Watch out for the beast! Pandora and Hadestown

 Anna Mik is an expert in chasing mythical beasts, and has discovered two curious ones for our Saturnalian summer.  One appears in a picture book, Pandora and the other in a hit Broadway musical, Hadestown.  Anna  is a PhD student at the University of Warsaw  Faculty of Artes Liberales, and a research assistant in the Our Mythical Childhood project.  Her PhD topic is The Mythical Other: the Study of the Animal in  Children’s Reception Culture.  Read on, to find the mythical beasts at the heart of these beautiful texts. 

— Elizabeth Hale

Watch out for the beast!

This year I have started to work more with classical culture – it came rather naturally as I also have started the work in “Our Mythical Childhood” project. Many cultural texts came to me – or came back – and gave me the opportunity to look at them in a new, often unexpected way.

The main approach in my research is that of animal studies, as I try to track all the mythical creatures that have been lost in the contemporary world. One that I have found recently was wearing a disguise not easy to unravel. The other one – was not even an animal in the literal way. Both of them I would like to evoke for this year Saturnalia on Antipodean Odyssey – as I’m sure it’s a safe space for all creatures.

Pandora the lonely vixen

My first text is a discovery of the year 2017 – a picture book Pandora  by Victoria Turnbull. She tells a story about the lonely vixen – the Pandora of the title – who lives “in a land of broken things.” In her world, seemingly a wasteland with no life in it, everyday she tries to “keep swimming” and organises her time by fixing all the things that has been destroyed. In one scene she sews a teddy bear together, which might be a symbolic way to show her deep longing for  company. Suddenly her dream comes true – a blue bird with a broken wing appears in her world. It too needs fixing – and Pandora is very good at it. They develop an unique connection.

Pandora, box, bluebird: a scene from Victoria Turnbull’s beautiful book

As the bird gets better and starts to fly, it brings Pandora something in return – seeds and pieces of plants from far-away lands. Everything seems to be perfect – until one day the bird does not come back. Pandora gets depressed and all hope is lost from her world. But not for long. The seeds and plants that the blue bird previously brought, now begin to grow, bringing back life in the land of broken things. At the end Pandora even hears the song sang by her friend. Hope grew slowly, but has never been truly lost.

The beast of Hadestown

The second beast that I would like to call in is America presented in Anaïs Mitchell’s album (that then expanded to a musical project) Hadestown (2010). Each song is sung by different characters (Hades, Persephone, Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes, Fates, etc.) that corresponds with each other in telling a not yet complete story (that is presented in the musical based on this album).

The album of Hadestown — Orpheus and Eurydice in TrumpAmerica???


Ruled by Hades and Persephone, fought by love of Orpheus and Eurydice, the world of consumerism and destruction is a rather sad diagnosis of the contemporary reality of the United States and the American Dream.

The story starts with a rather happy event – a planning of the wedding of probably the  most tragic couple in Greek Mythology – Orpheus and Eurydice (click here to hear the song). The girl decides to go to Hadestown – a land of prosperity and work opportunities, since Orpheus and his music are not enough to provide for both of them. Her decision is necessary, but tragic – the work that she will be forced to do is never-ending in Hadestown.

Just like Sisyphus, everyone there is not truly happy, but at the same time realises that this is the best they can get – poverty is much, much worse. The song “Why We Build the Wall” sung by Hades now has a new meaning. Back in 2010 it was simply a symbolic phrase describing the necessity of separation of poor and rich. After the presidential election in 2016 in the USA the song gained a new meaning, and president Donald Trump appears to be a modern Hades. His Hadestown (Trumptown?) called America, is a mythical beast, that certainly must be tamed.

Those two examples of a modern mythical menagerie are not obvious. They are not like sirens or centaurs that we can directly relate to the classical tradition. But with much appreciation for reception studies, this is what can re-read in the texts using classical tools, discovering that antiquity is the world that we still live in.

–Anna Mik



Ordinary Mermaids: H2O Just Add Water

This week, I talked at the Childrens Media Symposium at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Subject:  H2O: Just Add Water, a popular TV series featuring teenage mermaids, filmed not far from here (in Australian terms),… 

H20: Just Add Water, is a suburban-beachside-teen-comedy-fantasy show  that screened from 2006 to 2010 on Australian TV and around the world.  In it, three teenage girls (proper Emma, wild-girl Rikki, and girl-next-door Cleo) are transformed into mermaids when they swim in a mysterious pool during the full moon.

Gold Coast–Just add mermaids By Petra [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Following this, they become part-time mermaids.  Whenever they get wet, they transform instantly into a mermaid.  If they want to avoid discovery (and they do), it becomes difficult to wash dishes, have showers go to pool parties held by the popular kids, hold down a part-time job feeding dolphins at Seaworld . . .  Emma, a serious competitive swimmer, has to give up her career.

H20: Just Add Water is filmed on Australia’s Gold Coast, a beachside tourist destination, with many theme parks, hotels, and a glitzy property-development culture.  Alongside is a languid suburban lifestyle, with which a coastal hippie mysticism co-exists.  The main threat facing the girls, is the threat of discovery, of being turned into museum exhibits, or scientific experiments.

Sea World..  Just where you’d think a mermaid would have an after-school job . . .


Various villains and ne’er-do-wells seem determined to unmask the girls.  There’s Zane, the black-shirt wearing troubled rich-kid, his mean-girl girlfriend Miriam, and the bombshell grant-getting scientist, Dr Denman, who stumbles on their secret and seeks to monetize their magical properties.  For people like them, and Zane’s property-developer father, the magical powers of Mako Island, the place where the girls come into their mermaid-hood, are also up for grabs.  Environmental themes loosely pervade this series: the mermaids use their power to protect nature from over-fishing and over-development.  Indeed the girls have magical powers, which come in handy.  With the power of thought, Cleo can move water; Emma can freeze it; Rikki can heat it up.  Working individually or together, they use their powers to solve problems, avoid discovery, or defeat the bad guys.

Almost every culture has a mermaid figure.  From the sirens of Greek mythology to the Cameroonian Jengu, to the Little Mermaid of Danish lore, to the Aboriginal Yawk-Yawk, to the Siren of Warsaw, these figures–half-woman, half-fish or other sea-creature, symbolize the power of nature, and the power of femininity.

Medieval Siren . . . By Desconegut –, Domini públic,

H20: Just Add Water plays with those themes.  Once a month, when the moon is full, one of the girls sees its reflection in water and goes into an altered state.  Controlled Emma starts feverishly kissing boys.  Shy Cleo commands the attention of every boy in the neighbourhood when she suddenly has the exquisite singing voice of a mythical Siren.  Rambunctious Rikki starts setting fire to things with her touch.

In these episodes, which are scattered through more everyday, sit-com-like episodes, we see the show’s attempt to deal with matters of femininity.  A mysterious older lady, Miss Chatham, herself a former mermaid, explains the mysteries of the full moon, and gives hints about mermaid-lore.  From the beginning of their transition, the girls are inducted into a set of feminine mysteries: submerging into magical water in the chamber of the volcanic  island, is of course highly symbolic of femininity.

There are not many allusions made to classical mermaids in the show.  Those that do appear, come when one or other of the characters does a little research in the subject.  For the most part, H2O: Just Add Water offers a mermaid myth bolted on to a suburban teen sitcom.

In some ways, it would be unfair to expect much more from a show like this, created deliberately with an international audience in mind, drawing on the relative cultural anonymity of the Gold Coast, with its resemblance to Miami and other coastal resort cultures[1].  Certainly, expecting H2O to provide an in-depth exploration of Australian myths, is a bridge too far, and makers of Australian content for children often wrestle with the market-trimming challenges that cultural specificity cause.

Which may be why the show’s mermaid myths do not go much further than to express a general sense of girl-power, in which mermaid tails help you swim extra fast and rescue handsome boys in distress, and in which magical powers help you freeze your arch-rival in her tracks.

The lyrics to H2O’s theme song confirm the anodyne dream like this:

Cause I’m no ordinary girl

I’m from the deep blue underworld

Land or sea

I’ve got the power if I just believe[2]

And there we have the secret to the show: a promise of extraordinariness, delivered in an ordinary manner; promising access to a fantasy world for girls, simply by believing, showing that myth, however gently or simply delivered, is just around the corner.  Despite the promises, Cleo, Rikki, and Emma, are ordinary girls–and therein lies their power.

 – – Elizabeth Hale





[1] See Anna Potter, Susan Ward: H2O: Just Add Branding: Producing High-Quality Children’s Drama for Multi-Channel Environments. Media International Australia, November 2009.

[2] Kate Alexa, ‘No Ordinary Girl,’ Lyrics