Penelope's Weavings and Unpickings

Archive for the ‘rituals and festivals’ Category

Myth and legends at the Knaresborough bed race

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on June 16, 2013

Last Saturday I met up with some friends in Knaresborough to watch the 48th annual Great Bed Race. This is the type of utterly mad local event which small English communities seem to specialise in, and it involves teams of six runners pushing a passenger around the town on what is called a ‘bed’, but is really more like a sort of wheeled trolley.

The course starts out in a lovely park by the river, and this was where we sat on a grassy bank in glorious sunshine drinking beer and eating burgers and candy-floss. As the teams ran past us, the terrain was relatively level, but they soon had to slog up a steep slope through the town, along the High Street and back down the valley again, before finally plunging into the River Nidd (trolley, passenger and all) to swim along for several metres pulling the trolley, before hauling it out again onto the opposite bank and reaching the finishing line. The race rules, of which we were handed a copy when we arrived, state:

“Each bed must have a built-in buoyancy aid capable of supporting the bed and the passenger for not less than five minutes, and have an aperture large enough to allow the passenger to escape quickly if required.”

And well they might!

All of that is entertaining enough, but for extra fun the teams also take part in a parade before the race begins. For this, they decorate their beds and dress up themselves according to a theme, which this year was ‘Myths & Legends’. We got a great view of this from our bank in the park, with all sorts of imaginative tableaux parading past us involving the Loch Ness Monster, leprechauns, fairies, the Knights of the Round Table, vampires, Roswell / Area 51, various sporting legends, pirates, samurai warriors and so forth.

What really made my day, though, was the fact that out of 91 teams in total, fifteen had drawn their inspiration from the myths and legends of the Classical world. That’s nearly one in six, maths fans – and a great testament to how important Classical stories still are in the imaginative landscape of modern Britain. So I leapt into action with my phone-camera, and managed to capture pretty decent images of every single one of these teams. The photographs follow below, grouped roughly according to when the legends which they depict were supposed to have taken place, and accompanied by some comments on what I think the teams’ choices tell us about how Classical stories are perceived today, and how people tend to learn about them.

Older than time itself, of course, are the gods. Two teams went with this theme, as follows (click on either picture for a closer look):

01 Ripon Runners gods of Olympus 06 Welly Wheelers temple 2

I can’t be certain whether either team was thinking of the Greek or the Roman pantheon, though my guess would be Greek. Certainly, most of the teams in this race were drawing on Greek rather than Roman myths, and I’ll say a bit more about why later. Also, the racing context may well have encouraged people to think about the Olympic games, Mount Olympus itself and hence the (Greek) Olympic gods. But in any case, both sets of gods map very closely onto one another. On the left-hand team I can identify Zeus / Jupiter (beard and thunderbolt), Poseidon / Neptune (tripod) and Helios / Sol (radiate crown), but I must admit I’m stumped by the fellow in what looks like a yellow Christmas hat and the round-topped sceptre held by the young person carrying the charity collection bucket. Two more team-members just seem to be wearing generic togas / chitons and laurel wreaths. Perhaps they are meant to be Olympic victors?

The right-hand team have gone to the trouble of spraying themselves gold – a great way to signify divine status, which was done with literal gold-plating on ancient statues, and I think is also what the glowing CGI appearance of the Greek gods in the 2010 version of the film Clash of the Titans was trying to achieve. They have built a model of Zeus / Jupiter with his thunderbolt in front of the temple, and although I am not sure about the lion face on the front of the trolley, I wonder if it is meant to go alongside the red dragon-looking face on the far side and the possibly-a-snake on the near side to make up some kind of Chimera? If so, we are definitely in the Greek world. Meanwhile, amongst the team I can see Mercury at the back with his winged helmet and staff, and assume the fellow with the inflatable globe is Atlas (strictly a Titan rather than a god, but near enough). But the other person at the front doesn’t have any identifying attributes, and already I can’t remember what the fourth person who must be at the far corner looked like.

Next on the mythological schedule is the winged horse Pegasus. In ancient literature, Pegasus is associated with both Bellerophon and (later) Perseus, but both of these heroes belong to roughly the same era in the fictional world of Greek mythology – a time before both the Labours of Hercules and the Trojan war.

07 Brooks Blockheads 51 The Charvers pegasus 1 75 Meadowside Maidens pegasus 1 75 Meadowside Maidens pegasus 2

The wings on the first horse aren’t as obvious as the others, but they are there, represented by feathers along the side of the trolley. The second horse has a young lady in a fairy-princess costume riding inside it, while the close-up of the third horse in the final picture shows beautiful decorative details in rainbow colours and glitter. I think there is a definite note of magical fairy-lands about these latter two pegasi, reflecting the way that winged horses have found their way into all sorts of post-Classical fantasy stories – these days especially My Little Pony. But the overall aesthetic of all three teams is definitely Classical. Besides, the worlds of magical princesses and the Classical Pegasus were memorably brought together by Ray Harryhausen and Desmond Davis in the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans, what with its distinctly magical fairy-princess version of Andromeda being rescued by Perseus astride Pegasus. So I think these teams are picking up on that merged heritage.

Next comes the hydra, defeated by Hercules as one of his Labours:

28 Saint John's Juggernauts hydra 3

The hydra was a terrible creature with multiple heads, all alive and moving independently, and I love the way this has been captured by the model. Some of the heads are static, others are on sticks allowing them to be moved around by the team, while several of the team-mates also wear caps with the same monster-head design, all adding to the impression of lots and lots of horrible scary heads moving around and trying to eat you! And if you look carefully just behind the head of the girl carrying the charity bucket, you will see that one of them has obviously been successful – there is a trouser-leg with a shoes hanging from the end of it dangling from its jaws. Brilliant!

The hydra crops up in lots of modern tellings of the Hercules story, such as Disney’s Hercules (1997), and we’ll doubtless be hearing a lot about it at the conference on receptions of Hercules which my colleague Emma Stafford is running later this month. But Ray Harryhausen and Don Chaffey also added it to the story of Jason and the Argonauts – which brings me neatly on to the next two teams:

39 Knaresborough Scouts Argonauts 1 87 Scotton Lingerfield Argonauts 2

The designs here are quite different. The first team has referenced the Jason story directly by including the golden ram’s head on their ship’s sail. I presume the fellow with the breast-plate and shield is Jason himself, apparently on his return journey since one of his team-mates can be seen holding the fabled golden fleece. The second team have gone for more of a sirens theme, shown in the costumes of the runners and a large stuffed mermaid figure on their ship’s stern (of which only the tail is visible in my picture). But their design scheme too is definitely Greek, and what makes me think above all that they are referencing the story of Jason and the Argonauts is the big blue eye on the front of their ship, which the first team have also included on theirs. In fact, of course, this appears on the Argo in the iconic modern telling of the Jason myth – Ray Harryhausen / Don Chaffey’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963):

jason-and-the-argonauts-argo Jason Argo

So between these ships and the fairy-land Pegasi, Ray Harryhausen’s vision of Classical mythology has clearly had a pretty bit influence on these teams – a real tribute to the enduring power of his films which I have also discussed elsewhere on this blog.

Moving a little further forward in mythological time, we enter the period of the Trojan war and its great hero, Achilles, who was immune to weapons over his whole body except for one heel:

15 Castle Clinic Achilles heel

These people are osteopaths whose trolley proclaims that they don’t just treat backs – presumably, Achilles’ tendons are on the agenda too. A clever move from them to use the mythological reference in promoting their business, and a good example of how Classical references are transmitted through our culture. According to Wikipedia, the practice of describing the tendon at the back of the human foot with reference the story of Achilles grew up amongst anatomists in the early modern period (it’s recorded as an established practice in 1693). This was a time when learned people were well-steeped in Classical texts – in fact, anatomists were still making substantial use of ancient medical writers like Galen and Hippocrates. So it’s not surprising that they reached for Classical stories like the Achilles legend to name human body-parts. Now that name has stuck, and it helps in turn to keep the story alive. I’m sure many people now hear of an Achilles tendon before they know the story behind it, and I hope it inspires some people to discover the story itself.

After the death of Achilles, the Greeks finally turned the war in their favour by building the Trojan horse, filling it with soldiers, and leaving the unsuspecting Trojans to drag it inside their city walls. Two teams had a go at making their own version:

25 P&G The Grads Trojan horse 50 Orion Trojan horse 1

I am not sure you could fit very many soldiers inside the first horse, but the second one is pretty epic! To my eye, it also looks quite similar to the horse featured in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004):

trojan-horse

They’re not exactly the same, for sure – the Petersen one has a much ‘rougher’ look, capturing the feel of something cobbled together out of bits of broken-up ships. But there’s something about the use of individual planks of wood in this horse, as opposed to smooth panels like the other one, which gives it a similar feel.

Moving out of the realms of outright myths and into recorded history (which can still generate stories of legendary heroism, of course) it’s time to meet the Spartans:

35 Knaresborough Rugby Club Spartans 1

I think the combination of the shield designs, the helmets and the scanty tunics make it pretty clear that we are not just meeting any old Spartans here, but specifically the ones envisaged in Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007):

300 Spartans shields

So we’ve now seen designs which are quite definitely influenced by 300 and Jason and the Argonauts, and probably also others influenced a little more indirectly by Clash of the Titans and Troy. Most Classicists today are already very well aware that one of the main routes by which non-specialists come into contact with Classical stories today is film and TV – indeed, my survey of which Roman emperors people in Leeds were familiar with showed much the same thing. But I think the choices made by these teams are one more proof of that, if anyone needs it.

Finally, we’ve not heard much from the Romans yet. That’s no big surprise. As Gideon Nisbet has shown, Greek mythology is big news in popular culture today, whereas the modern image of the Roman world is all about marching legions and gladiatorial games. So when people are dressing up to a ‘myths and legends’ theme, of course Greek stories are going to predominate. Nonetheless, three teams did lean in a Roman direction:

57 Commercial Estates ship 1

To be fair, this ship is quite multi-cultural. The overall design could be Greek or Roman, and alhough they’re not visible in this picture, it also had some quite Celtic-looking designs on the prow. If I could identify the picture of the female head on the stern, I might be clearer about where this team got their inspiration – but although I’m sure I’ve seen it before, I can’t pin it down now.

38 HACS Mythical Legends Boudicca 14 HPL Flyers chariot 2

These two are definitely Roman, though. The lady in the first chariot is clearly Boudicca, because she had the famous knives on her chariot wheels (not visible in the picture above, but see below right behind the two singers). I’m not so sure about the second lot – perhaps they were thinking of Boudicca too (especially since they are an all-female team), but decided to omit the knives? Or perhaps it’s a more general reference to Roman chariot-racing as seen in films such as Ben Hur? In any case, the net result is that the only identifiable story from the Roman period represented at the bed race was the story of Boudicca, who of course crucially wasn’t a Roman at all, and indeed stands in the popular imagination as a symbol of Celtic resistance to Roman imperialism. The many myths and legends which the Romans did actually have continue to languish in obscurity today, just as Wiseman has discussed.

For the sake of completeness, I should add that there was also a Roman rock band in the middle of the parade, featuring three dudes on guitars and drums in the back of a van, followed by two ladies on foot singing:

Roman rock band Roman rock band singers

Obviously they weren’t referencing any particular myth, but I’m sure their performances are legendary…

I’ll finish by saying that although I have concentrated on the Classically-themed teams here, because that’s my area of interest, the whole parade was brilliant, and the race itself was a thing to behold! There is a great video of this year’s race here, which shows some of the other teams and really captures the experience of the day as a whole, and I can really recommend going along to experience it for yourself if you get the chance:

Posted in classical receptions, films, greek mythology, ray harryhausen, rituals and festivals | 2 Comments »

The Olympic torch – from Hitler to Headingley

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on June 26, 2012

The Olympic torch was carried down my road in Headingley, Leeds on Sunday. I have next to no interest in sport, but the Queen’s recent Diamond Jubilee celebrations reminded me that although I similarly have very little interest in the royal family per se, I am fantastically interested in rituals, commemorations and what they reveal about our collective interests and priorities. So, on the same basis, I turned out to see the torch go by.

There’s been some interesting debate recently about the particular ritual of the Olympic torch relay. Mary Beard has been pointing out since the run-up to the Beijing games in 2008 that this ritual was invented by Hitler, and using that fact to support her view that it is silly, a waste of money and should be dropped. Since then, other commentators have picked up Mary’s point and she herself has regularly reiterated it.

But all traditions have to be invented at some point, as Mary well knows, and they also change and evolve in response to contemporary needs.

My colleague Elizabeth Pender is working on the ideals and values associated with the Olympic games at the moment, and pointed out to me over lunch recently the huge contrasts between the way the Chinese used the torch-carrying ritual four years ago for the Beijing Olympics and the way the UK is using it now. As she said, the Chinese approach was distinctly imperialistic. They sent it all around the globe, on the longest route it had ever followed – an instant claim to Chinese pre-eminence. The torch-bearers were Chinese athletes and other notable cultural figures (actors, musicians, directors etc), making the relay into a display of the physical prowess and cultural achievements of their people, while of course they famously ran surrounded by uniformed security guards – an unmistakeable symbol of China’s strength, discipline and ability to suppress dissent. And all of this provoked considerable controversies along the route, as the torch-relay became the focus of protests against China’s human rights record, anger with the heavy-handed security guards, and a general sense from commentators that this wasn’t quite in keeping with the supposedly peaceful, non-political ideology of the Olympic games.

That’s the context in which Mary Beard first started voicing her opposition to the torch relay, and in the face of that particular iteration of it I can see her point. The claims to national pre-eminence inherent in the Chinese rally certainly bear close comparison with the ceremony invented by the Third Reich.

But the way the relay has been used in the UK this year is a vivid example of just how flexible and adaptable rituals like this can be. Here, the torch relay has explicitly and deliberately been used to foster and demonstrate localism and inclusiveness, on an entirely internal stage. Far from travelling round the globe, this year’s torch is being taken instead into the heart of as many communities across the UK as possible. The 8000-mile route has apparently been designed to pass within an hour’s journey or less from 95% of the population, so that there are actually huge numbers of people (including Mary Beard) having the same experience as me – of the torch going down their very own road. At that point, no matter how little interest you have, it becomes churlish to sit inside deliberately not looking out of the window – and so you get sucked in in spite of yourself, included in the whole experience, and drawn together with your immediate neighbours and fellow citizens across the country. The torch-bearers are local people, too – out of 8000 in total, 700 are athletes, but the other 7300 have been put forward by their local communities and chosen on the basis of their personal achievements and / or contribution to the area. And this has been really effective. I’ve heard very little criticism of this particular form of Olympic torch relay, but instead all sorts of heart-warming local news stories showing the torch being photographed at distinctive local landmarks and people turning out to cheer and enjoy the atmosphere as it goes by.

Nonetheless, the “don’t you know the torch relay was invented by Hitler?” meme itself remains very much alive. In fact, it seems to have become this year’s torch-relay comment piece de rigeur. And I am pleased to see this sort of conversation about the relay going on. The discourse which rituals like this provoke, whether anti or pro, is to me all part of their wider cultural value – and of course we should always think to ask where our traditions come from, and what that adds to or detracts from their value, as part of the ongoing process of deciding whether or not we want to perpetuate them.

I think this particular response to the torch relay, though, also reveals a distinct measure of what I think of as ‘ritual anxiety’ – that is, an uneasiness around the whole idea of ritual activities. It’s something I see in relation to all sorts of other ritual occasions and commemorative events, and particularly strikes me on Valentine’s Day, when a whole army of people emerge every year to complain that we shouldn’t need a special day devoted to something we should be doing all the time, that it is meaningless, too commercialised, misogynistic etc. But it also crops up in relation to Christmas (goods in the shops too early, probably not really the date of the historical Jesus’ birth), Easter (it’s a pagan festival really!, no it’s not), and almost any other ritual or commemorative occasion you can name.

A lot of this sort of commentary seems to spring from discomfort with the arbitrary, invented character of these events. We are asked to treat a particular day as special when we know that it isn’t really inherently different from any other day, or to take particular actions and rituals seriously when we know full well that they don’t have any concrete outcome – and indeed that someone just like us simply invented them at some point. None of that sits well with a modern mind-set that demands rational grounds for doing things. Then, of course, there is our awareness that rituals of all kinds have a long history of being used by repressive regimes, ideologies and religions as tools for boosting their own prestige and indoctrinating cowed and ill-educated populations into their preferred ways of thinking. That certainly doesn’t look palatable to the populations of modern liberal democracies, and is exactly what the ‘invented-by-Hitler’ meme conjures up.

But sometimes I think that the modern urge to respond cynically and suspiciously to rituals risks underestimating their social and emotive value, as well as the ways in which they can be re-appropriated by the masses of ordinary people participating in them. Few people in the UK are really so severely rationalistic as to eschew Christmas altogether, even if we don’t believe in its religious symbolism, or indeed belong to another religious tradition altogether. In the end, most people recognise that it’s a good excuse to connect with other people via a common experience and have a bit of fun, and that there is enough flexibility in the festival to access those parts of it separately from its religious content. In fact, Christmas is a very good example of a festival which has been widely re-appropriated, and is now as much a secular festival celebrated out of generalised nostalgia for the past (Victorian Britain, pagan midwinter festivals or whatever) and for the sake of present-day shared identity, as it is a religious one.

Similarly, with the Olympic torch relay, arguably what is more important than the invention of the ritual under the Nazis is the choice that was made to repeat it for the next Olympic games, held in London in 1948. It was at that point, in fact, and not in 1936, that it became a tradition rather than just a one-off event – and also that the London Olympic organisers established it as a flexible ritual, which did not have to be celebrated in the same way every four years. That is re-appropriation, and to me already renders the actual origins of the relay rather insignificant – and that is to say nothing of the constant re-invention and re-working of the ritual which has continued unabated over the subsequent 64 years.

Meanwhile, in Leeds the torch relay has been quite an event. The City Council and local newspapers have been busy promoting it, as have local businesses and organisations. When the torch arrived in Headingley itself, it called in first at the area’s best-known landmark – the Carnegie Stadium, which is home to both the Leeds Rhinos rugby club and Yorkshire County Cricket Club, and where it was greeted by local MP Greg Mulholland. There was a big rugby game on at the stadium anyway, so taking the torch there was clearly a good way to involve lots of people in the relay. But the management also opened up the gates for free entry while the torch passed through, and stated explicitly on their website that “Headingley Carnegie Stadium are looking forward to extending a special welcome to families who’ve never been to the ground before.” So for them it was an opportunity to draw people in to an aspect of Headingley life which they might not previously have been involved with before – presumably with the hope that they would like it and come again.

I didn’t think very many people would be watching on my road itself, assuming that surely most people would go to see it in the stadium or along the main shopping street instead, but boy was I wrong! I could tell things were gearing up from about an hour before the torch arrived, when I looked out of the window and saw a lady living opposite hanging out some bunting, and by half an hour before the torch came past there were already rows of people lining what is normally a fairly quiet suburban road. At that point I got out there and started taking a few photos and chatting to people, and you could really feel a sense of palpable excitement along the street. The chap standing next to me had walked down from Far Headingley with his slightly reluctant son (who would rather have watched it on TV), and was keen to point out that we would never get the chance to see an Olympic torch relay going through our area in real life again. In other words, he wanted to feel that he was an active participant in a unique moment of our communal history – which seems also to have been one of the main attractions of the Diamond Jubilee. By the time the torch came by, the son was looking just as interested and excited as everyone else.

There were of course plenty of people there to promote their businesses or make money out of the crowds, from big Coca-Cola, Samsung and Lloyds TSB floats with blaring music and cheer-leaders to a lady selling Union Jack (yes, I know) flags and a local ice-cream van which turned up towards the end. But hey, that’s all part of our society too. And meanwhile there was some surprisingly touching camaraderie – like the police motorbike riders, who were technically there to clear the crowds gently out of the path of the procession, mainly spending their time cruising past and high-fiving everyone. I know it’s a huge cliché, but I took the opportunity to get chatting to my next-door neighbours, who moved in a couple of months ago but whom I hadn’t spoken to yet – and of course found that they were lovely people whom I was really pleased to get to know.

The torch-bearer along my stretch was Susan Marley, who has campaigned extensively for cystic fibrosis research. I could tell it was her because she was the only woman out of five torch-bearers for the Headingley route – which, given that these people were put forward by their local community, is a bit disappointing, actually. Don’t the people of Headingley feel that more of their women are worth celebrating? Still, I was pleased to cheer her on, and she looked like she was really enjoying her well-deserved moment in the spotlight.

The actual passage of the torch was incredibly quick in comparison to the time spent waiting for it, of course. But the real attraction was never the torch itself anyway. It was the sense of being part of a something exciting with nationwide resonances, but happening right outside my house and involving my own local community – just as the organisers had always designed it to be. I’m glad the torch relay provided a focus for that, I’m glad I took part – and I don’t think that the connection with the Third Reich detracted from it. What I saw showed me that the ritual has transcended its origins – and that taking part in something which doesn’t stand up to rational scrutiny can still be really enjoyable and worthwhile.

If you live in Leeds and would like to know more about the relationship between the ancient and modern Olympics, my colleagues Emma Stafford and Elizabeth Pender will be giving lunchtime talks on that subject on Thursday 28th June and Thursday 26th July as part of the Classics in our lunchtimes series at Leeds City Museum. Both are free to attend, and details of the first talk, on ‘Olympic Beginnings: preparing for the Games, then and now’ are available here. If you can’t make it to the talks themselves, you can listen to them afterwards as part of the Classics in our lunchtimes podcast series.

Posted in classical receptions, cultural identity, greek history, history, leeds, rituals and festivals, urban geography | 8 Comments »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 55 other followers

%d bloggers like this: