Blog for the international research project "Our Mythical Childhood… The Reception of Classical Antiquity in Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to Regional and Global Challenges", financed by the ERC Consolidator Grant led by Prof. Katarzyna Marciniak, Faculty of "Artes Liberales" of the University of Warsaw. Team members: Prof. Susan Deacy and Steve K. Simons, University of Roehampton; Prof. Elizabeth Hale and Dr Miriam Riverlea, University of New England; Prof. Lisa Maurice and Dr Ayelet Peer, Bar-Ilan University; Prof. Daniel A. Nkemleke, Dr Divine Che Neba and Dr Eleanor A. Dasi, University of Yaoundé I; Dr Elżbieta Olechowska, Dr Hanna Paulouskaya, Dr Sonya Nevin, Dott. Edoardo Pecchini, Marta Pszczolińska, Angelina Gerus and the Project Officers: Magdalena Andersen, Maria Makarewicz, and Olga Strycharczyk from the Faculty of "Artes Liberales" UW.
“Nić Ariadny: Mity i labirynty” (“Ariadne’s Thread: Myths and Labyrinths”) by Jan Bajtlikis a Polish children’s book published by Wydawnictwo Dwie Siostry (specialising in artistic projects) in October 2018.
“Nić Ariadny” is a big format book, similar to the “Mapy” (“Maps”, 2012) by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielińscy or “Pszczoły” (“The Book of Bees”, 2014) and “Drzewa” (“The Book of Trees”, 2018) by Piotr Socha and Wojciech Grajkowski (also published by Wydawnictwo Dwie Siostry). In “Nić Ariadny” two great ideas meet: one is a presentation of the classical world, both mythical and historical, in an attractive graphic form. The other is a popular form of activity (not only in children’s books) in which one must draw the way through a maze.
Each two-page spread in the first part of the book is dedicated to another topic from ancient Greek mythology or history: the Twelve Labours of Heracles, the Labyrinth of Crete, the Palace of Knossos, ancient beasts, Argonauts’ quest for the Golden Fleece, Trojan War, Odysseus’ journeys, the Acropolis of Athens, and Greek theatre, among others. The latter part includes some brief encyclopaedia-like entries explaining the most important characters, terms, and events.
Also Wydawnictwo Dwie Siostry published – as a gadget – a newspaper-like promotional publication, entitled “Greckie Fakty” (“Greek Facts”). The name and graphic form is a clear reference to the Polish tabloid “Fakt” (similar to British “The Sun” and German “Bild”); the “articles” are short versions of “Nić Ariadny” – they invite us in an attractive and funny way to read the book: the headlines of the “news” are, for example, the following: “Is Tartarus Appropriate for Children? Uranus Doesn’t Comment”; “No Progress in Sisyphus’ Work”; “Thrilling News from Crete: He Entered the Labyrinth – and Survived!”.
“Nić Ariadny” is not only an activity-book, but it also contains many facts about ancient Greece usually absent in children’s literature, such as information about the dance (γερανός, geranos) linked with Theseus or the image of Medusa as a flying creature with monstrous face (as she was presented on some Greek vases). It is worth mentioning that Jan Bajtlik used the help of a historian of Antiquity Prof. Marek Węcowski from the Department of Ancient History of the Institute of History, University of Warsaw.
Sometimes while looking for the examples of reception in children’s culture I tend to look too far away from the pretty obvious cases. My latest discovery was made by accident when I was googling ‘Cerberus Cartoon’. This discovery have opened the door not necessarily to Hades, but certainly to the world full of Antiquity: American cartoon series brimming with ancient concepts, heroes, beasts… In the next few posts I would like to present some of those examples, in my opinion worth recommendation: firstly, for wonderful examples of reception – as such, and as a lot of fun, according to the intention of the creators.
First example would be It’s All Greek to Scooby directed by Russell Calabrese, from the TV-series What’s New Scooby-Doo? (2002–2006). In this episode Mystery Inc. goes to Greece just for vacation, but unfortunately – the work follows them. As usual they have to solve a case of a disguised villain. This time it is the mythical centaur harassing an archaeologist who looks for the lost city of Atlantis. To defeat the monster, the members of Mystery Inc. dress up as mythical beasts: Minotaur, Medusa, hydra, Cyclops and – Cerberus. The concept of defeating a mythical monster, in a way – by its own weapon (fighting “monster with monster”), reminds me of the strategy of facing your own fears by making them less scary, making fun of them, deconstructing them, and uncovering their true nature. At the end, Cerberus is just a human in a costume. But it does not mean that Atlantis is not real.
If you walk up to any child or teen anywhere in the United States and ask them to tell you the story of the Odyssey, they will all tell the exact same story. A hero named Odysseus goes on a long sea voyage. Along the way, he encounters monsters, usually a man-eating Cyclops and a group of fishtailed sirens, and he defeats them. Odysseus might also meet a witch who falls in love with him and tries to keep him on her island. In the end, he arrives home and is reunited with his wife.
While this story initially seems like a reasonable version of the Odysseus myth, on closer inspection it is not the story preserved in Homer’s Odyssey. At best, it represents about four books (9–12) out of the twenty-four books of Homer’s epic. The Odysseus in the US story is alone on his voyage and almost never has children or allies waiting for his return. His home only appears as a goal, whereas in Homer’s epic half of the narrative actually takes place on Ithaca. The US version of the Odyssey is not Homer’s Odyssey; it is a transformed version of the classical myth that is still an active part of American oral culture.
I am the primary investigator on a research study called the Living Odyssey Project: Greek Myth in 21st Century Folklore that uses anthropological data gathering techniques to quantify and describe modern transformed myths. I have chosen to use Odysseus’ nostos as a case study because its features are easily identifiable. In the project’s first stage, I am collecting quantitative data through survey to describe the myth’s modern North American form. The project surveys children between the ages of ten and thirteen. American children of this age have a solid grounding in their own oral culture, but have usually not read or studied Homer’s Odyssey. Therefore, any aspects of the myth that they recognize will be familiar from their own local tradition, not the ancient text.
Participating children are asked to identify any familiar creatures, characters, and gods from the Odysseus story as it can be constructed from ancient sources. The survey was developed in conjunction with two cultural anthropologists, Carolyn Behrman and Isa Rodriguez-Soto of University of Akron, and beta-tested with a group of 42 children between the ages of ten and eleven. In fall of 2017, a team of 17 undergraduates from the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, and I conducted a wide study of the school population in Champaign and Urbana, IL.
So far, the results of the survey match my hypothesis. Around 20% of the children surveyed recognize most of the creatures mentioned in Odyssey books 9–12, with the exception of the Laestrygonians, Scylla, and Charybidis. That number increases to 48% for the sirens, and 75% for the Cyclops. However, only 29% of children surveyed recognized the name Polyphemus. It is possible that participants may recognize descriptions or images of Scylla and Charybidis. The two appear in children’s television shows produced in North America, but are not named.
Nearly all of the gods who appear in Homer’s epic were familiar to participants, with the exception of Eos and the sea goddess Leucothea. However, since the gods are a major part of many myths, participants might know them from multiple contexts, not just the Odysseus myth. At least 20% of survey participants were familiar with the minor goddesses/witches Calypso and Circe, as well as the lotus-eaters. The only other characters to achieve that level of recognition were Odysseus himself, Penelope, and Helen. A cursory survey of American children’s media suggests that Helen is present in today’s oral and popular culture as an extension of her long-time role as the personification of beauty, but the matter needs further study.
At this stage of the survey, it is impossible to draw many firm conclusions about the transmission of the myth, but some correlations do emerge. All of the children who knew the name Polyphemus had also read the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, or seen the movie versions of the first two books. The type of school that the children attended did not affect their level of familiarity with the myth, although their age did. Older children showed a greater familiarity with all aspects of the myth related to the wanderings of Odysseus, although they did not show any greater knowledge of the other portions of the myth present in Homer’s epic.
Finally, I would like to conclude with a request for help. I have complied a list of English juvenile and young adult novels that are inspired by Greek mythology that I am offering to participants as an incentive to take the survey. I would be happy to provide the list to anyone who is interested and would be grateful if you would email me any titles that I may have omitted. My email address is email@example.com.
Prepared by Krishni Burns (University of Illinois Chicago)