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



Report from the Bushland: Research Findings from the University of Newcastle

Marguerite Johnson, who is collaborating with me on a Guide to Classical Antiquity in Children’s  Literature, has built a wonderful community of folklore scholars at the University of Newcastle.  It was my privilege to participate in a day of presentations and thought on the broad topics of fear and myth, to meet her terrific students, and to see their work.  I didn’t see any of the wildlife Marguerite identifies in her blog, but the human inhabitants of the university were very impressive! 

— Liz Hale


Springtime at The University of Newcastle is a magical season. It’s warm and the bushland campus is waking up from winter slumber. This includes all the reptiles as well as the buds on native trees and shrubs. Walking through parts of 140 hectares of natural bushland during spring, staff and students are often surprised by snakes making their way across paths; ducklings waddling across roads (often with a line of cars behind them); and, at twilight, baby possums and wallabies making their first outings. We are always advised not to approach the wildlife, but they are regularly photographed. Sunny the Snake can be seen each year basking in the sun on one of the bridges over a small creek, and even has his own Facebook page.

Amid a time of awakening and looking forward to the long summer break, my postgraduates, honours students and a few enthusiastic undergraduates known collectively as Folklore @ UoN welcomed Dr Elizabeth Hale to our bushland campus.

Liz, Marguerite, Excalibur, and the wonderful students of Folklore@UON
Marguerite, Liz, Excalibur, and the wonderful students of Folklore@UON

It was a rainy, slightly humid day that was one of presentations, sharing of ideas, feedback and food. Liz had made her odyssey to discuss Our Mythical Childhood with my students, many of whom are working on folklore, myth and reception projects. Liz began by inviting students to bring along a childhood memento to explain their early interest in the ancient Mediterranean. We were treated with childhood photographs of honours student, Gabrielle Brash dressed as Xena. We even had a modern-day Excalibur wielded by honours student, Matthew Howe. And PhD student, Natalia Polikarpova, shared a truly frightening image of Medusa from a Russian television cartoon.


Following this, Liz participated in discussions stemming from a series of student presentations, complete with lavishly illustrated PowerPoints and terrific ideas. The presentations began with our two Classical Studies honours students, Gabrielle and Matthew. Gabrielle presented on ‘Metamorphosis of the Russian Vampire: Folkloric and Ancient Origins’, which examined the comparisons between Greco-Roman folkloric beings and early examples of Russian vampires.

Matthew Howe, in ‘Transformations as a Game Mechanic’, considered the theme of shapeshifting and how it translates in games such as World of Warcraft.

Postgraduate students presented papers on their theses. Of the four presentations, three were based on aspects of myth, folk tale and fairy tale from Greco-Roman traditions and their reception in various post-antiquity environments – from the early modern European age, to the contemporary west.

Tanika Koosmen discussed ‘Why Werewolves Eat People: The Origins of Cannibalism in Werewolf Narratives’. Nicole Kimball talked about ‘What is a Witch? Images of Witchcraft in the Malleus Maleficarum’. Adam Turner asked: ‘Does She Scare You?’ (on female monsters in gaming culture).

Natalia Polikarpova, presented on ‘Gender and Death in Seneca’ as part of her PhD research in Classics. We are thrilled to have Natalia (Natasha) with us all the way from Rybinsk. Gabrielle is particularly pleased to have her in Newcastle to discuss Baba Yaga (the topic of Gabrielle’s honours thesis).

We were also joined by three of my most engaged and talented undergraduates. Erica Wright, studying Ancient History and English, chaired one of our sessions, and is already known to Our Mythical Childhood and Antipodean Odyssey through her blog-essay on the character, Mercy in Overwatch. Natasha Schroder and Jennifer Murray have been key members of Folklore @ UoN, participating in the honours / postgraduate research days, which we have held each Friday during the second semester of our 2017 academic year.

A Day of Fear and Mystery . . .

Folklore @ UoN is the result of a teaching experiment I began a few years ago. Owing to  the small number of honours students enrolling in the non-compulsory fourth year program following the awarding of their Bachelor of Arts, I began to invite postgraduate students as well as interested undergraduates to the honours classes. This proved to be a worthwhile and thoroughly enjoyable teaching experience. What has gradually resulted is a collective of students from three levels of study, with different research experience, and shared scholarly interests. The students support and mentor each other. Now we have enough momentum to begin inviting visiting academics to share their research with us.


Liz is the first of many wonderful colleagues to visit a Folklore @ UoN event, and we thoroughly enjoyed her time with us and for sharing the joy that is Our Mythical Childhood.


— Marguerite Johnson