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The Subversive Power of the Ancient Myths
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Clearly the girl has a fierce spirit.… She does not yet know how to submit to bad circumstances.
—the old men of Thebes on Antigone in Sophocles’s Antigone
Some people can let things go. I can’t.
WHEN I WAS A GIRL I WAS LUCKY ENOUGH TO READ A BOOK called the Tales of the Greek Heroes. I was enthralled. No one does power and rebellion and love and loathing quite like the gods and mortals of ancient mythology. I liked knowing that the eyes on the peacock’s tail are there because when a beloved giant of Hera, the queen of the gods, had been killed, she plucked out his hundred eyes and placed them, in tribute, on her favorite bird. I still love the way that myths open up new ways of looking at the world.
What makes a myth a myth, rather than just a story, is that it has been told and retold over the centuries and has become meaningful to a culture or community.2 The Greek and Roman myths have become embedded in, and an influential part of, our culture. They form the foundations and scaffolding of the beliefs that shape our politics and our lives. These can be limiting and destructive but also inspirational and liberating.
The myth of Antigone, as told by the Greek playwright Sophocles, is one of the most well known of the Greek myths and one of the most meaningful for feminism and for revolutionary politics.3 She has become an icon of resistance. Of pitting personal conviction against state law. Of speaking truth to power.
Antigone insists on burying her brother Polynices, who has been killed while fighting against her city, Thebes, even though her uncle Creon, who is ruler of Thebes, expressly forbids the burial and will impose the death penalty for her defiance. Antigone, just a child of thirteen or fourteen or fifteen, stands up to a powerful adult, even when her sister won’t and when the citizens of Thebes are too afraid to do so. Antigone also challenges male authority, in the face of Creon’s insistence that women are inferior to men and that men should rule over them. She is vulnerable and terrorized, but she breaks the law anyway.
Antigone was first performed in Athens in (we think) 442 BCE. Today, it is performed all over the world; since 2016, it has been staged, with a new purpose, in Ferguson, Missouri, and in New York City. Antigone in Ferguson was conceived by Bryan Doerries after the killing of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown Jr. by a police officer there in 2014. It presents a rehearsed reading of an adaptation of Sophocles’s play, followed by a discussion, with community members, police officers, and activists, about social justice and race.4
Why not just write a play about the death of Michael Brown? Why turn to Antigone to explore this tragedy? Part of the answer must be that using myth allows us to explore extreme situations without risking the crassness of dramatizing the specific events of a young man’s death. This was the reason that the ancient Greeks turned to mythology as the material for their tragedies: when they had staged plays about contemporary events, it had proven too painful for the audience to watch. Greek myths also explore difficult subjects about abuses of power and human weaknesses. Being able to explore questions such as what makes good leadership and how to resist state fascism allows audiences to reflect on those issues in relation to particular, local events, at one remove.
Related to this is what the novelist Ralph Ellison called enlargement: myths enlarge people and literary characters when they overlay them with attributes and accomplishments from the figures in the ancient tales.5 As scholar Patrice Rankine explains, casting his characters as figures from ancient myth enabled Ellison to construct his characters “from outside of a limited, contemporary framework.” This gave them “possibilities [that] transcended the limitations that society placed upon them.”6 Seeing a character or person through a kind of dual vision, as himself and in the role of a figure from myth, gives the reader an enhanced prism through which to understand them.
An initiative run by one of my colleagues, Michael Morgan, is a good illustration of this. The Odyssey Project teaches the myth of the return journey from war of the Greek hero Odysseus to a class of incarcerated youth and undergraduates.7 The students are asked to explore how episodes from the myth resonate with their own experiences. They find powerful the idea that Odysseus makes terrible mistakes that have devastating consequences for his crew but remains a hero and manages to return home, after many years. Perhaps they can be and do something similar if they see themselves as a kind of Odysseus (or Telemachus or Circe—there are many possibilities). Using myth to enlarge their lives gives the students a different sense of who they are and what they can achieve.
Antigone’s myth does not end well for anyone, but we’ll save that problem for the end of this book. For now, I want to dwell on the courage and endurance of Antigone’s character. She risks everything for a cause that she believes in and refuses to be cowed either by powerful politicians or by what anyone else thinks. The spirit of Antigone lives on in Iesha Evans, who was photographed standing firm in her flimsy summer dress while facing a wall of police officers in riot gear in a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge. It lives on in Malala Yousafzai, who campaigned for the rights of girls in Pakistan to be educated, even though it was dangerous to break the law of the Taliban (who tried, unsuccessfully, to kill her in 2012). And it lives on in the resolute opposition to climate change shown by Greta Thunberg, who, at sixteen years old, went on strike from school to protest outside the Swedish parliament: once a lone figure with a cardboard sign, now the inspiration for a global movement.
The “girl against the world” scenario has a glamorous appeal; we like it when the underdog triumphs. Sophocles’s Antigone is frequently taught in high schools in the United States, and whenever I speak about the play in local schools, the students are clearly on the side of Antigone. She is a heroine, they say, and Creon is a total fascist who deserves everything he gets.
It is unlikely that the play’s original audience would have been so one-sided in their sympathies. The Greeks would likely have been more critical of Antigone, a girl who spoke and acted out of turn, even as many would have also recognized the failings of the king, Creon.
A medical text from the time called On the Diseases of Virgins tells us that girls in Antigone’s situation, who were old enough to be married but had not yet taken husbands, were thought to be diseased.8 They went mad and had visions of death. In Antigone, Antigone longs for death; she obsessively imagines her own death and tells us that she welcomes it. Much is also made of the fact that she is unmarried, despite being old enough to be married. Her name is a clue: it can mean against (anti) procreation (gonē). The medical text gives us a new frame through which to understand Antigone’s resolve. Instead of seeing her as a heroine who is determined to do the right thing, even if she risks being put to death, we now see her as showing symptoms of the “disease of young girls,” as dysfunctional, unhinged, mad.
Sometimes simply juxtaposing ancient and modern can reveal new and unexpected perspectives. Greta Thunberg’s behavior has also been pathologized: she has been criticized and belittled for having Asperger’s syndrome. It has made her, critics say, more open to exploitation by others. But Thunberg herself has spoken about how having Asperger’s has helped with her activism: it is a gift that “makes her see things outside the box.”9 She has not allowed herself to be defined negatively but has turned the pathology around into something positive. Perhaps we can also take this approach with Antigone. We can understand her madness and dysfunction, as some ancients would have seen it, as giving Antigone a political edge, as enabling her not to fear death, and as fueling her single-mindedness. Through this lens, ancient myths don’t just enlarge human stories; modern figures and events can also invite us to see the ancient myths in new ways.
For the ancient Greeks and Romans, the gods were more than just exciting characters. Most worshipped them and took religious rituals very seriously.10 But, there is a crucial difference between ancient Greek and Roman religious practice and the main religions practiced today. Unlike our monotheistic religions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, Greek and Roman religion was polytheistic. Zeus or Jupiter (as the Greeks and Romans called him, respectively) was the most powerful god, and it was sensible not to get on the wrong side of his thunderbolt, but all of the gods demanded worship, and there was no religious text or commandments to follow. (When Antigone appeals to the eternal and unwritten laws, what she means is unclear, which is part of the problem).
A couple of key things follow from this. The first is that mythological narratives became a way of thinking through complicated moral dilemmas. This makes them useful for us too; we keep returning to Greek and Roman myths precisely because they avoid the simple “good versus evil” stories, from fairy tales to Disney movies, that are such a strong part of our culture. Second, myths, especially those that were told in epic poetry and drama, were widely known and authoritative. All educated, and many uneducated, Greek and Romans would have known their Homer. We don’t have anything like this: when I asked my class of seven hundred students, the book that was familiar to most of them was not the Bible or the Koran or Shakespeare or Walt Whitman—but Dr. Seuss.
The cultural authority of epic and tragedy continued through the advent of Christianity as a major religion. Christian texts often rewrote Greek and Roman myths to give them a different message. Greek and Roman mythology, and classical antiquity more broadly, have been enormously influential in Western culture and beyond.11 By classical antiquity I mean the period when Greek and Roman cultures flourished in the lands that we now call Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia, from the eighth century BCE, when the epic poems of Homer were first sung, to the fifth century CE, when what we now call the Middle Ages began. (I’m all too aware of the fast leaps across time and space and how imprecise a phrase Greek and Roman can be.) Intellectual history, by which I mean the major philosophers, novelists, theorists, playwrights, politicians, and other thinkers from antiquity to today, has continually drawn on Greek and Roman myths. That means that for us to enter into conversations—philosophical, historical, artistic, and political—more often than not involves engaging with ideas and arguments from ancient Greece and Rome.
The ideological purpose of these conversations has varied widely. Classical antiquity has been used to justify fascism, slavery, white supremacy, and misogyny. It has also played a crucial role in political idealism, inspiring, variously, the Founding Fathers (and influencing foundational statements such as the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution), trades union movements, Marxism, and the gay rights movement.12 As ancient historian Neville Morley writes of classical antiquity, in his book Classics: Why It Matters, “There is always a struggle over its ownership, and who gets to claim and define it.”13 So maybe we’re due for a fresh understanding of how ancient Greek and Roman myths, and their characters, can be claimed and defined by all of us who want to resist the current movement toward greater patriarchal control and who are working to make this a more equal, empathetic, and enlightened world.
This book brings together two parts of my life: my professional self and my role as a mother. I have been researching and teaching ancient mythology for over twenty-five years, in universities in England and the United States. It is through teaching the myths to my students that I have seen how powerful these tales are and how reading them critically and creatively can be empowering. Telling new stories is, of course, essential, but viewing our worlds through the lens of the old myths is also meaningful.
I am also the mother of a teenage daughter, Athena. She and her friends have been taught about ancient Greece and its myths and culture but without any understanding that what they were learning had much relevance to their lives today, beyond vague notions of inheriting democracy. This book grew from my attempts to explain to Athena that the things that were preoccupying her and her peer group—girls’ safety, school dress codes, and dieting, as well as dealing with a changing political climate in which their freedoms were being curtailed and environmental protections reversed—are all underpinned by cultural narratives. One of the planks in this ideological scaffolding is classical mythology. Part of being empowered and fighting back involves understanding these myths and their cultural impact and turning them to our own advantage.
In each of the chapters, the relationship between ancient and modern is different. In some, specific Greek and Roman texts take center stage: Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, Sophocles’s Antigone, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. We will look at how they have been read, and misread, to serve (or resist) progressive agendas. The chapter on dieting will argue that the ancient Greek doctor Hippocrates has been misunderstood and misquoted in modern medical and popular writing on diets: the relationship between ancient and modern here is specific and clear, as the ancient is appropriated by the modern in ways that are especially hurtful to women. This chapter and the one on controlling women also give us some insight into ancient attitudes toward women, beyond what can be gleaned from myth.
In the first chapter, and the chapter on school dress codes and the policing of women’s dress by the “women controllers” of ancient Greece, the relationship between ancient and modern is looser; it is one of congruence rather than direct influence. Or, to put it another way, direct influence across swathes of time and space is difficult to map. Sometimes it is impossible to trace the precise origins of an idea or behavior to ancient Greece or Rome, but more often than not we have no idea whether something originated there or whether it was passed down to them from another culture or whether indeed it had many different origins.14 Tracing precise historical genealogies is not the point of the book. Recognizing entrenched cultural patterns is.
In the second half of the book, I turn to consider the very different and striking ways in which the superstar Beyoncé, novelist Ali Smith, and Mexican vigilante killer Diana, the Hunter of Bus Drivers, have reimagined ancient myths as acts of resistance: resistance toward tired and damaging misogynist myths, including racist and transphobic ones.
These re-creations of ancient myths ask over and over: Who owns classical antiquity? Who owns culture? The response: We do.
THIS BOOK STARTS WHERE MISOGYNY ENDS, WITH MEN KILLING women. We will come to the reality of men killing women (and men) shortly, but I want to begin with the fantasy. I want to begin with one of the earliest fantasies of killing women ever recorded: ancient Greek myths about killing Amazons.
The Amazons were warrior women from faraway lands and some of the most fearsome adversaries of the heroes of Greek myth.1 They were reputed to be “the equals of men.”2 According to one mythological tale, the hero Hercules was sent on a quest to recover the girdle of the Amazon queen Hippolyta. (Girdle makes it sound like an ancient version of Spanx; war-belt is probably a better description.) He stabs or bludgeons her to death and steals the belt. Some versions of the story describe how Hercules kills Amazon, after Amazon, after Amazon: Aella, Philippis, Prothoe, Eriboea, Celaeno, Eurybia, Phoebe, Deianeira, Asteria, Tecmessa, Alcippe, and Melanippe.3
The Greek hero Achilles killed the Amazon Penthesilea when the Amazons joined forces with the Trojans to fight the Greeks in the Trojan War. In one version of the story, she is on horseback, and he spears her with such force that the weapon goes through the woman and her horse together. Others tell how he fell in love with her as she was dying and even that he desired and desecrated her corpse.4
The Greek hero Bellerophon killed many Amazons by flying above them on his winged horse and dropping boulders on them until they were crushed to death.
The Greek hero… well, you get the picture. Killing Amazons was part of what made Greek heroes, heroes. As Mary Beard puts it: “The basic message was that the only good Amazon was a dead one.”5 This message was pressed home repeatedly in ancient Greece. Images of dead or dying Amazons were displayed inside people’s homes (in the vase paintings that survive, Amazons are the second-most-popular subject; Hercules is the first) and on public monuments such as the Parthenon temple in Athens.
There is a relationship between the ancient fantasy of killing women and the modern reality. On the evening of Friday, May 23, 2014, I was at home, grading papers. I had been a professor in the Classics Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara for five years, and although I enjoyed the job in general, I hated grading papers. To relieve the boredom, I skimmed articles in an online newspaper. I was looking for celebrity gossip but found instead the breaking news that there had been a massacre in Isla Vista, an area next to the campus where many students live. I phoned colleagues and emailed graduate students. We scrambled for information: Was everyone safe?
We would gradually learn that six students—George Chen, Cheng Yuan “James” Hong, Weihan “David” Wang, Katherine Breann Cooper, Christopher Ross Michaels-Martinez, and Veronika Elizabeth Weiss—were murdered in what would become known as the Isla Vista killings. Fourteen other students were injured before the killer shot himself. Katie Cooper and Christopher Michaels-Martinez took classes in our department; Katie was interested in art history and archaeology, and Christopher in English literature and Classics. One of my colleagues had just met with Christopher to discuss the prospect of him spending a year abroad in Rome. Another was teaching an ancient Greek class that had started out with seven students in it, including Katie, and that now had six. In every ancient Greek class that we have taught since, I see the absence of Katie Cooper, golden girl, frozen forever at the age of twenty-two.
I remember the next days and weeks as a series of dazed snapshots: the bravery of Richard Martinez, Christopher’s father, as he urged the mourning crowd to chant “not one more”; a colleague at a department memorial talking about Katie Cooper’s sense of joy and fun and how he would be proud if his daughter grew up to be like Katie; the dean suggesting that we teach students to find solace in art and literature, although the friends of the students who had died could barely function. My daughter, Athena, was then thirteen years old. Five years earlier we had moved to California from England, where hooliganism, public drunkenness, and stabbings are serious problems but not gun violence. She had many questions: Was she safe at school? Was I likely to get shot? Why would someone do this?
- "Recommended for those who like their feminism well-researched, unapologetic, and unafraid of a dirty joke as well as to all who've struggled to see themselves reflected in history."—Booklist
- "Engaging and well-researched, this book reveals how canonical narratives that appear to uphold (white) patriarchy can be reclaimed to benefit the very groups that patriarchy attempts to suppress. Concise, incisive, and provocative."— Kirkus Reviews
- “A compelling story why the classics deserve a new look.”—The New York Journal of Books
"Wide-ranging and lively.... Morales sets out how antiquity is used to control and oppress, while also considering cases where it has been an inspiration in subverting oppressive or misleading narratives.... This book not only helps us to recognize and understand the role that ancient myth plays in our cultural hardwiring. It also shows us how antiquity can be used to do something about it.... In Antigone Rising, Helen Morales gets to work."
—Times Literary Supplement (UK)
- "Faithful to its summons of Ralph Ellison in the preface, Helen Morales' Antigone Rising will enlarge you. Probing, learned, and heartfelt, this book advances a generous and inspiring vision of Greek myth for the 21st century. This is a book not just to read but to cherish, ideally with The Carters' Apeshitas sonic accompaniment."—Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Associate Professor of Classics, Princeton, and author of Undocumented: A Dominican Boy's Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League
- "From pussy hats to melting polar ice, Helen Morales finds unexpected ways to connect contemporary political uprisings with Greek and Roman mythology. While rooted in serious research, Antigone Rising is also revealing enough to make the mythology personal."—Mary Norris, author of Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen
- On Sale
- Mar 16, 2021
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Bold Type Books