“Caesar and Cleopatra unite Rome and Egypt”: Toys, History and the Playmobil Series

Karolina Kulpa is a linchpin of the Our Mythical Childhood project: it is she who keeps track of the Survey (currently standing at over 1100 entries), a formidable task. Karolina wrote her PhD on the reception of Cleopatra in popular culture, and is incredibly knowledgeable about how toys transmit ideas of the ancient world. I’m therefore delighted to present an extract from a paper she delivered at “Our Mythical History: Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to the Heritage of Ancient Greece and Rome,” a Conference held at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales,” May 22-26, 2019. The full paper will be published in a collection of the same name. –Elizabeth Hale

I was born under communism in Poland, but my childhood was in the 1990s, when my country was transformed and opened to the so-called “West.” Suddenly, we had greater availability of products, among them toys, almost impossible to achieve previously.  In just a few years, almost unattainable items such as a Barbie doll or Lego sets, became ordinary products found in many children’s rooms. Polish youngsters joined millions of their peers in the world who became consumers of pop-culture products of children’s and youth culture, including the merchandise of the biggest franchises in the world.

It seems now that we live in times where pop culture is one of the most important sources of information about our past (but not necessarily the most reliable), as we can see from thousands of novels, films and animations. One element can be seen clearly: after the Digital Revolution, pop culture has reduced features of historic and mythological figures to easily identifiable, stereotyped characters. For decades, companies producing toys have outdone each other in their bid to attract children and young adults, an important segment of the market. History and historical figures have become products for sale. Manufacturers often refer in their products to Antiquity, especially the history and mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, sometimes also of Egypt. We can buy figurines, dolls, costumes and games, and thanks to them children have an opportunity to get into their favourite character and play recreating history or creating their own stories against an “ancient background”.

Curse of the Pharaohs

Take for example, the German toy manufacturer Playmobil’s line of History products titled “Romans and Egyptians.” These figures were presented in the animated short Curse of the Pharaohs, released in March 2017 by this company on You Tube[2], which associated with the story of Cleopatra VII and her relationship with Roman dictator, Julius Caesar.

The image of this Egyptian ruler is a perfect example of the process of transforming a historical figure into a pop culture icon. Popular culture has warped the image of the historic queen and reduced her to a symbol of beautiful, ambitious woman who seduced men and brought about their downfall. Playmobil History’s sets shows a combination of children’s and youth culture with history, not only by portraying Cleopatra and Julius Caesar in the form of plastic figures, but also by drawing the producer’s attention to the educational value for young audiences by adding additional information in the booklet Learn All about the Romans & Egyptians, which is available on their website [3][4]. The nine sets from Playmobil History include: Caesar and Cleopatra (9169), Egyptian Troop with Ballista (5388), Egyptian Warrior with Camel (9167), Legionnaire with Ballista (5392), Roman Troop (9168), Roman Chariot (5391), Roman Warriors’ Ship (5390), Tomb Raiders’ Camp (9166) and Pharaoh’s Pyramid (5386).

The most interesting aspect of this series is the film’s plot, which is an alternative history of the meeting between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar with the purpose to unite Egypt with Rome, which unification will “come in peace”. Cleopatra’s brother, Ptolemaios (Ptolemy), is jealous, because she increased her popularity. That’s why he wants to unleash the Curse of the Pharaoh, hidden in one of the pyramids, and force his sister to start a war with Rome. The plot is very interesting, because it recreates the story of the meeting between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra and the relationships between Rome and Egypt during that time.

Curse of the Pharaoh resembles many other animations for children, with a simple plot about adventures and mystery to solve, and with a happy ending. It has didactic elements concerning the history of the 1st century BC, but most of all, the goal of this animation is to entertain. For that reason, the type of narration is adapted to children, the characters are divided into positive protagonists (the wise Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and two Roman soldiers) and villains (Ptolemy and the thieves employed by this pharaoh). Of course, we remember from ancient sources, that during this time, there were two civil wars: first, between Julius Caesar and the other Roman leader, Pompey the Great, second, between Cleopatra and her brother, co-ruler and husband, Ptolemy XIV. In the animation realised by Playmobil, we don’t find the scene of Pompey’s death ordered by Ptolemy’s Council; or the scene when Cleopatra meets Caesar having been secretly brought to the palace in Alexandria by her servants, or any moments from the Alexandrine War, for example the burning of the Library of Alexandria. Furthermore, buildings, like the pyramid full of traps, secret chambers, and magical objects, ships and outfits of all characters are a mixture of some historical facts and pop culture.  People can watch this film and then buy the nine sets of figurines and accessories to reconstruct the story from animation or to create new stories.

Skeleton Mummy… Klickypedia (the definitive Playmobil-pedia)

The first set, Caesar and Cleopatra, includes three figurines of Julius Caesar, the queen Cleopatra and a servant with a long fan from blue feathers, and also a few accessories: a little golden table, a fruit bowl with an apple and a grape, and two glasses of wine. The collection includes also four sets, which present the Roman army and two sets of Egyptian warriors. The Roman legionnaires wear red tunics with silver breastplates, classical Roman helmets called galea, shields similar to scutum and, of course, sandals. We can also see their weapons: long or short swords, wood spears and knives. The officers wear caps and their helmets are decorated with plumes. The set with six legionnaires includes also elements allowing to create a shield wall formation cold tortoise, typical for the Roman army. In the set with chariot, the car has weaponized wheels; the set with a wheeled catapult includes a firing mechanism, which allows to shoot three bullets using rubber balls. A very similar mechanism is included in the next set, Roman Warriors’ Ship, but this time we have five arrows, two regular and three fire arrows. The galley with oars is the biggest Roman, it can float in a pool and be upgraded with motors produced by Playmobil. Below the deck, we have a small storage place to keep all stores, for example two baskets and one box with fruit, bread and carrots, glasses, cups, and two amphorae. A military character of this ship is marked by protecting shields, a small ballista on the deck and a ram on the bow. Please notice a characteristic inscription: SPQR: Senatus Populusque Romanus [The Roman Senate and People], there is a seal and a Roman military standard in this set and on the cart in the chariot’s set.

Klickypedia–Soldiers of the Pharaohs….

The two sets of the Egyptian army include three soldiers with a ballista on movable wheels and an archer riding a camel. His dromedary could be saddled up, among the accessories, we find reins, a military saddle, and a halter. The ballista works the same way as in the Roman set, but this time we have three arrows with a rubber ending shaped as flames. The soldiers have an olive skin, black hair and wear colorful clothes with collars styled as Egyptian and all of them have gold bracelets on their arms.

The last two sets from Roman and Egyptian series include a Tomb Raiders’ Camp and, a Pharaoh’s Pyramid, which is the biggest set connected to Egypt. The camp consists of a small oasis with one palm three and a well, two thieves, a scorpion, a few bushes, a horse, and a camel. The set presents a moment, when Egyptian thieves have just robbed ancient tombs and pyramids and are getting away with the treasures. The moment of robbery is presented in the last set, the Pharaoh’s Pyramid. This set includes a two-floor pyramid with a few traps, a gold sarcophagus in Anubis’ shape with a mummy, which is composed from bandages and a skeleton, the gold weapons and treasures, a few spiders and a scarab, a second skeleton and the most important, four canopic jars, which could release the curse. We also have three figurines of men, the third thief, an Egyptian soldier with a shield and a spire and a pharaoh. The figurine of the pharaoh is Ptolemy, Cleopatra’s brother and co-ruler, who is presented in an outfit styled as Egyptian (long white dress with colourful collar and belt), with elements typical for Egyptian man-rulers: nemes, a type of crown, with a Ureaus, a fake black beard and the symbols of power: a crook (heka) and a flail (nekhakha). Another pair of symbols could be used for the mummy.

As we can see, the series History: Romans and Egyptians by Playmobil is inspired by historical figures like Caesar, Cleopatra and Ptolemy and representations of historical Roman and Egyptian army, the Roman ship and the Egyptian pyramid. A scholarly analysis of these sets could be made from different points of view. In my opinion, that type of combination of historical facts from ancient sources and popular culture works is very important for reception studies, also in teaching ancient history and its reception. We can use the sets to recreate the scenes from the film, or to create new adventures of Romans in Ptolemaic Egypt under Cleopatra’s rule and, of course, transform the story and characters how we wish: the only limit is our imagination. The toys allow us to participate in missions, in which Roman soldiers rescue the jars with the curse to keep the peace between Egypt and Rome, or, in the jealous Ptolemy’s conspiracy with the thieves aimed at discrediting his wise sister. We can also recreate the moment of the feast in animation, which provides a happy ending of the adventure. Furthermore, a child can recreate his/her own alternative versions of history of Caesar and Cleopatra. With a bit of work, the sets give us also a possibility to show children some known facts about Cleopatra and Caesar, for example that they travelled on the Nile or how they first met. But there is nothing to stop us from using the figurines to enact the wedding of Cleopatra and Caesar (the servant could serve as a priest) or use the thieves as merchants who sail on a ship with their goods. Maybe it would help to answer the question why the story of the Roman leader and the Egyptian queen ended so tragically. We have so many options how to use the sets, play with Ancient history in the background and learn at least the basics about those times. Again, the only limit is our imagination.

Where would the ancient world be without an archaeologist? Klickypedia…

In the humanities and social sciences, we have so many different ways of understanding our past and so many methods of research, especially when studying Antiquity. Each generation transforms the images of historical figures into their own versions, which sometimes leads to simplified and stereotypical representations in culture. The contemporary image of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar emerged from an amalgam (layers) of its historical vision and the image propagated by creators of culture in each period. The Playmobil series could be seen as presenting a next step in the process which made the images of Cleopatra and Caesar evolve from historical figures to icons of pop culture.

–Karolina Kulpa


[1] Quotation after: 9169 Caesar and Cleopatra, Playmobil, online: https://www.playmobil.us/caesar-and-cleopatra/9169.html (accessed: July 19, 2019; website not currently available).

[2] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kN3WSGA9DoM&list=FL3R7nRc1pp2XKjglix3AlLA&index=27 (accessed: May 12, 2020).

[3] Learn All about the Romans & Egyptians, Playmobil,

http://playmobil.a.bigcontent.io/v1/static/PLAYMOBIL_INFO_HISTORY_ROMANS_2016_03_en (accessed: May 16, 2020).

“Dobby is Free!” The House Elf as the Spartacus of the Wizarding World

Anna Mik is a PhD student at the University of Warsaw’s Faculty of “Artes Liberales”, completing her thesis on the representation of mythical creatures in literature for children and young adults–especially on the ethical conundrums they present for young minds to think about. Here, she talks about Dobby, the house-elf famously freed by Harry Potter (with advice and encouragement from his friend Hermione Granger). Could it be that Dobby is a Spartacus of the Wizarding World?

This paper is an extract from a paper she delivered at “Our Mythical History: Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to the Heritage of Ancient Greece and Rome,” a Conference held at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales,” May 22-26, 2019.)

“Freedom or death” – those three words are famously inscribed in popular culture and associated with the historical figure of Spartacus. This seemingly simple and concise combination of words defining the basic privilege of every creature and the final moment of its existence, reflects the tragedy of struggle for eleutheria (liberty), a goal beyond which there is nothing but death.

1 “Spartacus” (1960), dir. Stanley Kubrick (source: cineserie.com)

Gaining freedom almost always comes with the ultimate price. In antiquity, with its own variations and differences, slaves were treated as objects and their masters’ property. Although the vision of ancient slavery seems distant, until recently this phenomenon was very close to our times, both in Europe and in the United States (of course, in different than ancient forms). People of African descent were treated as objects or animals as well, and had to fight for their rights which still are not respected in some parts of the world. The echoes of its presence can still be heard today, including, maybe surprisingly, the literature for our youngest readers.

Take the Harry Potter novels, for example. To some extent J. K. Rowling explores slavery through her presentation of creatures placed very low in the wizarding hierarchy. House-elves inhabiting the world of Harry Potter have one function assigned to them: to serve wizards without payment or any kind of appreciation. They wear the worst kind of rag they can find and do not own any property. The major schoolbook History of Hogwarts does not even mention the existence of the house-elves, even though: “Elf enslavement goes back in centuries”, Rowling, 2000: 198); They are evidently excluded from the main discourse, as their presence is not appropriately acknowledged, in wizarding education nor in their political affairs.

2 House-elves (source: Pottermore)

How to liberate an elf

Nevertheless, there is a way to liberate the house-elf: by giving them a piece of clothing. Usually they consider this act the worst tragedy—emphasizing the fear that can come with freedom. But in the second book of the series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998) Harry develops a significant connection to one of the house-elves.  He is named Dobby, and is the only of his kind that dreams of eleutheria and despises his wizard master (the snobbish Lucius Malfoy). After defeating Lord Voldemort once more, Harry gives the elf a sock and finally Dobby is free!.  From now on the creature openly admires the boy, and even though he is now freed of any obligations towards wizards, he promises to stand by Potter’s side at all costs. 

Elves’ connection to enslavement and clothing brings us back to the fairy-tale tradition, where those creatures served humans, in exchange for clothing or food. Such depictions are common in many folk-tales (also in Poland) but probably the most popular one would be the version by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm: The Elves and the Shoemaker (first trans. to English by Margaret Hunt in 1884 as: The Elves). In this tale the elves make shoes for a Shoemaker at night, to a point when (depending on the version) the man frees them by giving the creatures a piece of clothing. The Shoemaker does that to pay his debt, which might make us wonder–does Harry do the same thing?

Is it possible that Harry frees Dobby out of guilt for the pain that wizard society caused the house-elves? We do not read about such a motive in the book, nonetheless, it might have been one of the options. Or maybe – which is most likely –  he only did it out of pure sympathy towards Dobby, combinded with a need of revange on Malfoy house. Either way, one more question remains – why only Dobby was freed, why not other elves, who also suffer from slavery and wizards’ oppression?

3 Dobby with a sock, freed from the Malfoys (screenshot)

Hierarchy and relationships among magical species

Dobby’s humble attitude towards the wizard reflects the hierarchy and relationships between magical species – elf-servants and wizard-masters. Even though house-elves have a great magical power, they cannot use it without their owner’s permission (Rowling, 1998: 27). The system of supremacy is also supported by the notion that only wealthy families with long wizardry tradition have house-elves, as a form of luxury and legitimacy of authority (Rowling, 1998: 28). This fact also reflects the well-known historical concept of enslavement, a privilege of the rich and mighty.

The only advocate among wizards and witches that stands for the elves and wants to include them in the social discourse is Hermione Granger. Mocked by her friends, despised by elves for destroying the status quo, she is convinced that changing their work conditions will serve all members of the wizarding community. She is the first one who actually acknowledges their subservient position and openly defines their status as slavery (Rowling, 2000: 112). While others think that house elves like to be “bossed around” and are “not supposed to have fun”, Hermione believes in the potential of elfish revolution. 

At the end of the series Dobby dies while rescuing his hero, Harry Potter. On the stone of an improvised grave, the wizard carves the words: Here lies Dobby, a Free Elf. (Rowling, 2007: 389).  A consolation for this sad moment could have been the words of Spartacus from Stanley Kubrick’s production: “When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.” Dobby might be the next embodiment of Spartacus’ spirit, eleutheria in pure form, a creature, who, in order to achieve such state, had to die.

The long way ahead …

There are some parts in Rowling’s Potter-writting where the allusions to the real-life slavery are very clear and obvious. However, what is a little bit worrying, is that Rowling does not push this issue further: we do not know if the revolution of house-elves ever takes place, whether there are any more creatures inspired by Dobby’s thought, or whether there are some other wizards or witches besides Hermione that actually recognise the problem of elf-slavery. It might be possible that Rowling believes in her readers more than in her characters, and that the house-elves will influence young minds – to be aware of social patterns threatening the freedom of less privileged creatures – not only humans.

Probably there is a long way ahead for the other house-elves to gain freedom and sustain democratic order in the wizarding world. Yet, it is not far from impossible. As Michel Foucault reminds us:

“Liberty is a practice… The liberty of men is never assured by the institutions of law that are intended to guarantee them. This is why almost all of these laws and institutions are quite capable of being turned around. Not because they are ambiguous, but simply because ‘liberty’ is what must be exercised… […] The guarantee of freedom is freedom.” (Rainbow 1984: 245)          

Anna Mik.

Miraculous Ladybug: Mashing up myth and melodrama

Miriam Riverlea writes about a French animation for tweens that explores how to handle negative emotions, with the help of superheroes, mythology and more . . .

Miraculous Ladybug . . .

Recently my children have become quite obsessed with an animated cartoon, Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir.  Currently being shown on ABC3, a children’s channel in Australia, the show first screened in South Korea in 2015, and has since been distributed in several western countries including the United States, Britain and Ireland.  It is a cross-cultural production by French animation companies Zagtoon and Method Animation, collaborating with studios in Japan, Italy and South Korea. 

Set in Paris, the story revolves around teenager Marinette Dupain-Cheng.  She is artistic, pretty, and a kind and loyal friend, yet gets comically awkward in the company of her classmate, Adrien Agreste.  Marinette has a secret crush on Adrien, and has another secret besides.  With the help of her ‘kwami’ Tiki, a tiny, magic creature who lives inside her handbag, Marinette can transform into the superhero Ladybug.  Resplendent in red and black, she is lithe and vivacious, and has a steadfast sense of justice.  In stark contrast to Marinette, Ladybug is confident and self-assured.  In addition to superb fighting skills, her special yoyo allows her to soar between roof tops, and she can call upon a magic lucky charm to supply her with a special object to counter her enemies’ powers. 

Ladybug is supported by another superhero, Cat Noir.  As his name suggests, he cuts a svelte figure in his sleek black cat costume, and is able to summon the earthshattering force of a cataclysm.  He is devoted to Ladybug, but she spurns his affections, which seems a bit foolish, given that Cat Noir is actually Adrien in disguise.  The characters remain ignorant of what is patently obvious to viewers, and much of the fun of the show derives from the comedy of errors of unfulfilled romance and hidden identities.  I’ve been enjoying watching my children cringe and giggle as they witness sexual tension for the first time. 

Mythological mashups. . .

But there is another reason I am enamoured with this cartoon.  Amid the melodrama, Miraculous borrows from the world of mythology, folktale, and popular culture, particularly in the formulation of the supervillains whom Ladybug and Cat Noir must combat each episode.   The show’s villain is Hawk Moth, a sinister masked figure who preys on people experiencing negative emotions. 

Watching over Paris from his stark lair, he transforms a white butterfly into a dark purple ‘akuma’, and releases it into the city to find its vulnerable target.  This person becomes ‘evilised’ or ‘akumatised’, a process which exaggerates an element of what they are feeling into special powers.  Using telepathy, Hawk Moth endows them with a new name, and charges them with the task of stealing Ladybug and Cat Noir’s miraculous, the special talisman that gives them their magic powers.  (In another twist, Hawk Moth is actually Adrien’s father, the successful but reclusive fashion designer Gabriel Agreste).

Each episode runs to the same formula.  Someone in Marinette’s life, a classmate, family member, or member of the local community, is transformed into a villain bent on causing destruction as they seek to achieving their goals.  A number of these characters draw on mythology.  In Dark Cupid, a boy becomes a malevolent version of Eros, shooting arrows that transform positive feelings of love and friendship into hate.  In the episode Syren, Ondine a talented swimmer becomes an evil mermaid who wants to build an exclusive underwater kingdom with the boy she likes.  One villain takes the form of a huge spider, drawing upon the African folktale figure Anansi, in another, an ancient historian becomes the Pharoah, using the powers of the Egyptian gods to resurrect Queen Nefertiti.  And from what I’ve read, previous holders of the Ladybug miraculous apparently include Hippolyta the Amazon and Joan of Arc.  In this way, the show’s creators have developed their own kind of Miraculous universe that simultaneously celebrates French culture (Paris’ food, iconic architecture and landmarks play a big part in the setting), Oriental traditions (Marinette is guided by Master Wang Fu, the immortal guardian of the miraculouses, which resemble the animals of the Chinese zodiac), as well as ancient mythology from the classical and other traditions. 

It’s not necessary to be familiar with particular mythic figures to appreciate these storylines, in fact, subjecting them to rigorous scrutiny isn’t particularly constructive.  Rather, what this kind of wholesale borrowing from the world of mythology or folktales highlights is that it these characters have come to function in our contemporary world as a kind of treasure trove of material for telling new stories.  In the episode Heroes’ Day, Hawk Moth simultaneously akumatises lots of his supervillains, who come together to fight Ladybug and Cat Noir at the spiritual centre of Paris, the Eifel Tower.  It is a mash up not only of all the evil characters from previous episodes, but also one which brings together diverse figures from myth, folktale and popular culture. 

Handling negative emotions

Central to this show is the power of emotions, and the destructive impact of negative feelings.  It is revealed that Marinette’s optimistic personality renders her less susceptible to being evilised.  There are other times when the series seems to engage with psychoanalytic themes of desire, projection, and self-perception.  In Weredad, Marinette’s father, the baker, becomes akumatised.  He is determined to protect his beloved daughter from being heartbroken, and like a fairy tale giant, seeks to trap her within a thorny prison that resembles Jack’s beanstalk and like Sleeping Beauty’s enchanted castle.  Helping children to manage their emotions is a key aspect of children’s texts, and these stories, with their predictable, repetitive formula, play out scenarios that are both familiar and fantastical. 

Once Ladybug has captured the akuma transformed it to its original white colour, she uses her special power to return everything to the way it was.  There’s something very comforting about this resolution.  A swarm of red and black creatures flurries across the city, repairing the damage of the fighting and returning the person who was evilised back to their normal self.  They often seem a bit sheepish about what they have done, and Ladybug offers them absolution for their crimes.  Ladybug and Cat Noir transform back into their everyday teenage selves, with their secret identities safe for another day, another episode. 

Miriam Riverlea

Mythical Jigsaws and Alphabetical Odysseys: An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland and More

An Ancient Mappe of Fairyland was created by British illustrator Bernard Sleigh (1872-1954). Sleigh was a printer and mural painter who was drawn, like many a creator before him, to the wonderful world of fairies, fairy tales, and mythology. His Ancient Mappe is vast, nearly six feet in length, and containing figures and realms from fairytales, myths, and children’s fantasy.

Peter Pan, Oberon, the Kingdom of Carbonel (which later featured in Sleigh’s daughter Barbara’s series about a kingdom of cats), nymphs, dryads, centaurs, psammeads, sea monsters, ice kings and queens and more feature in this marvellous image, showing just how populated fairyland is.

It’s drawn in an arts-and-crafts style, and suggests a yearning for another world (entirely possible to feel this way at the end of a shattering world war), and what I like about it is both its delicacy of colour, and its sense of the grown-upness of fairyland. It is not necessarily aimed at children.

When I stumbled across it, while doing some research for another project on nineteenth-century children’s literature that I’m planning for 2021, I was so taken I immediately thought I should get a copy.

And then, I discovered that there is a jigsaw version of it, which I promptly bought.

Alas, it only covers about 3 feet of Fairyland, probably a good thing, as my desk and dining table are covered with mythical manuscripts. But in the odd moment, I’ve been enjoying piecing it together, and identifying the classical elements that pop up in it.

Jigsaws are in at the moment, as part of a non-digital mindful return to old pursuits. It turns out that the gentle act of sorting through pieces, and working out where to put them is restful and absorbing, and good for the brain.

Combing through the puzzle pieces for the back end of a centaur, or figuring out where Cerberus has his lair (up in the mountains!), somehow frees up the mind to think and reflect more naturally. When I started tutoring at Brandeis University, I learned from working with an inspirational artist and teacher, Karen Klein, that giving students something to do with their hands (drawing a picture, playing with plasticine or pipecleaners), freed up their conversation, made them less self-conscious, perhaps less anxious, able to talk, almost idly, about whatever the subject of the day was.

Our Mythical Alphabet

And I’ve been finding, as I sift through the puzzle pieces, that I’ve been thinking about the book I’m writing with Miriam Riverlea, in which we too sift through many pieces, to put together a puzzle. In our case, it’s a guide to the way that classical mythology works in children’s literature, and we’re looking at it from all sorts of angles. How do particular mythical figures feature in children’s books? What happens to them in the pages? Does a child’s version of a myth highlight specific features? Which myths work for children, and which do not? Why are some figures more popular than others? How do the aesthetics of children’s literature shape the reception of classical antiquity more generally?

We’ve pieced together an Alphabetical Odyssey of a book (and last week I presented its overall format to my colleagues in the Our Mythical Childhood project at the Our Mythical History workshop–report to come). We use the non-hierarchical structure of the alphabet, combined with the loose adventurousness of an Odyssey, a journey on which anything might happen, and frequently does. My colleagues, as they always do, asked intelligent questions–about how we devised our topics, how capacious they are, how do we handle overlap, how do we identify useful texts, how will we present images, classical motifs, children’s literature concepts, and more. How do we handle multicultural topics, how do we think about diversity and difference–all important issues, and a reminder, if any were needed, that the topic may seem highly specialised, but in fact contains multiple and important influences and impacts.

As the work on the book intensifies, I’ll keep using this blog as a place to think about some of the issues that come up.

Back to the Mappe

I’m writing this while waiting for the plane that will take me back to the Southern Hemisphere. The week in Warsaw was intense, thinking about Mythical History, and hearing about the wonderful work my colleagues are doing (such as setting up the Our Mythical Education database, and launching the Myth and Autism network). It’s a shame Bernard Sleigh’s not around to invite to one of our Mythical conferences–I feel sure that if he did come, he’d incorporate our project into a map even larger than his one of Fairyland. But I’m looking forward to getting back to my three-feet jigsaw extract. Hopefully when I get home, all this mythical thinking will have helped me work out just where to find the missing bits of centaur, where exactly to place Cerberus’s lair–and of course, pinning down the elements of our Alphabetical Odyssey…

–Elizabeth Hale

‘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