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, 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: 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: .
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:

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:

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.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Our Mythical Hope: An Adventure in Warsaw.

Above, Panoply's Sonya Nevin and Steve Simons (c & r) enjoy the rather dazzling Warsaw sunshine with Susan Deacy (left).

We're not long back from a super adventure in Warsaw, where we've been attending the first Our Mythical Childhood project conference: Our Mythical Hope in Children's and Young Adult's Culture... The (In)Efficiency of Ancient Myths in Overcoming the Hardships of Life ( How does myth help young people deal with life's difficulties? We were there to count the ways...

First things first, we were also there to give an update on our part of Our Mythical Childhood – the Animating the Ancient World project. We presented our work at the striking Palace of Culture and Science which, at 42 floors, is one of the highest buildings in Europe. The first of the five animations that we're creating for the project is almost complete, and I described what that will be and how it's come together. The vase itself is unusual and starkly lovely. It depicts Sappho, one of the great poets of antiquity, and one of the few authentic women's voices to survive from that time. She appears on a black background, lyre in hand, with a name label beside her so that we know this is Sappho herself, not just a random musician. We are animating her playing her account of Prince Hector bringing Andromache to Troy as his new bride. Sappho's poems don't survive in full, but in fragments, and we'll be (re)animating Fragment 44, the surviving part of a larger poem. Using a new and experimental style, we'll be showing Sappho bringing to life geometric style figures – the vase style of 'long ago' for people in Sappho's days – to act out her lyrics. The look of this will be very special, and the music for this animation is rather special too. Thanks to collaboration with ancient music specialist Prof. Armand D'Angour (Jesus College, Oxford), the music that you hear will be a recreation of the sound of the original poem, played for the first time since antiquity. Watch this space to see and hear more about the animation's release. By happy coincidence, Prof D'Angour was also in Warsaw for the Euripides the Innovator conference, giving us Mythical Hope delegates a chance to hear him talk about his ancient music breakthroughs.

Above, a behind the scenes visit to the National Museum in Warsaw to get up close and personal with the vases we'll be animating, taking preparatory photos and talking iconography with curator, Dr Alfred Twardecki. Many thanks to the Museum and Dr Twardecki for their help and hospitality!

As a project about young people's lives, Our Mythical Childhood encourages participation from people at all stages of their academic journeys. We had a chance to hear from the project's youngest contributors, pupils of Strumienie School in Jόzefόw, just outside Warsaw, and the XI Mikolaj Rej High School, all of whom have been working hard studying myth and thinking about its role in life and culture. Strumienie pupils performed Shakespeare's Pyramus and Thisbe (from A Midsummer Night's Dream) in Latin, and pupils from both schools displayed their research. We were also joined by BA students from the Belarusian State University, who presented their thoughtful work examining myth in children's stories and computer games. Great work all round!

Above, Strumienie pupils give an amusing performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in Latin. Pupils were also challenged to design modern adverts featuring ancient mythology, in a task combining lessons in Classical Civ. and English Language.

The academics' presentations on myth and life challenges in young people's culture were many and varied. To mention just a few.... Thinking about therapy, classicist Dr Susan Deacy (Roehampton) and psychiatrist Dr Edoardo Pecchini (Warsaw / Bolzano Hospital) both spoke about using Heracles as a focus for helping young people tackling autism or trauma (For more on Susan's project, visit her blog at:

A great paper from Prof. Helen Lovatt (Nottingham), explored myth – particularly those of Antigone and Pandora, in the book and film, The Girl with All the Gifts. The Girl... gives us children in (apocalyptic) crisis, with myth acting as both a model for the events and themes that make up the story, and as material within the story that the children are learning about and using to help make sense of their otherwise bewildering situation.

Above, Prof. Lovatt analyses 'The Girl with all the Gifts'.

Dr Krishni Burns (Akron) discussed several young adults' novels exploring the way they depict women's resilience in challenging situations. Mythical figures including Ariadne and Cassandra appear in novels such as Clemence McLaren's Inside the Walls of Troy and Waiting for Odysseus, and Patrice Kindl's Lost in the Labyrinth, finding ways of coping with difficult situations that they cannot control. This in turn models positive coping mechanisms for young people experiencing the usual hardships of growing up or even more traumatic personal circumstances.

Prof. Liz Hale (New England, Australia) extended the discussion of children's literature further, analysing The Golden Day by Ursula Dubosarsky, in which learning about classical antiquity is combined with life crisis for the protagonist schoolgirls, with ancient and modern myths worked together in an exploration of adolescence and national identity. Moving from novels to the children's sections in early 20th century newspapers, Prof. Maguerite Johnson (Newcastle, Australia), asked us to consider whether their retellings of myth were helping to provide solace and hope to children troubled by WW1, or whether they were more akin to propagandistic brainwashing.

Above, Prof. Maguerite Johnson talks myth in WW1-era children's columns.

Childhood in antiquity got a mention too, in the form of two presentations from Prof. Véronique Dasen (Fribourg). The first described the reconstruction of ancient games in the travelling exhibition Veni, Vidi, Ludique, which frequent readers will recall from our interview with Véronique on magic and play. In the second, Prof. Dasen analysed vases featuring young women playing games and discussed them as evidence for ancient ideas about girls' active role in betrothals.... Some forms of play acting as steps towards adult life you might say.
Above, Prof. Dasen and further conference members listen to a presentation.

Above, (centre) Prof Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer (Tübingen), with her recent award-winning publication; (left) Prof Katarzyna Marciniak, our host in Warsaw and Principal Investigator of the ERC funded Our Mythical Childhood project; and (right), doctoral candidate Anna Mik ( Warsaw) who presented a strand of her research into myth in children's literature: colour schemes and mythological creatures in Disney's Fantasia.

I hope that has given a flavour of the variety and depth of a conference programme that included young people's fiction, anime, illustrated books, TV series, fan-fiction, the surprisingly large number of Trojan horse toys, and much more. Sometimes Greco-Roman myths can seem to contain material that is too sensitive, too potentially troubling for children; this conference has made a strong case that it is precisely those difficult bits that can help children and young people cope with or prepare for the very real challenges that life has to offer. You may also enjoy the short conference video, here:

A huge thank-you to our hosts at the Centre for Studies on the Classical Tradition (OBTA) at the University of Warsaw. We look forward to seeing you again!

If that has whetted your appetite for thinking about myth, save the date for Mythology and Education: History and Practice, a workshop to be held at the Faculty of Education, Cambridge, Friday 27th October 2017. Full details and booking (for free tickets) at:

Friday, 28 April 2017

Adventures in Sweden, Ireland, and England

There have been plenty of adventures for Panoply recently, so an update's in order...
Late last month I had the great pleasure to visit the Humanities Lab, known as Humlab, at the University of Umeå in northern Sweden. This is a very impressive facility, where humanities experts and tech specialists can work together, collaborating effectively on projects that call for the strengths of both. Very cool.

I gave a seminar talk on vase animations as a form of engagement and research activity. I said a bit about the process of developing the animations, a bit about the different ways that museums have displayed them, and a bigger bit about what we're doing within the Our Mythical Childhood project (on which see the video at:
Above, my presentation in the Umeå Humlab.

My animation talk was followed by a presentation on Virtual Reality by Umeå doctoral candidate Claudia Sciuto. This is a hot topic in lots of fields at the moment, so it was great to hear some of Claudia's thoughts. She was looking at how VR can be used effectively in interpreting the results of archaeological excavations. Claudia has seen that making VR versions of sites is particularly useful for collaborative work, as it makes it easier for team members to share their visions of how the site worked and to try out alternative interpretations.

Above, adventures in VR.

It was interesting to try out a VR version of an ancient homestead, based on the findings from an excavation. I also enjoyed visiting a VR theatre environment that was inhabited by a dancer created as part of a Roman pantomime project by Anna Foka, my host in Umeå, Helen Slaney (Roehampton) and Sophie Bocksberger (Oxford), and technical specialists Mattis Lindmark and Jim Robertsson. Dr Foka, a classicist and digital humanities specialist, is currently engaged in the digitisation of an archive in Stockholm – another exciting project to keep your eyes open for. Thank-you to everyone in Umeå for your warm welcome and smart questions.

Always a pleasure to visit Ireland... Next up was a trip to University College Dublin, my alma mater. I was there to give a seminar talk called, 'Games as Prizes. Struggles for Control of Panhellenic Sanctuaries in Classical Greece'. The talk was based to a large extent on chapter 6 of my new book, Military Leaders and Sacred Space in Classical Greek Warfare. I gave an overview of the conflicts fought for control of the panhellenic sites – the sort of overview that makes you realise that this was a much bigger issue than we sometimes imagine. I moved on to demonstrating how it was that Arcadians and Phocians came to take huge amounts of wealth from Olympia and Delphi – and why it wasn’t quite as out of the blue as it sometimes seems. If that's your cup of tea and you'd like to know more, better grab a copy or order one through your library! Many thanks to host Philip de Souza (who you'll remember from his fantastic Panoply interview on ancient piracy) and the rest of the department for great questions and a wonderful visit.

Above, terracotta of a woman playing a lyre, c.400-380BCE, Nicosia, as seen during my Dublin trip, at the National Archaeological Museum (terracotta on loan from the Cyprus Museum, 1934V-183). This seemed an appropriate artefact to snap as our latest Panoply work is all about Sappho, the ultimate lady with the lyre.

In ultra recent news, I'm just back from the UK Classical Association conference, this year held at the University of Kent in Canterbury. My talk there was about fan art which reimagines the Star Wars universe through ancient Greek vase scenes. I showed some of my favourite examples, some of which you may remember from a post on the subject written a while back, and I also talked about ways that that material can enrich sessions with children and young people on vases and antiquity more broadly. After all, if you ask a room full of children "Do any of you have characters from stories or cartoons on your bags or lunch boxes?", you always find that lots of them do, and that can be a route into drawing explicit comparisons about stories and characters they like, and stories and mythical figures real ancient Greek people liked. And a question such as, "If you had to get across Star Wars in one image, what image would you choose?", can be a good way to help them think about what's packed into iconography – ancient or otherwise. The Star Wars vase images can be a fun yet idea-provoking middle ground between more typical contemporary images of heroes and ancient images of heroes.... why not try it out and see how you get on?! If Star Wars isn't your bag, there are plenty of other examples of cross-over vase art; expect further blog posts on this topic in the not too distant future, and check out my Vase Remixes post from a little while back.

It was a real pleasure to be at another Classical Association conference. Fellow panellists gave super papers: Tristan Taylor (New England, Australia), From Republic to Empire – Rome and Star Wars, Octavian and Palpatine, from Roman Empire to evil Empire; Ben Howland (Louisiana State) ‘He could destroy us’: Oedipus, Palpatine, Vader and the self-fulfilling prophecy; and Joanna Komorowska (Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński)‘Go to the Dagobah System’: Or Obi-Wan between epic and tragedy. The panel was convened by Roehampton's Tony Keen, and it was a fine contribution to Star Wars 40.

Another conference highlight was Rosie Wyles' (Kent) paper, Theatricalising everyday objects, in which she discussed the significance of Greek dramatists beginning to use props for the first time, bringing vases onto the stage to use in voting scenes. While we all take the use of props on stage for granted now, it must have been a mind-blowing thing when it was first tried out, and something that changed the relationship between the stage and real life. This was a really wonderful look at a the use of vases in an unusual context, and we look forward to hearing more about it as Dr Wyles' project continues. One last conference highlight... Military Leaders and Sacred Space looking striking on the IB Tauris stall:

Many thanks to the Classical Association and the University of Kent for all your hard work on the conference.

We'll be back soon, with news on Panoply developments for Our Mythical Childhood, adventures in Poland, and further vase remixes. See you then!

Monday, 13 March 2017

Our Mythical Childhood – Celebrating ERC Week

A big Thank-You to everyone who came along to last month's events, whether it was the launch for Military Leaders and Sacred Space, the Iris Project Festival, or my symposium talk at the Pitt Rivers Museum marking the opening of the Out in Oxford Cross-Collections Museum Trail (for which see

This week we're delighted to be celebrating ERC Week, cheering the ten years that the European Research Council has been funding cutting-edge research. We've made a new video to mark the occasion; if you haven’t seen it already, here it is!

We're very grateful to the ERC for funding our latest endeavour: an international multi-part research project called Our Mythical Childhood... The Reception of Classical Antiquity in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to Regional and Global Challenges. Our Mythical Childhood is looking at the roles that ancient myth plays in young people's lives around the world. A central idea of the project is that myths are not passed on in a vacuum, but influenced and shaped by the conditions in which they are retold. These subtle (or, sometimes, not so subtle) influences include things such as the age of the intended audience, the purpose and style of the re-telling, or the values held by the author and society in which the myths are being retold. Over the next five years, the project will be shedding light on these dynamics and creating wonderful resources for academics, teachers, and members of the public to use, enjoy, and learn from.

Above, this info-graphic lays out the structure of Our Mythical Childhood.

For our part of the project, we'll be creating some new depictions of ancient mythical figures in the form of five new vase animations. You'll see the ancient poet, Sappho, re-creating tales of Troy on her magnificent lyre, and you'll see Heracles on the trail of adventure. Three more animations will give you a slice of the gods' lives, with Dionysus, Iris, Zeus, Athena, and Nike all making an appearance. As well as the vase animations, we'll be making a documentary and all sorts of other supporting materials (whoop!). The animations will be displayed in the National Museum in Warsaw and you'll find them and the other materials online on their own page of the Panoply website.

Above, Prof Katarzyna Marciniak

Our Mythical Childhood is being spear-headed by Prof. Katarzyna Marciniak of the University of Warsaw. You may recall that Katarzyna was the brains behind the Chasing Mythical Beasts project, including the conference that we contributed to last year (there's a reminder video here). As well as keeping everyone on track, Katarzyna is coordinating an array of project publications, annual conferences, and a database, with help from a talented group of scholars and PhD students.

Above, Dr Susan Deacy.

Like us, Dr Susan Deacy is based at the University of Roehampton in London. Susan's Mythical Childhood research is exploring the special potential of classical mythology to engage autistic children. You can keep up-to-date with this fascinating project at:

Above, Prof Daniel Nkemleke.

Another wing of the project will see Prof Daniel Nkemleke and Dr Divine Che Nebe of the University of Yaoundé in Cameroon conducting a survey of traditional African myth. This will include seeking out storytellers and asking elders to put their old tales on record; it's not a million miles away from the work carried out back in the day by the great folklorists Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm!

Sometimes myth appears at home, in our books, and cartoons and in the stories we tell each other, and sometimes we find it in schools as part of our formal learning. At Bar-Ilan University, in Israel, Dr Lisa Maurice and a team of scholars will be examining the place that mythology has in school curriculums around the world. UK curriculums will be researched and represented by none other than Dr Arlene Holmes-Henderson, a researcher with specialism in classics in UK education and a friend to Panoply who many of you will know from her sterling work in UK schools through Classics in Communities.

Above, Dr Elizabeth Hale.

If all of this is starting to seem like a lot, you'll be glad to hear that Dr Elizabeth Hale and Associate Professor Marguerite Johnson of University of New England in Australia will be creating Children's Literature and Classical Antiquity: A Guide. Elizabeth, a Senior Lecturer in English and Writing, specialising in children's literature, will lead us through the complex web of myths told, retold, and told again.

Above, Some of the books in the Our Mythical Childhood Survey.

Perhaps you're now remembering the books that had your favourite myths in when you were young. Perhaps you're thinking of a small person in your life who might enjoy a bit more myth. Or perhaps you're feeling curious about the many ways your favourite myth might have been told differently by different authors. If that's the case, start looking forward to the project database: Our Mythical Childhood Survey. It will host summaries of items from children's culture from all over the world (especially children's literature), including details on how each work has represented myths and mythical themes. Many scholars (including me) are contributing to the database, and it's already shaping up to be tremendous. Above and below here you can see some of the books I'm working on.

Above, More books from the Our Mythical Childhood Survey.

Later on this week we'll be talking at An Introduction to Our Mythical Childhood, at the University of Roehampton. We're delighted that people from a wide range of disciplines will be joining us to hear about the project. If you can't make it, watch this space (and Twitter: @SonyaNevin; @OMChildhood ) for Our Mythical Childhood news and updates. Tweet to tell us what your favourite myth book is!

All of this work is made possible by the European Research Council. Long may they keep up the good work :)

EDIT: Thanks to everyone who came to the Introduction to Our Mythical Childhood, making super, and truly inter-disciplinary event. A couple of photos:

Above, Team Roehampton l-r, Dr Katerina Volioti (researching representations of the gods in Greek children's literature), Dr Susan Deacy, and Dr Sonya Nevin.

Above, Team Roehampton, the Panoply wing: Steve Simons and Sonya Nevin.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Upcoming Public Events

There are three fun and interesting public events lined-up for next month, 2 for adults, 1 for children, so, if you're in the UK, come and say hello and enjoy. The first is a book launch, the second a schools' fair, and the third a party at the Pitt Rivers Museum. I'm also giving you advance notice of a super-cool event that will be taking place at the University of Roehampton in March. If you like the sound of any of that, read on....

1) Monday 6th Feb. Launch of Military Leaders and Sacred Space in Classical Greek Warfare.
This book launch will be celebrating the publication of Military Leaders and Sacred Space in Classical Greek Warfare, aka my new book :) (available on the IB Tauris website). The launch will feature an introduction by Prof Hans van Wees of University College London and an opportunity for some ancient history chat over a drink. Copies of the book will be on sale at a discounted price. This event will take place at the University of Roehampton (West London) on Monday 6th Feb, 6-8pm in the Howard Building (room 001). This is a free event, but please book via Eventbrite so we know how many people to expect. All very welcome. You can also find a discussion of Military Leaders below in our previous post.

2) Tuesday 7th Feb. The Iris Project's Festival of Ancient and Modern Science.
The Panoply Vase Animation Project will be amongst a fabulous selection of stalls and talks at the Iris Project's Festival of Ancient and Modern Science. We'll be showing our animations, chatting about them and our new project, and hosting a range of drawing and colouring activities. Bring your nippers to hear more about ancient vases, Greek myth, and ancient and modern science. The festival will also feature Professor Helen King talking about Hippocratic medicine, a QandA with IVF pioneer Professor Robert Winston, and a talk by Professor Anthony Grayling on the Pre-Socratic philosophers. This event is on from 3-7pm at Cheney School in Oxfordshire. It's free. Drop-in, no need to book unless you plan to bring a group. For more information, visit the Iris Project's website. This video might whet your appetite:

3) Saturday 11th Feb. Out in Oxford: Party at the Pitt.
On Saturday 11th February, from 7-10pm, there will be special exhibitions, short talks, and interactive activities led by community groups, curators, performers and artists at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Party at the Pitt is on to celebrate the launch of the Out in Oxford: Cross-Collections Trail, a trail that connects the University of Oxford's museums, highlighting and exploring artefacts connected to LGBTQ history and culture. You can download the Out In Oxford trail, written by LGBTQ volunteers and allies, at I'll be there, giving a short talk about The Symposium - Panoply's 2016 animation created for Oxford Uni's Classics in Communities project. Party at the Pitt is a free event for anyone over 16. Tickets are available via Eventbrite. Hope to see you there!

Museum types interested in introducing more LGBTQ-friendly material into their museums will enjoy this short talk by the Out in Oxford trail's curator, Beth Asbury:

4) Thursday 16th March. Our Mythical Childhood - An Introduction.
And finally, a head's up about an event in March – an introduction to the Roehampton wing of 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. I'll be talking about the role that Steve and I have in this project – making a set of new vase animations on mythical themes and a documentary about vases, myth, and animation. There will also be presentations from Dr Susan Deacy on her work on classical myth in the autistic classroom and from Dr Katerina Volioti on gods and other mythical creatures in literature for young children. Last but not least, you'll hear about the survey of classical mythology in children's culture which is being collected by scholars around the world. This is a fantastic new project and this is the first chance to hear how it's unfolding and how it might be of use to you in your endeavours. This event will be of particular interest to classicists and children's literature experts, but all are very welcome. It will be on on the 16th March, 5.00-6.30pm in the University of Roehampton's beautiful Adam Room in Grove House. Booking details will be released closer to the time.

Hope to see you at one of these events. We'll be back soon with more news on our developing animations.