Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Two courses on the reception of classical mythology in Fall 2016

Dear Mythographers and other Friends,
    You might like to know about my F2016 courses:
 “Reception of Classical Myth in the Arts in the Modern Era” Clscs 490R/Clscs 690R. MW 1:00 – 2:15 p.m.   and "Studies in Themes and Types: The Eurydice Theme" CmpSt 640R M 8:00 — 10:45.
     The courses are intended to explore theoretical and practical issues pertaining to the reception and adaptation of classical myth in the arts — literature, cinema, opera, painting, sculpture, landscape,
orchestral, graphic novel, television, video game, whatever. In particular, we will look closely at reception of two mythological figures especially: Electra and Pygmalion in the one, Eurydice in the other.
ad for 2012 Perth Opera's Elektra (Strauss)

In our exploration, we will deliberate on what constitutes usage of a classical myth, a sometimes challenging enterprise.
   We will read classical mythological treatments, such as are found in Sophocles, Euripides, and Ovid, and then proceed to standard treatments of Electra and Pygmalion in representations such as Strauss’ Elektra, O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and so forth. Student contributions in this seminar will drive collective success; thus, I am loathe to dictate up front what the
parameters of our study will be. Once we establish the groundrules for the course, the direction will be subject to interesting twists and turns. Hundreds of usages of these myths are available for consideration.
Jean-Leon Gérôme's Pygmalion
           Please contact me with any questions you might have.

Imaged here: Strauss’ Elektra, Gerôme’s Pygmalion and Galatea,
                   Miller’s (actually Bendis/Austen's) Elektra: Assassin, Lerner/Loewe’s My Fair Lady

Both these courses will allow me to explore matters pertaining to reception of classical myth with the students.
   The CmpSt 640R should have a broader base of theoretical readings, because the course should be pertinent to individuals from every walk of our program’s life. There ought to be more interdisciplinarity in that course.
Frank Miller developed
Elektra, but others have
adapted the character.
    The Clscs 690R will have some of that, but perhaps a good deal less than CmpSt 640R ought to have.
       Further, Clscs 690R will be taught in a room that is largely populated by undergraduates (I hope!) who are enrolled in the 4xx-level course.
In both I will be expanding my core articles for the eventual OGCMA-online project. The 690R course will involve the creation of two articles, while the CmpSt 640R will be more focused and result in the creation of only one article. See below.

Differences will be readily apparent in the topics approached. Beyond the theoretical groundwork, the Clscs course will explore the reception of both the Electra myth and the Pygmalion myth, while the CmpSt course will dig as deeply as we can into the Eurydice myth.
    In the Eurydice course (CmpSt 690R) I hope to sideline Orpheus as much as possible and look for interesting psychological developments of Eurydice in myth and the arts. She deserves her own scholarship, and artists have been exploring Eurydice for a long long time. Geoffrey Miles stated (erroneously, I believe) that Edward Dowden’s 1876 “Eurydice” is “perhaps the first serious attempt to give Eurydice a voice and to see the Orpheus-Eurydice relationship from her point of view.” (Miles, 126) Dowden post-dates the Orfeo by Gluck (libretto by Calzabigi, 1762), whose Euridice expresses her plaintive rather pathetically and takes matters into her own hands, by over a century. (Gluck Orfeo premiered 1762.) But Gluck/Calzabigi may not be the first in this regard.

Poster for My Fair Lady.
   In the Electra/Pygmalion course, disparate mythological strands will be united by the common fact that OGCMA-print lacks adequate depth. Electra deserves her own article and Pygmalion’s cinematic reception is not even remotely explored by JDReid et co. Pygmalion is one of the trickiest test-cases for my anally myopic theoretical rules on reception, especially because I doubt that most descendants of My Fair Lady know anything about the classical myth that lies before it. You know this about me. As for Electra, some fascinating receptions of Electra come into play cinematically — Il Pistolero dell’Ave Maria, or Electra, My Love, or the Jennifer Garner Elektra —among others. This course, the Clscs 490R/690R ought to find us looking into lots of films.

Let me know if I can clarify anything.

Monday, May 16, 2016

A New and Improved Athena on the Teatro San Carlo ceiling


A recent visit to Naples found me tracking a long-dead painter I never knew, Giuseppe Cammarano (1766-1850). Though not a great master from our perspective of 150 years, Cammarano was important during the Bourbon moment and influential as the “principal proponent” of Neapolitan neoclassicism.

The central frescoed ceiling of the famous Teatro San Carlo brought Cammarano to my attention. The huge round canvas hoovers high over the seats where artsy patrons have watched operas continuously since 1814. On my visits to this opera, I have been tucked away among the nose-bleed seats, too close to the ceiling to see it. San Carlo is the oldest continuously functioning operahouse anywhere, its musical majesty a critical reminder that Neapolitan culture is like the best stracciatella ricotta, extraordinary and rich.
G. Cammarano, "Apollo presents the Great Poets from Homer to Alfieri to Minerva", ceiling of
Teatro San Carlo, Naples.

Cammarano’s ceiling at the San Carlo presents a remarkable interpretation of the roles of Minerva and of Apollo. The artwork Apollo che presenta a Minerva i maggiori poeti, da Omero ad Alfieri (“Apollo presents to Minerva the greatest poets from Homer to Alfieri”, 1814) covers a whopping 500 square meters. Cammarano was commissioned to paint it as part of the restoration of the S.Carlo Theatre following a devastating fire. The commission was extended by Antonio Niccolini, who conceived the work. [NB: Cammarano's proscenium curtain was lost in an 1844 fire.****]

The novelty of this remarkable painting attracts your eye to its center then maintains your interest as you work your way outwards. A brilliant cloudburst emanates from her head, ruled shafts of light bursting from the divine central scene. Minerva occupies the middle position, sitting in glory atop the throne of heaven, presiding over the coronation of poets arriving in apotheosis. Nine Muses flank her, six to her left and three to her right. They clearly serve Minerva here, not Apollo musagetes. He stands apart from Minerva in posture every bit like the Apollo Belvedere, though he wears a regal robe tossed about his shoulders and plays a lyre. 

The central elements of this painting constitute a kind of Parnassus scene. Such scenes are common in neoclassicizing art.* Typically the Muses or their leader Apollo stands in a lofty place and receives a numerous string of artists who have achieved immortality.
Cammarano’s conception of the Parnassus scene works Athena into an uncustomarily superior role over her half-brother and subordinates Apollo to a gatekeeping role. 

Beyond Apollo, a gathering of poets awaits admission to the heavenly audience. In their rear (our far left), Hercules skips merrily with his newlywed bride, Hebe. Neither has any sense of urgency about getting to the painting’s center. A handful of robed men are ready to step upward toward the scene. Four particular artists attend the scene, identifiable as Homer, Vergil and Dante, (and is that Petrarch behind them all?). One surges forward, his time come, toward the accepting gesture of Apollo. It’s this poet’s coronation we are witnessing. He steps ahead of the all-time greatest to claim his prize over the heads of generations of opera-goers in the San Carlo.

The poet chosen for the immortalizing moment is Vittorio Alfieri. The Italian Romantic movement would have amounted to little, except for the contributions of Alfieri’s pen. Though Alfieri died at the fairly young age (1749 – 1803), his spirit captivated the hearts of Italians. His tragedies drew deeply from classical sources and played the central theme of liberty, the valorization of an individual transcending tyranny. Mdme Stendahl recorded in her journal a night in Napoli’s Teatro Nuovo when she emerged from a performance of Alfieri’s Saul thinking “that this tragedy touches the secret heartstrings of the Italian national spirit.”*** 

As Alfieri enters immortality, other figures on the massive canvas surge upward toward a heavenly reward. Is it Orpheus lower center who looks up at the woman who is being ushered away from him? He holds a lyre and the act of separation is distinctly portrayed. The throng of ghostly individuals is being led by a scythe-bearing Grim Reaper. Throughout the canvas, Cammarano has subtly adjusted the teleology from a classical setting to a heavenly scene in which a not a Judeo-Christian divinity presides but a classical goddess. The fitting ending for Alfieri in his quest for immortality.

G. Cammarano, Sala
del Consiglio, Caserta Reggia
Cammarano received the San Carlo commission two years after his first big Bourbon gig, when in 1814 he had collaborated with his brother, Antonio, to paint the Council Chamber of the Reggia at Caserta, depicting there “Minerva Crowning the Arts and Sciences” and, elsewhere in the same building the ceilings of the King’s bedroom with “Theseus Killing the Minotaur” and of the salon with “Hector Reprimanding Paris”. The Bourbon king Ferdinando IV had sent Cammarano to learn painting in Rome before any of the work at Caserta was undertaken. After San Carlo he would in service with Ferdinand as court decorator painting in the Palazzo Reale in Naples. His "Apollo with Muses" still adorns the ceiling of a reading room at the Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli.  (Cioffi, p. 286 does not identify the room.)
G. Cammarano, "Hector Reprimanding
Paris", Caserta Reggia

G. Cammarano, "Theseus and the Minotaur", Caserta
Reggia, Getty Images
His latest work was the Last Supper in the apse at the cathedral in Caserta. In all these paintings Cammarano develops his own stylistic program of fundamentally overt neoclassical that is also aware of color-modes of late 18th-century painting. The result of this is a distinct eclectic that comes also from peaceful refinement.” (Treccani; trans RTM) Cammarano's "Family Portrait of Francesco I King of the Two Sicilies" (1820, at Capodimonte), strikes me as extraordinarily ho-hum.

Better is Giuseppe Cammarano’s Apotheosis of Sappho (1831) on the ceiling of the monumental west staircase of Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano in the Via Toledo.
Apollo receives Sappho in apotheosis, G. Cammarano
Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano, Naples in situ
The apotheosis presents the same basic central scene as the San Carlo parnassus scene, but in a smaller format and as a fresco. A poetess holds her lyre and strives upward from left to center where Apollo receives her arrival at his cloud-strewn throne.

The Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano is primarily an art gallery now, with a few spectacular pieces of painted and sculpted art from all periods. The key holding is Caravaggio’s last canvas, “The Martyrdom of S.a Orsola.” It’s a painting with a history but catches your eye especially when you know that it contains the painter’s own self-portrait.

The Zevallos Caravaggio is safely tucked into its own room, which is a gem in its own right. The Wedgewood blue walls and ceiling of the room are decorated with white intaglios of erotic (though not overtly too naughty) scenes from classical mythology. I never stood inside a Wedgewood pyxis, until I entered this room. You should try it sometime. The wall opposite the painting has Mars and Venus ascending in a divine caress; the left wall shows Cupid and Psyche doing the same but with less petting; the right wall has Leda holding a very tame swan; but when I went to look behind the Caravaggio at the intaglio on the fourth wall, I triggered the alarm and left the room blushing, not from the naughtiness.  

————— RTM

Not in OGCMA, neither s.v. "Athena," s.v. "Apollo," nor s.v. "Parnassus".

* For Parnassus in literature: Classical sources: Ov. Met. 1.317, 2.221, 4.643, 5.278, 11.165, 11.330; Pausanias 10.6.1

** Treccani Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani vol. 17 (1974), s.v. “Cammarano, Giuseppe”:
“Nel frattempo aveva svolto un'intensa attività di decoratore per i Borbone: nel 1814, con la collaborazione del fratello Antonio, affrescò la volta della sala del Consiglio della reggia, di Caserta, raffigurandovi Minerva che premia le arti e le scienze e, nella stessa reggia, affrescò poi le volte della camera da letto del re (Teseo che uccide il Minotauro) e di un salotto (Ettore che rimprovera Paride, con data 1818). Nel 1816 intanto era stato chiamato dal Nicolini a decorare la volta del rinnovato teatro S. Carlo, con una vasta composizione su tela, ideata dallo stesso architetto e in cui figura Apollo che presenta a Minerva i maggiori poeti, da Omero ad Alfieri. Il C. lavorò quindi nel palazzo reale di Napoli e nel 1819 ne ornò un salone con un affresco raffigurante Minerva che premia le Virtù. In tutte queste decorazioni il C. sviluppa una sua formula stilistica di impronta fondamentalmente neoclassica e però sempre memore dei moduli coloristici tardosettecenteschi: risultandone così un certo eclettismo, comunque di piacevole raffinatezza.”
For more on Cammarano, see Greco, F.C. and R. Di Benedetto, edd. Donizetti, Napoli, l’Europa: Atti del Convegno (Napoli 11-13 dicembre 1997). Scientifiche Italiane, 2000. P. 282-83.

*** Diaries of Mdme Stendahl: 27 febbraio 1817. “Si direbbe che questa tragedia tocchi le corde segrete del sentimento nazionale italiano.]

**** Translation of a description of Cammarano's proscenium curtain, "il sipario": "...destroyed by a fire in 1844,... its attention to a theme represented and strongly promoted by the Bourbon agenda. A chronicler of the time, described its iconography precisely — You could see on the curtain Jupiter upon the height of Mt Olympus, whence came a ray of sunlight that fell upon the Genius of the Reign illuminating it. Upon this Genius was affixed the facial likeness of Ferdinando. Minerva guides to his proximity the various provinces of the realm personified and happy as they come together to pay tributary homage to the magnanimous Princeps through whom their inhabitants are just, humane, blessed, harmonious, agreeable, moderate, active, lovers of the public weal and they obtain today the affection, the esteem, and the admiration of all Europe and enjoy not disturbed internal peace because they are founded upon the true and lasting happiness of nations. ... Justice and Peace seem at the top to come forward to crown the August monarch whom they have recalled to this blessed land." Emanuele Taddei, Descrizione istorica dello incendio e del restauramento del Real Teatro di San Carlo (Napoli, 1817), 26 - 27 cited in R. Cioffi, "La Pittura di 'storia' a Napoli, all'epoca di Donizetti: persistenze neoclassiche a barlumi romantici," in R.C. Greco e R. Di Benedetto, edd., Donizetti Napoli l'Europa (Napoli: Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 2000), 283-85.  

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Reuben Nakian's Juno, Part II

On the day I encountered the Juno by Reuben Nakian at my campus art museum, I wrote to the Nakian Atelier seeking further information that might help me understand the sculpture and its history.
Reuben Nakian, "Juno", outside the BYU Museum of Art;
photograph courtesy of Museum Director, Mark Magleby.

I received some days later an email from the artist's son, Paul S. Nakian, an attorney in Connecticut. The letter informs that Dr. Robert Metzger wrote the text of a catalogue of Reuben Nakian's works  and that, even if the Juno is not easily explicated, it is known. According to Metzger and P. Nakian, who reports the scholar's ideas, "Juno" was dedicated first at Norwalk, CT in the early 1980's and belongs to the artist's "Stonehenge Period".

I will have to dig into Metzger's book, which I now have ordered via Interlibrary Loan.
    Corcoran Gallery of Art and Reading Public Museum and Art Gallery, Reuben Nakian: a centennial retrospective, 1897 - 1986 (Feb. 6 - April 4, 1999) (Reading, PA, 1998).

I will prefer looking at this book before I phone Robert Metzger, whose number was provided for me.

Surely there is some scholarly writing on the sculpture. But I haven't found it yet.

——— RTM


Monday, January 18, 2016

Abduction of Oreithyia by Boreas in Hitchcock's Vertigo

A large tapestry with a classical mythological theme plays an incidental role in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). There seems to me no likely interpretive connection between the film's Orphic theme and the tapestry's narrative. The tapestry depicts the abduction of Oreithyia by Boreas (Ov. Met. 6.683ff.) Just in case the allusion becomes apparently purposeful, I jot this quick note.

The setting is San Francisco's Palace of the Legion Honor, where Madeline Elster frequents the "Portrait of Carlotta Valdes". Directly opposite the Carlotta portrait the large colorful tapestry fills the wall. Scottie Ferguson lurks in the gallery tracking Madeline on his first day. Having ascertained that Madeline is mirroring Carlotta in posture and dress (minute 27), Scottie exits the gallery in search of a docent who can identify the portrait's subject. Hitchcock's visual shot has Scottie walk across the tapestry toward the camera. 
R-A Houasse (tapestry by P. Behagle Atelier; 1720) "Abduction of
Oriethyia by Boreas", Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

Rene-Antoine Houasse designed the silk and wool tapestry for execution in the French workshop of Phillipe Behagle ca. 1720. Designed as part of a series of tapestries with scenes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, the piece represents conventional techniques and stylistic trends of early 18th Century neoclassicism. About 10 years before Hitchcock's film, the Legion of Honor (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) acquired the tapesty as a gift of Mrs. Bruce Kelham and Mrs. Peter Lewis. (

Vertigo(dir. A. Hitchcock, 1958); Scottie Ferguson exits the gallery in
the Palace of the Legion of Honor in front of the Houasse tapestry.
credit: 1000 Frames of Vertigo — frame 249 (click)
In the center of the tapestry (122 x 208 inches, overall) the winged Boreas, divinity of the North Wind, abducts the girl Oreithyia while the remaining seven earthbound daughters of the Athenian founding king Erechtheus, her sisters, manifest various expressions of distress. The story as told in Metamorphoses, an abduction that leads to the begetting of the Argonauts Zetes and Calais, can hardly now be counted among the most familiar of the narratives within that poem. It is slipped into the sequence of Athenian monarchy, right after the horrors of Procne and Philomela and right before Jason and Medea. Yet it contains many themes recurrent throughout the poem — abduction, divine coupling to produce prodigious offspring, and male imposition of power upon hapless girls.

Madeline's problematic identity notwithstanding, the mythological reference seems coincidental. Gavin Elster has hatched a plot together with a young woman whose name ultimately seems to be Judy Barton, "just a girl from Salina, Kansas" (1:35). The circumstances of Gavin's association with Judy/Madeline might be reflected in Boreas' abduction of Oreithyia. But the narrative never provides such information.

It would seem more logical to conclude that the tapestry is coincidentally hanging in the gallery where Hitchcock arranged for the Portait of Carlotta to be shown. That painting was commissioned and painted by John Ferren specially for the film. But the tapestry was displayed for several years as an actual part of the permanent collection. (It is no longer on display in January 2016.)

    For the Metropolitan Museum of Art's related holding, see Tapestry in the Baroque: threads of splendor (fig. 189, p. 415).
     Most information pertaining to this tapestry is taken from the FAMSF's website (consulted 18 Jan 2016):

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Reuben Nakian's Juno ... OGCMA0515NOTHera_Nakian

Modern usages of classical mythology really interest me. Artists express various ideas by way of classical mythological allusions all the time. But, frankly, living in the western United States, I tend to bump into classical mythological usages a little less often than I do when I go visiting elsewhere. Still, sometimes, they're right under my nose!

On the north side of BYU’s Museum of Art a big abstract sculpture confronts nearly every visitor. Since I enter on the south side normally — coming from campus rather than from the parking lot — I experience that confrontation less often. Last week’s entrance changed that. Visiting the Norman Rockwell exhibition with my mother and her friend, I was asked “What is that sculpture?” I didn’t know.
A large abstract bronze sits atop a rectangular pedestal bloc. It abstraction — if I ever took time in the past to think about the sculpture — had made me liken the sculpture’s profile to the ridgeline of nearby Provo Peak and Cascade Mountain, and not so much to the outline of Mt. Timpanogos. Fortunately, in that moment of maternal interrogation I avoided professorial guff. I didn’t pretend to know what the sculpture was “doing”. It turns out, it has nothing to do with the mountain backdrop. The facts are on the bloc’s east face: “Reuben Nakian, American 1897 – 1986,  Juno, bronze”.

So. Um. It turns out the only thing I actually had right about the sculpture was its material — bronze.
Its creator is an American… I would have guessed European; maybe Scandinavian. Wrong. I’d never heard of Reuben Nakian. But the biggest baffler to me is that, even though I have professed to be interested in classical mythological usages, this looming bronze has been sitting in front of my museum of art for over 20 years and its one-word title gives it away as a usage of the myth of Juno, the Roman sky-goddess!

“I’ve got some work to do!” I confessed to my Mom.
That night I looked through the BYU-MOA on-line materials to find something scholarly about Nakian’s Juno, my new nemesis. I found very little, but in about 10 minutes of browsing, I was able to piece together some elements of apparent truth. So, I am resolved to learn more about this sculpture and work on it.
   What did Reuben Nakian have in mind when he named this mass of bronze after the Roman sky-goddess? Did he mean anything by it? Why call it anything at all? Is it a happenstance that this sculpture got so named? Did its acquisition at the BYU MOA happen because it’s called Juno?

Here’s what I presently know, listed not necessarily in the sequence I discovered the details:
The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300 – 1990s does NOT list Nakian’s Juno, though it could have, since the sculpture was created over a decade before the OGCMA was published (1994).
      If it were listed in OGCMA, it would have been in the article on “Hera” on page 515.
       And its entry would look like this:
Reuben Nakian, “Juno,” abstract sculpture, 1980, Brigham Young University Museum of Art.

Nakian created many sculptures with titles drawn from classical mythology. Other titles include “Hecuba”, “Juno: from the Judgement of Paris”, “Minerva, from the Judgement of Paris”, “Leda and the Swan”, “Nymph and Seven Dolphins” and others.

“No other sculptor of the twentieth century has matched Nakian’s heroic grapplings with the grand themes of Western art, returning classical mythology to the foreground of human consciousness.” Robert Metzger, cited by Atelier Nakian

When the “Juno” was placed at the north entrance to the Museum of Art in 1993, an article in the Deseret News included some information that might be considered authoritative. According to the article, “It represents an artistic style based in abstract expressionism, yet with a classical structure that was not embraced by abstract expressionists - according to Neil Hadlock.”
A summary accompanies it:
A sculpture by famed artist Reuben Nakian now graces the entrance to Brigham Young University's new Museum of Art. The work, an 8x8x8-foot, 4,900-pound bronze was lifted by crane July 29 onto a pedestal on the east side of the red granite museum.
Called ``Juno,'' the work was a National Endowment for the Arts commission Nakian received in 1981. It represents an artistic style based in abstract expressionism, yet with a classical structure that was not embraced by abstract expressionists - according to Neil Hadlock. Hadlock, a sculptor and member of the BYU art faculty, selected the work and oversaw the coloring of the piece at the Tallix Foundry in New York.”

The website has a plentiful bibliography page, with articles listed by decade. The Deseret News article is not listed.

The Nakian Atelier website lists approximately 100 scholarly works on the artist, Reuben Nakian, and his artistic production. My next step is to dig into the interesting items and see whether I can learn something about this work of art. Stay tuned to Mythmatters, if you care to see this story unfold.
Macfarlane's female relations and a friend pose on 30 Dec 2015 beside
Reuben Nakian's
Juno outside the BYU MOA.

—— RTM

Friday, December 4, 2015

JKBrickwork’s Kinetic Sculpture of Sisyphus


Everybody knows something about Sisyphus, it seems, especially that he spends eternity pushing a boulder to the top of a hill in the World of the Dead. Odysseus saw him there and told how every time Sisyphus nearly muscled the boulder to the summit, it would bound back down and settle in the plain. Odysseus did not, however, explain WHY Sisyphus is consigned to this eternal labor.
     Explanations about reasons for the Sisyphean punishment vary among mythographers in classical texts, both Greek and Latin. He cheated Death (Thanatos), some say, in arranging with his wife to leave his mortal remains unburied so that as a disembodied shade he could persuade the nether gods to allow his return to living; upon his return to our realm, Sisyphus ventured to abide among the living. Zeus, in another telling, frowned upon Sisyphus’ irreverence — for Sisyphus had told Asopus that the Olympian had abducted his daughter — and sent Thanatos to deal with the transgressor. Sisyphus bound Thanatos in chains, thus temporarily interrupting the need for mortals to die, until Ares intervened, freed Death, and sent Sisyphus to the eternal toil of pushing that stone ever upwards.
JKBrickworks, Jason's Kinetic Sisyphus:
     Since ancient authors touched upon Sisyphus’ labor — and it would surprise us if they were consistent entirely in the whys and wherefores — literary and other artists in all ages have written about the legendary trickster. My personal favorite is Ally Condie’s remarkable telling in her Matched trilogy of teen-directed novels (Dutton 2010-2012), where Sisyphus is shown to have undertaken his eternal push for purpose of wearing down a canyon through a ridgeline and thereby channeling a stream for subsequent ages to follow. Albert Camus’ 1942 articulation of the absurdity of Sisyphus’ task is itself a classic: “Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, know the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent.” And collecting occasional New Yorker cartoons playing with the Sisyphus myth, especially those by Chas Addams and Christopher Weyant, was for many years a welcome diversion for me.
    Now, a Lego engineer at named Jason has crafted a remarkable kinetic sculpture of Sisyphus pushing a boulder. Jason’s YouTube was picked up by Disney Research and forwarded to me by Abi Pettijohn, an attentive student in my Myth class. In ClCv 241, I hope to train students to look for interesting modern usages of classical myths. My hope is that the really interesting ones will spark further thinking. Abi has done her job very well indeed.
     The JKBrickworks Sisyphus can be seen in action on YouTube (use this link: Aside from the marvelous engineering on display, I draw attention to the mythological artwork explained by the engineer himself in the video. Jason introduces himself and his creation, but makes sure we understand the freize panels adorning the base upon which his Sisyphus moves. (Jason is a long way, in every measure, beyond any of the Lego fabrications I built when I worked in Danish brick!) Jason explains on the video:
So, before I explain how all the mechanics work, I thought I would show you the base of the model where I have depicted my interpretation of some of the scenes of Sisyphus’ life in this Greek relief style. On the front we have him in his chariot and horse attacking some of the visitors to his kingdom. [On the back panel:] This is actually Hades in the Underworld being chained up. He was actually intending to chain Sisyphus up, but Sisyphus managed to turn the tables on him. [On the opposite long flank:] Here he is hosting a dinner party and he was stabbing some of his guests. He really was a pretty evil dude. [On the short front flank:] This is Zeus who finally had enough of shenanigans and punished him by having him roll the boulder up the mountain. And of course Zeus cursed the boulder so that it would always roll back to the bottom when it got to the top.
      Jason is not pretending to offer up a scholarly discourse on Sisyphus. So, I gladly allow him his narrative. Moreover, the brickwork involved in his four remarkably skilful friezes (not to mention the stunning figure of his Sisyphus itself) gives this mythographer a bit of a free pass. However, the four narratives Jason offers are novel and unfounded in classical accounts.
       Jason’s Sisyphus is regarded as “a pretty evil dude” and is thus depicted killing guests at a “dinner party”. Gross violations of xenia are not part of customary, classical (if you will) narratives of Sisyphean criminality. The binding of Hades is similar to the Sisyphus’ binding of Thanatos, to be sure; and maybe a critic of Jason’s mythopoesis is going to far to make him split a hair distinguishing between Death and Hades, the god of the dead. I know of no classical myth that tells of Sisyphus trampling by chariot visitors to his kingdom. Corinth, Sisyphus’ kingdom, was known for many things in antiquity, but not primarily renown for its inhospitality. Nor was Sisyphus known among classical authors for dangerous treatment of visitors in general. Jason’s fourth claim, that “Zeus finally [tired] of Sisyphus’ shenanigans” is pretty much right on the money, even if classical authors give the cursing of the infamous boulder over to other gods at times.
      I write in response to Jason’s Kinetic Sisyphus not out of pedantry, not to mark the contents and explanations of his friezes as erroneous, but rather to welcome this remarkable contribution to the world of modern usages of classical mythology, that corpus of timeless narratives that continues to change and grow.
   RTM, with thanks to by Abigail Pettijohn

Some bibliography offered by Classical Tradition, comp. by A. Grafton and G.W. Most (Harvard, 2010), s.v. “Sisyphus” [G.B.]
B. Seidensticker and A. Wessels, eds., Mythos Sisyphos: Texte von Homer bis Günter Kunert (Leipzig 2001).
Also, see Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300 – 1990s  (Oxford University Press, 1994).

Monday, November 2, 2015

George O'Connor's Olympians: Poseidon and the horse

G. O'Connor, Olympians: Poseidon, earth shaker
Neal Porter Books: New York, 2013
George O'Connor's graphic-novel treatments of Greek mythology caught my eye this weekend. I wish I had come to know them earlier! O'Connor attempts to work rather sophisticated questions about standard mythologies into a series he aims at a 9-to-14 year old audience. Though pitched at kids, grown-ups can probably enjoy The Olympians as well. This quick assessment of the series' fifth book Poseidon: earth shaker is supposed to convince the reader to look into the series as a whole.

A website created by the publisher promotes sales of the books. See

Horses are sacred to Poseidon. This puzzles O'Connor, and rightly so. The ancient Greeks prayed to Poseidon as "Pelagios, Asphaleios, and Hippios" (i.e. god of the sea, god of protection from earth-quake, and god of horses), according to Pausanias (Description of Greece 7.21.7). Poseidon's affiliation with horses in myth and in cult is ubiquitous. Poseidon is regarded as the direct progenitor of the horse in cults at Thessaly and Athens, where his semen spilt upon the rock engendered the first horse. The winged horse Pegasus is the direct offspring of Poseidon's mating with Medusa, born at the gorgon's decapitation. Pegasus lighted upon the earth with a prodigious hoofbeat and opened a fresh-water spring, Hippocrene, from which the Muses draw inspiration and fresh water. Appeasement of the gods at the end of the Trojan siege was effected by means of a horse. The human-voiced horse Arion is the offspring of Poseidon, sometimes in union with an earthborn Erinys and sometimes with the earth-goddess Demeter Erinys. It is Poseidon's essential characteristic as the god of the earth, the Earth Shaker, that associates him most naturally with chthonic entities such as the
earth-born horse.  (For more on this, see W. Burkert, Greek Religion (Harvard, 1985), 138 - 39.)
O'Connor, Poseidon p. 9, frm. 2

O'Connor's coverage of a broad set of Poseidon myths is impressive. Polyphemus and Odysseus, the
drawing of the Lots after the Titanomachy, Athena's contest for primacy in Athens, Arion's birth from Demeter, the Trojan Horse, how Theseus was both the son of Aegeas and of Poseidon, and so forth.

The audience of 9-to-14 year olds will not be too scandalized by naughtiness. No sexual nudity is explicitly drawn, though Poseidon throughout wears nothing more than a flowing loincloth. Ariadne is shown wearing one of those crazy topless
Poseidon's salt-water spring on
Acropolis, Poseidon p. 49 frm. 2
dresses that you might remember the "Minoan Snake Goddess" of Heracleion wearing in art history books; but O'Connor places captions and speaking-bubbles strategically throughout. If you are looking for such things, you'll notice them. Kids won't. Likewise, only very close scrutiny of some frames that depict naked youths running in a footrace reveals the depicted runners to be naked, and only then if you know what to look for.  The narrative of Aethra's unions with Theseus' two fathers is drawn (in the Poseidon part) as captionless silhouettes in a moonlight swim, unlikely to spark too many questions from youngsters. Still, O'Connor remains culturally correct in these moments.

Poseidon offers plenty of material for young geeks. I imagine my nephew poring over the genealogical tree inside the front cover. You can view it on the OLYMPIANSRULE site, also. The author's propensity to includes lots of myths in a linear narrative is appealing; plus it keeps them short. The amusing "Greek Notes" (note the strike-thru!) at the back of the book explain sometimes nuanced graphics within the narratives. I won't be surprised when so tired of seeing there!] It will be a welcome day when my students in the Myth class know their stuff from O'Connor and not from Rick Riordan's adaptations.
O'Connor, Poseidon p. 14 frm. 1
O'Connor starts showing up in footnotes of my college students' papers. [If only!... I'm

O'Connor's questions about the connection between Poseidon and the horse arise several times within his Poseidon book. He is clearly amused, but also intrigued. Several references to horses, visual and stated, recur in Poseidon. A discussion question (p. 74) asks "Why do you think the God of the Sea was also the God of Earthquakes? How about horses?" Several of the "Greek Notes" mention horses, e.g. "Page 9, Panel 2 [see panel at right, above]: Stallions. Poseidon really likes horses. More on this later."

According to O'Connor's "Bibliography" (p. 76), "without doubt, the single most valuable resource" for classical mythology is I heartily wish this clever purveyor of classical mythology were inclined to pursue more authoritative source materials than what is available on the internet. The author himself notes that is limited, in that "it's not quite complete, and it doesn't seem to be updated anymore." Still, it is delightful to see what results from O'Connor's  encounters. He does The Orphic Hymns (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2013)! ISBN 9781421408828] I'd like to see future volumes derive authority from authoritative source materials such as Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts.
George O'Connor from
admit that he has struggled to find the Orphic Hymn to Poseidon, even though it "was very hard to find in an actual book". [Next time use A.N. Athanassakis and B.M. Molkow, transs.

O'Connor's recommendations for further reading range very very broadly, from good recommendations "for younger readers" like D'Aulaires' Books of Greek Myths to (under Odysseus' blurb on the facing page) a recommendation for Joyce's Ulysses as "widely consider to be one of the greatest books in the English language." OK. That's a broad range!

If I were recommending Greek mythological books for young readers — and in fact I was asked just this weekend by a family member — I would be really comfortable watching George O'Connor's Olympians continue to fly off the shelves. I ordered the set for myself this morning!

—  RTM

By the way... Horses and plate-techtonics came up on Saturday's Weekend Morning Edition: click here.

George O'Connor's Olympian pantheon, from