Exploring the Classical World with the Help of Asterix

Dr Dr Lisa Dunbar Solas is an archaeologist and educator who runs the Ancient Explorer program in Adelaide, South Australia. She’s interested in the overlap between the ancient world and modern thought, for adults, and for children, and we’ve been lucky enough to have her writing entries for the Our Mythical Childhood survey. Here, she writes of her experiences surveying some of the Asterix books–the famous French comics by Goscinny and Uderzo, which have drawn so many young readers to think about the ancient world.

Front cover of Dear Earth by Isabel Otter

Over the past six months, I have been exploring the classical world with the help of Asterix and his side-kick, Obelix. In fact, I have been reading and analysing some of Asterix’ adventures as part of the Our Mythical Childhood Project. This international project is providing invaluable insights into how myth helps our youth.

What is the Mythical Childhood Project?

Our Mythical Childhood is an international project that is bringing together researchers from different disciplines, including English. Led by Professor Katarzyna Marciniak from the University of Warsaw, Poland, the project includes researchers from the United Kingdom, Israel, Cameroon and Australia.

The project explores classical myths and their influence in our tech-savvy, modern world. In particular, it explores their influence on our youth. While our world is vastly different from that of the ancient Gauls, Greeks and Romans, classical myths contain themes and topics we can all relate to. Myths can act as a moral guide, helping us to reflect on experiences and issues.

The Mythical Survey

In Australia, Dr Elizabeth Hale from the University of New England, Armidale, is leading the project in the Asia-Pacific region. Dr Hale is conducting a survey of literature and multi-media for children and adolescents. This survey will help us understand how classical literature is passed on to our younger generations and how it helps guide them into adulthood.

To date, more than 350 researchers have contributed to Our Mythical Childhood Survey and 1150 entries have already been completed.

Exploring the Classical World with the Help of Asterix

Since mid 2020, I have been reading and analysing a range of texts, including several Asterix compilations. Recently, my first two entries have been added to the survey’s online database and these come from Asterix Omnibus 6.  I invite you to read my entries for The Mansions of the Gods and The Asterix and the Laurel Wreath.

I thank Dr Hale for the wonderful opportunity to contribute to the survey. I am also grateful to Asterix and Obelix. By reading their adventure, I have learnt so much about the Ancient Rome and its relationships with the Gauls, especially during the Gallic Wars.

The next entries will come from the Spanish-speaking world and will include reimagining of famous Greek legends, such as the Odyssey by Homer. Stay tuned!

Thanks, Lisa!

Check out Lisa’s work on the Ancient Explorer program, here.

Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing

I think puppetry is the most exciting way to interpret and present mythology and fairy tales. There is inherent magic in the way mythology can teach us truths and puppets are the most magical of performers.

Stella Samaras

Stella Samaras is a Sydney-based writer with a background in theatre and craft. I came across her work through her delightful blog: craftytheatre, and have enjoyed her reflections on theatre for some time. Even better, it turned out that Stella has written a play for traditional Greek shadow-puppet theatre: Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing. You can watch it here, performed in Athens by Ergastirio Skwin Kouzaros: a shadow puppet company which promotes traditional Greek shadow puppet theatre for modern audiences. In her blog, Stella explains that she wanted to share the magic of shadow theatre with children, and found herself writing a new play featuring Karagiozis, a famous trickster figure in modern Greek culture–a poor hunchback with a long arm, who lives in a hovel, but always finds a way to have a good time.

I was intrigued by Stella’s work, by the overlap between ancient and modern Greek ideas, and the way that puppetry has been used to transmit folklore and myth, so I asked if she would be willing to be interviewed.

Thank you, Stella, for your time! Would you be able to tell us a bit about yourself and your interest in theatre and craft, especially puppetry?

I’m a mum, blogger, lover of theatre and the arts and Person Friday. I started out painting sets for my high school’s musicals when I was 15 and went on to art direction and set design before majoring in Theatre Studies at UNSW in the late 80s and early 90s. I volunteered for everything theatrical I could involve myself with and soon learnt stage management and production management before developing the confidence to write and direct my own plays. Along the way I’ve made puppets and performed with them and have worked in children’s theatre. My love of making theatre has had to make way for numerous “day–jobs” but the flame still burns.

I love theatre as a form of storytelling – especially its heightened reality that’s found in musical theatre, puppetry, mine and dance. I think puppetry is the most exciting way to interpret and present mythology and fairy tales. There is inherent magic in the way mythology can teach us truths and puppets are the most magical of performers. When they aren’t on stage I look at them and am overcome with a sense that there is an entire universe – alternative reality – they are barely containing as they await their next performance.

On stage a puppet arrests our attention immediately. With little or no facial expressions the puppet pushes the director/puppeteer to think about communication through colour, music and song, costumes, set, and especially the movement and voice of the performer/puppet character.

Congratulations on the performance of Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing.  How did you get into writing plays for this kind of performance? 

Thank you it’s been exciting. Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing came about when my kids were in primary school. We started making the characters as craft activities at home. It was a way to connect them with their Greek heritage even as we struggled with the language. There was no Karagiozis performances in English for them to see on YouTube nor regular performances in local Greek live theatre to attend.

At the time I was toying with the idea of writing kid’s fiction and it was suggested to me to write for the incoming English/drama curriculum. To write a Karagiozis script in English became irresistible.

I wrote the play together with its history, norms of performance, and designed the shadow figurines in an educational kit for drama and English teachers. There is so much to say about this historic form of theatre and how its function has changed in Greek society that I struggled with the target age for the audience. I finally settled on early high school or late primary.

At the time I couldn’t find a publisher for my work. I was put into contact with a former Karagiozis puppeteer who had moved to Sydney, who read it with a view to performing it, but it fell through. Then just over a year ago on Instagram I found the Ergastirio Skiwn Kouzaros, who are based in Athens. They are a long established shadow puppet company, who have been promoting Karagiozis online through their Youtube performances and sales of shadow figurines and merchandise. Anastasios Kouzis and the team read my script and liked it. They translated it into Greek, cut down the length and added the character’s nuances I couldn’t recreate in English. Now it’s part of their repertoire on their Youtube channel where it’s performed in Greek with English sub-titles.

What were the challenges of producing this kind of work?  How do you think Australian audiences might connect to this production?

There were a number of challenges in realising the script as I wrote it in English and struggled to transfer the local colour from the Greek. From English, it then was translated in Greek. Certain things cannot be literally translated – only in essence – and that’s where the laughs can be lost.

 The Karagiozis puppet theatre reached its highest popularity in the early twentieth century when it offered a strong satirical form of comedy. The story was generally a scenario that was passed down through generations of puppeteers orally. As a performance was underway the puppeteer would throw in witty observances and commentary on local news. No two performances could offer the same exact transcript if they were transcribed. 

A script is static by nature of its being written down. I had to write asides that my intended audience of 10-14 year old Australian school children would relate to as comments on Australian society they would understand, that didn’t move too far from the world of the play.

A bigger challenge was the way each character was presented as a stereotype from a particular region of Greece. Each one speaks in very distinct accents and uses the lingo of that area. This kind of comedy would be lost to an Australian audience – even a Greek-Australian one. By performing the play in Greek but retaining the English subtitles, we aimed for a happy medium.

And then there is the punning. Translating any language is difficult but punning can be impossible – from English to Greek or vice versa. We have gone with an at times loose translation where the progress of the plot has been retained in the English sub-titles but the cultural nuances added by the Ergastirio at the entrance of each new character, haven’t been translated.

After sharing the Youtube link on social media I was able to gain some direct feedback from adults. It brought back childhood memories. Our target market with this performance is children and students of the Modern Greek language in the diaspora. We hope to engage students with the beauty of the puppets, the vitality of the performance, the comedy and the cunning and altruistic heart of Karagiozis.

Most people can relate to an underdog and Karagiozis is a clown and an underdog, almost by his own volition. He is so clever, it’s a wonder that he can’t escape his own poverty, he’s a Greek larrikin. I imagine an audience of 10-14 year old’s would relate to his outsmarting of the other characters as well as his good natured hoodwinking of authority. And of course, there is the romance between Dionysios (Nionio) and the Vizieropoula (Fatme).

Can you say something about the connection of Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing to the legend of Jason and the Argonauts, and their quest to find the Golden Fleece in Colchis? Is there an overlap between ancient Greek and modern Greek folklore?

When I wrote the script, I was conscious that I was writing for a multicultural audience. I wanted to draw a little from the Ancient Greek heritage because it’s something that a general audience might recognise and therefore feel that the stock figures and their 19th Century concerns weren’t entirely foreign. Because Karagiozis is a good hearted thief, any fleecing he would do would be golden. From there I thought I’d bring the story closer to Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece in the spirit of Looney Tunes referencing Robin Hood or the Scarlet Pimpernel. 

Ancient Greek mythology by virtue of its being Ancient Greek is received as something high-brow and almost untouchable. By incorporating Jason’s quest in my story I hoped to make it profane and accessible. By having a ridiculous character like the mummy’s boy, Morfonios, intent on taking on the sleeping serpent in the tree when clearly he shares no heroic virtues with Jason, I hoped to raise a laugh. Making the tree the serpent is sleeping in an olive tree I intended to blend the ancient and the folk – I assume there are more olive groves in present day Greece than there were in the days of Jason. By featuring as characters in my story the goats that are responsible for producing the Golden Fleece I see the ridiculous in the ancient myth – if there was a golden fleece then there had to have been a herd animal off whose back the fleece was shorn. For the Ancient Greeks, I suspect the golden fleece is what today we would say is the money that grows on trees.

Within the oral tradition of Karagiozis there exists a very famous scenario called Alexander the Great and the Cursed Serpent.Alexander the Great is a stock figure in the Greek shadow stage and this is his best known scenario. He exists in Karagiozis’ world as a hero not from the past but one who comes from a physical distance to save the day. In this story Alexander the Great is a conflation of the warrior emperor and St George.

Spyros Kouzis, the founder of the Ergastirio Skiwn Kouzaros, is credited with introducing Ancient Greek mythology to the Karagiozis repertoire. Ancient Greek mythology was taught to Greek children via the Shadow screen and Karagiozis became their teacher. There is a wonderful poster of a performance by the Ergastirio where Karagiozis shares the stage with Oedipus.

What are you working on next?  

I’m really excited to be meandering off the beaten track of my blog with an upcoming series of posts on art history – from the Renaissance and ending with the Pre-Raphaelites.  I’ll be kicking the series off with a couple of posts on Norman Lindsay and his female satyrs. I’d never come across female satyrs before I visited his garden and gallery in Faulconbridge. Bacchantes and satyrs – yes- but female satyrs? I find them intriguing and perhaps the key to understanding his nudes and what they say about female sexuality. I think his response to classical stimulus is uniquely him and very Australian. I hope to round out the art posts with an inquiry into the Ashbourne Portrait of Shakespeare (or is it Edward de Vere or just an Elizabethan Gentleman).

Thank you so much for your interest in Karagiozis and the Golden Fleecing

Thank you, Stella–and I look forward to seeing your posts on Lindsay.

Setting the Scene and Establishing Audience Engagement: The use of settings and classical backdrops in Disney’s Hercules

Amy Arezzolo recently completed her Masters of Ancient History at the University of New England, and is working on contributions to the Our Mythical Childhood survey of children’s culture influenced by Classical Antiquity. Here she discusses the importance of understanding how backgrounds work in animated film, focusing on the popular Disney film, Hercules (1997). This is an extract from a paper she recently presented at the Antiquity in Media Studies zoom conference, hosted by the Society for Classical Studies (US).

Establishing a Classical Background–Hercules

Through the tale of its eponymous character, Hercules discovering what it means (and takes) to become a ‘True Hero’, Disney’s Hercules (1997) offers an imaginative interpretation of Ancient Greece to an audience largely unfamiliar with its imagery or stories. To engage this audience, Hercules’ animators drew on varying artistic and architectural styles as well as countless artefacts that existed throughout antiquity, establishing for the film a full and ‘lived-in’ environment  that was recognisable for viewers influenced by preconceived notions about the appearance of Ancient Greece. Here, we examine some elements of how the backdrops support the film and establish it as classical.

Heavenly Gates of Olympus

These generalisations begin from the outset of the film. For instance, ideas about a heavenly Olympus set the scene early on. After the prologue in which a narrator (voiced by Charlton Heston) and the Muses establish the premise of Hercules, the camera pans throughout Ancient Greece and gradually rises through the clouds towards Mount Olympus, the home of the Greek Gods. Upon entry, viewers are first presented with a grand vista of two large and splendid golden gates adorned with lightning bolts and Ionic columns.

Within the narrative, these gates are one of the first times that the audience encounters Mount Olympus and in order to convey to the audience that this domain belongs to the ‘good’ characters, are an example of biblical allusions to heaven. The gates equate Olympus with Heaven and are a motif that had previously been used in previously released animated feature films such as All Dogs Go To Heaven (1989). Animators from Hercules ultimately make use of this Christianising motif in order to present Olympus to the audience in terms that they would easily understand .and recognise

Colouring and textures also serve to reinforce the recognition of Olympus as a heaven-like realm. A range of pink, lavender and blue hues as well as soft cloudlike structures present a serene and comforting image of the Olympian complex. As the camera pans from the gates to Olympus itself, the biblical allusion to Heaven via the imagery of Olympus as a city in the sky is made apparent but it is specifically situated in a classical context. Through the use of classical buildings and particularly, Ionic columns that are increasingly emphasised in a sequence of panning shots that show the Greek gods gathering to celebrate the birth of Hercules. Combinations such as these, wherein both the characters and the settings are focal points in the same scene firmly convey to the audience that Hercules, despite the biblical allusions that construct a ‘Heavenly Olympus’ is ultimately set within both an ancient and mythological past.

Hellish Hades

These classical devices which include both the architecture and specifically, the columns are also adopted in representations of the underworld. To a great extent, the structures used in the scene introducing the Underworld are almost identical to initial representations of Olympus, save for colouring. By providing almost identical placement of the buildings and designs found in scenes of both Olympus and the Underworld, it becomes easier for the audiences to ascertain that these realms are both celestial planes. Colour, on the other hand contributes to developing a clear binary between the  ‘Good and Heavenly’ Olympus through pinks, purples, and light blues and the ‘Bad and Hellish’ Underworld through the use of greys, blacks and midnight blue that project a sense of gloom and dread onto the surrounding atmosphere which only serves to later amplify the significance of Hercules’ willingness to sacrifice himself for Meg.

Art and Architectural Styles 

The mortal world, however, draws on historical artifacts to convey a sense of realism, using ancient art and architectural styles. Rather than be specific to a certain period of time, a closer examination of various scenes reveals that the animators have drawn upon various examples that date from as early as the Bronze Age to as late as the Roman Imperial Period under the Emperor Trajan wherein in Trajan’s column makes an appearance in a panning shot of Thebes where the Cyclops searches for Hercules in the third act of the film. 

Notably, examples of this are littered throughout the film. For instance, the famed wall painting of both the Papyri and Lilies that are part of the Akrotiri frescoes discovered on  modern-day Santorini and date to the Bronze Age period, feature on the walls in Hercules’ home that he shares with his adoptive parents, Amphitryon and Alcmene. Where the two frescoes were discovered separately, within the film they are combined to fill the blank space behind Hercules and to provide a warm, vibrant, and homely atmosphere. 

Likewise, in a scene later on in the film where Hercules is having his portrait done by a vase painter (with a nod to his iconic accoutrements of both a lion skin and a club), the surrounding room harks back to both the architectural style of the Bronze Age palace of Knossos (or at the very least, archaeologist Arthur Evans’ interpretation of the complex)  as well as its striking red colour, while the walls depicting several leaping deer echo the second style wall paintings that were discovered in Pompeii. 

As both of these examples demonstrate, clear allusions are made to art from throughout antiquity. Whether or not these combinations are time-sensitive or accurate is not the real issue. Rather, Hercules’ animators consciously borrowed elements that date throughout antiquity to foster a universally recognisable image of Ancient Greece. Such an approach supports viewing the settings of Hercules as dynamic entities that can foster audience investment in the plotlines. As this film acutely demonstrates, the construction of scenes across Olympus, the Underworld, and tdhe mortal realm which feature a host of recognisable shapes and styles help draw the viewer into Hercules’ world and suspend their disbelief at the fantastical world the characters are inhibiting. Through this process, audiences are then ready to focus their attention on the themes ultimately promoted by Hercules. 

–Amy Arezzolo

Booxalive–Classical Comics in Latin and Ancient Greek . . .

Magda Van Tilburg is the creator of booxalive: a story site that features children’s picture books, poetry, jigsaw puzzles and short silent movies. It also features her delightful series of classical comics: Antiqua Signa: stories from ancient Greece and Rome, told in their original languages, using comics style storytelling, and providing explanations and translations. They’re rather wonderful works–created by an artist who is inspired by the vivid stories and art of the ancient world, and aims to present it anew (but also authentically) for young readers.

Magda was kind enough to answer some questions and provide some images from her work: read on to find out more!

What drew you to retelling the classical myths and stories in this format? What’s your favourite myth to retell?

When in highschool (called ‘gymnasium’ in The Netherlands/1967-1973), in the second year when we started with Latin, I made my own ‘papyrus’-text role with the story of Romulus and Remus, in my own first learned Latin. But in the third year the ancient Greek language was added and the more we learned about the grammar of both dead languages, the more I struggled. My mind had too much fantasy to translate what was actually written down. In my head I made it much more spicy, while I couldn’t grab the rules of grammar. Yet I simply loved the ancient stories, thanks to very enthusiastic teachers. So I decided in the fifth grade to make drawings to go with the stories and text balloons with the text that suited that special drawing. So I learned to translate what was written by drawing what the text said. I started my first graphic novel with the episode of Kirke by Homer. I think that’s also my most favourite myth.

Do you have a background in classical education (Latin or Greek at school, or classes at the university, or did you come to classical myth/history through some other means?

After my struggle in highschool I decided to study Latin and Greek at the University of Amsterdam (1973-1978 BA-cum laude). I wanted to teach my mind thinking more abstractly, and meanwhile have the opportunity to read many more myths in their original texts. And with that I started a whole series of graphic novels with the myths we read in college. Also I got afraid that such priceless folktales and myths would disappear in our modern times. Comics are very popular and get even more popular. As it helped me in highschool to understand a text, so I hoped this was the most suitable Medium to spread enthousiam for myths amongst the iYouth. Later, when I produced them digitally on my free story site booxalive.nl, I added my English translation, in the hope more public could sniff at these precious culture achievements.

Were there any particular challenges in adapting myths for your particular approach?

It was a great joy to make a storyboard from each chosen text, to figure out scenes to draw and what text could go along with them. Where to use direct speech or indirect narration. Of course I had to delete quite some sentences, for a more fluid story, and that’s how the metrum in all my titles got lost. Some scholars were very annoyed by that, but to produce a smooth visual story I had to make priorities.

Did you think about how aspects of Classical Antiquity (myth, history) would translate for young readers?

To be honest: I only had my own pleasure as a reader in mind by creating the comics. Somewhere I was convinced that would work catching for others too. (I hope I did understand this question correctly…)

What sources are you using? Scholarly work? Wikipedia? Are there any books that made an impact on you in this respect?
For each story I used the texts from the books we used in college. I still had all the important editions in my library (Loeb, Oxford Press etc.). I also consulted the commentaries in those books and my own college notes (which I had preserved for about 30 years. For after my BA I went to the Rietveld Art Academy in Amsterdam, where I graduated in 1984). I still hold all my classic related books in my library dearly. Most of all I love – funny enough – the special Greek-Dutch dictionary by Dr. J.F.L. Montijn and Homer’s dictionary by Mehler. They use an awesome, beautiful Greek font.

For my English translations I train myself each day with this spelling-trainer https://www.nubeterengels.nl/website/index.php.
And at last I check my texts with the help of https://www.grammarly.com/

I was really struck by the visual intertextuality of these stories as you tell them. How did you go about selecting which art works to reference?

Thank you so much for your compliments! The references to specific art works I just choose on intuition and from knowledge from a lifetime great love for (ancient) art. That’s the beating heart of my version of the ancient texts.

Thank you!

Magda’s comics can be read at https://booxalive.nl/klassieke-strips/. They include Latin versions (Dido and Aeneas, Ovid’s Phaethon, Romulus and Remus) and Greek versions (Homer’s Kirke (Circe), Ares and Aphrodite, Herodotos’ The Smart Thief, and Alcestis).

Rabbiting on about Disney’s Alice, with Ink and Paint…

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.

Disney’s White Rabbit…

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. . .

So, if you’re interested in Alice, and want to hear a friendly (but rigorous, of course!) chat about the film, its origins, its reception, its style, and its contexts, click here: https://www.inkandpaint.com.au/episode-13-alice-in-wonderland

Thank you Daniel! And thank you Anna!

–Elizabeth Hale