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:

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