Dr. Katerina Volioti on the Visual Language of (Hesiod’s) Creation in Children’s Books

For the first time on Our Mythical Childhood Blog – a report by Dr. Katerina Volioti, University of Roehampton, from her research and dissemination venture. Katerina was educated at the Universities of Cambridge (BA in Archaeology & Anthropology), Oxford (MSc in Management), Humboldt (MA in Politics), and Reading (PhD in Classics), and she is a passionate educator.  

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Zeus with thunderbolt. Sketch drawing of early fifth-century BCE statuette © Katerina Volioti

On Thursday 14 December, 2017, I travelled to Colchester, to the campus of the University of Essex to lead a ninety-minute session at the Centre for Myth Studies. These events form part of the Myth Reading Group, and they are organised by Dr. Pietra Palazzolo. My session was entitled The Visual Language of (Hesiod’s) Creation in Children’s Books, and it had two aims: firstly, to explore the place of the Theogony in ancient and modern culture; and secondly, to consider whether and how we can visualise creation myths with our mind’s eye. Both aims stem from my research for the international project Our Mythical Childhood, for which I investigate the educational and anthropological meaning of illustrations in books for preliterate children, aged four and above. Mythology’s role in education – in schools, universities, and museums – was also covered at the workshop Mythology & Education: History and Practice that I co-organised at Cambridge on 27 October 2017.

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Our Mythical Childhood is a five-year ERC-funded project led by Professor Katarzyna Marciniak, Faculty of “Artes Liberales,” University of Warsaw. Well into the second year of this project, there is excellent headway with writing entries on children’s literature in an open-access database, international conferences and workshops, and with specific endeavours. The latter include a multi-authored volume on mythology and national curricula by Dr. Lisa Maurice, five animations based on the Greek vases from the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw and prepared by Dr. Sonya Nevin and Steve Simons from the Panoply Vase Animation Project, Dr. Susan Deacy’s study on Autism and Classical Mythology, Dr. Elizabeth Hale’s Guide to children’s books inspired by Classical Antiquity, Dr. Elżbieta Olechowska’s volume on the reception of the Classics in recent TV series, Dr. Hanna Paulouskaya’s study on the use of mythology in Soviet cartoons, and two PhD dissertations by Dorota Bazylczyk and Anna Mik, with Dr. Karolina Kulpa’s involvement in the operation of the database.

 

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Our Mythical Childhood Team (photo from the international conference “Our Mythical Hope in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture… The (In)efficacy of Ancient Myths in Overcoming the Hardships of Life” at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales” UW)

 

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Prior to the discussion session at the University of Essex, Dr. Palazzolo distributed three items to readers: an academic article about mythography in Antiquity (Ken Dowden, “Telling the Mythology: From Hesiod to the Fifth Century,” in Ken Dowden and Niall Livingstone, eds., A Companion to Greek Mythology, Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2014, 47–72); an extract from an illustrated book that is available online (Philippos Mandilaras, The Twelve Gods of Olympus, illustrated by Natalia Kapatsoulia, trans. by Alison Falkonakis, Athens: Papadopoulos Publishing, 2016); and my three-page handout with questions for discussion.

Natalia Kapatsoulia is a full time illustrator of children’s books, and author of one picture book about the bond between a child and a mother (Η μαμά πετάει [Mom wants to fly], Athens: Diaplasi, 2016). Kapatsoulia has illustrated dozens of books by Philippos Mandilaras, and their latest mythology book is about Aphrodite (Αφροδίτη, η θεά της ομορφιάς [Aphrodite, goddess of beauty], Athens: Papadopoulos Publishing, 2017). Earlier in her career, Kapatsoulia illustrated books by Eugenios Trivizas, the best-known Greek author of children’s and young adults’ literature with translations in many languages. Trivizas’ books include The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig (illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, London: Heinemann Young Books, 1993). Mandilaras’ and Kapatsoulia’s The Twelve Gods of Olympus is an extremely popular book and it has, so far, been translated also into French, German, Russian, and Spanish. This book makes mythology accessible to a wide and international audience, and, as with Trivizas’ work, opens up Greek children’s literature to the world. We had an extremely lively discussion by learned members of the Reading Group as well as by postgraduate students. In particular, we debated on the following five main points. Firstly, we contested the value of a distinction between telling a story and telling history, as implied by Classical scholarship that places Hesiod in a pre-Herodotan tradition. Secondly, we agreed on the salience of visual imagery in understanding how mythology relates to History, Archaeology, and Classical Art, but also to western modernity. For the latter, we watched President Obama’s speech before the Parthenon in Athens in November 2016, and we thought about the symbolic terms the President used, such as ‘civilisation,’ ‘humanity,’ and ‘democracy.’ Thirdly, we considered how mythographers, including Akousilaos of Argos (ca. 500 BCE) and Apollodoros, The Library (perhaps 2nd century CE), filled ostensible gaps in a story by inserting details and variations to an existing myth. These insertions are comparable to young children’s tendency to conflate narratives and to create additional stories when hearing a myth. Fourthly, we discussed when and how children develop a sense of the sacred, and whether or not creation myths impact on children’s (religious) beliefs. Fifthly, we examined the illustrations of The Twelve Gods of Olympus, noting their magnificent colour contrasts, their fun elements, and their potential for allusions to popular characters from cartoons and the news, such as Disney’s mermaid for Gaia and Richard Branson (the founder of the Virgin Group) for Zeus. We made a passing reference to the influential book Gods of Management by business thinker Charles Handy, where Zeus represents a leadership style that is based on relations of trust.

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The cover of the book Gods of Management by Charles Handy [source]

At the end of the session, we returned to the argument of ‘seeing’ with the mind’s eye. The Theogony did not appear to pertain only to Classical scholarship, and to its ancient oral and mythographic traditions. Popular culture, news items, and myths from outside the Greek world were all powerful in shaping our expectations from the Theogony and from creation stories more generally. Somehow, the visual language of a creation story did not simply relate to the images within a given book, but also to images and ideas we carry in our heads, allowing each one of us to create and re-create more myths, perhaps akin to the actions of ancient mythographers and to the thinking of young children.

 

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Based on participants’ feedback, the discussion was stimulating and wide-ranging, and it brought to the fore different strands in studying mythology, such as Classics, children’s literature, and the relation between text and image. I am grateful for this opportunity to present at the University of Essex and to all participants for their extremely insightful comments. I hope we can have a follow-up session on myth, Classical art, and visual culture, all of which continue to intrigue and inspire my research and teaching at the University of Roehampton.

Katerina Volioti 

See more:

  • Centre for Myth Studies link
  • Myth Reading Group link
  • The Meeting with Dr. Katerina Volioti link

 

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