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Why the classical world still grips the contemporary imagination

This year’s Classics Now festival recognises how the current classical cultural resurgence has been driven by prominent female writers and historians

“In all creation there is nothing constant,” opines the philosopher Pythagoras at the end of Ovid’s famous epic poem, Metamorphoses. Indeed, Pythagoras’s theory is the guiding spirit of the poem, in which physical transformation is the key story and theme of the 250 myths he recounts over 15 books, which takes the reader from the creation of the world to the death of Julius Caesar. What Pythagoras did not consider, perhaps, was the constancy of classical literature and his own ideas, which continue to exert a powerful hold on the contemporary imagination.

Indeed, Metamorphoses itself is one of the first major examples of the way in which ancient stories have been used to illuminate the conditions and preoccupations of a later society: composed in the eighth century, it took its cues from ancient mythological sources and Alexandrian poetry. It is also one of the most significantly influential classical texts, inspiring writers like Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Ted Hughes, and artists like Titian, Bruegel and Bernini. Both within ancient cultures and today, classical literature has provided a vital lens through which artists make sense of the world.

It is the constancy of this cultural phenomenon, in its endlessly mutable forms, that influenced the establishment of the Classics Now festival, now in its third year, as its curator Helen Meany explains. Having been inspired herself as a teenager by Mary Renault’s trilogy about Alexander the Great, Meany, a former literature adviser at the Arts Council, noticed a specific flourishing of classical reinterpretations in the mid 2010s, when writers like Margaret Atwood, Pat Barker, Kamila Shamsie, and Jeanette Winterson began publishing new versions of famous Greek myths.

Reinterpreting myth

In Ireland alone, she was cognisant of how so many poets and playwrights had used the classics as a way of reflecting on Irish history. “There was Yeats of course, but more recently there was Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Marina Carr, Conall Morrison, all using this classical source material in such different ways.” Meany began talking with the classics departments at Maynooth College, University College Dublin and Trinity College about a festival that might “showcase this burst of literary and artistic interest in reinterpreting myth, but would also reflect the flourishing of interest in ancient history, with scholars like Mary Beard on primetime TV.” (Beard will appear in an online event this year, addressing the festival’s theme: the future of the classics.)


“Because the classics is actually a huge umbrella that encompasses a whole variety of disciplines and ideas – if you are interested in politics, philosophy, art, theatre; it can all be traced back to ancient Greece – so there was huge potential there for a cultural festival that would bring all that together, and include visual art, architecture, literature, music.”

The festival was launched in 2020 in an online iteration that allowed Meany to connect with leading scholars and critics from the UK and the US, including critic and memoirist Daniel Mendelsohn and Mary Norris. Last year, they presented a hybrid festival, with Theatre Lovett riffing off the classical elements of the Hugh Lane Gallery and its collection for a family event based on Aesop’s fables and a podcast performance of the first extant Greek tragedy, Aeschylus’s Persians. This year’s festival maintains a hybrid approach, with an online presence enabling Meany to engage a wider reach in terms of participants and a wider audience for the work.

As much of this year’s programme acknowledges, the current classical cultural resurgence has been driven by prominent female writers and historians. As Meany explains: “So many of the current creative adaptations and versions are written by women. You have Madeline Miller and Charlotte Higgins [who both spoke at the festival in 2022]. You have Natalie Haynes [who spoke at the festival online in 2020, and will appear in person this year to discuss her new version of the Medea myth Stone Mad.] So it’s definitely a significant cultural trend.”

Reflecting this, Meany has invited two prominent classical feminist scholars, Helen Morales and Stephanie McCarter, to participate in an online conversation about how “rereading [can be an act of] subversive mythmaking; asking what it means to reclaim myth in ways that don’t reinforce patriarchal readings about power dynamics”. McCarter’s newly published translation of Metamorphoses is the first translation in poetic metre by a woman, and their discussion will include her observations about the challenges of translating Ovid. As she explains in her introduction to Metamorphoses, it is difficult to find a way to represent the sexual violence that permeates the poem without repeating the objectification or evasiveness of her literary predecessors. However, stripping away the patriarchal biases reveals the surprising aspect of “how movingly Ovid writes of mutual, consensual love, especially marital love [which offer] powerful counterpoints to the predatory and objectifying violence seen in so many of the stories of rape”.

One of these happier, consensual stories is that of Orpheus and Eurydice, one of the most frequently retold of all the Greek myths, and the Classics Now programme pays tribute to this with two live events shaped around the story. The festival’s opening event, in association with Poetry Ireland at the National Concert Hall, Eurydice and Orpheus: Words and Music, traces the influence of the story on thousands of years of culture, with baritone Rory Musgrave, composer Andrew Synnott and actor Tara Lynne O’Neill performing poetic and musical versions of the tale by artists as varied as Gluck and Rilke, Nick Cave and Baz Luhrmann (the myth offered him a template for the love story in Moulin Rouge).

Meanwhile, a rare big-screen rendering of Jean Cocteau’s 1950 film Orphée at the Irish Film Institute resets the tale in Paris, a different version of that singular story which will add to the festival’s showcase of a rich and varied interest in the classics that has sustained popular and literary culture over the millennia.

The Classics Now festival runs from January 27th-29th in venues across Dublin city and online