Friday, 4 May 2012

The Dangers of Mythic Ignorance - Lucy Coats

Leda and the Swan (after Michelangelo): National Gallery, London
This is a true story.  Last week, a policeman was passing a gallery in central London, when he saw a photographic depiction (by Derrick Santini) of the Greek myth 'Leda and the Swan' in the window.  He phoned for support, whereupon two uniformed officers entered the gallery and demanded that the picture be taken down immediately.  The owner of the gallery said that the policeman told her that: “the photograph suggested we condoned bestiality, which was an arrestable offence. They stood there and didn't leave until we took the picture down.”  When the officers were informed that the picture was of a well-known Greek myth, the gallery owner went on: "they said they didn't know anything about the myth.  It's crazy...the cultural references were lost on them." And that's what makes me most sad, really, that last phrase.

The cultural references were lost on them.

Much of our greatest art and literature is based on Greek myths.  Once, every schoolchild would have known how to interpret those 'cultural references'.  This is no longer the case.  Greek myths are taught in schools for a term at most, as part of a wider 'myth module'.  I've talked to many thousands of kids about them, doing school visits and festivals on a regular basis. I use art to illustrate those talks - Botticelli's Primavera, Piero di Cosimo's Perseus and Andromeda, JW Waterhouse's Odysseus and the Sirens among many others. I also include sculpture, pottery and friezes. A good proportion of the kids are fascinated, inspired, and want to know more.  But it's not enough to give them more than a flavour, and I can only get round so many schools in a year. Without being able to access those stories as part of their basic cultural knowledge, that photograph of Leda and her god-like lover in swan form was just an obscene picture to those policemen, seen as likely to corrupt and endanger public morals. The same could be implied, say, of this bronze of Europa and the Bull by American sculptor Paul Manship, or of the painting at the top of this piece. I think that's a dangerous road to go down - but it's what ignorance can lead to.
Europa and the Bull (Paul Manship, 1924)
Greek myths are full of taboo things which would rightly be seen to be distasteful/forbidden in everyday life, not only to the modern mind, but to the ancients too.  There's incest (on a regular basis), there's bestiality, there's cannibalism, there's murder.... Having read and studied them for more than 40 years, I am intimately familiar with most of their darker sides.  I've had to find ways round those same darker sides while retelling the myths for children (my Atticus the Storyteller's 100 Greek Myths is still the biggest published collection for children to date), and that's the question I get asked most by adults. "But how did you get round all that stuff - and how do you deal with the questions from children about it?" Adults, you note, not kids, because the short answer is that children never ask.  Not once in all the years I've been talking to kids have I ever had a question like "But surely Zeus is sleeping with his daughter/cousin/sister - how come that's happening?"

Gods behave differently, and by their very nature myths are allowed a certain latitude in these things. They are, in their way, archetypal lessons in living, in coping with the human condition.  They show us examples of the (almost always dreadful in the end) consequences of certain actions, both taboo and what might be termed hubristic.  All life is here if you care to look.  But for me, in the end, the myths are above all else great stories, stories that everyone should know, because even in the 21st century, references to them are everywhere in our everyday lives. Pulled an Achilles tendon running the Marathon? Bought a pair of Nike trainers to run it in? Poured Ambrosia custard on your well-deserved apple crumble afterwards? Opened an atlas? Watched the new 3D version of Titanic? If you don't know the stories behind those words, you can't access the full reference or meaning, and as we've seen above, at its worst, ignorance of our shared mythic heritage can lead to censorship and the threat of arrest. That's just plain dangerous, in my opinion.

22 comments:

adele said...

Hear, hear, Lucy! It's lack of knowledge of such things is very sad indeed, and so is ignorance of a) nursery rhymes, b)fairy tales except for Disney versions and c) Bible stories by which I don't mean religious education but just the wonderful stories, eg.David and Goliath, Moses fleeing Egypt etc. Good for you for spreading the word.

Emma Barnes said...

Fascinating post. Although (playing devil's advocate) was the policeman so wrong? Is it OK to show images of bestial rape in a public place just because they happen to refer to a Greek myth?

It certainly brings home the violent and visceral nature of these stories which oddly, like fairytales, we consider perfect reading material for our children!

(And I loved reading Greek myths as a child, still do, and do think children should read them. But...it's still rather strange.)

Nick Green said...

Certainly an embarrassing mythtake by that policeman.

Myths are indeed part of the underpinning structure of our whole language and culture, and should be seen as such. Everyone's familiar with modern examples (such as quoting from a classic film) but harking back to these ancient forms gives as a powerful sense of our heritage, our 'right to be here' even.

As for what you say, Emma, it is indeed paradoxical that bestiality is 'okay' if it's in myth (also remarkable how often Zeus pulled that particular trick - he was like, 'I'm out on the pull tonight... what animal shall I be?' But again, only ignorance can really make the story offensive. The point (if there is a point) of Leda and the Swan, is the consequences. Leda gives birth to Helen of Sparta (and also the Twins, Castor and Pollux) and so the incident ends up causing an apocalyptic war. Basically there is no such thing as a bit of harmless fun - actions will have consequences (especially if you are the father of the gods).

Anonymous said...

For a long time classical myths provided memes for the culture to riff off, and this makes it hard to deny that they're important, but I think we need to separate out their two roles.
One: they provide a lot of insight into ancient cultures and help us understand where we are today, two: they provide a storytelling shorthand, cultural raw materials. I could be wrong here, but I don't think the second matters so much as long as some other shared stories replace them.
As for the first, we should equally be rushing out to fill up the gaps in our mythic knowledge of other cultures besides the european ones.
I don't want to fault the police officers, maybe they did grow up with strong mythical knowledge and an artistic education, just not a european one.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I guess what I mean is, interest in the greek myths as a common shorthand is dying because culture is becoming more internationlised. The common mythology will evolve out of new, less eurocentric stories, and I don't think that's a bad thing.

catdownunder said...

Oh dear - we need to go back to teaching basic cultural literacy!

Catherine Butler said...

That's such a great story about the policeman that I wanted it to be true. Then I remembered that it was true, and was sad...

Richie Brown said...

Well, if the police are able to spend that much time standing around until 'offensive' material is taken down then crime must be at an all-time low. Hooray for the police in making this happen. Oh....

Lucy Coats said...

Thank you, Adele, and I quite agree about the nursery rhymes, fairy tales and Bible stories. In the case of the latter, I've wanted to do a set of retellings of things like Jonah and the Whale for ages, but am told it's impossible.

Emma - as Nick says, (and I do too in the piece above) it is paradoxical that these dreadful things are ok in myth. To see them depicted in everyday life (as with the Santini photograph) is shocking, as you say. It is a tricky question as to whether it's ok to show this kind of thing in a public place - clearly the policemen thought not. However, art is there to make us think, to question, and I don't believe that showing this particular modern depiction of Leda is wrong.

Titian's Rape of Europa, di Cortona's Rape of the Sabine Women, (and many other pictures inspired by ancient themes and stories) depict awful things if you think about it. We don't bat an eyelid at those now, and appreciating them doesn't mean we condone what's happening - they are just depictions of stories which are part of our shared cultural heritage. As I said above - the danger lies in the ignorance of those stories and the important lessons they teach.

As for the story of Leda herself, according to some of the ancient sources (Hyginus and Lactantius), Leda was tricked into taking the swan Zeus into her arms, much as he tricked Hera into taking him into her lap as a cuckoo. Other sources say that he lay with Leda in her incarnation of Nemesis (who was a goddess of the Peloponnesian swan cult). Interpretation of the story depends on what you read - but there's no doubt that those rainbow eggs led to far-reaching and fatal consequences. Draw what conclusions you will from that!

Book Maven said...

Don't forget Clytemnestra, Nick! She added a fair bit to the ensuing mayhem herself, though I have always found her a maligned figure.

I know, Lucy - it makes you weep sometimes. I've done masses of re-tellings: myths, legends, fairy tales, animal fables and the Bible stories, for that very reason.

Nicky Schmidt said...

Excellent post, Lucy - insightful and so valid. Equally, so tragic that so much is being lost, that ignorance is increasingly so commonplace. We lose ourselves when we lose our mythologies.

Jeannette Towey said...

Brilliant post, Lucy and can I say thank you for all your hard work in educating the young.

I've had a bit of experience of this type of censorship myself. Some years ago I posted a photo of a painting which was based on Canova's Sleeping Nymph in the Hermitage Museum on my web-site. The photo was hosted on PhotoBox. Someone reported it as porn and it was deleted which played havoc with my web-site and I wasn't even told that it had been deleted.

I couldn't believe it. The picture showed a sculpture, not a human being - and given this is an 18th Century scupture, there are no graphic details. I can only assume that because I had shown the marble tinted flesh-coloured, this offended someone. But honestly....

Nick Green said...

I did indeed forget Clytemnestra. Sorry.

On a similar note, I have heard it said that Brian Cox did a great service to a generation of school children in the film 'Troy' by teaching them to spell 'Agamemnon', by the way he would shout it in between great mouthfuls of scenery:
"AG-A-MEM-NON!!!!"

Carole Anne Carr said...

Writing chn's books and straying into Norse mythology I try to keep it simple. :0)

Mark Burgess said...

I confess I sympathize (to a degree) with the policeman. Part of the problem must surely be how we decide something is art, and photographs are always difficult in this regard. If a cultural reference is all that's necessary then how would we feel about (for example) Saturn devouring his children?

kathryn evans said...

My son adores your Atticus books - and I've learned so much from reading them with him - here here Lucy!

michelle lovric said...

How very very sad to see this richness crammed into a 'myth module'.

Mark Jones said...

Don't see what's wrong with a bit of swan on girl action as long as their both consenting adults/gods.

Lucy Coats said...

Jeanette - that's an appalling story, but very telling in the light of this particular subject. Thank you for sharing it.

Mark B - both Rubens and Goya tackled the subject of Cronos/Saturn in oils. They're both pretty uncomfortable pictures to look at, but once again, somehow acceptable because a god is depicted. I don't suppose a photograph would be any worse than, say, some of the zombie movies. I guess if someone wanted to do a photographic series like Goya's 'Dark Paintings' (of which the Cronos picture is one), I'd accept that as an artistic endeavour to represent the myths in a modern medium. Photoshop is a marvellous thing!

Stroppy Author said...

Isn't that really the point, Lucy? That the Goya Cronos painting is very obviously a painting (as is the Leda) and clearly 'untrue' whereas a photo of someone having sex with a swan or eating their children (even a PhotoShop'd one) purports to be an image of a real event and so has a different quality. I don't think this is the same as a photo of someone having sex with a swan. But then again, if it were a man with a swan it would be more plausible, and maybe more likely to be offensive.

As for Titian - I think the rape of Lucretia is much more disturbing because it's so realistic. There is something rather absurd about all those animal rapes...

Excellent post!

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Beth Kemp said...

I teach A Level English and am constantly up against the issue of missing cultural capital. Some of the references I've had to explain in the last few years: Medusa, the Garden of Eden, Valkyries. The gaps are not limited to any particular area.

I do think that a photograph affects us differently to painted/sculptured art as we still (despite Photoshop) expect photography to depict something 'real', and that is part of the issue here. But still ...