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 Olympians – Andromeda!
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.
Usborne's Sticker Greek Myths, fair-skinned and red headed.
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.
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.
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.
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:
British Museum 1843,1103.24 © The Trustees of the British Museum.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.