Earlier today David Gelsthorpe and I had the great pleasure of filming an interview with Dr Emma Stafford, Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Leeds on the subject of Herakles. Emma has research interests in ancient Greek religion, myth and Herakles and the Trojan War, and recently curated a temporary exhibition at Leeds Museums and Galleries about Herakles. “But what’s this got to do with migration?” I hear you ask. In this case Emma worked with prints from the talented New Zealand artist Marian Maguire, who has transposed Herakles to the incongruous setting of New Zealand.
Our interview began with Emma talking about a particularly handsome amphora in the archaeology collection which shows Herakles fighting a centaur, the half-man, half-horse composite from Greek mythology. The story behind this scene is a visit that Herakles made to his friend Pholus the centaurs. Pholus offered his guest some wine but the other centaurs smelt it and tried to gatecrash the party and Herakles took up his club to restore order (think have-a-go-hero beheads four…). On the pot in the first image above you can see the blood flowing where Herakles has wounded his centaur opponent. This was only one of many adventures that Herakles had. In fact he was set a series of twelve seemingly impossible challenges known as the Twelve Labours of Herakles in which, for example, he had to bring back Cerberus, the hound that guarded the gates of the Underworld, clean the stables of King Augeas, defeat the man-eating Stymphalian birds, capture the belt of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons (see image above) and so on.
Marian Maguire has extended the adventures of Herakles by transplanting him to the other side of the world, New Zealand. This is quite a feat of the imagination, even for Herakles who is arguably one of the best-travelled heroes from ancient Greek mythology. Of course the challenges he faces in New Zealand are of a completely different nature though still comparable to those he faced in ancient Greece.
There is some wonderful tongue-in-cheek humour as Herakles fails to defeat the women of New Zealand in their campaign to have the right to vote. In fact the Antopodean Amazons were the first women in the world to get the vote. Herakles also fails to control the rabbit population. A hilarious print shows the hero waving his club ineffectually whilst two rabbits in the foreground do… well what rabbits do.
Herakles is almost always shown as he appears on some of the Greek vases in the Black Figure technique but he appears in a landscape that is unmistakably that of New Zealand. For example, we see him clearing the landscape or herding a less-than-formidable cow (so much for capturing the Cretan bull!) with Mount Taranaki in the background. It all seems as though the challenge has proved too much and that Herakles has got sucked into a life of mundane tasks that is at odds with his heroic status. In another print Herakles serves two immaculately dressed genteel European ladies who are taking tea in the bush, whilst a Maori looks on puzzled.
This is all great fun and of course what makes it possible is the transposition of a hero from Greek mythology into the incongruous setting of New Zealand on the other side of the world. The artistic imagination allows the juxtaposition of ideas that are challenging, stimulating, entertaining and thought-provoking. We are accustomed to talking about what happens when animals and birds migrate, and we can contrast the migration of peoples in the past and in the present, but Marian Maguire’s work shows what happens when the familiar Black Figure outline of Herakles migrates to the southern hemisphere. It’s Brian Murphy (of George and Mildred fame) on steroids. In this case the outcome is humorous but almost certainly the migration of some ideas caused as much damage as the introduction of invasive species like the Cane Toad in Australia and the Lionfish in the Caribbean, not to mention Mink and Japanese Knotweed in the UK.
This is one a number of interviews that members of the Collections Team are recording as part of the Thematic Collecting project. The edited interviews will be made available on YouTube and may result in the acquisition of objects for Manchester Museum and may lead to an exhibition. It strikes me that if Herakles going to New Zealand has any traction we ought to seriously consider acquiring one of Marian Maguire’s prints, but perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself…
My thanks to Dr Emma Stafford for giving up her time to give this interview for thematic collecting and to David Gelsthorpe for filming.