The Classical World New Zealand

I’m delighted to have made contact with Dr Anastasia Bakogianni, of Classics at Massey University, New Zealand, who has established the Classical World New Zealand project. She writes about it below. Any interested participants, please be in touch!

– Liz Hale

The Classical World New Zealand project


How have New Zealanders received the classical world? How have they adapted and transformed it for use in their own culture and the arts? Why do they feel this deep connection with ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt? These are the fundamental questions that Classical World New Zealand, a new project based at Massey University, seeks to illuminate. When I arrived on the beautiful shores of Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand) last year I was curious to learn more about how New Zealanders and New Zealand based practitioners responded to the classical world. I was already aware of the existence of such receptions, but I was still surprised by the richness and variety of these connections, and I am happily looking forward to discovering more. This is surely yet more proof of the ongoing impact of the classical world on our own modern global culture.

A guiding principle in my own work, instilled in me by my mentor Professor Lorna Hardwick, is the importance of an open dialogue with practitioners. As a ‘receptionista’ I study creative adaptations of the classics in a variety of media, but rather than simply imposing my own view on the material I want to hear what the artists themselves have to say about their motivations and creative processes. Reception is a complex process that deserves close study and an integral part of that investigation should be the practitioner(s)’ own perspective. With this in mind I started looking for Kiwi artists with a strong connection to the classical world. With the help of my colleagues and the Internet I was soon well on my way. This is an ongoing project, illustrated by audio-visual material. We will continue to add to the resources on our website so keep checking back or follow us on Twitter for updates. Our journey of discovery has just begun…

The Massey Classical Studies team (Anastasia, Gina, James and Jonathan) wants to share our discoveries so we created an open-access website: The material we have gathered is organised according to ‘medium’. There are currently six main subsections to the website: Film, Literature, Music, Scholarship, Theatre, and Visual Arts. In addition, we also have two pages for News & Events and Further Resources. Please do get in touch, if you want to take part in our project. The only eligibility criterion for an interviewee is that you have to be based in New Zealand. But that does not mean we are not open to feedback and suggestions from the world beyond Aotearoa’s shores!

Contact details:
Project coordinator:
Twitter: @classicalnz

Which Myth, and Where?

When you live in the Southern Hemisphere and you are thinking about the Western Canon, you can feel very far away from all those Northern traditions. Of course we have interesting traditions of our own, not least the indigenous traditions and myths that are so important for our regions.

By our regions, I’m thinking here about New Zealand (where I’m from) and Australia (where I live). Our indigenous mythical traditions are meaningful, powerful and beautiful. They often don’t get a look-in, when we talk about myth in European contexts. But they’re here, in origin myths, in the Dreamtime myths, in the adventures of the trickster Maui, and many more. They’re here in the names of the places of the land.

New Zealand’s longest placename, Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu, which in English is, ‘the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as ‘landeater’, played his flute to his loved one,’ is perhaps the best example of many. The more you know about placenames, the more you may learn about the mythic past and the folklore of a place. Blueskin Bay, near my home town of Dunedin, was named after Te Hikatu and his nephew Kahutin, who had many traditional Moko.

echidnaArmidale, in New South Wales, where I live, is the home of the Anaiwan people, whose totem is the Echidna. Echidnas can be seen around the place. They are monotremes, like the more famous duck-billed platypus, i.e. warm-blooded animals who lay their young in small leathery eggs. According to Dreamtime myth, Echidna got her spines from a battle with Turtle. The name Echidna is from ancient Greek. Echidna was the mother of all the monsters of Greek myth. I have learned by following the movement to revive the Anaiwan language, that the Anaiwan word for echidna is ‘iwata.’

Echidna – Greek Myth. Sculpture by Pirro Ligorio 1555, Parco dei Mostri (Monster Park), Lazio, Italy. Photo by Gabriele Delhey [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Interweaving indigenous and classical is a daunting task, and as a New Zealand ex-pat with British roots, I’m aware of my many limitations in doing so. But I can’t help but note these curious intertwinings of classical and indigenous. Scientists use Latin and Greek as ‘neutral’ languages, and apply them around the world, symbolising the neutral, objective, ‘truth-telling’ qualities of science. Yet this ‘objectivity’ comes from a set of cultural assumptions that long displaced or dismissed indigenous knowledge. Researchers are gradually coming to understand the power of indigenous knowledge, not only its authenticity, but its points of overlap with Western culture. See for instance this fascinating article on the overlap between Aboriginal and Classical astronomy.

Children’s writers and illustrators are particularly alive to these overlaps and make productive use of them. Australian Matt Ottley’s outback picture book Requiem for a Beast, for instance, intertwines the story of the Stolen Generation with imagery of Theseus, Ariadne and the Minotaur. The easy classicism of New Zealander Margaret Mahy’s young adult novels, merges with ideas about Maori myth, lore, and knowledge in Kaitangata Twitch and Memory.

On this Antipodean Odyssey, I fully hope and expect to find many more overlaps. Myth is global, is universal. It’s unexpected and it’s productive and powerful. It appears in children’s culture all over the place. The purity and power of classical and indigenous myth have much to say to one another.

Australian 5 cent coin
Australian 5 cent coin. Images by Jeff [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr.
– Liz Hale


Margaret Mahy: Memory London: JM Dent, 1987
Margaret Mahy: Kaitangata Twitch Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2005
Matt Ottley: Requiem for a Beast Sydney: Hachette, 2007