Last week, Anna Mik (‘Artes Liberales,’ University of Warsaw) and I had the pleasure of talking about Walt Disney’s 1951 adaptation with Daniel Lammin on his Ink and Paint podcast, which journeys through the classics of Disney Animation. Daniel is a fount of knowledge about all things Disney, and asked all sorts of questions to us about Alice–the Lewis Carroll original, and our ideas about it and the film.
Being mythically oriented, we talked a bit about the Our Mythical Childhood project and our findings there, and about our different interests in the symbolism and contexts of Alice: film and original story. We had a great time, and could happily have chatted for even longer (the podcast is a whopping 1 hour 37 minutes). Like Alice, we lost sense of time, following the white rabbit down the rabbit hole of meaning, nonsense, and exploration. . .
Karolina Kulpa is a linchpin of the Our Mythical Childhood project: it is she who keeps track of the Survey (currently standing at over 1100 entries), a formidable task. Karolina wrote her PhD on the reception of Cleopatra in popular culture, and is incredibly knowledgeable about how toys transmit ideas of the ancient world. I’m therefore delighted to present an extract from a paper she delivered at “Our Mythical History: Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to the Heritage of Ancient Greece and Rome,” a Conference held at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales,” May 22-26, 2019. The full paper will be published in a collection of the same name. –Elizabeth Hale
I was born under communism in Poland, but my childhood was in the 1990s, when my country was transformed and opened to the so-called “West.” Suddenly, we had greater availability of products, among them toys, almost impossible to achieve previously. In just a few years, almost unattainable items such as a Barbie doll or Lego sets, became ordinary products found in many children’s rooms. Polish youngsters joined millions of their peers in the world who became consumers of pop-culture products of children’s and youth culture, including the merchandise of the biggest franchises in the world.
It seems now that we live in times where pop culture is one of the most important sources of information about our past (but not necessarily the most reliable), as we can see from thousands of novels, films and animations. One element can be seen clearly: after the Digital Revolution, pop culture has reduced features of historic and mythological figures to easily identifiable, stereotyped characters. For decades, companies producing toys have outdone each other in their bid to attract children and young adults, an important segment of the market. History and historical figures have become products for sale. Manufacturers often refer in their products to Antiquity, especially the history and mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, sometimes also of Egypt. We can buy figurines, dolls, costumes and games, and thanks to them children have an opportunity to get into their favourite character and play recreating history or creating their own stories against an “ancient background”.
Curse of the Pharaohs
Take for example, the German toy manufacturer Playmobil’s line of History products titled “Romans and Egyptians.” These figures were presented in the animated short Curse of the Pharaohs, released in March 2017 by this company on You Tube, which associated with the story of Cleopatra VII and her relationship with Roman dictator, Julius Caesar.
The image of this Egyptian ruler is a perfect example of the process of transforming a historical figure into a pop culture icon. Popular culture has warped the image of the historic queen and reduced her to a symbol of beautiful, ambitious woman who seduced men and brought about their downfall. Playmobil History’s sets shows a combination of children’s and youth culture with history, not only by portraying Cleopatra and Julius Caesar in the form of plastic figures, but also by drawing the producer’s attention to the educational value for young audiences by adding additional information in the booklet Learn All about the Romans & Egyptians, which is available on their website . The nine sets from Playmobil History include: Caesar and Cleopatra (9169), Egyptian Troop with Ballista (5388), Egyptian Warrior with Camel (9167), Legionnaire with Ballista (5392), Roman Troop (9168), Roman Chariot (5391), Roman Warriors’ Ship (5390), Tomb Raiders’ Camp (9166) and Pharaoh’s Pyramid (5386).
The most interesting aspect of this series is the film’s plot, which is an alternative history of the meeting between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar with the purpose to unite Egypt with Rome, which unification will “come in peace”. Cleopatra’s brother, Ptolemaios (Ptolemy), is jealous, because she increased her popularity. That’s why he wants to unleash the Curse of the Pharaoh, hidden in one of the pyramids, and force his sister to start a war with Rome. The plot is very interesting, because it recreates the story of the meeting between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra and the relationships between Rome and Egypt during that time.
Curse of the Pharaoh resembles many other animations for children, with a simple plot about adventures and mystery to solve, and with a happy ending. It has didactic elements concerning the history of the 1st century BC, but most of all, the goal of this animation is to entertain. For that reason, the type of narration is adapted to children, the characters are divided into positive protagonists (the wise Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and two Roman soldiers) and villains (Ptolemy and the thieves employed by this pharaoh). Of course, we remember from ancient sources, that during this time, there were two civil wars: first, between Julius Caesar and the other Roman leader, Pompey the Great, second, between Cleopatra and her brother, co-ruler and husband, Ptolemy XIV. In the animation realised by Playmobil, we don’t find the scene of Pompey’s death ordered by Ptolemy’s Council; or the scene when Cleopatra meets Caesar having been secretly brought to the palace in Alexandria by her servants, or any moments from the Alexandrine War, for example the burning of the Library of Alexandria. Furthermore, buildings, like the pyramid full of traps, secret chambers, and magical objects, ships and outfits of all characters are a mixture of some historical facts and pop culture. People can watch this film and then buy the nine sets of figurines and accessories to reconstruct the story from animation or to create new stories.
The first set, Caesar and Cleopatra, includes three figurines of Julius Caesar, the queen Cleopatra and a servant with a long fan from blue feathers, and also a few accessories: a little golden table, a fruit bowl with an apple and a grape, and two glasses of wine. The collection includes also four sets, which present the Roman army and two sets of Egyptian warriors. The Roman legionnaires wear red tunics with silver breastplates, classical Roman helmets called galea, shields similar to scutum and, of course, sandals. We can also see their weapons: long or short swords, wood spears and knives. The officers wear caps and their helmets are decorated with plumes. The set with six legionnaires includes also elements allowing to create a shield wall formation cold tortoise, typical for the Roman army. In the set with chariot, the car has weaponized wheels; the set with a wheeled catapult includes a firing mechanism, which allows to shoot three bullets using rubber balls. A very similar mechanism is included in the next set, Roman Warriors’ Ship, but this time we have five arrows, two regular and three fire arrows. The galley with oars is the biggest Roman, it can float in a pool and be upgraded with motors produced by Playmobil. Below the deck, we have a small storage place to keep all stores, for example two baskets and one box with fruit, bread and carrots, glasses, cups, and two amphorae. A military character of this ship is marked by protecting shields, a small ballista on the deck and a ram on the bow. Please notice a characteristic inscription: SPQR: Senatus Populusque Romanus [The Roman Senate and People], there is a seal and a Roman military standard in this set and on the cart in the chariot’s set.
The two sets of the Egyptian army include three soldiers with a ballista on movable wheels and an archer riding a camel. His dromedary could be saddled up, among the accessories, we find reins, a military saddle, and a halter. The ballista works the same way as in the Roman set, but this time we have three arrows with a rubber ending shaped as flames. The soldiers have an olive skin, black hair and wear colorful clothes with collars styled as Egyptian and all of them have gold bracelets on their arms.
The last two sets from Roman and Egyptian series include a Tomb Raiders’ Camp and, a Pharaoh’s Pyramid, which is the biggest set connected to Egypt. The camp consists of a small oasis with one palm three and a well, two thieves, a scorpion, a few bushes, a horse, and a camel. The set presents a moment, when Egyptian thieves have just robbed ancient tombs and pyramids and are getting away with the treasures. The moment of robbery is presented in the last set, the Pharaoh’s Pyramid. This set includes a two-floor pyramid with a few traps, a gold sarcophagus in Anubis’ shape with a mummy, which is composed from bandages and a skeleton, the gold weapons and treasures, a few spiders and a scarab, a second skeleton and the most important, four canopic jars, which could release the curse. We also have three figurines of men, the third thief, an Egyptian soldier with a shield and a spire and a pharaoh. The figurine of the pharaoh is Ptolemy, Cleopatra’s brother and co-ruler, who is presented in an outfit styled as Egyptian (long white dress with colourful collar and belt), with elements typical for Egyptian man-rulers: nemes, a type of crown, with a Ureaus, a fake black beard and the symbols of power: a crook (heka) and a flail (nekhakha). Another pair of symbols could be used for the mummy.
As we can see, the series History: Romans and Egyptians by Playmobil is inspired by historical figures like Caesar, Cleopatra and Ptolemy and representations of historical Roman and Egyptian army, the Roman ship and the Egyptian pyramid. A scholarly analysis of these sets could be made from different points of view. In my opinion, that type of combination of historical facts from ancient sources and popular culture works is very important for reception studies, also in teaching ancient history and its reception. We can use the sets to recreate the scenes from the film, or to create new adventures of Romans in Ptolemaic Egypt under Cleopatra’s rule and, of course, transform the story and characters how we wish: the only limit is our imagination. The toys allow us to participate in missions, in which Roman soldiers rescue the jars with the curse to keep the peace between Egypt and Rome, or, in the jealous Ptolemy’s conspiracy with the thieves aimed at discrediting his wise sister. We can also recreate the moment of the feast in animation, which provides a happy ending of the adventure. Furthermore, a child can recreate his/her own alternative versions of history of Caesar and Cleopatra. With a bit of work, the sets give us also a possibility to show children some known facts about Cleopatra and Caesar, for example that they travelled on the Nile or how they first met. But there is nothing to stop us from using the figurines to enact the wedding of Cleopatra and Caesar (the servant could serve as a priest) or use the thieves as merchants who sail on a ship with their goods. Maybe it would help to answer the question why the story of the Roman leader and the Egyptian queen ended so tragically. We have so many options how to use the sets, play with Ancient history in the background and learn at least the basics about those times. Again, the only limit is our imagination.
In the humanities and social sciences, we have so many different ways of understanding our past and so many methods of research, especially when studying Antiquity. Each generation transforms the images of historical figures into their own versions, which sometimes leads to simplified and stereotypical representations in culture. The contemporary image of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar emerged from an amalgam (layers) of its historical vision and the image propagated by creators of culture in each period. The Playmobil series could be seen as presenting a next step in the process which made the images of Cleopatra and Caesar evolve from historical figures to icons of pop culture.
Since 1945, the Children’s Book Council of Australia has been promoting quality children’s literature in this country. It does so through activities, outreach, and through a venerable program of literary awards. These awards are celebrated every year in Children’s Book Week, and they’re an important event in the children’s literature calendar. Children, teachers, librarians, authors, illustrators and publishers eagerly await the announcements. The endorsement of the Children’s Book Council means a lot–it’s a stamp of approval for children’s literature that the judges regard as beautifully produced, well written and illustrated, and relevant to children’s lives. There are several categories, by age group and genre, and then there is the announcement of the overall winner, the Book of the Year.
Normally Children’s Book Week is held in August (towards the end of the Australian winter–a reliable sign that spring is coming…), but this year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is held in October. This week, in fact.
In a year which demonstrated how difficult the world can be, the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards have recognised thought-provoking and uplifting stories that allow young people to take on all challenges
I must say, that although it has been a difficult year, it has also been a year in which the value of storytelling–of writing and reading, of producing and receiving stories–has been well and truly recognised. Even though in Australia the artistic community has been hit very hard by the impacts of the COVID-19 shutdowns (and our governments could be doing rather more to support creative industries in general), it’s very clear how much we rely on storytelling–to lift our spirits, free our minds, open up the world to our imaginations, and help us think through all sorts of issues. There’s something about immersing oneself in a book that is better for the brain that the jittery rush of doom-scrolling and constant panic about the state of the world.
I’ve been watching in admiration as writers and illustrators adjust their usual whirlwind of book tours and classroom visits to promote their works, and encourage the joy of stories–through zoom events, online conferences, twitterfests and more.
And so it’s wonderful to see the Children’s Book Council of Australia also adjust–one of Australia’s older literary establishments finding a way to celebrate storytelling in these strange times. The theme for Book Week this year is Curious Creatures, Wild Minds, and you can click on the link to see the program for the week.
And in terms of the Book of the Year, here are the announcements, made by well-known Australians: enjoy!
It was Anna Mik, PhD student at the University of Warsaw, who introduced me to the work of Polish artist Jan Bajtlik, whose magnificent book of mazes presents the myths of ancient Greece as a set of intriguing mazes. Everyone in the myths is in a maze of a different kind–Odysseus, Heracles, Atalanta, Zeus–they’re all there. Maze as story, story as maze, life as maze. Here, Anna discusses the role of the maze, the thread, and life in the time of COVID as a labyrinth that we are all finding our ways through–Elizabeth Hale
A journey through a labyrinth can be a dreadful experience. It might have been a true horror for Theseus walking through Dedalus’s maze with the anticipation of meeting the Minotaur just around the corner. For the Minotaur, on the other side, the labyrinth was a prison, where he waited for the human offerings and ultimately was killed by the mythical hero. For Ariadne who gave Theseus a thread leading him towards the safe exit after killing her brother, the labyrinth was a mysterious and confusing space, where love and fear were accumulated and made her feel conflicted.
The mythical maze was never only an architectural wonder. It was also a metaphor of danger, coming of age, uncertainty, a struggle between death and life. It survived the centuries in stories, visual depictions and artistic visions. And even though it is so familiar to us, this motif does not cease to surprise us to this day. Even if we live in an era of postmodernism, often perceived as a maze itself.
There are multiple examples of famous labyrinths in popular culture. Thousands of years after the Minotaur (allegedly) was slain, in the 1986 film Labyrinth, 16-year-old Sarah travels through the labyrinth. Trapped inside the world of her fantasies, she walks thorough paths representing her troubling adolescence. (she meets a lot of weird creatures on her way, paths change their courses, sometimes they are even upside-down) In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the titled protagonist has to face the horror of a maze in the Triwizard Tournament.
“The towering hedges cast black shadows across the path, and, whether because they were so tall and thick, or because they had been enchanted, they sound of the surrounding crowd was silenced the moment they entered the maze. Harry felt almost as though he was underwater again.” p. 539
In both of these works, mazes are not ‘stable’ and easy to pass through – they constantly change and surprise heroes and heroines with new turns and creatures living in it. They play with characters’ imagination, push their boundries, and distort cognitive perception. Thus, it rises up the question – is there anything good about the labyrinth at all?
Bajtlik’s solution: Greek Myths and Mazes
One Polish artist gives hope that there is something more to the ancient maze than horror and anxiety. Jan Bajtlik’s Greek Myths and Mazes (English translation, Walker Studio, 2019) was published in Poland in 2018 under a slightly different title: Nić Ariadny. Mity i labirynty [Ariadne’s Thread: Myths and Labyrinths]. It is a large format book in which double-page spreads present different stories from Greek myth: each one a different labyrinth leading a reader through various myths, locations, and ancient Greek phenomena. In such a manner, Greek Myths and Mazes is a great example of an interactive book for children, encouraged by the author to get through the maze, which has been marked with an entrance and an exit, and follow stories along the way. The pages are also an artistic showcase, as Bajtlik has conveyed complex and multi-layer stories through equally rich illustrations.
However, what seems to be the most imperative, is the implication that each element of the ancient world is a labyrinth in itself, with all the unexpected turns, monsters waiting just around the corner, and the big uncertainty – will the hero or the heroine find their way out and fulfil their journey? The story of Odysseus would be a great example of such a labyrinth, through which the hero travels for 10 years, uncertain of his fate and gods’ favours. He does not know what waits ahead of him, he meets dead ends and turns leading him to monsters, he loses his crew on the way. Nonetheless, he thrives, bearing in his heart and mind the image of the exit – his beloved home, Ithaca.
Jan Bajtlik works with the labyrinth as a cognitive tool that allows the child to read the myth not linearly, as in a ‘classic’ text. The path leads the reader in all different ways, allowing them to immerse in the story. They might get the wrong turn, walk through the danger, or take a dangerous route from which it will no longer be possible to withdraw (as in Hephaestus’ forge). The mythical labyrinth may also surprise the traveller with a beautiful view, a funny picture or, finally, a happy ending (as on Aeaea, Circe’s island)
All things considered, a feature that would seem the most vital is book’s metaphorical aspect. Being lost in a maze, just like being lost in a myth, perfectly reflects the shape of human existence, its impermanence, complexity, horror, and beauty. The book can affect the reader, not only a child, in an unusual way, especially during the 2020 lockdown. Isolation, danger, uncertainty, fear of the unknown – all these elements connect the world of ancient labyrinth and COVID-19 reality. If the ancient mazes have been able to gives any kind of hope, just like Jan Bajtlik, they would certainly give us a way out. Then again, only if Ariadne was there to bestow upon us an invaluable thread. This may lead us to finding in ourselves Ariadne, ready to help us find a solution to the most dreadful situation. Being an Ariadne would mean being hopeful, despite the hopeless reality.
What’s in a title? From Ariadne’s Thread to Greek Myths and Mazes
As I have mentioned earlier, the English version of Bajtlik’s book was published in 2019 under a slightly different title from its Polish original. It made me wonder – does this change make any difference in book’s reception? After all, it seems that “Ariadne’s Thread”puts a certain kind of emphasis on the role of the heroine in Theseus’ success. Without the thread provided by Minos’ daughter, the young hero would probably not get out of the maze. What is more, the thread marks the path through a labyrinth thanks to which a hero does not make a mistake of taking the same wrong turn twice. Within the narrative structure of Bajtlik’s story, the thread plays a vital role as well. Thus, it is a shame that neither Ariadne nor her thread appear in the English title.
Nonetheless, Bajtlik’s Greek and Myths were translated also to Spanish, Catalan, French, German – in all of these editions “Ariadne’s thread” has been maintained in the title on the cover. Let’s read it as a good sign. There is a great hope for the Ariadne’s Thread to get us through these uncertain times. After all, nowadays, it is accurate to consider reality being just another maze.
We’re all working hard, in the Our Mythical Childhood project–and none more so than the team from Bar-Ilan University, in Israel. Lisa Maurice and Ayelet Peer have been developing the Our Mythical Childhood Education survey. It’s a gorgeous site, where they survey a host of educational resources in the teaching of Classical mythology. From textbooks to AV material, worksheets, blogs, exam material, websites, quizzes, lesson plans, syllabi, and the always intriguing category ‘Other,’ this database provides useful and fascinating information for teachers, students, parents, and scholars.
There are currently 100+ items in the survey, and I encourage you to look around.
Isn’t it attractive! I encourage you to look around!
Before you do (or after you have done!), I also encourage you to read Lisa Maurice’s thoughts about the OME project–I’ve interviewed her below…
Children’s and Young Adults’ Education Inspired by Classical Antiquity–interview with Lisa Maurice.
Lisa Maurice is Associate Professor in Classical Studies at Bar-Ilan University, in Israel. She’s published a host of scholarly work, including The Teacher in Ancient Rome (Lexington, 2013), and Screening Divinity (Edinburgh University Press, June 2019),. She’s also the editor of three volumes in the Brill Metaforms series on the reception of the ancient world in popular culture: The Reception of Ancient Greece and Rome in Children’s Literature: Heroes and Eagles (Brill, 2015); Rewriting the Ancient World: Greeks, Romans, Jews and Christians in Modern Popular Fiction (Brill, 2017), and The Reception of Ancient Virtues and Vices in Modern Popular Culture (Brill, 2017). Shortly, her new edited collection Our Mythical Education, will be published through the Our Mythical Childhood project.
Thanks for taking my questions, Lisa! I’d like to start by asking you what inspired you to develope Our Mythical Education (OME)?
As you know, OME is part of the wider project, OMC, which aims at developing a pioneering approach to the reception of Classical Antiquity in children’s and young adults’ contemporary culture. Myth is often the first meeting point that a child has with the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome and it is found in a huge variety of educational systems worldwide.
Most studies or research into how the ancient world is taught focus almost exclusively on the study of the classical languages, which are often thought of as ‘real classics’. Yet the powerful and gripping stories of classical mythology, which continue to fascinate in myriad cultures and over varied societies, have been frequently been used in fact as vehicles through which to teach or improve other skills, such as literacy, or put across ideological messages. I go into this further, and many examples of it can be seen, in my forthcoming edited book, Our Mythical Education,which is (very excitingly!) now in the print layout stage at Warsaw University Press, and should be published in the coming months. So, despite the fact that that little attention has really been paid to it in educational research, the belief that classical myth has played a fundamental role in so many societies and school systems was the initial inspiration behind the overall OME project. Likewise, the desire to collect, examine and share the amazing materials I was sure existed, and were being used in a range of creative and effective ways, was a main impetus behind the creation of the database.
What do you hope that OME will achieve?
I hope that it will demonstrate just how central Classical myth has been in education, in so many places, and also how versatile a tool it is educationally speaking. The tales continue to captivate children and youth (and adults!), but they are far more than just ‘stories’, and the complexity of ideas and emotions buried within the narratives have such potential; they are like a fuel source that can still be tapped in so many ways. I hope that OME will help this potential be realised and will lead to the dissemination and expansion of existing resources. And particularly, now that so many people are looking for online materials to use in teaching thanks to Covid-19, that they will use the database, and add to it as much as possible.
What sort of material are you looking for/choosing to write about?
We are interested in anything that uses Classical myth, in its broadest sense, within an educational context and framework – we have worksheets, textbooks, audio-visual sources, quizzes and exams, lesson plans, syllabi, blogs, websites, games, comics and more. This includes materials used in the teaching of Latin and ancient Greek, and in subjects like social studies, history, literature, art, drama etc., and in multiple languages The possibilities are very wide-ranging!
Can you tell us about some particularly interesting or inspiring items from the OME survey?
I think the sheer breadth of items is what inspires me most. For example we have workplans and powerpoints from our project working with autistic children here in Israel run by Ayelet Peer under the auspices of our ACCLAIM network (see Susan Deacy’s blogpost on this ). This is an amazing venture, which uses the classical myths to help the students understand and cope with complex emotions, and demonstrates the creative ways in which mythology can be used in education.
In a different vein, I love movies, and particularly Disney’s Hercules, so I have a soft spot for resources that work with this, like the unit curriculum which describes the 12 labours of Hercules and includes discussion prompts about the myth and how it compares to Hercules in popular culture, specifically the Disney movie. And now that a remake of this film is happening, I am very curious to see what new resources will be developed when it comes out!
How can people be in touch with submissions or items?
I thought you’d never ask! You can contact my wonderful colleague Ayelet Peer on email@example.com and she will send you the short form to fill out and answer any of your questions. Or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org. We are ready and waiting eagerly to hear from you!
Thanks! I’m off to consult the survey now–especially to find out more about the comics! — Liz Hale