Over at our Classics Central Bulletin Board, Petrushka (thanks!) informed me that Slashdot was also yakking about this conference at the University of Melbourne in which (inter alia) ancient myth and comics were being compared. That article led me to the conference website. Looking through the program, there's a session (which must be completed now) entitled Collisions: Classical Myth + the Contemporary. It's a slow news day, so I'll post the abstracts from this one:

Xena's Double-Edged Sword: from Sapphic Love to the Judaeo-Christian Tradition :: Ivar Kvistad

This paper analyses the particular mythical traditions that inform Xena's characterisation in the cult TV series Xena: Warrior Princess. As an artefact of popular culture, Xena caters to a mass, globalised audience, incorporating various mythical, popular, religious and cinematic traditions that are not necessarily cohesive. Most notably, the series modifies the Classical figure of the Amazon by incorporating into its narrative particular traditions of Sapphic love, Asian martial arts cinema, and an uneasy subscription to both New Age and Christian metaphysics (the final series, in particular, emphasises the latter). The world of Xena, known by fans as the Xenaverse, then, is a multi-layered and often multicultural pastiche of competing discourses that reflect the complexity of the modern, globalised world. While its heroine's ostensibly classical Greek characterisation is 'impure' (and symptomatic of the perilous enterprise of representing the past in an authentic way), this is not an inadequacy of the Xenaverse. Rather, Xena's layering of different discourses alongside each other, and its mobilisation and parodying of particular ancient and modern mythical tropes, offers a commentary on the processes of narrative production, presenting an opportunity for theorising the problems of authentic representation in a postmodern world and the libidinal pleasures - and politics - of playfulness. Thus, Xena is an example of a text from popular culture that presents a double-coded politics: it ambivalently, and simultaneously, deploys subversive and conservative strategies for its narrative production.

The paper frames its discussion through an analysis of two striking ambivalences within the Xenaverse: its representations of Sapphic love and of Christianity. It positions Xena's understated Sapphic relationships (particularly with, but not restricted to, her sidekick, Gabrielle), alongside the final series underlying subscription to ideas of epochal, religious succession - that is, Judaeo-Christian religious supremacy at the end of the 'pagan' world. Although they may seem disconnected, both the Sapphic and Judaeo-Christian elements in Xena operate within the economy of the discourses of modernity. While the series representation of Xena's Sapphic love-life is complicit with modern discourses of sexual liberalism, its Judaeo-Christian elements gesture towards cultural evolutionist ideas that raise the spectre of western cultural chauvinism in the mass media, and hence the broader issue of popular culture as a medium of modern western imperialism. Xena, finally, advocates the supremacy of the Judaeo-Christian tradition in a way that may undermine its more radically liberal, multi-layered and multi-cultural aspects. Thus, like the sword of its heroine, the politics advocated by the series Xena: Warrior Princess are double-edged.
Bio Note :: Ivar Kvistad tutors Literary Studies at Deakin University, where he completed his PhD in 2004. His thesis, ‘Radicalising Medeas,’ examined modern, anti-imperialist and feminist mobilisations of Euripides’ Medea, focusing in particular on their treatment of its signature motif, maternal infanticide. His research interests are in modern literary and cinematic representations of antiquity, especially in relation to postcolonial and feminist politics.


Hercules, Sensitivity Counselor :: Ruby Blondell

The hero of the TV show Hercules: The Legendary Journeys is a devoted family man. There is little trace of the many women who, in the early mythological tradition, fall innocent victim to his violent (and often extramarital) lust. When such characters do appear, they are typically transformed into sexual predators whom Hercules must either resist or flee. The most unrestrained of Greek heroes is replaced by an icon of the self-controlled man at risk from female erotic aggression. The classical Greek Hercules is thus transformed almost beyond recognition. This is marked, among other things, by the fact that he typically carries no weapons. In Greek tradition, his array of signature weapons (bow, no lion-skin, club) mark him as the complete hero. In his modern reincarnation, the very lack of weapons makes him an icon of complete manhood.

Hercules' new identity as a model of "enlightened" late twentieth-century American masculinity is constructed via his encounter with the Amazons in the pilot movie, Hercules and the Amazon Women. In Greek tradition, Amazons are typically presented as a military threat on an equal footing with the male. It is therefore vital that they be shown as defeated or dying at the hands of heroic Greek males (including Hercules). The televisual Amazons, by contrast, pose no real threat to Hercules. Nor does he pay any of them the compliment of killing her. To do so would seem merely brutal, and brutality is no longer part of his persona. Instead, he tames them in a peculiarly late-twentieth century fashion.

The Amazons of the TV show are not, as in Greek tradition, the products of an autonomous matriarchy, but are descended from a group of women who seceded from an ordinary village because they were mistreated by their husbands. Hercules initially embodies the same patriarchal insensitivity, but after encountering the Amazon queen, he is transformed into a "sensitive" late twentieth-century male. This enables him to serve in turn as a sensitivity counselor for the village men. Their changed behavior ignites the Amazons' secret yearning for normative domesticity and (hetero)sexuality. The village returns to "normal" and its inhabitants putatively live happily ever after. The Greek Amazons are thus domesticated much as Hercules himself is, through incorporation into a bourgeois pseudo-enlightened model of the household.

In both cases, this domestication involves a rejection of what makes these mythic figures remarkable in Greek tradition. The Amazons are deprived of their exceptional power and the threat it poses to the patriarchal order. And Hercules is deprived of the promiscuous sexual energy that characterizes his Greek counterpart as extraordinary in a way that sets him outside the pale of civilized life, even as his exploits make that life possible for others. Yet despite the curtailing of his hyper-masculine energy, he is--unlike the Amazons--allowed to retain the heroic capacity for extraordinary deeds that is fueled, in the Greek tradition, by that very energy. He is thus reinvented as a bourgeois fantasy hero of late twentieth-century popular culture.

Bio Note :: I received my PhD in classics from the University of California at Berkeley in 1984. I am now a Professor of Classics at the University of Washington in Seattle. Major publications include The Play of Character in Plato's Dialogues (Cambridge University Press 2002); Women on the Edge: Four Plays by Euripides (with Bella Zweig, Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Mary-Kay Gamel; Routledge 1999); Helping Friends and Harming Enemies. A Study in Sophocles and Greek Ethics (under the name Mary Whitlock Blundell; Cambridge University Press 1989). Works in progress include Representations of Ancient Mediterranean Women in Modern Mass Media (volume co-edited with Mary-Kay Gamel).


Plato and Pop - Aquaman, Sub-Mariner and the Morality of Myth :: Djoymi Baker

According to Plato, Socrates says "our first business is to supervise the production of stories, and choose only those we think suitable, and reject the rest" (Plato 1955: ll 377c-d). Stories may contain immoral and criminal acts (many committed by gods), that have no place in Plato's ideal state (Plato 1955: ll 377d-e, 378 a-e). Mythoi becomes a means by which the state leaders, through poets creating stories under strict supervision, teach children to be proper citizens. The Republic states that "we begin by telling children stories [mythoi]. These are, in general, fiction, though they contain some truth" (Plato 1955: ll 377a). Indeed, Plato was happy to create his own myths to serve a philosophical or moral purpose. The story of Atlantis was one of Plato's invented myths, described in his Timaeus and Critias in the 4th century B.C.E.

Aquaman and his predecessor Sub-Mariner were comic book superheroes based on this Greek myth of Atlantis. Both superheroes were transferred to television in the mid 1960s. Richard Reynolds has argued that comic books borrowed from myth and legend in order "to give their disregarded medium a degree of moral and intellectual uplift" (1992: 53). However, for many cultural commentators the mythological foundations of comic book superheroes such as Aquaman and Sub-Mariner were ignored or disparaged. Variety argued that animations such as Sub-Mariner tapped into Pop art, camp, and "post-high school hippies addicted to the old comics" (1966). The morally corrupting force of comic books upon children had simply been transferred to the equally dubious effects of television on children and young adults alike.
Indeed, by the mid-1960s, "comic-strip" had become a generic, disparaging term for simplistic, children's texts, applied in reviews to television programs such as Star Trek or Land of the Giants. This attitude toward comic books was undoubtedly a debt to a long-standing controversy surrounding comic books and children, particularly promoted by Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent of 1953. Wertham argues that "Classic books, mutilated in comic-book form, have been adapted to the television screen" (Wertham 1953: 381). In other words, comic books and the television programs based on them, may rework older, "classic" texts, including myths, but in a "mutilated" form that thereby robs them of all worth. Although comic book heroes transferred to television were not to peak for nearly another decade, the heritage of the Wertham attack helps to explain why the mythological content of such programs went largely unnoticed. This paper explores the way the Aquaman and Sub-Mariner TV programs adapt and rework both Plato's myth of Atlantis and their own comic book back-story, in the context of the moral debates surrounding comic books, children's television, and myth.

Bio Note :: Djoymi Baker is a PhD candidate with the Cinema Studies program at the University of Melbourne. Her research explores the adaptation of myth on television and the changing concept of myth in popular culture. She is a sessional lecturer for The School of Creative Arts, and Cinema Studies, including Myth and Media: From Homer to Hollywood , a new subject based upon her dissertation research. Her work has been published in Refractory and Popular Culture Review.


I'm Dying for a Good Slay': Death and the Inversion of Gender Roles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Medea :: Sophia van Gameren

This paper will focus on Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS) and Euripides's The Medea and how traditional gender roles are re-defined. By looking at the character of Buffy, it will be argued that she usurps a role that traditionally has been occupied by males. In the horror and super-hero genres, a small framed, blonde female would often be the victim of the villain, or be saved by a male superhero. Rather than being the helpless 'damsel in distress', Buffy is the hero, complete with a 'secret' identity. As the Vampire Slayer, it is Buffy's duty to protect and save innocent people from 'the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness'. Yet, despite this power, Buffy understands that she does not have the right to kill human beings.

Although not a super-hero, Euripides's Medea, like Buffy, is no ordinary female and also assumes a traditional masculine role. Medea's a famous sorceress, who murders her children out of a passionate hatred for her husband, Jason, who has rejected her for a younger woman. Although the Athenians believed that women were dangerous and disruptive (especially foreign women like Medea), women were also supposed to be nurturing, compassionate and maternal. By murdering her children, Medea not only exits the feminine sphere, but demonstrates her association with the masculine heroic values of cleverness, honour, status and revenge. Through Medea's self interest, breaking of bonds and use of force and violence, she not only adopts traditional traits of Athenian men, but also exploits them; she fills the masculine role better than most men. Unlike other kin-killers in Greek tragedies, Medea escapes and is not punished for her murders.

Death and the punishment of murderers are important themes in BtVS and Greek tragedies. In BtVS, the conscience of the characters, and the guilt they feel, is their punishment for taking human lives. In the Buffyverse, Willow reflects the character of Medea. Willow becomes enraged when her partner Tara is murdered by Warren and begins a quest of revenge. Unlike Medea, however, Willow suffers from guilt because she committed murder. When 'evil' Willow departs, Willow 's conscience punishes her. Although Willow is not physically punished for committing murder, her conscience makes it difficult to deal with the knowledge that she took another human life. In Greek tragedies, characters are often outcast from their cities after taking a human life, especially a family member's. This can be seen through characters such as Orestes and Oedipus. Medea also leaves her home town after murdering her children. Willow is sent away to London after murdering Warren , however, she is not punished for her misuse of the black magicks but rather she learns about, and hones, her power. Willow must rehabilitate herself in London and is punished by her conscience whilst Medea chooses to leave for Athens and has no remorse for killing her children, and is not punished by the gods.

Bio Note :: Sophia van Gameren has graduated from Master of Arts (Writing and Literature) at Deakin University , Melbourne . She completed her Bachelor of Arts with Honours at the University of Melbourne in 2001. Her Honours thesis was titled "From Anxiety to Sympathy: Following the Vampire from a Monstrous and Ethnic Threat to its Transformation into a Sympathetic 'White' Figure." Sophia's academic interests include Shakespearean literature, Classical Greek tragedies, the figure of the vampire, and most importantly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


In other panels, I note the following:

Theseus Versus Hannibal Lecter: Heroic Quests Into The Labyrinth In Modern Cinema :: Paul Salmond

Modern cinema has borrowed freely from Greek myth and adapted these stories to its own dramatic needs. One tale that sits firmly in the US cinematic tradition is that of Theseus journeying into the Cretan labyrinth to slay the monstrous Minotaur who annually devoured young virgins from Athens . This mythical story has rarely, if ever, been portrayed literally on screen, but has served as a metaphor for a quest, both physical and psychological, that a hero is required to take to defeat some abominable unknown. To this end, filmmakers have tended to combine the fundamental framework of the Minotaur myth with elements of the Orpheus myth, whereby a hero is required to risk his life to rescue an imperiled maiden by journeying into the dark and hazardous underworld where a deadly monster awaits.

This paper will examine different versions of this heroic myth in modern cinema. It will look initially at how the Western attempted to use the theme of heroic rescue, and used Native Americans as the savage embodiment of a pre-civilized world where demons still reigned. This was most notably explored in John Ford's The Searchers (1956) where John Wayne's character of Ethan Edwards must rescue his niece from a marauding Comanche tribe as part of a 5-year trek that takes him on a parallel psychological journey. Here the labyrinth through which he must navigate is his own loathing of the Comanche and how this is driving an irrational desire to kill his own niece on recovering her.

In late 20th C film, the Underworld of the undiscovered continent has been replaced by the Hades of the urban landscape, as the serial killer has become the new Minotaur - a loathsome beast that preys on the young, has superhuman powers, and can only be located and killed by an exceptional hero. Three films will be examined that explore this theme, David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), George Sluizer's The Vanishing (Sporloos 1988) and Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Each film involves a hero who undergoes a purifying psychological journey, and a deadly physical journey, into the lair of the beast to rescue a woman facing death. Each film also involves a 'minotaur' - a murderous monster who represents a world where darkness and chaos reign. And each film features a labyrinth, a perilous physical zone that the hero must enter alone without any guarantee that he/she can or will return.

The paper will also look at how the iconic role of the serial killer was adapted in modern cinema in a recent exploration of a literal updating of the superhero saga. M Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable (2000) depicts the awakening of an American Everyman to the realization that he is an actual superhero - part of an heroic 'race' whose deeds were formerly immortalized, and who now have been engulfed by the mundane social fabric - and how he uses this newly-discovered power to defeat evil.

The presentation will involve a discussion of the above films and the heroic themes that link theme. This will be supported by screening of segments of the films themselves, as well as scenes from certain other productions that illustrate the central thesis.

Bio Note :: (Dr) Paul Douglas Salmond, PhD (Classics and History) Melbourne University , 1994; 2002-2004 Manager, Orchestras Review Secretariat / Film Industry Section; Department of Communication, IT and the Arts; 1995-2002 Adviser, the Department of Communication, IT and the Arts and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet; 1987-1994 Lecturer/Tutor, Department of Classics and Archaeology, University of Melbourne; School of Classics , Archaeology and Ancient History University of Sydney


Achilleus: Man of Bronze :: Annabel Orchard

In the Iliad, the Trojan hero Aeneas says of his Greek enemy Achilleus: "he claims to be made all of bronze (panchalkeos)" Iliad 20.102 The poet has apparently reserved a special term for this reference to Achilleus. The word panchalkeos or "all bronze" occurs in the Iliad only in this passage. Achilleus' physical identity is so closely associated with his armour that he might well be described by the Trojans as a man made of bronze. Whenever he appears on the battlefield, he is encased in armour made for him by the lame smith god Hephaistos. The bronze armour that he wears represents Achilleus' identity as a warrior and hero.

This paper examines the perceptions of the armoured body of Achilleus. It considers the effect of the armour on the person inside it and on those who view the armed figure on the battlefield. Drawing on ideas about the cyborg, it examines the enhanced power of the hero due to the technological and supernatural properties of the armour. It also considers the concept of imperfect invulnerability in this myth, and considers the significance of a physically imperfect god creating armour for a physically vulnerable hero.

Bio Note :: Annabel Orchard is a Ph.D candidate in Classical Studies at the University of Melbourne. She is currently researching the role of metal-craft in myth, and the effect of contemporary technology on mythic form and content. Other projects include the development of interactive media for education, research and entertainment. A recent project, www.wingedsandals.com, is an interactive website for kids 6-12 which uses digital storytelling to expand the means of retelling Greek myth. Annabel is also a co-founder of the Sword and Sandal Reading Group, an interdisciplinary group based in Cinema Studies and Classics, University of Melbourne. Further details at http://www.ahcca. unimelb.edu.au/ CCA/People/PostGrads/A-Orchard/


Homer and Rap: the Ancient is Fresh :: Erin O'Connell

Thought to be merely a short-lived fad when they began to take hold in the public imagination, rap music and hip hop culture are now a multi-billion dollar industry and claim a central place in the contemporary representation of heroes and villains. The public identity of rap artists is developed and marketed with an eye to selling an image that figures itself along the superhero/supervillain continuum. Most successful rap singers are performing artists whose public identity spreads far beyond their role as musicians or poets, they are cultural icons after the fashion of ancient mythic characters. Popularized through a wide variety of media--the recording industry, music videos, film, advertising, and print journalism --the musical literature and visual iconography of contemporary Gangsta Rap and Political Rap music possess a sophisticated and complex ethos of idealized masculine behavior that finds its antecedents in mythic heroes such as Achilles, Odysseus, Ajax and Agamemnon.

This paper examines the ways in which the heroes and villains of contemporary hip hop culture mirror the heroes and villains of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. The argument explores the cultural similarities between Homeric epic and modern rap music - in both form and content - despite the vast historical and social differences. It is shown that the contemporary heroes and anti-heroes in rap culture, such as the members of the rap groups Public Enemy, and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, or the individual figures of Tupac, or Anybody Killa, for example, serve a similar mythic and cultural function as Homer's Achilles, Hector, Ajax & Odysseus. Rappers can be seen as modern representatives of the heroic paradigm in ancient Greek popular culture. Following in the mythic tradition of the Homeric heroes, rap artists play a major role in defining current popular perceptions of extraordinary greatness and extraordinary threat. The paper explores common themes between the two mythic traditions such as the range and complexity of male excellence, the overlapping discourses between heroism and villainy, and the roles of women as both subjects and objects.

Bio Note :: Erin O'Connell is an Assistant Professor of Classics at the University of Utah. She earned her PhD in Literature at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Her research interests include Ancient and Modern relations, ancient Greek literature and philosophy, Performance Studies, and Literary Criticism. She has published articles on Ancient Greek Drama, and has a book forthcoming from Peter Lang, entitled Presocratic Deconstruction: Heraclitus and Derrida.


Antiquities as Superheroes: (Re)Presenting the Utopian Past in the Athens Olympics :: Louise A. Hitchcock

The opening ceremonies of the XXVIII Olympiad in Athens cast Greek antiquities as central and extraordinary in a parade of pageantry unfolding as a futuristic vision of a timeless, idyllic, and legendary past constructed in the midst of the concrete jungle that forms the alter-ego of Athens' post-modern present.This paper analyzes and deconstructs this parade of iconic works of Greek (and by extension European) art as a totalizing, teleological, exclusionary, evolutionary, progressive, and fictive narrative. This narrative began with an evolution of stone sculpture with a (super) heroic male form bursting from the center of a prehistoric, abstract female effigy, and continued with an unbroken linear progression of artistic styles that was tenuously linked to past and future scientific breakthroughs from celestial mechanics to the recent mapping of the human genome. Within this evolutionary framework, the human assumes mythic and superhuman stature in form (heroic nude male) and idea (revelations of science). Thus, the transformation from ordinary into the extraordinary id(ea)[o]lizes Greek antiquities as symbolic capital to be esteemed, commodified, and consumed on the world stage.

Bio Note :: Louise Hitchcock is Lecturer in Aegean Bronze Age Archaeology at the University of Melbourne, Centre for Classics and Archaeology and has numerous publications in the field of Aegean archaeology and theory.