History & Classics, Interviews, Research & Resources
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Why we need monsters like Medusa and the Sirens

Monsters

In October 2017, the Institute of Classical Studies (ICS) hosted ‘Why do we need monsters?’ which presented some of the latest research on ancient monsters to a non-specialist audience. The event is still enjoying an afterlife, having inspired an anthology of fiction and non-fiction entitled ‘Making Monsters’. Due for publication on 1st September 2018 by ICS and  Futurefire.net, an independent publisher of speculative fiction, it is designed to have wide appeal with its combination of accessible essays by academics and newly-commissioned poetry and short stories which reinvent ancient monsters.

The October event was introduced by ICS public engagement fellow Dr Emma Bridges (EB) who, along with Djibril al-Ayad, is one of the editors of Making Monsters. Dr Valeria Vitale (VV), ICS research fellow, helped the audience to create their own monster using 3D technology, and is also contributing a piece to the anthology based on her research. 

The original public event asked the question, ‘Why do we need monsters?’ Can you explain what makes a monster, and then tell us why you think society still needs them?

VV: During the event, when we used a 3D software to build monsters live with the audience, we played with proportions, with the number of limbs (sometimes too many, sometimes not enough), and, of course, with mixing and matching different animal components. They are all quick, but quite effective, recipes to create monsters! But my favourite quality of monsters is that they don’t exist in nature. We are actually surrounded by odd or terrifying things. But if we can find them in a biology books, well, they are not monsters! Monsters are exclusively human-made. That’s what I love about them.

You have worked quite a lot this year on monster-themed projects. What do you like about monsters?

EB: One of my main research interests is classical reception – that is, the reuse and adaptation of themes, texts and ideas from antiquity in new historical and cultural contexts, right up to the present day – so I spend a lot of time thinking about how stories and characters from the ancient Greek and Roman world find their way into new places and literary genres, or artistic media, over time.

I love the way in which these hybrid characters offer artists and writers opportunities for creativity, and I find it particularly fascinating when someone uses their creative talent to give us a whole new perspective on a so-called ‘monster’, and to show us another side to their character.

MonstersIt reminds us that we miss out on a lot if we just think of monsters as straightforwardly terrifying, or as foils to make the heroes of ancient myths seem more heroic; some of my favourite reworkings of monstrous characters are those which let us see something of their backstory, and which give us a new understanding of elements of their characters we might not have thought about before. There are several of those in Making Monsters!

Your talk, on which your piece in Making Monstersis based, suggested that anyone can make their own monster. That sounds rather like members of your audience are going to become modern-day Victor Frankensteins! Could you say a little more about your research on making monsters?

VV: What we did during the Monsters event was very much related to the research agenda of the new SAS 3D Lab (a joint enterprise involving the Institute of Classical Studies and the Institute of Historical Research).

I trained as a 3D modeller to create scientifically-accurate visualisations of cultural heritage. But the more I worked with these digital technologies, the more I appreciated the way they can connect the audience with the materiality of historical objects. With very little knowledge of 3D software it’s already possible to manipulate, enhance, distort and reinvent shapes. And I think that this is an empowering feeling and a way to re-appropriate cultural heritage.

Monsters seemed to me to be one of the best examples of these dynamics. The audience really seemed to engage with the idea of visualising on screen in real time the wilder combinations of different animal parts! And the possibility of going, through 3D printing, from the immaterial world of bytes to the material one, gave a taste of both the creative process in storytelling but also the complex relationship between material and digital artefacts.

If you could create a monster, what would you like to make?

EB: I’ve always been intrigued by the three-headed dog, Cerberus, who guards the ancient Greek underworld; I’m also the owner of a Labrador whose soppy character is about as far from that of the monstrous Cerberus as it’s possible to get. It’s quite fun to imagine what would happen in the stories if, rather than being the terrifying hound of Hades we know from mythology, Cerberus were actually an excitable three-headed Labrador puppy …

When we asked for submissions of new fiction and poetry for the anthology we had an overwhelming response from creative writers – it was a difficult task to select the pieces which will appear in the publication. Why do you think that contemporary writers are still so interested in retelling the stories of ancient monsters?

VV: I think that there is a deep pleasure in trying your hand at stories that belong to the public imagination and seeing if it is still possible to say something new about them. On the one hand, when you’re re-telling a well-known story or character it’s easier, because you build on top of a long tradition of variations around it, but on the other it is extremely challenging.

Will you be able to make them still compelling and relevant to a modern audience? That, I think, applies to all retelling of myths or folk-tales. But talking about ancient monsters in particular, they seem to still inhabit a (dark and scary!) place somewhere, deep down our cultural conscience. And I guess for a storyteller it is a delicious temptation to play with it.

Speaking of stories, the table of contents of the anthology looks fabulous! What do you think are the highlights?

EB: It was interesting to see how particular themes recurred, in the essays as well as in the fiction and poetry, and how writers used the narratives relating to monsters to address issues which are of contemporary concern. So, for example, several of the authors explored gender roles and how these intersect with ideas about monstrosity. That might also explain why some characters recur more than once – the Sirens and Medusa were popular choices.

I also liked seeing the different ways in which writers chose to interpret the ‘making’ part of the book’s title – so, along with your essay on making monsters using up-to-the-minute technology, there are also pieces which focus on, for example, making monsters in film and visual arts, and in some of the fiction pieces authors explore the mechanics of monsters made from different materials.

It’s hard to choose a favourite piece, but there’s one story in particular which really made me laugh with a brilliantly humorous take on some monsters with which I was less familiar – readers will have to wait until the anthology is published to find out more, though!

More information

Making Monsters will be launched at Senate House on 6 September (6-7.30pm). The volume of 24 short pieces contains a mix of stories, poems and accessible essays that reimagine and retell monsters and hybrids from antiquity. See here for details.

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