Beastly: Classics Professor Discusses Mythical Creatures’ Origins
By: Nick Santangelo
Temple University’s College of Liberal Arts (CLA) encourages students to expand their worldviews through travel. Many of our students study abroad for a semester or to take an internship in the field or in another city. Not only do students have a great time seeing other parts of the country or world, but they also gain new perspectives that allow them to challenge conventional thinking and find creative solutions to real-world problems.
But while even the farthest reaches of the planet are within reach for CLA students, that wasn’t the case for humans who lived further back in history. Before modern modes of transit and the civilized world were developed, humans didn’t travel for fun. They traveled only when they had to, and doing so was often dangerous.
To warn people about the perils of travel, people told stories of terrifying beasts and monsters terrorizing travelers. Some of these creatures even played central roles in classic literature like the Odyssey. CLA Greek and Roman Classics Associate Professor Karen Klaiber Hersch has long studied such monsters and recently appeared on the Science Channel’s Mythical Beasts to talk about their origins and evolutions. In the show, she noted how ancient people across the world told tales of the dangers of travel.
“Why are people across the world, who presumably had no contact with each other, talking about snakes and animals of the deep?” muses Dr. Hersch. “Because they're scary, and they're going to kill you. Because travel was dangerous up until very recently.”
Dr. Hersch appears in five episodes of the show to discuss, among other fabled beasts, the Cyclops, Sphinx and Minotaur. Each one of them figured heavily in Greek myth and later appeared in Roman literature and art as well.
Travel was dangerous up until very recently
And when they turned up in these tales, they defied the expected behaviors of wealthy, civilized men of the time. In the Odyssey, for instance, the Cyclops not only fails to be courteous to his guests—he eats them!
“The Cyclops’ overwhelming bad quality is that he has no respect for strangers,” says Dr. Hersch. “And Greeks especially pointed up the idea of the sanctity of a guest. The earliest Greek epics we possess highlight scenes of proper guest-host relationships and their opposites—notably the behavior of the Cyclops. When a stranger comes to your house, you invite him—primarily we are dealing with male guests in these tales—in as a guest, and you give the guest food. You don’t devour the guest.”
In the professor’s telling, this means the authors of these epics in some part wanted readers to learn about the dangers of outsiders. Myths highlighting horrible beasts created a narrative that Greek or Roman culture represented the height of civilization. They portrayed the outside world as dysfunctional and inhabited by monstrous people.
Viewing things through a 21st-century lens, Dr. Hersch is compelled to point out that ancient hospitality may well have mythical elements in itself. For example, in general, people traveling for fame or fortune were free men. Greeks and Romans owned slaves, and neither slaves nor women could vote in ancient Greek and Roman antiquity. These cultures’ constitutions can therefore seem as inequitable as the United States prior to the passages of the 13th and 19th amendments and the Voting Rights Act.
“These myths make us look at our own culture and ask, ‘What are we missing in studying our own people and our own culture?’” says Dr. Hersch. “I ask myself and my students to think about that all the time. What am I not seeing here? Who's being left out of the equation?”
The professor is interested in all of the mythological beasts that turned up in classic Greek and Roman literature and how different groups perceive them. In particular, though, she’s drawn to Medusa because she’s a female beast and a dangerous one at that. Whoever conceived of Medusa, the evidence we have about her was composed by men.
Who's being left out of the equation?
Dr. Hersch wonders what ethnicity a woman with snake hair might be. That may sound humorous to some, but it’s a question no one would have been able to ask in ancient times. The Greeks and Romans and indeed many white men throughout history may have taken the question of Medusa’s ethnicity for granted, but that’s certainly not the case for CLA’s diverse student body.
“Every century, every year, every day, there are new and different interpretations of these myths I study, and they're wonderful,” says Dr. Hersch. “Human understanding can only grow. And if I'm just a little brick in the huge edifice of human learning, that makes me really happy, and I share that with my students. I love being in front of the classroom. It's the joy of my life.”
Thankfully, students can travel to Temple from across the world to share that learning and joy with Dr. Hersch. After all, Hooter is a much more gracious host than the Cyclops.