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Special Issue: Remaking ancient Greek and Roman myths in the twenty-first century

Editor's Introduction, by Emma Bridges

This special issue of Practitioners’ Voices in Classical Reception Studies brings together a series of conversations which were initiated at a one-day colloquium, ‘Remaking ancient Greek and Roman myths in the twenty-first century’, held at the Open University in London on 7th July 2016. The event brought together academics whose research focuses on classical reception and creative practitioners – among them visual artists, writers and theatremakers – who have produced their own artistic responses to ancient myths. One of the key objectives of the event was – in keeping with the aims of this journal – to allow those who read, view or study present-day receptions of the ancient world the opportunity to engage in dialogue with the people who are involved in producing these new interpretations of ancient themes, texts and works of art.

The present volume, comprising discussions which took place both on the day and in the eighteen months since, offers merely a small sample of the astonishingly wide range of genres and media within which twenty-first century practitioners have chosen to reimagine the tales and characters of ancient mythology; those represented here include poetry (McCauley, Balmer) and short stories (Aguirre) as well as visual art (Hardiman, Parker) and video games (Paprocki), performance (Atkins, Martin-Simpson and Bagshaw) and re-enacted practice (Eley). Many of the contributors take as their inspiration a single specific mythic story, text, or character; others – such as Hardiman, Aguirre and Atkins – have reinvented a whole series of narratives to produce several new works. By talking to the makers of these contemporary responses to ancient myths, and by learning more about the processes – both intellectual and practical – which lie behind their creative outputs we can gain fresh insights into the factors which shape each unique version of these familiar stories made anew. Reinventing the ancient material in a modern context can in turn inspire reflection on the ancient Greek and Roman source material and can shed new light on our understanding of elements of the classical past. As the pieces featuring Atkins and Eley demonstrate, for example, it is also possible to use creative practice in ways which allow us to examine ancient experiences; Atkins’ work aims to understand more closely Roman musical practice through danced interpretations of Ovid’s mythical narratives, and Eley’s participation in re-enacting elements of religious ritual (as well as adapting these to suit the needs of contemporary participants) offers insights into the lived experience of ancient religion.

Several of the pieces offer insights into some of the reasons for the continuing appeal of these ancient tales as a source of inspiration for new imaginative responses. Aguirre, for example, reflects on the universality of the themes of ancient myth, and – in discussing her own short stories which are set very firmly in the modern world, yet which draw on narrative patterns and characters inspired directly by classical texts – highlights the ways in which mythical tales can be used to explore familiar human emotions and desires: jealousy, lust or anxiety. Parker too finds in the myths, as narrated by Ovid, the scope to focus on sexuality, desire and obsession; she translates these into artistic installations which reflect on the age of the internet and the ways in which social media shape many of our contemporary interactions. For some creators, it is the element of playfulness characteristic of mythical stories which appeals; this is seen quite literally in Paprocki’s discussion of his contribution to Apotheon™, a video game in which the user navigates a plotline inspired by Hesiod’s version of the divine succession myth. The use of an unquestionably up-to-date medium – yet one which takes as an inspiration for its visuals the appearance of ancient painted pottery – for this particular play on an ancient myth reminds us that those who choose to retell these millennia-old stories for modern audiences need not be restricted by the forms in which they were first cast by ancient writers and artists.

In reading the discussions it becomes apparent too that reinterpreting a narrative in artistic form is often influenced by both the personal and political experiences of the maker. McCauley, for example, reflects on the influence which her own experiences growing up in a dilapidated Yorkshire seaside town has on her poetry, and shares too some of the philosophical and literary texts which inspired her regendering of the Oedipus myth; in turn Balmer offers a moving account of how her own personal grief at the loss of her mother led to her poetic reworking of mythical themes from ancient Latin texts. Meanwhile Hardiman considers some of the ways in which his digitally-created artworks reclaim mythical narratives from the point of view of those whose perspectives – perhaps, he suggests, as a result of gender, class or disability – have been elided by the voices which, historically, have tended to dominate both scholarly and popular interpretations of the ancient world. Similarly Martin-Simpson and Bagshaw discuss how elements of ICONS – a dramatic reworking of the myth of the Amazons – was born out of reflections on twenty-first century gender roles, and from a desire to revisit and challenge some of the problematic assumptions which had driven earlier readings of Amazon women.

What emerges time and again from this collection of interviews on twenty-first-century reworkings of ancient stories is the inherent flexibility of ancient myth, and its continuing capacity even now – as in the worlds of the ancient Greeks and Romans –  to be adapted to new contexts and genres, and to address questions of significance for audiences today. In reconfiguring Hesiod and Virgil, Oedipus and the Amazons, painted pottery and votive offerings, each of these (re)makers has added their own voice to the continuing conversation about the meaning of myth in the modern world.

With thanks to all who participated in the 2016 colloquium, and in particular to Jessica Hughes for her guidance and her painstaking editorial work throughout the process of producing this volume.

Emma Bridges

Institute of Classical Studies