Tuesday, 20 February 2018

30 Years Black Athena, 30 Years Black History Month, 3 Martins, a goddess and a discipline

Black Athena – 30 Years On

2017 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Martin Bernal’s controversial and divisive Black Athena, a challenge to what he saw a white Eurocentric view of the origins of Greek civilization. For Black History Month, along with two of my colleagues in Humanities at Roehampton, R. David Muir and Tony Keen, I took part in a session reassessing the legacy of Black Athena. We sought to explore why it mattered then and why it matters now, and what’s changed; how Classicists reacted at the time, and how the growth of reception studies has modified that; and how Black Athena can help students from diverse backgrounds think about the ancient world differently and find their own identity in relation to Ancient Greece. We hoped that, by exploring the text through the lens of Black History, we could foster a fresh and nuanced approach to the work, and explore how despite, or perhaps because of, its divisiveness, it may currently be more important than it ever was. The event was for the local branch of the Classical Association. The event was filmed - and here's my contribution:

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.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Is there a place for Black Athena in the classical classroom?

I have just written up my notes from a paper I delivered last year at Revolutions and Classics, a conference held at UCL in June 2016. It will be published soon in CUCD Bulletin along with other pedagogic papers delivered at the conference. Here's a preview, though I should stress that the final version might change a bit as it goes through the editing process. I'll put out a notification when the final version is out, hopefully within the next couple of months.

Among the issues explored at the Revolutions and Classics, where I presented the paper that has grown into this piece, was just how far the discipline of Classics has been changed by the development of Classical Reception Studies.[1] Indeed, as Sebastian Ronin, one of my fellow speakers, commented, the very notion of ‘Classics’ originates as reception.[2] In one of the pedagogic papers, also published in this current collection in CUCD Bulletin, Luke Richardson advocated a move from what Classics means to what Classics is for. He asked how far the emergence of Classical Reception Studies has impacted on classical research and on how Classics is taught. He asked whether Classical Reception managed to revolutionise Classics – and, if so, where this revolution succeeded or failed. In this article, I shall work through these issues in relation to Black Athena and the role it has played in my teaching.

I do this at a time when a discussion of this particular topic is especially germane for several reasons. Martin Bernal claimed in 2001 that Black Athena has forced classicists…to make choice on general issues and take “political” positions for or against the status quo.’[3] Here I explore Bernal’s claim in light of a session that forms part of a module I teach at the University of Roehampton – at a time when students’ perceptions of Classics as an elitist or inclusive discipline appear to be on the move. Certainly, they are on the move at Roehampton and from the evidence presented by colleagues, including at the Revolutions and Classics conference at UCL, how Roehampton students are perceiving their degree subject has echoes in other institutions as well. Secondly, Professor Bernal died several years ago, and the death of an influential author will typically generate reflections on their career and impact.[4] In Bernal’s case, this process of looking back had begun before his death, with the 2008 Conference at Warwick that gave rise to the edited collection African Athena which included reflections by Bernal on where he stood in relation to Classics.[5] Thirdly, 2017 – the date of this written-up version of my paper from the UCL conference – is the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Black Athena.[6] There is something about anniversaries that prompts a reflection in light of the intervening years. During anniversaries, we are prompted not just to look back, but also to look ahead to the future. So, writing in 2017, I would like to ask not just how far Black Athena has changed Classics, but also at whether it might have a place in future Classics teaching.

I shall start with some background information as to how and why I began teaching a session on Black Athena. I have twice taught this session as part of a third-year undergraduate module called Athena the Trickster. The module is about Athena, but it also uses Athena as a vehicle for thinking about issues relevant to the study of Classics, including how the reception of Athena has shaped – and constrained – how the ancient deity is understood. For example, one of the sessions takes place in the Ruskin Room at Whitelands College at the University of Roehampton. This room houses a collection of books which Ruskin, a great benefactor of Whitelands, gave to the College, including several of his working copies of The Queen of the Air, a study of Athena which he updated regularly from the 1860s onwards. Here, Ruskin presents a vision of the goddess as an exemplar of everything that author regarded as wholesome about British culture, civilisation broadly and women in particular, especially young girls. The book is steeped in Ruskin’s own version of Victorian thinking. But it also exemplifies a trend in the perception of Athena that persisted into the twentieth century and then into the twenty-first: that the goddess is an exemplar of cultural and civilised values and of a kind of non-threatening, big-sister femininity.

I am going to focus here in particular on my first experience teaching the session on Black Athena in 2014/15, including on how the session on Ruskin’s vision Athena complemented it. As the module was timetable for the autumn term, I was able to respond to my Head of Department’s call for sessions tied in with Black History Month, and I opened the session to students and staff from across the Department of Humanities (Humanities at Roehampton encompasses Classical Civilisation, History, Philosophy, Ministerial Theology, and Theology and Religious Studies). This invitation led to the presence of two welcome visitors, one a PhD student working on Greek tragedy, the other a lecturer in Ministerial Theology, David Muir, who, I learned during the session, had taught Black Athena in the past from a Black Studies perspective.

At the session, I considered first how Bernal received Athena. Secondly, I posed the question of whether he was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in his reception of the goddess – and then explored what it means to regard a particular act of reception as either right or wrong. Thirdly, moving beyond the question of the rightness or wrongness of Bernal’s vision of Athena, I considered how Black Athena is played out in his work. In this section of the class, I considered how far Athena, as received by Bernal, stands for elitism in Western Civilisation in general and in Classics in particular. I examined how, as for Ruskin, there is such a level of personal engagement with the goddess that Athena can also stand for Bernal himself, as is expressed more strikingly in Black Athena Writes Back, the title of Bernal’s volume responding to those who critiqued his work in the volume Black Athena Revisited.[7] The ‘Black Athena’ that is doing the writing back is Bernal, who has appropriated the goddess as his own image. The title Black Athena had a ‘high voltage charge’ as Molly Levine noted in 1989.[8] I now asked what kind of charge is created by a title that positions the author himself as Black Athena.

I concluded the session with some questions for discussion prompted by our exploration of Black Athena, namely: ‘what is the purpose of Classics?’, ‘who owns the classical world?’, and ‘who owns Athena?’. In the discussion that followed, the students began to reflect on their own relationship with Classics, including as an elitist subject. This same group of students had been surveyed in their first year on their experiences studying Classics. What came out there was a sense of Classics as elitist. For example, on student defined the subject as ‘A subject that was designed for rich, white, men’. But what also came out was a sense that nothing can really be done about this and some students reported feeling content to be part of a select group of those who had managed to gain the opportunity to study the subject. However, the response of some of the students to studying Athena – set out in the reflective reports that formed part of the assessment for the module – suggested a new level of reflectiveness about the Classics and what it means to study it. One student commented about the module as a whole: Week by week this module broke all the boundaries on the way, we as students, saw Athena and this module questioned issues I had never thought to question before.’ Another, also thinking back on the module as a whole, wrote: Every week I have thoroughly enjoyed being able to light-heartedly talk about our experiences throughout our lives and the many questions we have been asked about our reasoning behind wanting to study Classical Civilisation. Another reflected on a turn the discussion took I class concerning how students respond to the commonly asked question of why they are studying Classics: It was interesting to hear how many of my classmates had been questioned about their choice of study and I believe this helped us to bond as a class, we were able to share different stories and the colourful answers we have stored away for the next person to ask us on our choice of subject.

On our discussion of Black Athena in particular, one student wrote that the discussion of Bernal hadrevolutionised this aspect of my perception of Athena.’ Another student was prompted to reflect about their own identity and background as follows:

A further intriguing analysis was that Bernal felt the criticism directed
at him was simply elitist…Classics has also built up a stereotype in the minds of many. That only the white, privately-educated students study it etc. To a certain extent I could be accused of fitting into those preconceived ideas…However Classics is not an elite subject, due to its large wide-ranging appeal.

I shall end this sample of student reflections with this one, on the potential for Classics as an inclusive subject:

From books to films to television series and so on, Classics subsequently has been able to reach a more diverse audience than ever before. Perhaps this has enabled people who might necessarily not have considered studying Classics to step out of their comfort zone and study it. Overall in conclusion it is perhaps the built-up pseudo stereotype itself which has enabled Classics to be regarded as an elite subject of study when in reality it is not.

My colleague Dr Muir responded as follows in an evaluation of the session:

An inspirational and radically informed lecture on the birth of Athena, how Athena is received and represented in the ancient and modern world. In discussing controversial themes like these it is often easy to hear the (political) rhetoric above the (intellectual) content. In this regard, SD was keen to remind students what Bernal actually said: that he wanted to open new areas of research to those far better qualified” than himself and to “lessen European cultural arrogance”.

Dr Muir commented as follows on the discussion of Classics and elitism:

I thought this was very rich and informative, challenging some of the old assumptions about the “classics” and offering it up as a subject area for all – regardless of class and race. Overall, the lecture was an excellent interdisciplinary exercise in how to introduce students to a controversial issue in studying the “classics”; the content and style of teaching were inspirational. I left the lecture a little disappointed that such an intellectual feast was not made available to a much wider audience.

My experiences, along with these evaluations, suggest to me that Black Athena can occupy a useful place in the classical classroom as a means to explore the foundations and prevalence of Classics as an elitist discipline. Black Athena can also prompt students to reflect on what they bring to their studies whether consciously or unconsciously. In 2016, my colleague Fiona McHardy and I ran the same survey for incoming students that the students who took the Black Athena class had themselves taken in their first year. The results were very similar in one regard – again students commented on the elitism that they connected with their degree subject. But here was also a striking difference, with students also stating that it is the role of classicists to seek to combat such elitism.

Bernal played a part in revolutionising Classics, but not because his theories were accepted but because of how this work helped stimulate an increased awareness on the part of classicists concerning their discipline. Teaching Black Athena has a part to play in helping to build a more inclusive curriculum. To respond to the issues raised by Watson summarised above, the Classical Reception revolution hasn’t succeeded or failed – it is ongoing.

[1] Cf. the exploration of ‘democratic turn’ towards a more pluralised and inclusive discipline, especially due thanks to classical reception studies, in L. Harwick and S. Harrison ed. (2013), Classics in the Modern World: A Democratic Turn? Classical Presences series, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
[2] ‘Ancient Greek texts in the Age of Revolution: John Gillies’ Orations of Lysias and Isocrates 1778 and Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics 1797’, Revolutions and Classics, UCL, 22.06.16.
[3] Bernal, M. (2001), Black Athena writes back. Durham and London: Duke University Press: 52.
[4] See e.g. Blue, G. ‘Martin Bernal obituary,’ Guardian 21.06.13 https://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/jun/21/martin-bernal [accessed 24.04.17].
[5] Orrells, D., Bhambra, G.K. and Roynon, T. ed. (2011), African Athena: New Agendas, Classical Presences series, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
[6] Bernal, M. (1987). Black Athena. Volume 1: The fabrication of ancient Greece. London: Free Association Books. Subsequent volumes: Bernal, M. (1991) Black Athena. Volume 2: The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence. London, Free Association Books; Bernal, M. (2006). Black Athena: Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization; Volume 3: The Linguistic Evidence. London, Free Association Books.
[7] Bernal, M. (2001), Black Athena Writes Back: Martin Bernal Responds to His Critics, Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

[8] Levine, M. M. (1989), ‘The challenge of Black Athena to Classics today,’ Arethusa Special Issue: 7-16.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Making sense of some experiences at the British Museum

I’m writing this in the British Museum, ahead of a meeting with a colleague near Russell Square later this afternoon, sitting in the Members’ Room at a window table in the café overlooking the Great Court. It was a funny experience coming here, from Euston Square station down Gower Street then Malet Street. I’d decided not to make my regular visit to Jeremy Bentham at UCL because otherwise doing this might turn into a pilgrimage, but I couldn’t have in any case as access was being controlled to the University forecourt. Then I got to Senate House to hear the fire alarm and see the building evacuated. I queued to get into the BM and then headed for the Greek and Roman Architecture room which was open today – it sometimes isn’t. And as I’ve found previously it’s had to put the experience of visiting the room into words. It’s neglected – most bibliography on the explanatory cards is from the late 19th century, when the text was written
I suppose. The most up-to-date reading item that I saw was from 1970. The captions are faded, the artefacts are assembled as educational pieces – though if someone went in now wanting to learn about architectural styles they wouldn’t be able to read the general information board on the Ionic type as this has entirely faded away. This is all in contrast to the bright white of the Great Court I’m looking down over.  But down in the Architecture gallery, it’s possible to encounter ancient religious sites close at hand though the artefacts feel sanitised by being lumped together. But I think it would be possible to do what one could not at an ancient site, or in the Parthenon Gallery, namely to have a direct encounter with the Erechtheion or the temple of Athena Nike, say, by reaching out and touching one of its stones.

I spent some time looking at a coffer, originally part of the ceiling of the north porch of the Erechtheion. Then I looked particularly at a pedestal, probably for a bronze statue in the precinct of the Athena Polias temple at Priene, especially at its palmettes. It’s been at the Museum at least since 1870 because that date appears in the accession number (1870.3.30.111). The pedestal was probably for a bronze statue according to the information label. I wonder who the statue was of.

I think that I shall bring students here next term in a session for my Athena module. We could start here with the Priene temple and the various bits of the Erechtheion and Nike temples. We could then walk upstairs, through Halikarnassos, past the Athena amphora in one of the cases, past the Caraytid, to end up in the Parthenon Gallery – this seems a more suitable, quieter and reflective route to the Parthenon than what might be a more usual, more well-travelled one which takes the visitor through the Great Court,then Assyria and Egypt. If this session comes off, I'll blog on it.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Age of Athena - a follow up event to Athena: Sharing New Research

A few months ago this blog, which was initially started to report on aspects of the progress of a book I'm writing, was taken over by something highly relevant to that book - a conference I was organising at Roehampton on Athena. Since then, I've been discussing several possible follow-up events and activities, even including a tour of Athena-related sites throughout Europe.


One thing that emerged in the planning of the event was that two of the booklet contributors, Olivia Huntingdon-Stuart ("The Age of Athena") and Houman Sadri ("Synthesising male and female aspects of war in Azzarello and Chiang's Wonder Woman"), were engaging in Athena-related research with lots of interfaces - and from different disciplinary starting-points. Olivia is now planning a follow-up event, titled *The Age of Athena* which will explore gender norms and non-binary concepts via the vehicle of Athena.

Olivia is co-ordinating a meeting to discuss this event next month at Roehampton, on ***21 October***, in the Convent Parlour of Digby Stuart College. If anyone would like to join us, let me know. Or - if anyone would like to suggest possible discussion ideas (including those based away from London...), do get in contact. I'm aware that a trip to SE London in October might simply not be do-able for lots of people... Here’s the programme:

11.00: meet for coffee in Hive Café, Digby Stuart College

11.30-12.45: Introduction of scope of event; participants set out research and other relevant interests leading into informal presentations from Olivia Huntingdon-Stuart and Houman Sadri

12.45-1.45: Break for Lunch (the Hive Café and Digby Diner serve a range of moderately-priced options)

1.45-3.00: Further informal presentations including by Tony Keen. Other contributions welcome! Presentations to lead into discussion of where to go next - conference? activism?

3.00 onwards - wind down with coffee

Possible topics for this initial event and for future exploration are:

Gender norms and non-binary concepts in:
- Classical myth and culture (e.g. gods, divine attributes, parthenogenesis.)
- Medieval, early modern, modern and contemporary cultures
- Pop culture (e.g. Wonder Woman, Xena, advertisements.)
- Literature and art (e.g. Romance Literature, Shakespeare.)
Religion: ancient and modern
Philosophy (e.g. gender and ontology, gendering Plato’s theories.)Thanks for reading this far – let me know if you’d like to join us on 21st - or if anything here chimes with your own interests.