‘A Greek God in the 31st Century? How could such a thing be possible?’ Ulysses 31 and other Japanese adventures in classical reception

This is the basis of a short talk I’m giving at UNE this week, for our Asian Studies Symposium, organised by my colleague, John C. Ryan. It’s a nice opportunity to reflect on some of the findings that have come my way through working on the Our Mythical Childhood Survey.

For some reason, Ulysses 31, a Franco-Japanese animated space opera passed me by as a kid watching tv in 1980s New Zealand. But working on the Our Mythical Childhood project has caught me up on this wonderfully wacky version of Homer’s Odyssey in which a space-warrior, Ulysses, with majestic bearing and amazing hair, is trapped in Olympus with his son, Telemachus, Telemachus’s timid robot Nono, and Yumi, a blue-skinned alien girl (who is trying to revive her brother, Numinor who is in suspended animation following an unfortunate encounter with some Cyclops). They travel through the space known as Olympus, and try to make their way home, visiting strange planets, and having adventures loosely based on the adventures of the original Ulysses.

Ulysses 31

Hot pool time machine? Thermae Romae

Japanese adaptation of classical material is a fascinating field, especially because of its vivid visuals, and its unusual combination of imagination and humour. My first encounter with it was probably Mari Yamizaki’s amazing manga series, Thermae Romae (2012). This series, which has been adapted into an animated series, and two films, features the adventures of Lucius, a Roman bath-designer who is stuck for ideas, and is magically transported to modern-day Japan, where he is struck with awe (as we all are) by Japanese bathroom facilities. Travelling back to his own time and place, he adapts what he has seen into his designs, and becomes an in-demand designer, favoured by the Emperor, Hadrian. Being in-demand in Ancient Rome, of course, can be quite a precarious situation, and adventures, and mayhem, ensue.

Apart from its potty scenario, what I like so much about Therumae Romae is the way Yamazaki exploits the similarities and differences of Roman and Japanese societies. Both are known for their love of baths, both countries are known for their hot springs, and perhaps less obviously both cultures are polytheistic, and full of interesting and unusual superstitions, gods, and mythical creatures.

Mythical Creatures and Romantic Comedy:A Centaur’s Life

Mythical creatures appear in all sorts of Japanese films and manga. I think of Hayao Miyazaki’s well-known animations, such as the marvellous Spirited Away, in which the heroine, Chihiro, has to work at a mysterious bath-house (another bath house!) where the myriad spirits of Japanese culture come to relax. The variety of spirits, who represent aspects of air and water, land and sky, and different kinds of emotions, is not so far removed from the symbolism of the Greek and Roman myths, gods, and metamorphoses.

A Centaur’s Life (2011- present) by Kei Murayama, is a popular coming-of-age romance-oriented comedy-soap-opera manga about the life and worries (the original Japanese translates literally as ‘A Centaur’s Worries’) of a teenage centaur, Himeno Kimihara. Dating, career, friends, growing up, overcoming fears, learning new skills, these are the focus of this amusing (and sometimes racy) series. Himeno is not the only mythical creature in this story, featuring satyrs, mermaids, and demons, and suggesting that adolescence is a metamorphic and mythical state, to be viewed with caution.

Boy Bands and Classical Busts: Sekkou Boys

I’ve written before about Sekkou Boys, a short comedy anime series that sends up the boy band industry and the Japanese obsession with pop idols. It features a quartet of classical gypsum busts (Mars, Hermes, St Giorgio, and Medici) who are trying to become more than one-hit wonders, in company with their rookie manager Miki.  Like A Centaur’s Life, Sekkou Boys doesn’t labour the classical angle, but occasionally draws on the busts’ history and character, such as when the cheeky Hermes operates a side-line, selling health supplements. The supplements are called ‘Trismegistus,’ in a tongue-in-cheek reference to the thrice-great Hermes, associated with healing and wisdom.

Getting Serious: Historical Manga

Other instances of Japanese classical reception are more serious. In Plinius, Mari Yamazaki teams up with another manga-great, Miki Tori, to retell the life of the great Roman naturalist and philosopher, Pliny. Another historical biography is called Historie, by Hitoshi Iwaaki: it tells the imagined life of Eumenes, a secretary to Alexander the Great, and later a General himself. These works provide lavish illustrations of the ancient world, and allow readers entry into them through vivid characters with interesting lives.

Metamorphosis and Invention: Kid Icarus, Persona, Ludere Deorum

Invention, imagination, filling in gaps, and adapting and modifying material for new contexts is a part of Classical Reception, in Japan and elsewhere as well. Classical material finds its way into games as well as stories and films, such as the hit Nintendo game, Kid Icarus, in which a flying boy leaps up platforms propped by classical columns, and shoots arrows to collect hearts as currency. Sequels, such as Kid Icarus: Myths and Monsters and Kid Icarus: Uprising are popular, and extend the figure into an elaborate mythical-verse, involving goodies, baddies, battles, metamorphoses and more.

Metamorphosis is a vital part in other games, such as Persona, by Atlus games, in which players transform into heroic figures from Greek and Roman myth, such as Orpheus the great poet and singer, and Nyx, the goddess of the night. In this game, which the Belarussian students in the Our Mythical Childhood project have written about, players explore their characters’ emotions even as they work on strategy and gamesmanship, showing the increasing sophistication and reach of games, and the power of myth to connect to young people’s emotions.

Ludere Deorum

Ludere Deorum, a story about humans transported to the school of the gods, in order to increase the bonds between gods and humans, further crosses over between visual novel and game. In it, readers/viewers/players travel with a Japanese schoolgirl, Yui, from Japan to the godly realm, to romance different gods (Apollon, Hades, Tsukito, Takeru, Balder, Loki, Anubis, and Thoth), in a kind of choose-your-own-adventure story/game.

‘A Greek God in the 31st Century? How could such a thing be possible?’

One of the many wonderful things about visual storytelling is that anything is possible in what the artists choose to show us, even the gods of the 31st century. And yet within them all, certain themes emerge: the writers, artists, animators and more, are using Greek and Roman myths and history to think about invention, and adaptation, about choices and options, about emotions and growth, about what it means to be a human–in Greece, in Rome, in Japan, and even in the 31st Century.

–Elizabeth Hale

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Lisl Weil’s Wise and Witty Retellings: King Midas’ Secret and More

Lisl Weil (1910-2006) was an artist, writer, dancer and television presenter who grew up in Vienna, and immigrated to America in 1939. She lived in New York, and illustrated over a hundred books. She was a dancer, and performed live illustration work with symphony orchestras around the country. A fascinating and creative woman!

I found her work thanks to Miriam Riverlea, who uncovered a copy of King Midas’ Secret and Other Follies on our recent research trip to Te Puna National Library of New Zealand. You never know what a keyword will turn up.

I was immediately taken by Weil’s work, which has a sly wit and combines a warm morality with an easy charm, both in images and in words.

This is how King Midas’ Secret begins.

In the days of the ancient gods, the land of Greece was a strange place. Flowers spoke and fabulous beasts were seen every day. Kings and peasants lived in the valleys. The gods lived high up in the clouds atop a great mountain called Olympus. When the gods came down from Mount Olympus, life in this strange land became even stranger.

You could never be sure the bull you saw was not a god in disguise. But the people were the same as they are today. Some were good, some were bad, and many were foolish.

The father of all the gods kept this in mind. Wise people still do. (5-7)

‘You could never be sure the bull you saw was not a god in disguise’–Zeus shows a leg in King Midas’ Secret and Other Follies, Lisle Weil, 1969

King Midas’s Secret and Other Follies is a small collection of myths:

There is the tale of a fame-desiring King Midas, who foolishly thought he could judge the gods’ musical skill and was rewarded with asses’ ears.

The story of Narcissus, a ‘handsome boy,’ who sleeps in, misses the school chariot, and falls into a pond while admiring his reflection.

Next is Icarus, a ‘handy lad,’ who tries to outfly the birds while wearing his father’s wings of wax and feather, and fell from the sky.

And last is the story of the Sphinx: ‘a monster. There was no doubt about it.’ She is so puffed up with her own cleverness that when Oedipus solved her special riddle, she burst with rage.

Each story is accompanied by illustrations in shades of blue, gold, and the occasional purple, drawn with a witty economy of line. At the end of each story, a cheeky chorus sings the moral. For King Midas, the moral is:

Don’t be conceited, or else the wrong fame 

might easily shine upon your name.’ (19)

‘Don’t be conceited, or else the wrong fame might easily shine upon your name’ King Midas’ Secret, Weil, 1969

What I like so much about Weil’s work is its lightness of touch, its combination of wit and warmth. And while purists may notice that she elides great swathes of the original myths, leaving out some of the difficult bits (instead of falling to his death, Icarus is caught by Daedalus in a great upside down umbrella; instead of committing suicide, the Sphinx bursts with rage), what I think she does so nicely is balance the humor and morality of these cautionary myths with a care for children.

Much (in fact most) children’s literature is didactic in some way. We don’t tend to give children books that will encourage them to behave badly unjustifiably; while we want to encourage children’s sense of imagination, adventure, fun, and more, we want them to remain safe. Weil’s cheery choruses seem to wink as they chant their refrain:

Wise people say:

Don’t fly off into the blue

Unless you know what’s in store for you. (33)

How to hide your asses’ ears, King Midas’ Secret, Weil, 1969

The illustrations are simple, and funny, as in the selection Midas’s head gear, developed with his barber to hide his unfortunate ears: but a slight blush on his face reveals that the joke is also cruel for the sufferer. At the same time, one can see her enjoyment of the amazing shapes both of classical clothing and architecture, and of the mythical beasts and monsters. So much about this book, and Weil’s other forays into classical retellings, Of Witches and Monsters and Wondrous Creatures (1985) and Pandora’s Box (1986), shows both an understanding of the humour and games-playing of classical myth, and its darker or deeper sides as well. Her Pandora’s Box shows sympathy for all players; while Of Witches and Monsters and Wondrous Creatures encourages young readers to think about what mythical beasts tell us about the human condition, and human thinking about ourself and the world.

It may take some digging to find out why Weil drew, or was drawn to, this mythological material. And so far, from the hundreds of books she was involved in, I have found only these three with links to Classical Antiquity. Regardless, there’s something unique and rather wonderful about the wit and wisdom with which she approaches these retellings for young readers.

–Elizabeth Hale

Retelling Theseus–Frank Sikalas and Kid Titan

A recent discovery is Brisbane based author, Frank Sikalas, whose charming retellings of mythology for kids are published through his Kid Titan imprint. I’ve been enjoying reading his graphic novels, Icarus Rising, which explores a future life for the doomed flying boy, and his Athena Warrior Goddess, dedicated to the coming of age of one of Greek mythology’s most powerful figures. And most of all, I’m enchanted by his picture book, Theseus and the Minotaur: Birth of a Hero, which retells the famous legend and imparts all sorts of information about life in the age of legends.

Theseus and the Minotaur: Birth of a Hero, by Frank Sikalas, illustrated by Anna Manatolos

I’m always interested to find out what draws young authors to classical myth, and I wrote to Frank Sikalas to find out. He grew up in a Greek family, ‘where the culture spilled out in every aspect of my upbringing… Greek school, Greek dancing classes, etc.’ After studying ancient history and mythology at the University of Queensland, he rediscovered his earlier love of storytelling and began writing the myths that he now publishes through Kid Titan.

Theseus and the Minotaur: Birth of a Hero might be my favourite of Frank’s work so far. It does a lovely job of retelling the Theseus myth with sympathy for the different players, and conveying the spirit of the age of legends.

Anna Manatolos’s illustrations capture the whimsy of the original legend.

Frank explained that he lets the story determine what form he tells it in, and this picture book combines action with information, through word and image.

The development of this aesthetic began at the beginning of putting the first book together and the formation of Kid Titan. I felt that Kid Titan had to be represented in organic and natural tones more connected to the ancient times but with a fun and modern twist. I always think about it, every time Kid Titan is on display whether flyers or stickers.

Creating the visuals for the characters and book was one of research and style. I wanted unique styles for each publication and so once I selected and commissioned the artist, the process of putting it altogether began. I provided the artist the script and character descriptions. The process is a back and forward one where I approved the character concepts, scenes and pages.

A brooding Minotaur–by Frank Sikalas and Anna Manatolos

Other books that Frank Sikalas produces through Kid Titan are graphic novels–including adaptations of the myths of (Icarus Rising in which a revived Icarus helps rebuild a fallen world) and  Athena Warrior Goddess (in which the goddess Athena comes of age and builds her powers fighting the Titans). He doesn’t restrict himself to Greek mythology, but branches out into other areas, such as Norse and Chinese myth. Future ventures include Egyptian myths, and a young adult novel. There’s even a deck of playing cards featuring figures from myths around the world.

Frank Sikalas, launching Theseus

I asked Frank why he thinks we still connect to Classical myth.

We look towards and connect with classical mythology, I believe, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I believe it’s ingrained in us and passed on from century to century, generation to generation no matter where the myth comes from. Secondly, we seek to express ourselves, our culture and to make sense of our environments and what’s happening around us, no different to what our ancestors did.

Kid Titan, aka Frank Sikalas, dreaming up new ideas


It’s a constant source of amazement to me that so many creators from around the world are drawing on the Greek myths and combining them into new forms, and playing with new ideas. I’ll be eagerly keeping an eye on Kid Titan to see what Frank comes up with next.

Elizabeth Hale


Friends, parties, gossip, love: Holiday Read: Lore Olympus

One of the nicest things about this time of year in the far South, is that things slow down, and there’s time to read.

I’m kicking back with a New Zealand-based web comic, Lore Olympus, written and drawn by Auckland graphic designer, Rachel Smythe. It’s a delightfully romantic retelling of the Hades-Persephone myth, written with wit and flair.

Thoroughly modern lovers–Hades and Persephone on the phone

‘Friends, parties, gossip, and of course love, a modern retelling of the Taking of Persephone.’

Hades is an electric-blue Mr Darcy-esque shy-boy billionaire-type, fully in charge of his underground kingdom, but needing a bit of help in the romance department.

Persephone is a hot-pink curvaceous innocent, whose hair grows at emotional moments, and who is escaping an overbearing helicopter-mother in Demeter.

Blushing Ingenue: Rachel Smythe’s Persephone

The figures of the pantheon come in and out, with side-stories about how they got that way. Eros takes Persephone shopping when she needs a wardrobe boost. An elegant Hera interferes, but only from the best of motives. Zeus, Poseidon and Hades are brotherly rivals, Artemis a sporty sidekick, and Apollo proves to be as thoroughly untrustworthy as the myths associated with him indicate.

Lore Olympus is grounded in research into the variants of the Persephone myth (Smythe lists influences and sources on her tumblr site). It’s wryly aware of the Olympians’ capriciousness, and Smythe seems to relish taking her time with the Hades-Persephone romance. After all, a web comic is episodic, and rewards the reader who enjoys the journey as much as the destination . . .

Lore Olympus is published online through web comics publisher Webtoon, and as you read it, you scroll downwards, following Persephone and Hades into this darkly romantic underworld–Smythe’s pacing and presentation exploits this publication style beautifully.

The Hades-Persephone story is very popular in Young Adult Romance, or Paranormal Fantasy (Goodreads review site lists 167 texts drawing on the myth) and many of them seek to recuperate Hades through his shy-boy persona, drawing on the tradition of the Byronic hero. It’s uneasy territory: the ‘taking of Persephone’ takes us into stories about abduction, rape, and coercion. Lore Olympus is well aware of the challenges of the story, however, and infuses it with strong post- #metoo ethics. Smythe’s Persephone, too, has her own defenses, not least an empowered charm and winning sense of humour.

So, if you are looking to sink into a lush romance with a classical twist, here’s your chance. Lore Olympus already has thousands of readers, and a devoted following: including me–I’m looking forward to reading the next few episodes over the holiday break.

–Elizabeth Hale

Oedipus, Bilbo Baggins and Atreyu – Deadly riddles and Sphinxes in Greek Mythology, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and Michael Ende’s “The Neverending Story”

From Sphinxes to Hobbits, from the ancient world to children’s fantasy,  Michael Kleu takes a look at the riddling tradition in Tolkien, Ende, and Apollodorus…

When Bilbo Baggins, the protagonist of J.R.R.Tolkien’s  The Hobbit or There and Back Again (1937), got lost in the cave system and tunnels of the Misty Mountains, he found by chance – or rather by fate – the One Ring, a powerful magical artefact crafted by the evil entity Sauron a long time previously. Shortly afterwards, Bilbo met the strange creature Gollum, who challenged him to a game of riddles. If Bilbo won the game, Gollum was supposed to show the little Hobbit a way out of the tunnels. If the creature won the game, it could eat poor Bilbo. Lost and alone, Bilbo had no choice but to agree to Gollum’s terms. After the opponents had played the game for some rounds the Hobbit won the contest by asking what he had in his pocket. Since Gollum, of course, had no chance to know that Bilbo had pocketed the One Ring, the Hobbit won the game of riddles in a rather unfair fashion and could only escape the creature’s rage by accidentally using the magic ring, that made him invisible.

In Greek mythology something quite similar had happened to Oedipus. Creon, the ruler of Thebes, had promised the throne of Thebes and the hand of his sister Jocasta to anyone who would free the city from theSphinx, a creature that lived close to the city and strangled and swallowed all travelers that couldn’t solve her famous puzzle:

“What is it that speaks with one single voice and has first four, then two and finally three legs?”

Oedipus accepted the challenge and solved the Sphinx’s riddle: As a child a human first crawls on all fours, before he walks on two legs and finally needs a supporting stick in the old age. After having heard the correct answer, the Sphinx committed suicide by jumping from a rock. Thebes was freed, and Oedipus became king (Apollod. 3,5,8).

Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, 450-440 BC, Altes Museum Berlin, CC BY-SA 2.0

In both cases an unhuman creature threatens a hero with death if he cannot solve its riddle and in both cases the creature will eat the hero if he fails. But there is one more parallel. At some point during the game it is Bilbo’s turn to come up with a riddle:

“No-legs lay on one-leg, two-legs sat near on three-legs, four-legs got some.”

Gollum doesn’t need long to find the solution: “Fish on a little table, man at table sitting on a stool, the cat has the bone.”

Although the parallel to the riddle of the sphinx is striking, it seems to be another tradition to which J.R.R. Tolkien is referring here. In a German book from 1847 I found a quite similar riddle in several versions in German and English language:

“Two legs sat upon three legs, with one leg in his lap. In comes four legs, and runs away with one leg. Up jumps two legs, catches up three legs, throws it after four legs, and maks (sic!) him bring back one leg.”[1]  xx

(In this case two legs is a man, three legs a three-legged stool, four legs a dog and one leg a walking stick.)  Here the parallel is even more striking and indeed Tolkien wrote in a letter to his publisher (letter no.110) that he did not invent this particular riddle but took it from somewhere, (unfortunately he did not mention from where exactly).[2]  Therefore, he obviously did not directly adapt the riddle of the sphinx. Nevertheless, the leg-riddle from 1847 might belong to a category of riddles that goes back to the myth of Oedipus.[3]

Of course, Tolkien was heavily influenced by Nordic and Germanic traditions. Thus, his riddles were surely influenced by the Exeter Book and other collections of the Anglo-Saxon tradition of riddling as well as of the Alvíssmál, a poem collected in thePoetic Edda.[4] On the other hand, even when it has been only for a short time,Tolkien had studied Classics in Exeter and was definitely familiar with Greek and Latin literature. Therefore, it seems still quite possible that at least regarding the hero being threatened to be eaten by an unhuman creature if he fails to win a riddle contest, Tolkien was influenced by the myth of Oedipus.

Picture: Michael Kleu

In Michael Ende’s Die unendliche Geschichte (The Neverending Story, 1979) the black centaur Cairon, who is the most famous physician in the magical land of Fantastica and therefore a clear reference to Chiron is a first indication that the author used elements of Greek myths for his book. And as we will see know, Ende’s story was very concretely influenced by the myth of Oedipus. To reach the so-called Southern Oracle, the hero Atreyu is supposed to pass a way between two Sphinxes facing each other. This is only possible when the eyes of the Sphinxes are closed because a traveler will freeze if he is caught by their gaze, since the eyes of the Sphinxes ask by nonverbal communication all known riddles at the same time and the passerby can only move after having solved all of them, what eventually leads to the death of the people concerned.

The oracle is of course a fixed element in Greek myth and the Delphic Oracle is of major importance for Oedipus’s fate. Furthermore, the freezing of the passerby evokes references to Medusa. Therefore, Ende has mixed some well-known elements of Greek mythology to create a new story. On the other hand, it is quite interesting that Atreyu has no chance to pass the Sphinxes with the help of his own skills, wits or abilities. In fact, it seems to depend on pure chance or fate if someone can pass the Sphinxes or not. At least the gnome Engywook, who is Fantastica’s leading scientist in this field, even after many years of study could not find any form of pattern regarding the question why the Sphinxes let pass some people while they stop others.

While the classical reception is obvious in Die unendliche Geschichte, the case of The Hobbit is a much more complicated case of what might happen when  mixing several myths and traditions. But why do we find deadly riddles in both books for young people? Are such riddles supposed to address notably children and teenagers? The fact that one can find the same topic in fantasy stories for adults suggests that these are interested in riddles in a similar way.[5] But there is nevertheless one important connection between adolescents, riddles of and death: According to Ps.-Plutarch (1.4) no-one less than Homer shall have died of sorrow after he could not have solved some young fisherman’s riddle …

–Michael Kleu is an Ancient Historian at the University of Köln, in Germany, and is fascinated by Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy.  He runs the popularFantastische Antike blog, where his interests combine…  

[1]EduardFiedler: Volksreime und Volkslieder in Anhalt-Deßau, Deßau 1847, p. 43.

[2] Tolkien wrote in the letter to his publisher that he invented most of the riddles from the chapter “A riddle in the Dark” while he took the no-leg riddle and another one from somewhere else. Although he calls the other riddle a traditional one, unfortunately, he does not mention from where he took the riddle with the legs. In the letter Tolkien also wrote that he was inspired by “old literary (but not ‘folk-lore’) riddles” and in one case he mentions American books with nursery rhymes.

[3] The riddle of the Sphinx was a part of the Byzantine Greek Anthology’s riddle collection (book 14 no. 64). Thus, the riddle could have been passed on via the myth of Oedipus and via riddle collections. Neither in Symphosius’ late antique collection (Aenigmata) nor in the Book of Exeter I could find riddles similar to the one under discussion.

[4] In the Alvíssmál Thor and the dwarf Alviss try to settle a dispute in form of a contest in which Alviss must answer Thor’s questions. The contest takes so long that at some point the sunrise turns the dwarf into stone – in Nordic mythology sunlight does that to dwarves – what resembles the fate of the three trolls in “The Hobbit”. For the influence of theAnglo-Saxon tradition of riddling and the Alvíssmál on “The Hobbit” cf. A.Roberts: The Riddles of The Hobbit, Basingstoke/New York 2013.

[5] In Stephen King’s “The Waste Lands” and “Wizard and Glass” (The Dark Tower III & IV) the protagonists have to riddle for their lives against a sentient monorail that has lost its mind.