Sunday, 23 September 2018

Antiquity-Camera-Action! An Interview with Teen Animator of Myth, Gabi Bania

(left) Sonya Nevin of Panoply, (right) with Gabi Bania.

Earlier this year, Steve and I at Panoply had the pleasure of acting as jurors on the Our Mythical Childhood-led schools competition, Antiquity-Camera-Action! This was a national competition held across Poland in which teens (15-18) were challenged to create a video (4 mins or less) about classical myth. At the Panoply Vase Animation Project we appreciate animation, so we're delighted to bring you an exclusive interview with finalist, Gabi Bania, of Liceum Filmowe (Movie High School), whose impressive animation, Arachne. Not a Spider Story won 2nd place in the competition. Check out this beautiful mythical animation here. A new round of the competition has just opened – you'll find details at the end of the interview.


Above, 'Arachne. Not a Spider Story' by Gabi Bania

1) What did you want to communicate through this animation?
Firstly I wanted to show that Greek mythology consists of such brilliant stories that, even now, after thousands of years, we can find fresh valuable messages and revealing lessons in them. I hope that my movie will encourage other people to rediscover these well-known myths and see them as something more than cruel and unreal stories as they are often perceived.
Secondly I choose the Arachne myth because I consider this story to be unique and very different from others. And besides, the myth of Arachne is little known in Poland; the name 'Arachne' is mainly associated with arachnophobia or with pop culture, where this character functions as a simple, Halloween symbol of fear or disgust. However, the story of Arachne conveys deep values that can help young people to perceive the world in a different way. It's a great story which can be adapted to draw our attention to some of the most common and serious problems of today’s world, like hate and over-competitiveness.

Above, Athena, from Gabi's 'Arachne. Not a Spider Story'.

2) Tell us a bit about how you made it.
When I got to know about the contest and chose the Arachne myth I started to think about the style of my movie. In the beginning I was considering stop motion animation, which I've worked with before, but then I decided to take up a challenge and create a 2D computer animation. I have always dreamt about making movies with this technique but had never done it before and actually the contest “Antiquity-Camera-Action!” motivated me to start this new adventure. Greek mythology, which is my passion, was also a great motivator towards creating the movie.
To create a movie in 2D computer animation for a beginner means spending hundreds of hours in front of the computer. Learning new programmes, drawing (all by my computer mouse), voice acting, music creating, editing and so on took me more than two months of devotion towards it – all in addition to my normal school work.
The thing that kept me on going was my deep love of Greek mythology and my desire to take a step in fulfilling my life's ambition to become a director of animated movies.

3) What do you like to read or watch to get your ancient world fix?
Over the years I've read many books on Greek and other mythologies, beginning with simple stories for children and going into more professional, more detailed texts about ancient life and beliefs. The one I like best is The Greek Myths by Robert Graves. He described everything in great detail.

4) Do you study any aspect of the ancient world at school?
Yes, I do. We study ancient culture and history during our school subjects such as: History of Art, Knowledge of Culture, and World History. We read many ancient texts during Polish language lessons too. As a student of a “Movie High School” I also had a basic course on writing plays and scripts according to ancient authors. Moreover I learn Latin language and rhetoric.

Above, the Athena prize presented at the University of Warsaw.

5) What do you think young people gain from finding out about classical antiquity?
Classical antiquity is one of the pillars of the Western culture and without it we wouldn’t be able to understand the time that we live in. In ancient stories we find not only the truth about ourselves but we also learn from other people’s experience on how to live.
Reading ancient texts enables us to notice connections between many aspects of culture, such as literature, art, music, theatre, cinema, etc. It helps us to see a bigger picture and to know the way to a source of constant inspiration.

6) Who's your favourite ancient Greek?
My favourite mythological character is the goddess Hekate, one of the most mysterious figures in the Greek mythology. She was considered to be the goddess of many things but especially of darkness, witches and magic. In ancient times, she was sometimes perceived to be a good and helpful character but as a creature of the Underworld she was also associated with evil powers, demons, and monsters.
She does not have her own myth, but she plays a positive role in a story of Demeter’s lost daughter. What is important about Hekate is that, unlike many other goddesses, she seems to be always just and wise.
Although Hekate is not a well-described character, everything that we know about her makes her really unique. I find this character very inspiring and I always look forward to finding her in other works of culture. For example we can meet her in William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” (see esp. Act III. Scene 5).
Because her person is not defined in detail, we can wonder about her and make her an interesting character of a book or film. I am thinking of making Hekate a main character of one of my works one day.


Many thanks to Gabi to talking to us! And congratulations to her again on a great achievement in the competition. In breaking news, Gabi's latest film, "The Mystery of the Moonflower" has been nominated at the international festival, "Screen & Sound Fest 2018. Let's see the music!" in the Animation category. It features an original story with influences from Slavic mythology and Polish legends. You can see it (and vote for it!) here:
https://www.screenandsound.pl/voting/action/show/id/61

You may also enjoy other prize-winning entries to
Antiquity-Camera-Action! 2018. Even if your Polish isn’t up to much, you can still follow what's going on:


Above, Tantalos .

Above, Pygmalion and Galataea.

If you or anyone you know is aged 15-19 in Poland, you'll be pleased to hear that entries for Antiquity-Camera-Action! 2019 are now open. Go to https://antykkameraakcja.wordpress.com/regulamin/ for details.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

The Past Meets the Present: Further Adventures in Warsaw


Kabooom! Good news, ancient world lovers! Your hosts at Panoply, Steve Simons and Dr Sonya Nevin, are recently returned from Warsaw where we witnessed the launch of the Our Mythical Childhood Survey database. This database will prove a big deal for anybody interested in classical reception, and/or children's literature and culture. The OMC Survey is a goldmine (or should I say toy-shop?) of items of young people's culture which feature classical antiquity. There is a lot on children's literature, but also games, toys, oral traditions and more. Each entry features the publication or creation details of the item, a summary, and an analysis of the item's use and representation of the ancient world. So search 'Odysseus', for example, to bring up all the books or young people's TV programmes featuring Odysseus, or search 'Ariadne', to explore all the many ways that heroine has been represented in material for young people. Some entries are for obviously classical items, such as the one I wrote for Tom Kindley's Heroes of the Night Sky. The Greek Myths Behind the Constellations, while others are for items with more subtle classical components, such as Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Each entry is written by someone with specialist knowledge and then double peer-reviewed, meaning they've been well-checked to keep the standard high. The database is free to use and more entries are being added all the time. Try exploring it yourself:

http://www.omc.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/myth-survey


The database was launched at a meeting of the Our Mythical Childhood project at the University of Warsaw. Frequent readers of this blog will know that at Panoply we're busy making five new vase animations for Mythical Childhood. We gave a sneak peek presentation on the progress of three of the animations: Sappho 44. Hector and Andromache. A Wedding at Troy; Heracles and the Erymanthian Boar; and Iris – Rainbow Goddess. You'll be pleased to hear that they went down very well and we're really looking forward to showing you them in due course. We also made a visit to the National Museum of Poland in Warsaw, home of the vases we're animating. The renovation of the antiquities galleries is coming along well and will be well worth a trip to see come the grand reopening in Sept 2019.
Above, Panoply's animator, Steve, heading cheerily into the National Museum in Warsaw.


Above, Scenes from Sonya's presentation at the National Museum in Warsaw.

Another great delight of the trip was the awards ceremony for Antiquity-Camera-Action, a young people's antiquity-themed film competition held across Poland. Steve and I were proud to have been jurors on this competition and honoured to meet the talented young people who created some really impressive material. More on that in our next post.

Above, as well as winning a stack of books, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place in Antiquity-Camera-Action won laurel wreaths and Athena-Oscars!

The Mythical Childhood meeting also featured a wealth of presentations and workshops. I'll say more about it when I have a few more pictures. Suffice to say, thank-you to everyone who took part in the Panoply pottery and vase drawing workshop – great work all round. A shout out also to Roehampton's Helen Slaney and Susan Deacy for tremendous workshops on ancient dance and autism respectively. It was also a great pleasure to hear from University of Yaounde 1's Eleanor Dasi on myth and female cults in Cameroon, and Kunnej Takaahaj's presentation on Chyskhaan – the Lord of extreme cold who is experiencing a mythical renaissance in Siberia. Doctoral candidates and post-docs from the Faculty of Artes Liberales at the University of Warsaw presented aspects of their research, including Anna Mik who shared her fascinating work on animals and other beasties in children's literature.


Above, some delightful material from the vase workshop; and Eleanor Dasi explaining female cults.... and lastly, since this is a vase appreciation site, a couple of shots of some top house decoration in Warsaw's Old Town...

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Greek Myth Comix! A Panoply Interview with Laura Jenkinson.

Earlier this year, Panoply were delighted to participate in the Iris Project's Festival of Imagined Worlds. While we were there, spreading the joys of vase animation, we were very pleased to meet L.E Jenkinson (aka Laura Jenkinson, aka Jenks), author and illustrator of the wonderful Greek Myth Comix (http://greekmythcomix.com/) and an experienced teacher of Classics at Churcher’s College in Hampshire (UK). Now we're pleased to share an interview with Jenks giving the low-down on her comics revolution...

1) The Greek Myth Comix stick-figure style is a real pleasure to look at. How did the style develop?
Thank you! Well I’ve always enjoyed stick-men and would draw huge stick-figure battles as a kid. I really like the simplicity of stick men. You can get a lot of physical expression out of a simple assortment of lines. They’re also really quick to draw. I thought about trying to add faces, but it’s been done, and I hate it when someone puts a face to a character; we all already have our own imagined versions.

Since children love details, especially when they can recognise something or an image references something they know, I compromise: I fill my comics with details that call back to Greek black or red-figure pot artwork or traditional costume, or even cheeky references to modern pop culture. I keep the bodies simple and leave faces blank, save for an occasional eyebrow or other indicator of emotion, so the reader’s imagination still has an important role. I’ve started going back over older comics recently and noticing how my style has actually developed quite a bit and become a bit more…complicated. For my next project, continuing the life of Heracles, I’m going to go back to that much more simplistic and symbolic style.

Above: The original angry baby – from the Greek Myth Comix Heracles.

2) What drew you to classical antiquity?
I'm honestly not sure. I’ve been interested in the period since I was small. I grew up in London and my parents took me to museums repeatedly. I remember always wanting to get mythology books out of the library. I have at least one photo of me dressed as a Roman! My state school was able to offer Latin as an extra-curricular subject, and then I discovered that Classical Civilisation was an A-Level option. I kept following that road through to University, where I was able to take some classical literature modules, and then on to my first teaching job. I’ve always viewed it as more of a hobby than a job because I enjoy it so much!

3) What challenges do you face in selecting, representing, or adapting particular myths or stories?
It’s more a case of what to leave out of the myths – I do a lot of research and there are often several versions of each myth, the most popular version and then alternatives. It’s difficult to leave details out, but I’d probably end up making each comic about three times longer to accommodate all the possible versions of every story.

Above: Name that scene.... a scene from Greek Myth Comix mixing visualisation and a useful study point.

4) Your figures and scenes often have a relationship with ancient vase scenes. Could you tell us a little about how that works?
In my original comics I started using vases and pottery as image references, sneaking them in so my classes might recognise them and make connections, as well as using them as models for furniture, clothing, and weaponry. For the Odyssey comics, some of the most famous episodes of the poem are illustrated on pottery (most of which can be seen at the British Museum, my favourite), so of course I had to take inspiration from those. Most recently, in an effort to educate my class on types of pottery, I made a colouring book featuring one piece of pottery for each of the Olympian gods, which I copied freehand. It was difficult to choose just one piece for each! Vases are excellent learning tools: the limited colours and techniques used make it easier to focus on just what is being portrayed, and the figures, details painted on with just a few well-chosen sweeps of a brush, are practically comic art themselves.

Above: The vase-tastic Greek Myth Comix colouring book.

5) Do you have any top tips for how to include the comics in teaching?
Each different type of comic can be used quite simply in class as handouts, such as the ones on the literary features of Epic poetry and tragedy, which students can then keep as an aid to memory. The longer myth posters are rather fun for decorating the classroom and then referring to when the characters involved come up in lessons. And, of course, the Odyssey comics are intended as a revision guide: I go through each book with my class, asking them to remember the next event before looking at the comic to help them, and then they read the comic and make notes in bullet-point form that they can go back and compare to their notes in their textbooks. It gets them to actually re-read the text several times and they can visually recall important details from the comics that they might miss out when just reading the text.

I really like hearing from teachers on Twitter about how they’ve used different comics! Lots have used the pages from the Olympians colouring book as sheets to introduce each god, and a ‘build your own Gladiator’ sheet to, well, make their own Gladiators! Some teachers put the finished student work through an animation programme where the students could add their own voices and details of the characters they were animating. My real favourite is when the students draw their own comics. Using stick figures reduces the pressure that some of them feel to draw ‘well’ as anyone can do them and they’re immensely satisfying!

Above: An excerpt from the Greek Myth Comix Odyssey.

6) How did you get into teaching? What advice do you have for people thinking of going down that route?
I was actually initially resolute that I’d never become a teacher because I kept being told by friends and teachers that I’d be really good at it, and that somehow put me off. I worked as a bookseller in Oxford for several years before I gave in and did a PGCE. I’m actually trained as an English teacher, however, I got really lucky and found a job teaching English with Latin and Classics which has been absolutely life-changing. I mostly have Classical Literature experience rather than Ancient History, so I’m partially self-taught which has been incredible fun! My best advice to prospective teachers is always to go off and do something else first. You can’t expect to educate others if you haven’t lived a little first. If you can even get work within the subject area you’d like to teach then that’s even better, but just get out there and do something. It will also make you more certain that teaching’s where you want to be, and you don’t want to be mistaken about that.

Above: Theseus – "total jerk" – from an activity sheet produced via collaboration between Greek Myth Comix and the Cambridge School Classics Project .

7) Who's your favourite ancient Greek?
Cripes, this is so difficult! I’m a literature geek, so I immediately go for fictional characters. It’s almost easier to say who I don’t like – for example, Theseus is a total jerk, and Paris is a truly dreadful person. I have a lot of sympathy for Achilles. He’s so emotionally complex. He’s locked into a culture of shame during an epic war, with all eyes on him and his reputation, and cursed with the knowledge that this is all he can expect from his short life. He really makes a mess of things. He’s one of the first tragic heroes. And, there’s never been a film interpretation that fully does him justice, despite his story and reputation having lasted for 3000-odd years. From history, my favourite Greeks are probably the Berlin Painter and Exekias , pottery painters who have inspired me so much. They are the unsung heroes of Classical Civilisation.

Thanks very much to Laura for some wonderful insights into the world of the Greek Myth Comix. If you'd like to see more, check out the website at: http://greekmythcomix.com/ - there's a huge amount of open-access (free) and purchasable material – including the comics, posters, and the colouring book. You can also follow on Twitter at: @GreekMythComix. Stick figures are great for storyboarding with vases too – enjoy getting creative!

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Teaching and Creativity with Vases

Fancy doing something creative with vases? Here's a fun, no hassle, idea that will work whether you're doing it yourself for the craic or looking to unleash your pupils' creativity. If you're going to the UK Classical Association Annual Conference this year, pop along to my workshop from 11.30am-1pm on Saturday 7th April when I'll be talking about more creative things you can do with vases and giving you a chance to give them a go....


Decorating Your Own Vases
Decorating paper vases is an excellent way to get creative – maybe creating an ancient scene or even rendering something from the modern world into an ancient style.

A good starting place is making a template. Find a picture of an ancient vase – there are plenty of them on the Panoply website (www.panoply.org.uk), or you might have a different favourite in mind. Place the image on top of a sheet of cardboard, then use a pin to prick the vase outline through the paper, marking the cardboard below. This will leave a dot-to-dot to do on the cardboard – join the dots with a pencil, then cut-out the vase shape. (By the way, this is how to do fancy cake tops too – draw the image on tracing paper, then use a pin to transfer the image from the paper to some rolled-out icing). If you're feeling neat, smooth out the cardboard vase's edges by covering it with sellotape or masking tape.

Above, Ready for action... place your paper vase over some cardboard...

One you have a cardboard vase template, you can make infinite card vases to decorate. Orange card is a classic, but feel free to experiment if you prefer. Draw round your template on the coloured card, then cut it out (top tip, if you have a lot to do, cut a few out at a time).

Above, cutting out some beautiful card vases.

Above, next step... use a knife to cut out details such as the handles (pro tip, save your table by investing in a cutting sheet).

Above, Ta daaa, a collection of card vases ready for supercool customisation.

The next stage has many possibilities – just go with what will work best for you or your group.

Above, getting stuck in to vase decorating.

You could copy a particular vase scene onto the vase, with felt-tip pen, crayon, pencil, or paint. You could look at a real vase scene then try and imagine an alternative version. You could pick a scene that would capture your favourite ancient myth or historical event. You could pick a modern story or activity and imagine how that could be captured in a single vase scene (see previous posts on this blog for inspiration on this front, search with the label 'Ancient Vases Modern Artworks')...

Above, This beautiful scene of Heracles from a vase in the National Museum of Poland in Warsaw will be animated and live next year as part of our work on the Our Mythical Childhood Project. Here it is as a crayon marvel.

Get cracking and have fun!

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Mythology and Education: History and Practice

Much interest and positivity has surrounded Mythology and Education: History and Practice – a workshop held recently at the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge, organised by Frances Foster, Katerina Volioti, Susan Deacy and I (aka Sonya Nevin). Mythology frequently plays a role in education, and this was an opportunity to look at some current and historical practice, and to share thoughts constructively. This post contains details of some of the presentations and the ideas within them (including some news on Panoply's current work). You can also see the full programme here.

The day kicked off with Dr Lisa Maurice of Bar Ilan University, presenting Our Mythical Education: an overview and some preliminary notes on Israel as a case study. Lisa's part in Our Mythical Childhood is to research where classical antiquity features within curriculums worldwide. She noted that, in the past, studies of classics in school curriculums have tended to focus on classical language teaching. While that work has been important, it is also positive to look for classical material beyond that horizon. In Israel, the case-study examined here, you won't find classics within the main curriculums, but you will find it in the literature curriculum, where Greek tragedy holds its own well. In short, if you want to look for the classical world, look for it in all sorts of places; and if you'd like to teach it but can't teach it straight-up, perhaps it can be worked into other areas of the time-table. Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson added on a bright note that ACE (Advocating Classics Education, http://aceclassics.org.uk/) supports those teaching or looking to teach classical antiquity without a language focus.

Above, Lisa Maurice discusses her search for the classical.

In the next session we looked at teaching mythology with visual culture. Dr Tony Keen gave some examples of teaching points that he raises when teaching ancient myth through cartoons – particularly noting that students' familiarity with how a character can be presented differently in different cartoons can be helpful for thinking about how flexible myth was within antiquity. Dr Amanda Potter of The Open University talked of: Bringing Classical Monsters to Life on UK Children’s Television. A stand-out point here was the extent to which consumers of mythology in children's TV (and lit) are encouraged to identify with or sympathise with classical monsters more than they ever were in the past. You may recall that this issue cropped up a lot in Chasing Mythical Beasts, a Mythical Childhood-related conference held at the University of Warsaw in 2016 (you can read more about it here and here: http://mythicalbeasts.obta.al.uw.edu.pl/). Students can benefit from experiencing the modern narratives that are created using this approach, and from contrasting them with more traditional versions of the mythical figures in order to think about how the material shapes responses and communicates values. This line of exploration was also in tune with a short presentation given later by Robin Diver, a PhD candidate at the Universities of Birmingham/Nottingham. Robin discussed the figure of Hades, now frequently represented as a brooding love interest rather than, more traditionally, a scary abductor/rapist. Both presentations gave a lot to think about in terms of myth's capacity to help people understand monstrosity/difference, and to think about difficult, even frightening aspects of existence.

I spoke on the visual culture panel, talking about how, at the Panoply Vase Animation Project, we encourage teachers and other educators to use our vase animations within their teaching of classical topics – particularly how the info pages that go with each animation are intended to give educators extra tools for talking about the material with or ideas for what elements they might draw into their discussions. Each of the five animations that we're making for the Mythical Childhood collection will come with plenty of info as well as learning resources for independent and classroom activities. I spoke a little about two of the animations that are well under way. One, featuring the poet Sappho, will give people a Trojan War prequel story; even the ancients liked an expanded universe. In another, Heracles will be hunting the Erymanthian Boar. Below you can see the careful construction work we have done to create a suitable King Eurystheus to oversee the task.


Above, my presentation on the Mythical Childhood vase animations.

A round-table discussion, Schools and Museums, followed. Dr Maria Christidis of the museum at Karl-Franzens-Universität in Graz, Austria, spoke of her work to make the museum an informal environment in which young people feel welcome and comfortable exploring their ideas in harmony with the collection. Rhiannon Litterick, Schools & Families Officer at the Sir John Soane's Museum, discussed similar themes. I was particularly impressed by her discussion of pro-active inclusiveness – that it is not enough to wait for schools to knock on your door, museums must be on the look-out, inviting and encouraging schools and other groups to come. Even a small degree of contact can dispel doubts and questions that may have been preventing visits. Jonny Barnes, a Classics teacher at Eltham College, joined the discussion with an enthusiastic account of what pupils can gain from learning outside the classroom.
Above, l-r, Jonny Barnes, Rhiannon Litterick, and Maria Christidis, The Schools and Museums Panel.

The theme of learner engagement continued with the following panel: Our Mythical Community: Students in Research Projects. Two thirds of the panel spoke from the University of Warsaw, and the Skype gods stayed kind. Professor Katarzyna Marciniak, lead investigator of Our Mythical Childhood kicked off by discussing the involvement of schools in that project. She spoke of the importance of introducing young people to the international community of classical mythology, of its importance for helping young people deal with challenges, and – on a more logistical front – the practical benefit of including schools in research projects right from the inception of the project. Plan early how you will include schools and enthuse funders with your plans; the rest will flow from there. Dr Elżbieta Olechowska then explained how she managed the inclusion of BA student work within early Mythical Childhood survey work, emphasising clear guidelines and review process. Dr Hanna Paulouskaya discussed the inclusion of BA students from the Belarusian State University within the current iteration of Mythical Childhood - a wonderful collaboration which has provided very positive sharing of ideas and experiences. More on these projects here: http://panoplyclassicsandanimation.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/our-mythical-hope-adventure-in-warsaw.html .
Above, Hanna Paulouskaya presents, with Katerzyna Marciniak and Dorota Bazylczyk.

A Children’s Literature panel followed, chaired by museum educator and children's author, Richard Woff. Dr Rachel Bryant Davies, University of Durham, provided the historical perspective on this subject, looking at classical material for children from the 18th and 19th centuries. Rachel specialises in the materials available outside school, such as alphabet guides, puppet theatres, and other toys; as with the modern world, there was a whole host of classically-themed materials outside the classroom. Professor Maria Nikolajeva, a children's literature specialist from our host, the University of Cambridge, then explored a work by popular children's author, Diana Wynne Jones - The Game. Included in the talk was a fascinating observation about cognition, and the marked impact that occurs in the brain when anticipated narratives are disrupted; the brain goes wild for a familiar story told in a new way - classical mythology remixed being a powerful example.


Above, Rachel Bryant Davies talks children's mythology materials in the Georgian and Victorian periods, and a sample from one of Edward Lear's alphabets.

The day finished with a round-table update on the University of Roehampton's contributions to the Our Mythical Childhood children's culture survey. Each university contributing to the project is writing entries for the survey, providing key information and analysis of items produced for children containing classical tropes and themes – mostly literature, but also television, films, video games, toys and so on. All of these will be available online within a fully searchable database, enabling researchers and educators to find items they might be interested in and the means to find out more about them. My contribution to this discussion focused on how I will be including in my entries feedback from my experiences of reading with groups of young children: what proved popular, what learning points presented themselves – such as effective questions to ask at certain points, and areas children needed help with. The survey database will be online next year and will be a tremendous open access resource. Watch this space for more on it.

Above, The Our Mythical Survey discussion: l-r, Susan Deacy, Katerina Volioti, Oliver Brookes, Naomi Rebis, Nanci Santos, and me (Sonya Nevin) scratching my eye at an untimely moment. Amanda Potter also contributed to this panel.

Mythology and Education was attended by school teachers and trainee teachers, pre-school specialists, museum professionals, researchers, writers, students, and others from a variety of walks of life. This is a fine testament to classical mythology's thought-provoking and inspirational impact on learners learning in all sorts of contexts. Thank-you to everyone who attended or contributed in other ways. Long may adventures in myth continue.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Game On! A Panoply Interview with Apotheon Advisor Dr Maciej Paprocki.

We're pleased to be talking to Dr Maciej Paprocki, Postdoctoral Fellow at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) in Munich, Germany. Dr Paprocki's postdoctoral fellowship is in the Distant Worlds Graduate School, where he works on the research group Organisation of memory and forgetting. His research also addresses depictions of tensions between the families of Zeus and Hyperion (Titan father of the Sun, Moon, and Dawn) in ancient Greek literature. Maciej completed his doctorate at Universities of Wroclaw (Poland) and Liverpool (UK) on Roman roads in the deserts of Egypt. It was during this time that Maciej acted as a consultant on the much-admired vase-friendly video-game Apotheon.

In 2014, Alientrap Games delighted classics-lovers, gamers, and classics-loving-gamers with Apotheon, designed by Lee Vermeulen and Jesse McGibney. The game, as you may well know, is a beautiful, action-packed 2D platform for Steam and PS4, delivered in an imitation black-figure vase style. It takes a hero, Nikandreos, on a mission through worlds of classical statues and mythological bosses to save humanity by defeating the gods. We caught up with Dr Paprocki to find out a little about the making-of...

] Above, a sample of Apotheon's game-play.

1) Part of your role in the creation of Apotheon was to develop the plot with ancient traditions in mind. Would you tell us a bit about that?
When I began working for Alientrap, the developers knew only that they wanted an ancient Greek-flavoured story, with the designated hero fighting the gods and taking their powers for himself. I was brought in to add flesh and bones to that idea. As a mythology consultant, I made sure that Apotheon stayed as true to the Greek succession myth as possible: I consulted the game narrative/story, co-designed characters and wrote dialogues.

We started with a glimmer of an idea: Jesse McGibney suggested that we could elaborate upon the myth of the five generations of man, which is outlined in Hesiod’s Works and Days. According to Hesiod, humanity has passed through five stages of development (the Golden, Silver, Bronze, Heroic and Iron generations), becoming crueller and unrulier as the epochs went by. Hesiod prophesied that at the height of the Iron generation, humans will no longer feel shame or indignation at wrongdoing; babies will be born with grey hair and the gods will have completely forsaken humanity. This sounded like the perfect apocalyptic moment; to begin spinning our yarn - and so we did.


The game starts at the end of the Iron Age, when Zeus decrees the final separation between deities and humanity so that the current generation may die out. The Olympian gods remove their divine faculties from the earth, whereas minor gods of the countryside leave the world and travel to live on Mount Olympus until the earth is cleansed of humanity. As a result, Mount Olympus becomes a crowded divine ‘refugee camp’, whilst the civilization collapses as forests and oceans become barren, springs and rivers run dry and crops fail under the sunless sky.

The game story follows Nikandreos, a young Greek warrior from Dion in Macedonia. During an attack on his hometown, Nikandreos is plucked from the battle by Hera and urged by her to topple Zeus, whose affairs have deeply wounded the Queen of the Gods. Hera directs Nikandreos to wrestle or win six iconic badges of office from Apollo, Artemis, Demeter, Ares, Poseidon, and Athena — and thus absorb divine shares of honour (in Greek, τιμᾶι, timai) held within; furthermore, the player may decide to collect the items of four remaining Olympian gods (that is, Aphrodite’s girdle, Dionysus’ kantharos cup, Hermes’ sandals, and Hephaestus’ hammer). At the beginning of the third act, Hera immortalises Nikandreos and imbues him with her own timē so that he may become powerful enough to challenge Zeus. What ensues is a heated thunderbolt battle, the outcome of which determines who truly deserves the position of King of the Gods.

Above, Nikandreos rushes past statues of Demeter and Apollo – gods whose honour he must win.

2) Your research into trouble between Zeus and the Titans seems like a great match for that plot. How did you bring your research into the plot development?
In my research, I am keenly interested in what I call theologies of ancient Greek epics. I investigate what Greek myths tell us about the nature and role of gods, focusing on their powers and relationships with other deities. Establishing this line of enquiry, Jenny Strauss Clay has studied Archaic literary depictions of the Olympian gods, showcasing how they create political hierarchies and vie for power at Zeus’ court. Building on Professor Clay’s interpretations, I research non-Olympian deities, exploring how non-Olympian gods express their dissatisfaction with the Olympian politics of Zeus and defend their rights and privileges. Accordingly, I am fascinated by civil strife on Olympus: I look closely at under-dogs, gods ignored or disparaged, those who rebel against Zeus.

Apotheon alludes to and plays with these myths: during his journeys, Nikandreos learns that the edict of Zeus has deeply divided divine society, with many greater and lesser deities (including Helios, Thetis, Persephone and Daphne) deciding to clandestinely oppose the divine establishment and assist Nikandreos in his quest. Deities slighted by Zeus and his family could pity humanity: wouldn’t these divine dissidents do something about humanity’s imminent destruction? Other, even more pointed questions also needed to be asked. Could you really kill a Greek god? If yes, how? As a mythology advisor, I had to find out how the gods functioned as three-dimensional characters for Homer and Hesiod; the second step was to apply these newly-discovered rules to rewrite gods into believable characters who would interact with Apotheon’s players in thought-provoking ways.


3) What was the influence of the Ancient Greek pottery on the game design?
When Apotheon lead designers, Lee Vermeulen and Jesse McGibney, were looking for inspiration regarding the art aesthetics, they found out that very few games emulate historic art styles, with arguably the only well-known example for Greek art being Rock of Ages. Having familiarised themselves with ancient Greek art and storytelling aesthetics, they found that the art medium and the message complement each other perfectly: accordingly, they set out to design a game that would look as if its narrative unfolded on a piece of ancient Greek pottery.

One crucial decision Lee and Jesse had to make was whether to emulate the black-figure or the red-figure pottery style. In terms of design, they found black-figure style much more forgiving to work with. In the black-figure style, every solid object is painted black, with the ochre body of the pot providing a uniform background. In contrast, the red-figure style has ochre-tinted characters on black backgrounds. The question was which style would accommodate more detail: black-figure characters can have ochre backgrounds (positive space), whereas red-figure characters stand against unchanging black backgrounds (negative space). Since characters and objects are smaller than backgrounds, Jesse chose to adopt the black-figure style as more appealing and adaptable.

One consequence of that choice was that primary colours of sprawling backgrounds could differ between locations to provide variation. Ochre backgrounds appear in the human world and on Mount Olympus, contrasted by pale blue-greys of Poseidon’s seas, midnight blues of Hades’ Underworld and lush greens of Artemis’ woodlands. Another hurdle was that black-figure pottery rarely contains detailed backgrounds, so Jesse had to create them from scratch. He spent a long time studying Greek art and identified common patterns he could borrow while designing trees, furniture and buildings. The result is a style that strongly resembles a Greek vase, but would never be mistaken for one of them.

Above, Black figures on a blue background – different colours were used to indicate different environments.

4) You've mentioned the importance of including ancient traditions. What balance was aimed at between fun and education, and how far do you think that was achieved?
Apotheon was not designed as a learning tool—nevertheless, it engages with numerous myths, inserted to enhance players’ immersion in the game world. When one deals with such a diverse and convoluted body of material as the Greek mythology, it becomes crucial to ease an audience into the unfamiliar material so that they can gradually understand the setting and characters. In retrospect, I believe that Apotheon succeeded in balancing familiar and unfamiliar material. The first stage of the game takes place on earth, in the village of Dion, as you battle against human raiders. At the temple rise of Dion, you get to meet Hera, a very well-known goddess, who from that point on guides you in your quest against the gods of Olympus. The first three gods to defeat, Apollo, Artemis and Demeter, respectively represent sunlight, animals and plant growth, bare necessities of human life Nikandreos must obtain to save his village. All in all, the first stages of the game build on recognisable story motifs, simultaneously setting stage for the more complex myth material ahead.

The game recreates the Greek myth-scape through careful world-building. Weapons, potions, locations and beings encountered and referenced in-game closely resemble those described in ancient Greek texts, with players gaining a measure of working knowledge about their mythical counterparts. To increase player immersion, we decided to blend Archaic Greek art with period weapons and artefacts of the myth. In a fight, Nikandreos can wield several types of armaments (including doru - spear, xiphos - sword, labrys - axe, and kopis - sabre ), furthermore, he can imbibe healing and warding potions brewed from dittany of Crete (a herb well known to Harry Potter fans!), olive oil, milk of moly root (used by Odysseus against Circe) and other ingredients. However, my chief objective was to steep Apotheon in ancient Greek literature: accordingly, I prepared 50 passages from ancient Greek writers (ranging from Homer to Oppian of Apamea), which were inserted into the game as inscriptions to immerse players in the game world and provide them with backstories of deities and monsters to be encountered. We know that some players skip the inscriptions; nonetheless, those who read them often praise the inclusion and note their increased understanding of the game narrative. Hopefully, some are encouraged to go even deeper and look up other facts on gods and heroes encountered within the game. It would be my greatest joy to learn that the game inspired players to read about Greek mythology!

Above, Apotheon game-play - Cyclops trouble!

5) Would you tell us a bit about what you're working on at the moment?
My main task now is to write a book on a family of gods I've dubbed ‘the Hyperionides’. These are the descendants of the Titans Hyperion and Theia; the group includes characters such as Selene (the Moon), Eos (the Dawn), Helios (the Sun) and his children (the witches: Kirke and Pasiphaë, and the kings: Aeëtes and Perses) and grandchildren (such as Medea, Ariadne, Phaedra and Glaukos). The Hyperionides are fascinating offshoots of the early Greek mythical imagination, balancing precariously between gods and mortals, becoming embroiled in the exploits of Heracles, Jason, Theseus, Hippolytus and Odysseus.

One thing that intrigues me about the Hyperionides is that Helios, Eos and Selene apparently have a functional connection to Nyx (Night), a primordial deity Zeus himself is explicitly said to fear (Homer, Iliad, 14.251-261). In the Odyssey, Helios, unable to directly punish Odysseus’ crew for slaughtering his cattle, extorts his revenge from Zeus, threatening to go and shine amongst the dead if his demands are not met (12.377-378). Were Helios to truly leave, Nyx would probably bring about eternal night in the sun’s absence. Helios’ attempt at blackmail uncharacteristically does not infuriate Zeus, who patiently placates the sun god: I like to think that Zeus recognises Helios’ disturbing potential to upset the cosmic order—expressly as the sun’s light is vital for plant growth. Ancient potters also recognised the connection between Helios and Nyx: on a terracotta lekythos attributed to the Sappho Painter (Metropolitan Museum, 41.162.29), we see Helios rise from the horizon in his four-horse chariot, as Nyx and Eos respectively drive away to the left and right. The ancient Greeks reimagined the eternal cycle of night and day as a never-ending race between these heavenly charioteers: should one of them ever quit, the consequences would be catastrophic!

Above, Helios (the Sun), rises, with Nyx (Night) and Eos (Dawn) driving away in opposite directions, in a scene on a lekythos pot now in the Metropolitan Museum (USA) (41.162.29).

6) Who's you favourite ancient Greek?
I think I’d pick Thetis, Achilles’ mother. Thetis is a fascinating character. She was destined to bear a son more powerful than his father; to avert this threat to his kingship, Zeus married her off by force to his mortal grandson, Peleus, to whom Thetis bore Achilles. Peleus wrestled with Thetis and had to subdue her before receiving her hand in marriage.

I believe that Thetis’ appeal lies in her ambiguity, her constant oscillation between power and vulnerability. In her seminal work (The Power of Thetis), Laura Slatkin demonstrates that the Iliad presents Thetis as a formerly powerful, yet ultimately marginalised deity. The Iliad suggests that Thetis once played an active role in divine affairs, having rescued Hephaistos and Dionysus and having freed Zeus from bonds put on him by rebellious Olympians. Curiously, in the timeframe of the Iliad, Thetis appears mostly passive. She inexplicably knows a lot about future and past happenings, she carries enormous clout, and she indirectly influences the war, but she exercises her power indirectly, only through calling in favours from Zeus and Hephaistos. Slatkin noted that Thetis still blames Zeus for her arranged marriage, yet she never directly opposes him, as if some unseen factor forestalled her wrath.

Notably, Thetis was one of very few goddesses subdued (and probably raped) by a mortal, with pottery depictions of the wrestling match between her and Peleus often hinting at erotic violence. My favourite depiction of their fight is shown on Douris’ Attic red-figured kylix from Vulci (Cabinet des médailles, BNF (Inv. 539)), which you can see here:

Above, Thetis accosted by Peleus, on a kylix now in the Cabinet des médailles in France (539).

The pottery piece has a gigantic Thetis thrashing and shapeshifting into a lioness, as she towers over boyish, clean-faced Peleus, stressing their difference in status. Peleus encircles Thetis’ waist—and simultaneously, her womb, from where the powerful son was meant to come—with his hands. The mortal man rigidly clutches the waist of the goddess, pushing her downwards, as if to fix the body in a spot. His hands lock in a swirly pattern, resembling a spiral or the Greek key. No transformation of Thetis can break Peleus’ grip, as if this simple gesture took advantage of her greatest vulnerability. The static scene has no obvious resolution. Being immortal, Thetis could have simply waited Peleus out, but for some unknown reason, she did not. As it is, Thetis’ story remains markedly incomplete, with an unspoken gulf in the narrative - and that's what makes it attractive to me!

Thank-you very much to Dr Maciej Paprocki for sharing these insights into a remarkable game and some fascinating research. You can follow Maciej on Twitter at @maciejwpaprocki , and you can hear the talks from his recent conference, The Other Crowd - Nethergods in the ancient Greek mythical imagination (co-organised with Dr Ellie Mackin Roberts and Gary Vos) at: https://cast.itunes.uni-muenchen.de/vod/playlists/CIdxGO5j8a.html

If you enjoyed this and are keen on antiquity and games, you may also like to follow these further Twitter accounts: @Archaeogaming, @adreinhard (Dr Andrew Reinhard), @ArchaeoEthics, @GingeryGamer (Meghan Dennis), and @Paigniographos (Dr Dunstan Lowe). And of course, if you're all set to take on the gods, head for
Apotheon at: www.apotheongame.com.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Vases on Stage: A Panoply Interview with Dr Rosie Wyles.

We're delighted to be talking today to Dr Rosie Wyles, lecturer in classical history and literature at the University of Kent. Rosie is an ancient theatre specialist, working on Greek and Roman performance arts, costume, reception within antiquity and beyond it, and gender. Her doctoral research was on the role of costume in performances of Euripides’ 'Telephus', 'Heracles and 'Andromeda' in antiquity. Her publications include Costume in Greek Tragedy (2011), the highly acclaimed Women Classical Scholars: Unsealing the Fountain from the Renaissance to the Twentieth Century (2016), edited with Prof Edith Hall, and the vase-tastic 2010 volume: The Pronomos Vase and its Context, edited with Prof Oliver Taplin.

I heard Rosie's presentation on her latest research at the Classical Association Annual Conference earlier this year, and I knew that you Panoply readers would love it, with its marvellous combination of vases as objects and vases bearing images. So here it is: vases in ancient Greek theatre...


1) Were vases used as props in ancient Greek theatre?
Yes we have a number of plays which feature vases. For example, we have Electra in Sophocles' Electra holding an urn (which she has been led to believe contains the ashes of her dead brother) and lamenting over it. This becomes a particularly famous moment in the play thanks to the story about a fourth-century actor called Polus performing the scene using an urn which contained the ashes of his own son (recorded in Aulus Gellius Attic Nights 6.5.5-8). This first example demonstrates the urn prop being used for ashes, but vases or urns serving other purposes are also represented on stage. In Aeschylus' Oresteia (458 BCE), vases for pouring libations feature in the second play of the trilogy (Libation Bearers) and the water jars (hydriai) used as voting urns in the law courts are brought onto stage in the final play (Eumenides). By contrast, Euripides uses a water jar (hydria) in his Electra as simply a vessel for drawing water from a well.

2) So people were seeing objects from their own lives on stage for the first time. What affect do you think that had on people?
In the case of the Eumenides, this is our first fully extant play to use voting urns as props within its action. The effect would, I think, have been particularly powerful given the importance of legal procedures to Athenian civic identity. As symbolic representatives of the law court experience in Athens voting urns are 'charged' objects, which offers an added dimension to their meaning as props on the tragic stage. As contemporary objects within the mythological action of the drama, they would have invited a direct comparison between the experience of real life in Athens and the story being presented on stage. Within the context of the Eumenides, these props represent order (in contrast to divine dispute) and so assert the superiority of the Athenian approach to governance.

3) What can we learn about ancient Greek voting from the voting scenes on vases?
There are surprisingly few Attic vase paintings which depict voting. A series of eight cups dating to between 490-470 BCE show Athena presiding over a vote to decide which warrior should receive the arms of Achilles. The vote however is not an exact equivalent of Athenian practice as it involves warriors placing a pebble at either one end or the other of a platform in front of Athena. A much closer representation of contemporary practice is offered by a cup attributed to the Stieglitz painter and dated to 470-460 BCE (Musée des Beaux Arts, Dijon, CA 1301). On the exterior of the cup are two scenes of men voting (using the method of dropping the mussel shell into one of two urns - one urn to represent guilty and one not guilty). There are also seated men on both sides of the cup who oversee the action or are in conversation with each other. It is striking that on side B of the cup there seems to be an underage (because beardless) voter and a dispute which offers a parallel to the scenes on the earlier series of cups which also depict conflict on one side. The Stieglitz painter's cup acknowledges that voting can be contentious but at the same time the 'dispute' on this cup is far more civilised than the earlier mythological example (in which swords are drawn) and so it celebrates this aspect of Athenian governance.
Above, Athenians cast their votes on a cup, Musée des Beaux Arts, Dijon, CA 1301.

4) What vases scenes are there of vases being used in theatre?
The scene of Electra lamenting by the tomb of Agamemnon with a libation urn beside her becomes popular in ancient art. One of the challenges, however, is to determine when these representations can be confidently associated with a particular performance or production, or whether they represent a more general response to the dramatic rendering of the myth, generating an iconographic tradition independent of the theatre.

Above, Electra mourns with a libation urn, 4th century red figure, Paris, Louvre Museum, K544.

5) Would you tell us a bit more about how you, as a theatre historian, use vase scenes as evidence for other aspects of staging and putting on plays in classical Greece?
The body of 5th-century iconographic evidence for performance is quite limited. There are far more representations from 4th-century South Italy (or 'Western Greece' as Oliver Taplin in his major study Pots and Plays calls it), although the time lag, evolving performance history, and potential of local influences have to be taken into account for these. The fifth-century evidence, even if quite scant, can be really enlightening. A great example of this is the Pronomos vase (now in Naples and dated to just on the cusp between the 5th and 4th century) which is so rich as a piece of evidence that an entire conference and then book could be dedicated to its study! Since it depicts a cast in an off-stage setting after the end of the performance, one of the major insights which it offers is into perceptions of theatre as a cultural institution and attitudes towards performance. It is also of course useful for seeing what the costumes (no material remains of which survive) looked like. On the other hand, vases such as the Stieglitz painter cup can be used in a different way: since it is earlier than the Oresteia it offers an example of an alternative artistic response to the cultural institution of voting and informs us of current strands in the discourse on law courts which Aeschylus then exploits. The iconographic record in general gives us a unique and valuable view into the visual landscape of the theatre audience which is essential to an analysis of their responses to the visual dimension of performances.

Above, the celebrated Pronomos Vase depicts a theatre cast after a performance, Naples Archaeological Museum, 81673

6) Who's your favourite ancient Greek?
It used to be Euripides because of the wonderful way in which he manipulated costume is his plays both to create powerful dramatic moments and also to comment on other playwrights. More recently, however, I've been researching Aristophanes and find his ability to produce brilliantly farcical scenes which at the same time are packed with sophisticated and incisive commentary really impressive. So at the moment it's a tie between the two!

Many thanks to Dr Wyles for sharing these insights on a fabulous topic! If you'd like to find out more about Electra on stage, you will enjoy reading Electra Ancient and Modern – A Panoply Interview with Dr Anastasia Bakogianni. To those of you on Twitter, you can follow Dr Wyles at @RosieWyles for highly recommended updates on her research and other interesting classics news.