Ancient mythology conquers modern culture

28 September 2012

Dr. Irene Berti has no doubts: "The echoes of antiquity are everywhere as modern culture has stolen a lot from it. The past is still present." The scholars of the IMAGINES research network made this their focus at the "Magic and the Supernatural from the Ancient World" conference at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), where the subjects included sorceresses and zombies, mythical creatures and superheroes.

Harry Potter is fascinated by the strange bird in Professor Dumbledore's office. Its feathers shimmer red-gold; its wicked-looking hooked beak seems not unthreatening. As Harry approaches, the creature utters a screech and explodes in a ball of fire. "Fawkes is a phoenix, Harry," Dumbledore explains, calming his student as he points to a pile of ashes. But there is something stirring. A gray chick stretches out its head ...

"I haven't read all of the Harry Potter series," admits Junior Professor Dr. Filippo Carlà of the Ancient History work group at the Department of History at JGU. "After a certain point I began to find them tedious."

Harry Potter and antiquity

Carlà and his colleague Dr. Irene Berti of the Department of Ancient History and Epigraphy at Heidelberg University invited the IMAGINES III conference "Magic and the Supernatural from the Ancient World" to Mainz. And here, J.K. Rowling's extremely successful series about Harry, the sorcery student, unavoidably forms one of the topics. "The speaker is a fan," promises Carlà.

"Fantasy novels and their film versions are more popular in the 21st century than they were ever before," explains Dr. Dagmar Hofmann of the Historical Institute at the University of Cologne. The enormous success of the Harry Potter heptalogy, both in print and on the screen, is clear evidence of this.

"Mythology plays an important role in Rowling's novels and is omnipresent there. Almost all the names are derived from mythological sources." The novels abound with mythical beings. "Almost 80 types can be identified along with numerous sub-types." But just how does Rowling use these often antique mythical figures? What does she do with centaurs, werewolves, and the phoenix?

New forms of old myths

Herodotus described the phoenix as the sacred bird of Egypt, with its form like that of an eagle. Ovid praised the colors of the phoenix and he already wrote of its ability to transform and renew itself. Roman emperors used the phoenix as a symbol on their coins. Hadrian, for example, did this in order to emphasize the permanence of his rule. And in Christianity, the phoenix represents resurrection and eternity.

"Rowling has added new characteristics to the old ones but the derivation from the mythical creature is still quite apparent," says Hofmann. The phoenix becomes a savior, its tears have the power to heal. The werewolf in the form of teacher Remus Lupin becomes a metaphor for people who are shunned, such as those with AIDS.

The "IMAGINES – Antiquity in the Visual and Performing Arts" research network was formed in 2007. The first conference was held in La Rioja, Spain in the same year. The venue for the second conference in 2010 was Bristol in the UK. "We are a dynamic group, always willing to deal with whatever is relevant and popular at the moment," states Carlà. "We don't want IMAGINES to become a closed specialist club where the same people.come together every time. We want to take new approaches to research and open up new perspectives."

Extensive program despite tight budget

"What we do is try to bring our scholarship and authors together through interaction," Berti states. Authors and artists are also allowed to get a word in. Hence, Stephan Seidel, resident playwright at the Mainz State Theater, is using his presentation entitled "Phaedra-Daedalus et cetera" to talk about his work with myths.

The first meeting of the conference participants in the Philosophicum building on the JGU campus is a success and small gifts change hands. Anybody can attend – no invitation required. It was young scholars who came up with the original concept for IMAGINES. Although money is always tight, Carlà and Berti have prepared an extensive program for Mainz.

"It is a problem to find sponsors," claims Carlà. "However, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz was generous." The audience can look forward to a program with a total of 20 presentations including an analysis of the superheroine Wonder Woman, whose roots extend back to the Amazons, and a look at ancient curses and various movies that find their inspiration in antiquity.

Two unconventional sorceresses

"The focus here is on the visual and performing arts," says Carlà. Comics also have a role to play. There are no limits. "We are always dealing with at least three levels, which make the interpretation of antiquity such an exciting research field." First there is the antique source followed by its modern interpretation. "And then there is us, the recipients. This is an aspect we mustn't underestimate."

Professor Dr. Christine Walde of the Department of Classical Philology at Mainz University is interested in two almost forgotten figures. Her presentation concerns "Canidia and Erichtho and their Post-Antique Afterlife in Images." In Walde’s words, they are "two somewhat unconventional sorceresses". Yet, in comparison with figures like Circe and Medea, they seem to have almost totally disappeared from modern consciousness. Why is this?

In the first century B.C., Horace wrote his diatribe against Canidia. "She is a malignant aging woman, who wants to avenge herself by placing a love spell on a man." The poet Lucan created the standard image of the Thessalonian witch Erichtho in the first century A.D.: "She is wan, ugly, has a preference for garish clothing, and there are snakes braided in her hair. She lives beyond the city on the pathways of the dead. She is an outsider in the witch community."

Thessalonian witches on the Internet

When it comes to their reception, Canidia and Erichtho remain marginal figures. Canidia almost never appears in modern times. A painting by Johann Erdmann Hummel dating to1848 is a rare exception. Erichtho is portrayed a little more often. In addition, she has a guest appearance in Dante's Divine Comedy and in Part II of Goethe's Faust.

"But in neither case is there a clear iconography," claims Walde. "They don't have differentiated biographies. Their lives simply don't have the ramifications of Circe's and Medea's."

It is only in the untrammeled world of the Internet that the two have reemerged – but reinterpreted almost beyond recognition. The Goth scene has adopted them as its own. Erichtho, for example, is sometimes a mysterious beauty and at others a tawdry horror figure, and is even used to promote a rather morbid perfume labeled "Freshly Dug Grave".

Successful third conference

The world of IMAGINES is filled with imagery and unusual insight. At the third conference, the speakers again managed to cover an unusual range of subjects and genres, always on the trail of magic and the extrasensory.

Junior Professor Dr. Filippo Carlà is very happy: "The atmosphere was unique, very laid-back and relaxed just like at every other IMAGINES conference. I was particularly pleased that so many students attended." This is not always necessarily the case. "And we also again managed to find new approaches. Professor Walde's lecture, for example, was absolutely fascinating."

It is hoped that the fourth conference will be taking place in the Faro in Portugal in the spring of 2015. "It's not quite certain yet," says Carlà, "but we're working on it."