, Arkadia
Photo by Seacale, sourced from Wikimedia Commons here

Looking ahead to my own time in such an alien, yet not unfamiliar, world, I intended to pause particularly at the possible place where, close to the Temple of Allusions – a monument to the memory of Radziwiłł’s daughters, who died young – there was once a sarcophagus inscribed with the allusive phrase: ‘et in Arcadia ego’, suggestive of time once spent amid a bucolic landscape now lost. This inscription suggests too Nicolas Poussin’s painting Et in Arcadia Ego (1637-38).

File:Nicolas Poussin - Et in Arcadia ego (deuxième version) (cropped).jpg
Nicolas Poussin, Et in Arcadia Ego (1637-38), the Louvre. 
Photo by The York Project, sourced from Wikimedia Commons here 

The allusions are all the more evocative inscribed in a garden literally called Arkadia: 


-       'Et in Arcadia ego' might as evoking memories of a lost paradise: ‘even I was in Arcadia’ 

-       As there is no verb, 'Et in Arcadia ego' could suggest ‘even I am currently in Arcadia’. 

-       Alternatively, suggesting future rather than past or present time amid the landscape, the phrase could evoke the time when ‘even I will be in Arcadia’. 


I planned to contemplate another inscription, too, where Nature is related to Antiquity to reflect on life and, possibly, death. The inscription, in French this time is beneath a bas relief in the High Priest’s Sanctuary where Hope feeding a Chimera. It reads ‘L’espérance nourrit une Chimère et la Vie S’ecoule’ ‘Hope nourishes a Chimera [a Dream? an Impossibility? a delusion?] while Life flows [or ‘flows away’, or ‘ebbs’]’.

Inscription beneath bas relief in the High Priest's Sanctuary, Arkadia. 
Detail of photo by Jolanta Dyr, sourced from Wikimedia Commons here.

Remembering Stourhead 

My anticipation at the prospect of experiencing such a place for reflection and contemplation was heightened due to connections between Arkadia and one of its models –– a garden closer to home for me – Henry Hoare’s Stourhead in Wiltshire, around two hours’ drive from where I live in Surrey. 

Stourhead Gardens viewed from the Grotto.
Photo by Eugene Birchill, sourced from Wikimedia Commons here

Stourhead epitomises the eighteenth-century engagement with Antiquity and Nature, and where, as would come to the case for Arkadia, each visitor might find their own meanings in a landscape of grottos, intriguing inscriptions, temples and statues. Some, notably Kenneth Woodbridge, have argued for a singular meaning behind the design of the garden. But, as others, such as Oliver Cox, have responded, it is more likely that the design is intended to let each visitor respond on their own terms, aided by certain pro(m)p(t)s and encoded messages. In a paper I delivered at Stourhead itself (that was in November 2015 – approaching 7 years ago…), I unpicked one of the possible sets of messages. This set begins, as I traced it – building from Michael Charlesworth’s study of Hercules at Stourhead, in the Pantheon (1754-57) with the temple’s showpiece statue, John Rysbrack’s version of the Farnese Hercules.

The Farnese Hercules, Archaeological Museum, Naples.
Photo by Paul Stevenson, sourced from Wikimedia Commons here

John Michael Rysbrack, Hercules (between 1745 and 1752), Yale Center for British Art.
Photo: Yale Center for British Art, sourced from Wikimedia Commons here

 This contemplative Hercules is positioned between statues of two female figures – also by Rysbrack – denoting Flora and Ceres. I explored how this placement might have evoked a mythological episode that, ‘Englished’ by the time of the design of Stourhead, concerns Hercules as he enters a new place, one that is peaceful and strange. As I set out, it is a place where, according to the earliest ancient version, in Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates (2.1.21), the hero ‘sat, pondering, about his future’. This was a time when how he would live his life was not fixed and when there is more than one possibility. The possibilities are framed in extreme terms: 


-       Would he lead a life of struggle? 

-       Would he lead a life of pleasure? 


In this place, Hercules meets the personifications of the values named Arete (‘Virtue’) and Kakia (‘Vice’) in Xenophon, and who by the eighteenth century had come to be connected with competing claims of Hard Work and Pleasure. I rehearsed how, choose one path and his will be a life of constant hard work, but which leads to eventual rewards of a famous name and an afterlife among the gods. Choose the other path, meanwhile, and, as I outlined, his will be a life of constant pleasure.  


I set out that this aspect that any allusions to the Hercules’ encounter with the two personified virtues might connect with one of the paintings in Stourhead House – another painting by Poussin evoking various layers of Antiquity and Nature. This is his Choice of Hercules (c. 1636 or 1637), painted around the same time as Et in Arcadia Ego, perhaps a little earlier.

Nicolas Poussin, The Choice of Hercules (c.1626-1637),
Stourhead House, National Trust. Photo by artuk.org,
sourced from Wikimedia Commons here

Above all, I considered how, on leaving the Pantheon, visitors might have been being invited to enact their own version of Hercules’ Choice by needing to choose between two paths: 


-       a harder path up a hillside to the temple of Apollo (1765) which commands a striking view over the Park. 

-       an easier one leading to Stourton village, with its amenities including the inn.


Either choice, then, can result in a welcome outcome. There is no right path, and no wrong path. As for Hercules, what – I asked - did he choose? Again, as I said, there is no right or wrong answer: 


-       His path in life is one of hard work – of labour after labour. 

-       His life is one of pleasure as well. 


He is the great sufferer and doer of deeds. He is also the great lover of food and drink and partying. I considered how, between the Herculean extremes, space is provided for reflection on how to find a balance between the demands of Hard Work and the temptations of Pleasure. Thanks to my fellow speaker at the conference in Stourhead, Dr John Harrison, who was also the organizer of the event, another option was opened to me – namely that the identities of the women on either side of the Rysbrack’s Hercules suggest not just Nature but different types of Nature that correspond to Hard Work and Pleasure. Here is how John puts it in a poster that, by coincidence, appeared in my email feed yesterday, just when I was trying to tease various meanings suggested by Herculean depictions and allusions at Stourhead: ‘Flora and Ceres are deities of natural and cultivated foods respectively and may thereby represent indolence and industry’.

I am now wondering whether Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego might itself be offering two women who are in keeping with those that Hercules experiences. Like his Virtue, the woman on the painting of 1637-38 is fully clothed. But there was also an earlier, 1627, painting of the same name where, like Vice, there is a partially nude woman. As in the Choice of Hercules, the two women stand on opposite sides.

Nicolas Poussin, The Choice of Hercules (1627), version in Chatsworth House.
Photo sourced from Wikimedia Common here 

As in the Choice of Hercules, the two women stand on opposite sides from one another. I'm going to think though the significance of all this...

Nicolas Poussin, The Choice of Hercules
earlier (l.) version with woman on left; later (r.) version with woman on right

Looking ahead to Hercules indoors


What I was saying about Stourhead and its Herculean allusions was building from existing work. Where any key originality came in was in the case I made for another instance where the viewer is invited to contemplate Nature and contrasting values though by enacting the Choice. I’ll get there in my next posting – for now I’ll say that:


-       the Choice in question is found on a chimneypiece panel in an eighteenth-century villa at Roehampton. 

-       I have discussed that depiction more than once on this blog

-       There is a redrawing of this depiction, with colour added, in the drawing by Steve Simons that heads this blog. 

More soon...

Monday, 24 October 2022

Why I'm revisiting Arkadia this autumn - where Hope feeds a dream

The Our Mythical Childhood project’s funding period came to end last month on September 30th 2022 – but we have not stopped. Indeed, it’s as though we are more at the start of various endeavours. And, this autumn, and as a curious year moves to a close, I am planning to return to blogging after a gap that, unplanned, has run to several months. 


In this time, I had not forgotten the blog. Indeed, I drafted quite a few postings including to report on activities I have been involved in. But I have been tied up with producing end products, including one directly relevant to this blog’s topic as it is my book of lessons for autistic children based on myths of Hercules. 


The book is due out soon – in the coming months. And as I await its appearance out of production, I am going to share my progress with issues relating to autism and mythology via this blog. 

File:Arkadia - dom murgrabiego - 08.jpg
Stone Arch, c. 1784, designed by Szymon Bogumił Zug for
 Helena Radziwiłł's Arkadia. The Arch frames Zug's 1783 Temple of Diana. Photo by Jolanta Dyr, Wikimedia Commons, Accessed 24 Oct. 2022

I am also going to share my progress so far with a chapter I am now writing for the book Our Mythical Nature. This is a chapter which, in the spirit of the Our Mythical Childhood project’s focus on the past – to inform the present and beyond – looks back to earlier endeavours and experiences while sharing details of recent events geared to lead to future paths.


Under the aegis of ‘Arkadia Revisited’ – the reasons for this title will become clear – I am planning to blog regularly.


So, as I often say ‘watch this space’ – but this time, hopefully (Hope will be a feature too), the watching shouldn’t need to happen for too long… 

Monday, 11 July 2022

Roehampton students on Classics and neurodiversity: Poppy and Lucy!

If you know that your students are not neurotypical and you learn how to work with them then it could open up a world of opportunities --Poppy Robbins

Utilize neurodiversity. […] [Y]ou can find something you love and really focus on it --Lucy Head

Lucy and Poppy said these words as Roehampton classics students earlier this year – in videos for this year’s Asterion panel on neurodiversity in Classics for the Classical Association conference.

The videos are here. Both students speak about being neurodivergent, being classics students and being at Roehampton University – and more! Please, please watch these beautiful moments.

There is more too: the full set of videos is here.

Friday, 8 July 2022

All about Roehampton, autism and classical myth - including some updates!

Over the years, I have often begun blog postings with a picture that in some way encapsulates what I’m going to say - not least as it’s a great way to start populating the blank page.

This current posting gets going with a picture of a place dear to me, Grove House, just short distance from where I am as I write in my office looking over at the woodland marking the boundaries between two of the colleges of Roehampton University: Digby Stuart where I’m based, and Froebel, the home of Grove House.

What follows is a tweaked version of an answer I wrote earlier today in response to a correspondent’s question about my work at Roehampton and how far my project for autistic children involves classics. 

I am writing this posting because I quite like how I framed my response, and also to give a quick progress update to anyone reading this blog.

The room beyond the left-hand pillar in the photograph, behind the tree, is the Adam Room, which contains a chimney piece panel showing the choice of Hercules. This panel is the focus of a book I've written - due out by September - of classical myth-based lessons for autistic children.

The book is primarily for professionals and practitioners looking to utilise the appeal of mythology in work with autistic children and the lessons are designed with children of any age from aged seven up - though a recent session extending one of the lessons included a six-year-old whose engagement was amazing so they could can appeal to younger children too.

The lessons have been piloted with children at Key Stage 2 in the English school system though also with older children, and with adults, and with mixed groups including mixes of neurodivergent and neurotypical people. 

It all started when I heard from a special needs teacher that in her experience and that of her colleagues, autistic children often enjoy myth. I began to wonder why and whether I could turn my own love of myth towards experiential applications.

I started blogging in 2008 to share initial progress and the project moved to another level in 2016 when along with a project team in Poland, Australia, Cameroon and Israel, I embarked on a major European Research Council-funded project researching classical in children's and young adult culture - as the Roehampton Principal Investigator (Our Mythical Childhood… The Reception of Classical Antiquityin Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to Regional and Global Challenges).

The book is an outcome of the project. One thing that drives my practice - for this current project and everything I do - is a conviction that classics, this most traditional of subjects, can resonate with people who encounter e.g. classical mythology.

So often a chance encounter via, say, a video game or film impacts on people so I want to get classics wherever I can - because doing this makes a difference.

Recently I have been extending the lessons for children at Pupil Referral Units - at Keats House in Hampstead in London which is a cultural partner of Roehampton University and at another eighteenth-century site, Mount Clare on the Roehampton campus for a youth education programme in London - Proud Places.

All this is just taking off - and I'm doing it very much as a Roehampton person who loves doing what Roehampton does namely what I just said - making a difference.

Here I am in 2016 introducing a group of young women from London schools to the chimney piece in the Adam Room:

Now here I am this year at Mount Clare guarding the temple with the students mentioned earlier in this current posting. Also, the previous posting on this blog says more about the session at Mount Clare:


More soon, including on the session at Keats House...

Monday, 4 July 2022

Finding a hidden temple and a god of fast speed with the youth education programme Proud Places

The author guarding the temple at Mount Clare, Roehampton with three young people from the London-wide education programme Proud Places in April 2022 (photograph by Gilly King).

The programme introduces young people to 'the hidden stories of London and why they matter'. This session set out, via a lesson adapted from my book of Herculean lessons for autistic children, to introduce one such hidden place.

Details to follow!
Book to follow very soon too!

Monday, 14 February 2022

Why Classical Myths can Chime with Autistic Experiences - public lecture this week

I'll soon be blogging in earnest again - it's been all-go here including with autism and myth-linked activities. I'll update this blog once a few details are finalised! 

But, first, let me share details of a public lecture I'm seriously looking forward to giving later this week for the Cultures of Disability Network and Manchester Classical Association (Wednesday 16th February, 1-2pm UK time)! Details follow from the Network website including on how to book...

Professor Susan Deacy will be delivering a public lecture via Zoom, with BSL interpretation, on Wednesday 16 February 1pm-2pm. Register HERE

Prof Susan Deacy will talk about her work with young people with autism, using classical mythology and the experiences and perceptions it highlights. This talk is free, online, and open to all.

Prof Deacy is the co-founder of ACCLAIM (Autism Connecting with Classically Inspired Mythology Network), established in 2019, and is Professor of Classics at Roehampton University.

This is a joint lecture between Cultures of Disability (Manchester Met University) and Manchester Classical Association is a volunteer-run association which brings together researchers, teachers, students, pupils and the interested public, to share our enthusiasm for the classical world and its relevance in a 21st century global and diverse world. We host regular public lectures, student workshops, teacher training support sessions and materials, and children’s events and competitions. Many of our talks are recorded on our YouTube channel. Contact: Dr April Pudsey.