Friday, 13 October 2017

What does Athena have in common with Dolly Parton?

What does Athena have in common with Dolly Parton? Several years ago I agreed to review the book, pictured here, for the Times Higher by the classical scholar Helen Morales. On receiving the book I realised it was about the author's pilgrimage to the home state of her idol, Dolly Parton and to other celebrity theme parks of Tennessee. At first I thought that I ought to let the Higher know that I might not be the most suitable person to review the book. Then I began to read it and came to a different conclusion - when I reached Morales' account of another visit she made while in Nashville, to the reconstructed Parthenon and to its full-scale colossal Athena Parthenos statue by Alan LeQuire. It was that same connection between an ancient deity and contemporary idol that I found myself making in class today.

The class was taught by a guest lecturer, Geoff Stone, himself an Athena scholar, who wrote a master's thesis on Athena, especially the Athena Parthenos in fact, in the early 1990s. In order to convey the impact that the original, huge, colourful statue by Pheidias would have had on ancient viewers, Geoff showed LeQuire's statue. And in support of his point, I mentioned the impact that the statue had on Morales.

In the book, Morales recounts how she was struck by the interplay between artificiality and authenticity in the sites she visited, where the borders between what is real and what is imaginary are never quite clear. For instance when she gets to Dollywood, a high point of her trip, she talks about how the workers play “versions of themselves.” She finds Parton’s childhood home to be a duplicate of the real thing, frozen in time. On the other hand, the coat of many colours, made by Parton’s mother and immortalised in song, is the genuine article.

On a few occasions, Morales experienced entirely unexpected
moments of revelation. And this is where Athena comes in. The most unexpected of all was when she visited the Nashville Parthenon. This is a highlight for many tourists but it was not in her original itinerary. She tells how she added it for the sake of her fellow travellers, her daughter and husband - so that her daughter, named Athena, could visit her namesake and so that Tony could visit one tourist location in Tennessee with “no twanging.” At first, when entering the Parthenon, Morales was unenthusiastic. She recalls how she saw it through the lens of Plato and his distrust for “poor copies.” Then she entered the inner sanctum, found herself in the presence of the colossal statue of the goddess, and experienced what the original “ruin overrun with tourists” cannot. She says that: “the hairs on the back of my neck stood up; I almost wet myself; I was rooted to the spot and stood there gap-mouthed.”

Thus Morales found herself - totally unexpectedly - glimpsing something that might be comparable to the experience of ancient viewers of the Athena Parthenos, an epiphany, where normal experiences of time and space are put on hold. I did indeed review the book: here.


Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Receiving and changing the Gorgon... moving further towards a Bright-Eyed Athena chapter

As I said in my previous posting of earlier this week, I'll be putting out blog postings between now and December to chart - and, well, enable - the progress from conference paper to book chapter of 'Bright-eyed Athena and her fiery-eyed monster.' The paper, which exists very much in note form at present, was delivered at a conference that formed part of the project illustrated to the left: Chasing Mythical Beasts... The Reception of Creatures from Graeco-Roman Mythology in Children's and Young Adults' Culture as a Transformation Marker. In this posting I'll make some initial comments about the conference and what my paper was seeking to achieve.

My paper was responding to the goal of the event as set out in the conference booklet, namely to explore how it is that creatures 'change' on being 'incorporated into the evolving youth culture.' So: my paper explored a particular moment in the evolution of a specific creature - and linked creatures - at a specific moment of youth culture. The paper looked at how Richard Woff's treatment of the Gorgon - like any reception - changes the Gorgon. But it also looked at how the book potentially resists making such a change. On the one hand, Woff retells - and so changes - the story of the Gorgon, weaving it in into other stories, held together by various threads - one of which is the 'Bright-Eyed Goddess.' On the other hand, the book seeks to set up a direct channel to the classical past via the illustrations in the book, of artefacts from ancient Greece, most of which are on show at the British Museum - to enable each visitor, young or otherwise, to form their own relationship with antiquity.

Thus the book is not just a creative reworking of classical mythology - it also introduces classical artefacts. In this regard it serves a comparable purpose to other books by Richard Woff - I'll discuss these in a subsequent posting - and it complements opportunities within the Museum itself to experience ancient artefacts. This is a museum that offers particular opportunities for children to make a journey through classical culture, including through hiring an ancient Greek backpack. On doing this, a young visitor can put on a peplos, search out selected artefacts located in various parts of the Museum and engage in a variety of activities appropriate to the artefacts in question - for instance by playing knucklebones in the Daily Life Gallery (Rm 69) beside a vase showing ancient Greek children at play. As the Museum's website puts it, children can: 'Dress up as an ancient Greek, try out children’s games, and sniff the bottles and guess the smell!' It's 'suitable for ages 5-9' but, accompanying a child a while back who fell within this age range, I found myself responding in fresh ways to the artefacts we encountered, and at the galleries in question, including the Parthenon Gallery, which I thought I knew pretty well.

I am going to break off for now - and in subsequent postings, I shall start teasing out the reception strands in the book - including how it retells stories of Gorgons et al and how it presents British Museum objects.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Bright-Eyed Athena... and her fiery-eyed monster

Over the next few months I'll be involved in a few Athena-related activities. These include teaching a final year undergraduate module on and around the goddess at Roehampton, preparing a case to a publisher for an Athena handbook, and writing an Athena-themed chapter for a book on classics and children's literature. For this book, a collection of academics, both in classics and children's literature, go Chasing Mythical Beasts. This book represents the next step in a journey begun in Warsaw in May 2016 at a conference on the same theme. At the conference, I took as my beast the Gorgon - the most 'other' of beasts, and whose bestiality operates in several ways - between animal and human, between beast and monster, and between different categories of animals as well, with its boar tusks and snake hairs. I also explored this beast's enemy, and alter ego: Athena. It was a paper on the 'fiery-eyed' monster; it was also about the 'Bright-Eyed' goddess, a deity with more monster associations than any other.

The paper focused on the book illustrated here - a book I saw and bought at the British Museum shop back in 1999 when it was not long out. When I met the author, Richard Woff, then a Head of Education at the Museum, a few years later, I was sad to learn that the book was likely not to stay in print. It is now out of print, but I hope that this situation will one day change. The book offers a gateway both into the richness and complexity of Greek mythology, with its varied deities, heroes and beasts. It introduces the reader to artefacts representing these figures, most of which are held in the British Museum. Indeed, one day I plan to make a tour of the Museum with this book as a guide. The chapter I am writing seeks to explore how this book presents the goddess and the monster - and how these figures are interwoven with various others. I shall also compare the Athena and Gorgon represented here with other uses of both in works for children. I shall also consider the place of Bright-Eyed Athena in relation to the other books for children - there are many! - authored by Richard Woff. And in order to seek to explain what makes the Gorgon so appealing - and what makes the monster-side of Athena so intriguing, I shall use the Monster Theory developed by Cohen to frame my study.

My plan is to chart my progress from notes from a conference paper to completed book chapter on this blog between now and the deadline which is just a few months away - in late December 2017.