Thursday, 16 June 2022

Constructing the African: A Panoply Interview with Najee Olya.

We’re delighted to have the chance to speak to Najee Olya, a PhD student at the University of Virginia, USA, working on the dissertation, Constructing the African in Ancient Greek Vase-Painting: Images, Meanings and Contexts. Before beginning doctoral study, Najee earned a B.A. in Anthropology and Classical Civilization at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an M.A. in Classics at the University of Arizona. In the field, he has participated in archaeological excavations in Italy at Etruscan Populonia at Poggio del Molino, and since 2018 at Mt. Lykaion in Arcadia, Greece. Najee is currently a William Sanders Scarborough Fellow at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, researching vases in Greek collections and their archaeological contexts. The next academic year will see him take up a post as the Bothmer Fellow in the Department of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In this interview, Najee offers insight into his research on Africans in ancient Greek pottery…

1) What contexts do you think ancient Greeks and ancient Africans are encountering each other in?
I think that the primary context would be in Egypt. Given that there are Greeks in Egypt in the Archaic period as mercenaries and at Naukratis, it must be there that Greeks are encountering not only Egyptians but people from elsewhere in Africa, especially from south of Egypt itself—what the Greeks generally referred to as Aithiopia (not to be confused with the modern state). I also suspect that major hubs of maritime trade would have been the sorts of places where Greeks encountered people from Africa, at various ports and emporia – trading posts - around the Aegean and the wider Mediterranean. Conversely, I’m inclined to think that direct contacts on the Greek mainland were somewhat limited. That said, in a major city like Athens, for example, the interest in Africans among potters and vase-painters seems to indicate at least some kind of familiarity with what Africans looked like that doesn’t appear to come from just seeing artistic depictions. Moreover, there were almost certainly foreigners and people of foreign descent working in the Kerameikos in Athens, so it's impossible to rule out that at least one or two may have been from Africa. There’s also Athens’s port at Piraeus, which saw a lot of traffic from a variety of traders and merchants.
Above, a janiform cup (ie. two heads back-to-back like the god, Janus), showing an African and a European, Attic c.500-450BCE, The Art Museum, Princeton University: 33.45.

2) Who are the Africans depicted in Greek pottery – what trends are there?
There are three categories, as far as I can tell, into which the Africans depicted in Greek pottery can be grouped. Two of these are fairly straightforward mythological episodes and scenes of daily life. The third is more difficult, and consists of imagery that doesn’t fit neatly into either of the two other categories.

In terms of the mythological episodes, the main figures from Africa are Memnon and Andromeda. The pair are both said to be royalty from Aithiopia in the mythological tradition. Memnon was king of Aithiopia and an ally to Troy in the Trojan War, where he led a huge army from Aithiopia before eventually being killed by the hero Achilles. Andromeda was an Aithiopian princess who was offered up as a sacrifice to appease the ketos serpent, a sea monster sent by Poseidon to ravage the coasts of Aithiopia after Andromeda’s mother Cassieopeia had boasted that she (Cassieopeia) was more beautiful than the Nereids. Andromeda was rescued by Perseus, and the two married. In vase painting, Neither Memnon nor Andromeda are shown as African themselves, but there are instances in the iconography where Memnon is shown preparing to depart for Troy attended by African warriors.

In the Andromeda scenes, she is shown being bound between stakes for the ketos monster, sometimes in Persian dress. There are Africans on a number of the Andromeda vases. There are some mythological traditions which associate Memnon and Andromeda with the Near East, so this might explain why they are not depicted as African themselves.
Above, Andromeda with African attendants, Attic pelike c.475-425BCE, Boston Museum of Art, 63.2663.

Next, there are depictions of the hero Herakles in Egypt and Libya. In Egypt, he encounters the pharaoh Busiris, who wants to sacrifice the hero to end a drought. On pottery Herakles is shown routing Busiris and his priests, who are always depicted as African men. In Libya, Herakles is accosted by the earth giant Antaios, who waylays strangers, forces them to wrestle, and then adorns the temple of Poseidon with their bones after he has killed them. Herakles defeats Antaios by lifting him from the ground as they wrestle and cutting him off from the Earth, from which he derived his strength. On pottery, physical contrast is shown between the two as they wrestle—Antaios has a long unkempt beard and hair, similar to Egyptian depictions of Libyans.
Above, Heracles fights Busiris, Attic pelike c.500-450BCE, Athens, National Museum: CC1175.

As for images from daily life, we have African stable-hands, warriors, and some attendants at the grave. These figures can generally be identified by their very curly hair and prominent noses. The last set of objects includes things like plastic vases, which show either full African figures or African faces alone or paired with women, satyrs, Herakles, and Dionysos. Finally, there are alabastra, a shape that rather circuitously made its way to Greece from Egypt, used for perfumed oil which depict African warriors.
Above, An African groom cares for a horse, Attic kylix c.490, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989.281.71.

3) Some Africans seem to be represented rather beautifully; other depictions feel a bit… off. What’s the balance between realism, idealism, and hostile caricature in ancient Greek depictions of Africans?
On the whole, I would say that most of the depictions are not hostile caricature. I can think of one example, a lekythos in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, which shows what seems to be an African woman being tortured by satyrs. There is also at least one image of a figure who may be African shown wearing shackles and is unambiguously an enslaved person. I do not think, however, that it is possible to definitively call either instance caricature.

Plastic vessels made in the form of African youths being attacked by crocodiles have sometime been interpreted as cruel, mocking images, but one can just as easily say that these show interest in the river Nile and awareness of its dangerous fauna. Aside from these examples, however, I think that many of the images are either ambiguous or benign. It is difficult to know what the representations were meant to convey to ancient Greek users. When it comes to realism, the images are realistic to a degree, but as with all ancient Greek art, it is superficial and illusory. Especially when it comes to pottery, I think that one has to remember that the medium and its convention limit just how true-to-life the representations can be. The end result is something of a pastiche of reality and imagination—the vase-painter selects the subject matter and then executes it in his own way, but the final product will always be constrained by things like the limited colour palette and the curving surface of the vase.

Above, an African youth attacked by a crocodile, Attic rhyton, c.350BCE, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge GR.58.1865.

4) Overall, what does pottery add to our understanding of ancient Greek ideas about Africans and Africa?
First and foremost, I think it reminds us that ancient Greece was part of an interconnected ancient Mediterranean. Also, that “ancient Greece” spanned three continents, with settlements and poleis not just in Europe but also in North Africa and Western Asia. Pottery tells us that ancient Greeks were interested in depicting foreign people such as Africans, and while it is difficult to interpret all of the different representations, it is clear that potters and vase-painters found Africans an intriguing subject, and that the purchasers of Athenian vases did too. The representations, in a general way, seem to indicate that Athenians were thinking about North Africa in particular, especially Libya and Egypt, where there were permanent Greek settlements. What they specifically thought about Africans is harder to determine from the pottery itself, but it does not seem to be the case that Africans were viewed any differently than other foreigners. Certainly, there was a general chauvinism toward non-Greeks, but Africans do not appear to have been singled out more than other groups, such as Persians or Scythians.
Above, An African in trousers, Attic alabastron, c.500-450, The J. Paul Getty Museum: 71.AE.202.

5) What would you like to see improved in terms of using pottery to increase general understanding of Black people within ancient Greek culture?
One thing that could use some improvement is the terminology used to describe the artifacts, which is often simultaneously both outdated and anachronistic. In scholarship this is due in part to the rather small corpus dealing with Africans on Greek pottery, much of which is several decades old now. Also, you will often see in museums or on museum websites descriptions that assume the depictions of Africans on vases are slaves, without any explanation, or descriptions that make use of discredited race-essentialist anthropology to discuss their physical characteristics.

I think that it’s extremely important to rethink how Greek vases with depictions of Africans are presented in museums, as those are the spaces where the wider public is most likely to encounter the artifacts. Some museums are already making efforts to rethink their use of language for the objects, such as the J. Paul Getty Museum and the North Carolina Museum of Art. I was recently asked by a curator at the latter to write a new label for an Athenian black-figure vase in their collection which has a depiction of Memnon and one of his African warriors. Hopefully the number of museums revamping their descriptions will increase going forward.
Above, King Memon with African attendants, Attic amphora by Exekias, c.575-525, British Museum, B209, previously 1849,0518.10.

6) Perhaps you could tell us a bit about your Fellowships – what they are, how they work?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have been awarded several fellowships that allowed me to study in Greece — from the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) and the American Philosophical Society (APS). I started out at the American School in 2017 with a scholarship for the Summer Session, which is a six-week course involving travel around Greece to archaeological sites and museums. I came back to the ASCSA two years later in 2019 with a fellowship to participate in the Regular Program, which is an academic year spent in Athens, travelling around Greece more than the Summer Session. Now, I’m wrapping up my third stay at the American School with a fellowship as an Associate Member. This time, I’m focused entirely on working on my dissertation and taking the opportunity to revisit artifacts in museums relevant to my research, in addition to obtaining special permission to photograph many of the vases outside of their displays.

I received a Lewis and Clark Grant from the APS in 2019, which allowed me to do field research in Greece. I travelled to archaeological sites that are documented as having had material from Egypt excavated there, created an archive of photographs, and got a better sense of the sites and their topography from first-hand observation. Finally, in September 2022 I’ll be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for a year as the Bothmer Fellow in the Department of Greek and Roman Art. The fellowship will allow me to complete my dissertation and to access a number of the vases included in it, as well as the Met’s libraries. It’s worth keeping your eyes open to see what opportunities and funding are available.

7) Who’s your favourite ancient Greek?
It might be an obvious answer, but I will say Herodotus. I first read the Histories almost fifteen years ago as a Classics undergraduate, first in translation in a course taught wonderfully by Nanno Marinatos, and then in ancient Greek language courses. I think that it must be Herodotus’s interest in different cultures and his efforts to understand and make them legible for his readers that resonated with me, especially as someone who had already studied a bit of anthropology and archaeology before I came to Classics. As much as I enjoyed Herodotus years ago, I had pretty much left him behind until I selected my dissertation topic at the end of the first year working on the PhD. Since then, I’ve been revisiting him, as he famously writes about both Egypt and Aithiopia. I still read the Histories with a sense of wonder, but now I appreciate the complexity and sophistication of the work even more. Herodotus is one of the people from antiquity that I’d love to have a chat with if time travel were possible!

Many thanks to Najee for sharing his expertise!
If you enjoyed this topic, you may enjoy our previous blog post, Black and White Andromeda.
We'll have more news soon regarding a new Iris video!

Friday, 1 April 2022

Marathon Adventures

Good news! Panoply’s Sonya Nevin has a new book out: The Idea of Marathon: Battle and Culture . Published by Bloomsbury, it’s a rip-roaring ride through 3000 years of history. In this post we’ll be talking to Sonya about the book, including where ancient vases fit into all this. Sonya also had the pleasure of talking to podcaster Ancient History Hound recently, so you’ll find a link to their podcast chat here too.

1) What’s the book about?
The Battle of Marathon has had a huge impact on culture ever since it happened. The Idea of Marathon introduces all the players and gives you the build up to the battle. We get the battle itself – what kinds of weapons are being used, what kind of wounds do people get, what we can and can’t know about an ancient battle. We get the fall-out – how ancient armies deal with the wounded and the dead. While a battle takes place over a short time, the fall-out is forever – so the second half of the battle takes a look at how the battle quickly began to influence politics, art, education and all sorts. It then follows that thread, and look at how and why Marathon remained significant for all the generations that followed – from ancient Greeks looking back at their past, to other ancient peoples comparing their own conflicts to Marathon, and then the way that it remains relevant post-antiquity – still influencing art, education, rhetoric, and shaping how people talk about struggles, whether you’re in the Renaissance, the wars of the 18th century, or you’re running a marathon in the 21st century. In a way it’s a big story, but I’ve also kept a human quality to it – we see what the battle means to some of the people who participate and their families. So we get to know the commanders of the Persian force – Artaphernes and Datis the Mede, and we follow what Marathon means to the Athenian Miltiades and his children Cimon the general, Elpinice, and Metiochus – a Greek who lived his life as a Persian. They’re a fascinating bunch who lived through a fascinating era.

2) Did anything surprise you while you were researching it?
The Greco-Persian Wars are something I’ve been interested in for many years, so it was a pleasure to get so stuck into them. Surprise-wise – this was the first time I had read much about the importance of spells in relation to healing wounds – that was interesting. I had always known about Metiochus, Miltiades son, going off to lead a Persian life, but I was surprised to find out more about how he and Miltiades became the protagonists an ancient novel, and from there persisted in Persian poetry. There’s a section in the book called The Colonels and the Shah, which looks at the ancient past under regimes in 20th century Greece and Iran. The stuff about the last Shah of Persia and how he tried to make use of the ancient past – that’s a wild ride.

3) How did ancient pottery contribute?
Ancient pottery is often a great compliment to literature and to other material culture. We can see through pottery, for example, that the ancient Greeks took an interest in what was happening in Persia. The earliest surviving vase depicting a satrap or perhaps the Great King was made in around 520BCE – it shows attention to detail regarding the clothing specific to an elite figure of that culture.

There’s also attention to detail regarding the Scythians – a nomadic people who lived to the north east of Greece. A ceramic plate survives that actually names Miltiades. It’s a ‘kalos vase’, so there’s an inscription on that says ‘Miltiades kalos’ – ‘Miltiades is beautiful’. It depicts a Scythian, probably because Miltiades was going to an area where the Scythians often were. So the plate shows the Athenian interest in other cultures and there’s a sensitivity to the Scythians’ distinctive wearing of trousers, their use of the bow and of horse equipage.

Above, Miltiades kalos, Miltiades is beautiful. Plate made in Athens, c.520-510BCE, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, AN1879.175.

Pottery also shows us how Greek attitudes towards the Persians changes over time. From scenes of Greeks versus Persians fighting as equals, depictions of them begin to be less respectful, there is less sense of them as an equal, formidable foe. On the other hand, we see the persistence of interest in the era of the Greco-Persian Wars. We had an adventure to Italy just before the pandemic took off in Britain, and in the fabulous Archaeological Museum in Naples we saw the famous Darius Vase. That was made around c.340-330BCE, yet it depicts a play which features Darius, the Great King of Persia.

Above, The Darius Vase, made in Apulia, c.340-330BCE, Naples Museo Archeologico Nazionale H3249.

4) What are you working on now?
Oh, there’s always plenty going on. On the Panoply front, we’re making two new mini-documentaries to accompany the Dionysus and Iris Rainbow Goddess animations. These join the About Sappho 44 and About Heracles and the Erymanthian Boar documentaries which you can fin don the Panoply website. I also have a year-long post as an Assistant Professor at the University of Warsaw. That’s enabling me to put together a volume of activity and lesson plans that go with the Our Mythical Childhood animations. There are contributions from teachers at the top of their game all over the world, so I think it will be a really useful and fun collection. There will also be a chapter of mine about the Panoply vase animations in a collected volume edited by Anastasia Bakogianni and Luis Unceta G√≥mez; Classical Reception, State of the Discipline and New Directions will be a great read, so it’s exciting to be part of that.

5) Who’s your favourite ancient Greek?
When I did a Panoply interview for my first book, Military Leaders and Sacred Space, I gave Miltiades as my favourite ancient Greek. That’s still my answer. Maybe he’s not entirely a good man, but he is a great man, and his life is such an adventure – I love that kind of thing in ancient history. I’m also tempted to give a second answer, which would be quite different – Plutarch. We can know more of Plutarch's mind than we do of Miltiades, as we can read so much of his work. He was a wise man and I’ve learned a lot from him in all sorts of ways; he’s been a very positive influence on my life and I’m very grateful for that. Still, Miltiades for the win – what a life!

You’ll find The Idea of Marathon on the Bloomsbury website here and in all good bookshops. To check out Sonya’s Marathon chat with the Ancient History Hound, take yourself to:

Sunday, 28 November 2021

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Ancient Music: A Panoply Interview with Aliki Markantonatou

We're delighted to be talking to Aliki Markantonatou, an artist and music teacher based in Athens, in Greece. Aliki trained at the National Music Academy before specialising in ancient style music. We recently had the pleasure of working with her when she recorded Sappho Fragment 44 for the Our Mythical Childhood project. Aliki talks to us today about the lyre, ancient music, and cross-cultural collaboration...

1) What attracted you to ancient Greek music?
I studied piano and Western music, but I was feeling that I was missing something. Soon, I started listening to our traditional music and ethnic groups from all over the world. It was back in 2004 that I came across the lyre, and started experimenting and, a little later, playing my music on it. The need to use poetry arose and the ancient Greek poets, such as Sappho and Alkman offered me amazing lyrics of beauty. But the turning point was when I met Dr Chrestos Terzes and I realised that, yes, the ancient sound can be approached and reproduced. I was also lucky enough to attend three short seminars with Dr Stefan Hagel, and since then my interest in ancient Greek music became realistic, and not just wishful thinking. My mother is a passionate Classicist and the lullabies and fairy tales she was narrating to us were all fragments from Homer, Aesop, lyrical poetry and so on. I think that this was crucial for me to feel that antiquity is close to my heart.
Above, Aliki and other musicians at a performance of the Orphic Hymn to Hera at the Heraia festival at the Pythagorion, Samos 2016.

2) You create many projects and collaborate with different musicians. Could you tell us how you work together with other musicians and what you do?
I feel very lucky to have met so many amazing musicians and personalities because of the lyre. I participate regularly with the Lyre ‘n’ Rhapsody female ensemble, and I've performed and recorded music with Turkish musicians, Chinese, Swiss and Indian among others. The way I view the lyre is that, besides ancient Greek music, it can exist in harmony with all kinds of traditional instruments and it can be integrated in modern soundscapes. What I usually do is to study the style of the musician I am going to collaborate with and the scales of the tradition that he or she carries. The lyre is very flexible in tuning. Once I tune on the right notes, I am ready to follow and exchange musical phrases with the other artist. My main focus is to create a conversation between the instruments. As for Lyre ‘n’ Rhapsody, that is my main band, all of us create music and we work on Greek traditional songs, ancient poetry set to music and fresh compositions.

3) Your recording of Sappho 44 for Animating the Ancient World within Our Mythical Childhood has been such a great success. How did you work with Professor D'Angour's score to create the sound-scape?
That was really an amazing project, I enjoyed every moment of it! Professor D’Angour did the arrangement for the first verse, and offered me through Skype and emails all the information I needed to proceed and set to music the other three verses. He sent me the text explaining word by word the rhythm that was hidden in the vowels, the notes of the scale I could use, the proper pronunciation and instructions of what I should avoid. In the same time, he was open to my ideas and was very helpful with all the questions that arose. When I finished the first recording I sent to him and I still remember the relief I felt when he answered, yes, everything is in place….Then it was just a matter of making it really a nice piece, and I would like to thank here the amazing sound engineer Nenad Radosevic, who is always next to me with patience and ideas.

4) Could you tell us a bit about the lyre that you play?
The lyre I play is made by the luthier Nicolas Bras, who is famous for his excellent violins, cellos and all kind of repairs on instruments. It is a pretty long one, closer to varvitos (or barbitos) sound than the lyre. It has a large soundbox and 12 strings. For ancient pieces I use only 9 strings. For Greek traditional songs and other kind of music 12 strings are very helpful. I tried many combinations of strings and it took me some years to find the ideal one. I use guitar strings for the high notes and gut for the lower. It is a vintage, for sure, that can be arranged according to the project. I use a cardio mic for concerts and usually I attain wonderful sound. Still, when I can play in a place with natural amplification, such as churches, I prefer no mics.
Above, Aliki Markantonatou with her lyre.

5) With Lyre n' Rhapsody you collaborate with Meet Culture in a cultural exchange between Europe and China. What have you learned from each other?
This cultural exchange has been so deep. I could never guess the depth when it started. We were invited by Miao Bin and Eley Yuan, the founders of Meet Culture, to participate in a crossover album. Their close friend, Jang Jing, a world famous Guchen (Chinese santoor) musician received as a gift our first CD, Awakening of the Muse. She shared with us that she was playing it repeatedly until she made up her mind to visit Athens with Jang Di - an amazing Xiao flutist - and record with us. We were listening to their music for some months to get in tune; and when they arrived, we were ready. The recording happened in 5 days. We recorded 20 tracks, all of them beautiful. We chose the 10 best for the album Aegean. We learned that language is not important, just flow with the sound, trust the moment and play when is needed. We learned that we share the same dreams and can enjoy friendship with a glass of wine having Greek or Chinese food. A strong bond developed and the feeling of family is there when we meet. We joke with each other, share our problems and help and support each other. Meet Culture organised a tour in and around Shanghai for all of us and two performances in Athens. The joy of that trip and the wonderful people we met is beyond words. Elegance, care, passion, generosity, kindness to name a few. And then another surprise occurred! Discussing the poetry of ancient Chinese and ancient Greek poets we found so many things in common, we could not resist. We created a performance in which ancient Chinese and Greek poems interact, one after the other in a dialogue of similar ideas and values. It was not easy to do all this translation, but was worth it, and I can assure that you can find many poems in similar forms between these two nations.
Above, the poster for Meet Culture's celebration of ancient Greek and ancient Chinese music and poetry.

6) Who's your favourite ancient Greek?
What a wonderful opportunity to praise Pericles!!! As an Athenian woman I enjoy Acropolis energy and light! Athens wouldn’t be what it is if the area around Acropolis did not exist. It would be just another town… But, now is an amazing town!!! When I feel tired or sad, I just stroll around Acropolis and feel refreshed and encouraged - thanks to this wonderful soul who managed to challenge the citizens to create this beauty! Thanks to this wonderful soul who offered equality to his spouse Aspasia, and respected democracy, I am enjoying my life in Athens, me, one person out of million people who live here and are showered by the grace of the golden ages. I am always amazed by what Pericles inspired in so many generations!

Many thanks to Aliki for these fascinating insights. Below you'll find some further examples of Aliki's performances and her interview with a Greek lyre-maker working with traditional techniques.

Above, from the 2016 Aegean Music Tour in China.

Above, Meet Culture's Greek and Chinese collaboration on a performance of The Iliad.

Above, a Meet Culture interview in which Aliki Markantonatou talks to lyre-maker Yiannis Stathakos in Xerokampi, near Sparta, about traditional lyre-making techniques.

You'll find more videos of Aliki's performances on her website:
and on Meet Culture's site:

Sunday, 25 April 2021

New Animation Extravaganza!

Hooray for new animations! We are delighted that we have new animations for you – all the videos made for the Our Mythical Childhood project are now online! You can find them on their own page on the Panoply website: . There are five new vase animations: Sappho 44, Heracles and the Erymanthian Boar, Dionysus, Libation, and Iris- Rainbow Goddess. There are two mini-documentaries: About Sappho 44 and About Heracles, and a brand new recording of Sappho 44 sung in ancient Greek by Aliki Markantonatou according to the score written by Prof. Armand D'Angour – a version of the tune that the poem would have been sung to in antiquity. You will also fine a wealth of bonus material – information about the vases and the animations, downloadable information and activity sheets, and PowerPoint presentations to help integrate the animations into lessons and lectures. We hope you have fun exploring these resrouces and trying them out.

Above, Panoply's Sonya Nevin concentrating hard during the online launch of the Our Mythical Childhood animations and Panoply's new partnership with the Cambridge Schools Classics Project.

Many thanks to everyone who attended or spoke at the launch event for the videos. In addition to introductions to the videos, we heard from Our Mythical Childhood Principal Investigator Professor Katarzyna Marciniak, from Lisa Hay, Olivia Gillmann and Rob Hancock-Jones on their pioneering teaching with Panoply vase animations, and from Head of CSCP Caroline Bristow about where the OMC animations, videos and other resources can fit into the UK and Irish curriculums. It was great to see lots of positivity and creative teaching practice.

This event also marked the launch of our new partnership with the Cambridge Schools Classics Project - a long-standing organisation at the University of Cambridge committed to supporting classics teaching. In due course, CSCP will be hosting our website - it will remain at the same address but will get a revamp and some extra materials. More on that as it happens. All the Our Mythical Childhood materials will soon be available on the Our Mythical Childhood website too – where you'll also find links to the other supercool projects under the OMC banner.

As you've reached the Panoply blog, I'm going to take the opportunity to point out some of its highlights. You can explore simply by scrolling through or using the Labels on the right of the page, but to jump straight in, you might fancy:

Ancient pottery meets ancient theatre, an interview with Dr Rosie Wyles

On Greek Myth Comix, by classics teacher and comic-maker L.E. Jenkinson-Brown

Symposiums, an interview with vase king Prof. Sir John Boardman

On Ancient music, an interview with Prof. Conrad Steinmann, who provided music for the OMC animations Dionysus, Libation and Iris.

You'll also find discussions of events, vases, and other art related to classical culture, such as:
Black and White Andromeda - a discussion of the representation of the Princess of Ethiopia, from ancient vases to modern young people's literature.
Happy Birthday Panoply - a potted history of our adventures with vase animations.

The Force Awakens Greek Vase Scenes - a look at Star Wars-Greek Vase fan mash-ups.

A big thank-you to everyone who has contributed to creating the Our Mythical Childhood videos. We hope you have a great time using them.

Thursday, 11 March 2021

New Talks, New Animations, New Books

Good news vase fans! Lots of interesting things coming up. It is finally the time to launch online the new animations that we've been making for the ERC-funded project Our Mythical Childhood... The Reception of Classical Antiquity in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to Regional and Global Challenges. They'll be launched at a free online event on Saturday 24th April. This event will be an interesting and enjoyable affair. Along with the animations there'll be short talks about them, presentations from teachers who have been trialling them in the classroom along with their bonus resources, a performance of ancient music, and a chance to see the short 'About' videos that accompany the animations. Registrations can be made here: Pop back here soon (or keep your eye on our FB page) for more info on the schedule.

You might notice that the booking page is a University of Cambridge address – that's because (*drumroll*) the Panoply Vase Animation Project is going into partnership with the university's Cambridge Schools Classics Project (CSCP: They've been supporting classics teachers for many years and we're pleased that this partnership will help us to help teachers more than ever. Our website will be migrating to CSCP (still at the same web address tho), so look forward to a new layout and cool new materials. In anticipation, here's the Iris animation, which got a forward release:

There will be an even earlier opportunity to hear Panoply's Dr Sonya Nevin talking about 'Beauty and Heroism' in the animations. Sonya will be giving a talk at 4pm GMT Wednesday 17th March as part of the University of Reading's Heroic Beauty: Beautiful Heroism series. The link to the talk and info about other talks in the series can be found here
In other good news, Sonya's book, Military Leaders and Sacred Space in Classical Greek Warfare is coming out in paperback after going down well in hardback. It's published by Bloomsbury and available at: Take a look! This coincides nicely with Sonya completing her second book - a deep dive into the Battle of Marathon - why it happened, what happened, and how it influenced society in the weeks, years, and then centuries after the battle. More on that as things unfold, and a high-five to everyone at Bloomsbury who have been so supportive during the writing of the book.

Hope to see you at the talk on Wednesday and for good times in April.

Friday, 23 October 2020

Black History Month – Black and White Andromeda

This month I had the opportunity to contribute to an Our Mythical Childhood discussion of black history and classical reception in young people's culture, organised by the University of Roehampton's Professor Susan Deacy. It was an easy choice for me to decide what to focus on – Olympians – a series of graphic novels by New York artist George O'Connor – a series which has been one of the highlights of my work on the Our Mythical Childhood database of antiquity in modern young people's culture. And within OlympiansAndromeda!
Andromeda is a mythical Ethiopian princess, making her one of the explicitly non-Greek named characters of Greek mythology. She's best known for being offered up as a sacrifice to the sea monster, Ketus, and being rescued by Perseus. Andromeda features quite frequently in modern children's literature, but it is noticeable how often she is depicted as being white. In this post we'll look at the dual traditions of black and white Andromeda and at George O'Connor's refreshing depiction of her.
Above, one of many white Andromeda's in modern children's literature - this one from Usborne's Sticker Greek Myths, fair-skinned and red headed.

Above, Tom Kindley's Heroes of the Night Sky is hugely creative although nonetheless Andromeda is depicted as very fair-skinned and blonde.

Depicting Andromeda as a white woman can be seen as a missed opportunity to feature a diversity of skin tones and ethnicities in the representation of ancient Greek culture. Modern illustrators are not alone in doing this however; it's part of a long tradition of white Andromedas, largely begun by ancient Greek vase painters. In this example below, we can see that the vase painter has prioritised the convention of depicting women using white slip, even when applying it to Andromeda, princess of Ethiopia. The ancient Greeks' concept of Ethiopia does not exactly correspond to the modern nation state of that name. They imagined Ethiopians living at the far regions of the earth in both Africa and Asia – where the sun sets and rises. Nonetheless, they did conceive of the Ethiopians as dark skinned (and extremely attractive) - even the name 'Aethiops' implies dark skin.
Above, a 6th century BCE Corinthian depiction of Andromeda (far right) rescued by Perseus (centre), with Andromeda's skin picked out in white slip as it would be for other women in that period. Vase now in the Berlin Altes Museum, F 1652

Ancient Greek vase painters were more than able to depict black Africans when they wanted to. Numerous vases include depictions of black Africans. Sometimes they're shown doing something; sometimes the vase maker focuses on the person's head, drawing out contrasts in appearance. Some of these approach caricature and are not very nice, sometimes they're more respectfully done and rather beautiful.
Above, an Athenian kantharos, c.500BCE, Boston Museum of Fine Arts 98.926. This form of cup with two heads is known as 'janiform', here two women.
Above, an Athenian jug featuring the head of a male African youth, 4th century, Metropolitan Museum
Above, an Athenian pelike featuring a black African youth leading a camel, executed in red figure. Vase in the St Petersburg Hermitage.

Despite this ability to depict black Africans, Andromeda is not the only Ethiopian who Greek artists seem to have avoided depicting with that appearance. Memnon, King of Ethiopia, who fought at Troy is typically depicted as looking like the other lighter-skinned heroes, or his face is avoided altogether. The master painter Exekias depicts him on this vase with his helmet obscuring his face, standing between two African servants.
Above, a black figure amphora by Exekias, helmeted Memnon with black African servants, British Museum 1849,0518.10, © The Trustees of the British Museum

We can also see that even once black figure went out of style, and with it the use of white slip to depict women, Andromeda is not represented as a black woman although she is dressed in Asian trousers:
Above, an Athenian red-figure hydria (shoulder section) c.440BCE, preparations to sacrifice Andromeda, who is sporting Asian clothing. British Museum 1843,1103.24 © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Above, an Athenian red figure pelike by the Niobid Painter, c.440BCE. Andromeda offered for sacrifice, clothed in Asian trousers, accompanied by Africans depicted in black slip with white slip clothing. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 63.2663.

Vase art and the art of mosaic makers, painters, and writers all influenced how people thought about Andromeda. By the time we reach the 1st century CE, the Roman poet Ovid was referring to Andromeda's white 'marble statue' body (Metamorphoses, 4.676). Heliodorus in the 3rd century CE went even further – the entire plot of his novel hinges on the Ethiopian princess being unexpectedly white. Heliodorus' Aethiopica and Ovid's Met were to have a huge influence on Renaissance painters and their vision of white Andromeda shaped later traditions around the princess. These are the origin of the white Andromedas in modern children's literature.
Above, one of many white Andromeda's, this one by Volpato after an earlier painting by Polidoro Caravaggio (c.1497-c.1543). As is frequently the case in images of this subject, Andromeda's white body is contrasted with the dark background of the rock.
Above, Edward Burne-Jones in the 19th century followed the same tradition, making much of the contrast of light and dark in his Perseus Series. Southampton City Art Gallery.

This is not the only tradition available to follow. Traditions around black Andromeda are however a bit of a mixed bag. In antiquity, we find a writer discussing black Andromeda and that writer is.... Ovid! The writer who contributed to traditions of white Andromeda also wrote about her elsewhere as a beautiful black woman. In Heroines and The Art of Love she is explicitly said to be dark skinned. This was not always taken up in a positive light, however. The Christian Fathers, early writers on Christian theology and philosophy, followed this tradition but used it to establish a connection between Andromeda's dark skin and human sinfulness. Dark Andromeda is human sin; fair Perseus is the symbol of Christ coming to the rescue with salvation. So far, so racist. Some Renaissance artists were also aware of this tradition, yet they didn't adopt its racist implications and instead they depicted a black Andromeda without the symbolic baggage of the Church Fathers. They were, however, inclined to hark back to the early idea of dark skinned Andromeda being Asian rather than African. We can see this not through the Persian clothing that we saw from Greek vase painters (Renaissance artists prefer a nude); we see it in her conspicuously long, straight hair.
Above, A dark skinned Andromeda, contrasted against the pale rocks, by Abraham van Diepenbeek, 1655.

This look at the background provides a context for thinking about the depiction of Andromeda in O'Connor's Olympians. She features most in the second volume, Athena - Grey-Eyed Goddess. When we first see Andromeda, she's chained to the rocks with the monster approaching. She's a beautiful dark skinned black woman, with her curly hair cropped short and a white dress on – the colour Ovid says that she preferred to wear because the colour looks good against her skin. She is frightened then, out of the corner of her well-lashed eye, she spots Perseus flying in to the rescue. The sea monster is turned to stone, and from just behind Andromeda we see Perseus politely introduce himself to her. Then we get the close-up of her endearing radiant smile, accompanied by a flash of gold from her earing. This is a positive depiction of her as a beautiful black African woman. The framing of the myth is also very positive. The narrator notes that while Perseus had a lot of help to carry out the Medusa mission, his decision to help Andromeda was his own choice and it proved his genuine heroism. We get an update that they fell in love, married, and moved to his homeland. She's not an automatic prize; it's a love match.
Above, the first glimpse of Andromeda in George O'Connor's 'Athena', 2010.

Above, scenes of Andromeda's rescue in George O'Connor's 'Athena', 2010.

Andromeda also features in O'Connor's Hera - The Goddess and Her Glory, the third installment of the Olympians series. Hera focuses largely on the Labours of Heracles. In discussing Heracles' origins, the narrator notes that Heracles' mother, Alcmene, was the granddaughter of Perseus and Andromeda, who are depicted at the famous rocky shore. While this is mythologically true, it's a connection within Heracles' background that is very rarely drawn attention to. You could read an awful lot about Heracles without finding reference to the Ethiopian element of his ancestry. This aspect of Heracles' background is also framed very positively in the text. There is explicit reference to Perseus and Andromeda founding many of the great cities of ancient Greece and forming 'the mightiest royal family in antiquity'. The greatest hero owes plenty of his greatness to his fantastic great-grandmother, Andromeda. Nor is Heracles white-washed in the Olympians series; it’s a series that features a wide range of skin tones and Heracles is amongst the darker toned heroes, presumably in reference to his part-Ethiopian heritage.

Above, Heracles' lineage includes his mighty great-grandmother, Andromeda.

This whizz through art history has been a reminder that the ways in which we think about ancient figures are influenced by long and complex historical processes. All artists have agency, however, and choices get made. George O'Connor's Olympians series gives us a positive interpretation of Andromeda which celebrates her legendary beauty, her blackness, and her legacy within Greek mythology. When we think about diversifying the Classics, whether in the classroom or in children's publishing, one simple yet powerful step is to honour the Ethiopians who have always been part of it.

Some references:
Elizabeth McGrath, 'The Black Andromeda', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 55 (1992), pp. 1-18.
George O'Connor, Athena, FirstSecond, 2010.
George O'Connor, Hera, FirstSecond, 2011.