Holding on to Hylas

This week I’ve been following with interest the great Hylas Debate: not so much because of the publicity stunt itself, but rather because it has prompted a lot of discussion, online and in the press, about the complexity of Greek myth.

The context is this: Manchester Art Gallery (MAG) made the decision, in late January 2018, to remove the Victorian J.W. Waterhouse painting Hylas and the Nymphs from the wall where it had hung for years, leaving a blank space in which comments could be posted. The removal was filmed and the discussion tracked, to be used as part of an art installation later in the year.

The gallery curator, responding to passionate criticism of a stunt labelled ‘crass censorship’ by many, commented on the MAG blog, ‘I really want to express how this is not about ‘censorship’. It’s about challenging the outdated and damaging stories this whole part of the gallery is still telling’. This comment incensed readers, who wanted to know what was ‘damaging’ about Hylas and the Nymphs. In the course of the discussion it became apparent not just how much people loved the painting, but also how confident people were in discussing the variations in the myth behind the painting.

Hylas plays a bit-part in Greek myth. He joins the Argonauts, briefly, as the young lover of Hercules; then while fetching water he is drawn away by nymphs, never to return. Hercules sets out to look for him, deserting the Argonauts, but does not find him. Different versions present Hylas’ disappearance in different ways: he falls in love with one of the nymphs, or the nymphs take him in and care for him – or the nymphs drag him to his death in the water. Waterhouse’s painting gives us an ambiguous moment just before the versions diverge, as the nymphs look at Hylas and he looks at them: is he about to be seduced, embraced or coldly slaughtered?


In responding to the MAG’s action, people have pointed out that this is not a seduction scene, either objectifying women or presenting them as stereotyped ‘femmes fatales’: these nymphs, at this moment, have the potential to be seductive, nurturing or vicious, and Waterhouse does not try to decide their identity for them, or for us. Nor is Hylas a stereotype: famous as the lover of Hercules, his role as the male viewer of naked females isn’t at all simple. So the decision to remove this particular painting as a way of prompting debate about the objectification of women is a rather odd one.

It is, however, an ironic choice. Hylas, in Greek mythology, is conspicuous by his absence: his disappearance triggers the significant loss of Hercules from the quest to find the Golden Fleece. His presence has little impact, but his absence profoundly affects others. In a similar way, the painting’s presence at MAG has never caused controversy, but its absence has caused an outcry.

The painting is now back, after the stunt has made headlines and generated vast numbers of blog posts (yes, I do love a bandwagon!). But people are still talking about Hylas: his sexuality, his role as a victim, his ambiguity, his intersection with Victorian culture. Hylas shows us the power and flexibility of Greek and Roman myth: those nymphs can be anything, and they can change from version to version. No rules. The gallery may have invited us to engage in debate about the objectification of women and ideals of beauty, but we’re not doing that. Instead we’re talking about myth and what it shows us about human complexity.

Welcome to the world of Classics, everyone!


Cora Beth Knowles




Further reading:

http://manchesterartgallery.org/blog/presenting-the-female-body-challenging-a-victorian-fantasy/, announcement, restoration, and hundreds of comments.

https://www.the-tls.co.uk/who-was-hylas/  Mary Beard comments, ‘In almost every way, this picture is simultaneously beautiful and uncomfortable viewing — which is all the more reason why we should look at it and think about it. But MeToo it ain’t’.

https://facesandvoices.wordpress.com/2018/02/03/silencing-the-naiads-why-the-manchester-art-gallerys-performance-is-not-making-a-favour-to-women/  Roberta Mazza, Manchester University, comments, ‘I want a society inhabited by citizens of any gender able to deconstruct the long history of a myth and its representation in art that enlighten the strained, violent relationship between women and men in the course of centuries’.

https://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/argonautsandemperors/2018/02/01/removing-waterhouse-perfect-hylas-myth/ Helen Lovatt of Nottingham says, ‘ In Apollonius’ Argonautica the abduction of Hylas is a turning point in the story of the Argonauts. With the world’s greatest hero, Hercules, on the boat, they could have walked into Colchis and just taken the Golden Fleece. But Hercules is so distraught at the loss of Hylas, that he wanders the countryside endlessly searching for him, so the Argonauts are forced to leave him behind. As a result, they need help when they get to Colchis, the help of another beautiful, complex woman: Medea’.

One thought on “Holding on to Hylas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s