This article will feature in Issue 35: Fractured Nations (March 2020)
To those within the academic sphere, it seems that classical mythology has seen a dramatic rise in popularity amongst the general public, and has never been more influential. Present in almost every form of media, from instagram accounts to video games, we are constantly surrounded by references to the ancient world. But what, if anything, has sparked this renaissance for our stone and marble ancestors, and how has the study of classical civilisation been brought to the attention of those outside the academic realm?
There has always been an intense interest in ancient history. This enthusiasm is perfectly understandable; we as a species have always looked to our past for guidance and inspiration, and what better period of history to study than where recorded history began. To study the classics is almost synonymous with a good upbringing, a tradition started in antiquity itself, when Roman schoolboys would recite verses of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Over time we have developed as a society, as the volume of information and ways to impart information have grown enormously. It would seem almost natural that the ancient world would take a backseat, having reached no further than the dusty cupboards of school classrooms. The team behind Overly Sarcastic Productions, a Youtube channel with 1.1 million subscribers that summarises literature, history, and philosophy, would agree. In an interview with them, they said that “we’ve long felt that, in academic settings, literature and history can often be presented in the driest and least engaging way possible”, that almost feels “like an obligation” to those who have to teach it. It seems that only a short while ago, the world of classics and mythology was in dire need of revitalisation.
Greece and Rome have always been presented as a natural gateway into ancient mythology, which due to their remote nature, are far enough for us to take an interest in, but also not know too much about. This is how the works of Robert Graves and Mary Renault came to gain a cult following in the 20th century for their work on Greek mythology. This, as well as the movies of the century (and personal childhood favourites), Clash of The Titans (1981) and Hercules (1997), allowed the Greek and Roman myths to slowly trickle into the mainstream. Memorably, one such milestone for classicists today is the video game franchise Assassin’s Creed, especially their Origins and Odyssey games. Their huge success was a clear message to all: the people want more. However, Overly Sarcastic Productions told me that they believe “people are after good storytelling, and if it so happens to be a historical story, then that’s great”; suggesting that the topic takes a backseat to the individual and their stories, becoming famous for their captivating way of narrating. Madeline Miller, writer of The Song of Achilles (2011) and Circe (2018), the former winning the Orange Prize for Fiction (now Women’s Prize for Fiction), describes her fascination with the classics starting at a young age, believing their tales to be an allegory for ordinary life, regardless of how fantastical the stories may be. It seems clear that ancient Greek mythology is the ideal niche for a world of interest and popularity, due to their fantastical stories and very real messages. The combination of a world so distant to the 21st century, along with touchingly bittersweet and inspiring morality-based myths, calls to us as a way to make sense of our world; fraught with heavy choices and dangerous politics. In this regard, it seems almost baffling as to why we abandoned the classics for so long. The problem, some may argue, lies within the presentation of history and classics at school, yet we cannot expect the education system to entertain us as much as a two hour movie. School is primarily a place to provide the fundamentals, while students can be expected to do extra-curricular research at home. Luckily, students are able to ‘cheat the system’ and find a plethora of studying resources that are not limited to the textbooks and handouts we find in our faculties. One such way I have found, surprising though it may be, is through Instagram. One such account, aptly named knock_knock_its_nobody, said that “due to the increasing use of ancient culture in modern media…I think there is definitely more of an audience for Classics pages such as my own.” Their use of mythology mixed with modern humour has garnered them much popularity, with similar accounts having as many as 18,000 followers.
Education has moved away from its traditional settings, and we are able to learn anywhere, regardless of time and place. Even the British Museum, a place full of ancient artifacts and with a wide collection of historical periods, presented an exhibition on the mythical city of Troy, in an attempt to see how much of the myth is indeed reality. It would not have been too far-fetched an idea to create an exhibition solely based on Homer’s Iliad, though the timing of the exhibition is suggestive of what executives think would be popular.
Thanks to modern technology we have moved a long way from school being our only source of information, the magnitude of resources helping us discover worlds we never knew existed, and stories that resonate with our innermost feelings and passions. We are lucky to live in a time that caters to our obsessions in every form of media we could ask for, where learning is a thing to look forward to.