This week I’m having an Icarus week – which for me is not particularly unusual.
I was running an online tutorial the other day. It was supposed to be on the relationship between myth and reason (theories about the beginnings of the universe, early cosmology, the relationship between temple and Hippocratic medicine, etc etc), but somehow it ended up back where the OU’s Myth course began, with the story of Daedalus and Icarus.
This particular myth is just such a brilliant combo of silliness and practicality, fantasy and shed-inventing. A dad comes up with an escape plan which involves building massive wings that actually work; his son disregards warnings and flies too close to the sun; the wax melts; the story ends in a great big I-told-you-so disaster. Yes, there are nuances: transgression of natural boundaries, the role of the gods, and let’s not forget poor Perdix, the cruelly eliminated rival and nephew to Daedalus, who watches his cousin’s end with – I would imagine – a certain amount of smugness. But at its core it’s a practical story of warnings and user error. Don’t try using your new phone before it’s finished its updates; don’t feed the mogwai after midnight; don’t disregard the sinister knocking sound when you’re drilling the world’s deepest mineshaft; don’t get your non-heat-retardant wings too close to the sun. There’s a reason it’s a classic story: we can all relate.
At this stage in the Myth module I can never resist bringing in Lucian’s fabulous dialogue Icaromenippus, in which a chap called Menippus gets confused by all the big questions about the beginnings of things, the meaning of life and how the world works, and decides to go straight to the ultimate authority – Zeus. So – since Menippus reluctantly admits that he isn’t attractive enough to get picked up by Zeus for a cupbearer – he builds some wings of his own (taking care to avoid the wax design flaw) and he sets off to Olympus to find his answers. On the way he has a nice chat with the Moon, sees the Earth from space and crashes a divine dinner party. And of course he accidentally brings about the destruction of all the philosophers – or he will, just as soon as the council of the gods comes back from its summer break. Science fiction, comedy, political commentary, myth and looming apocalypse: what more could a reader ask for?
Then, much to my delight, I stumbled across the Macallan’s whisky advert and its associated controversy.
To summarise… this whisky advert features a man jumping off the edge of a cliff, falling through the clouds and growing wings as he falls, and has the slogan ‘Would you risk falling… for the chance to fly?’. In response to complaints that the advert promotes risk-taking behaviour under the influence of alcohol, the advert has this week been banned from TV in the UK.
The story was picked up by most of the major news outlets, which all presented it in much the same way. The Telegraph, for instance, reported:
I enjoyed this story so much that it was a bit worrying.
The whole controversy swirls around the definition of what is ‘fantastical enough to be acceptable’. I can’t even tell you how much I love that concept; Lucian would have laughed his socks off. Two companies deemed the ad sufficiently fantastical, but the ASA objected on the grounds that the character didn’t seem to have superhuman powers. ‘Fantastical enough’ seems to require a character who is demonstrably inhuman or superhuman from the outset; sprouting wings near the end of the advert doesn’t seem to tick the box. I wish I’d been in that meeting!
Don’t watch if you’re likely to be persuaded to jump off a cliff after a glass of whisky.
This news story takes me back into familiar territory, drawing on all the big classical debates about the relationship between human and divine characters in myth. What does it mean for an ordinary human (like Daedalus and Icarus) to attempt to transgress boundaries – the boundary between heaven and earth, between mortal and god, between man and nature? What makes a human superhuman, and does a character have to have divine parentage or extraordinary powers in order to be a hero? So many questions; with enough whisky, I bet I could answer them…
Now, of course, I can’t stop thinking about first-century receptions of Ovid. Were there complaints that his story of Icarus in the Metamorphoses was promoting risk-taking behaviour among Roman youths? Were Augustan children gluing feathers together and jumping off rocks? Did parents picket the Palatine? Maybe that’s the real reason Ovid got exiled: the ancient world equivalent of Mumsnet revolted against him because the kids of Rome kept breaking bones trying to out-Icarus Icarus.
Whisky and myth: that’s my Friday evening sorted. Cheers!
This week’s links from the Classical Interweb
Hadrian’s Wall graffiti – Current Archaeology
Nero’s toilets – The Telegraph
Illustrating the Iliad – LA Times
Don’t steal mosaics! –The Independent
Tyrants of the Tiber coins – Coin News
A story from the ‘academic underclass’ – The Atlantic
Catalogue of lost books – The Guardian
Comment and opinion
The shield of Aeneas – Eidos
Hadrian’s Wall and Game of Thrones – History Extra
Euripides and Marilyn – The Wrap
Tolkien and Thucydides – The Sphinx
Jon Snow and the Athenian assembly – The Spectator
On the OU’s ‘opening up Classical Studies’ event – ACE
Race in antiquity? – Classics at the Intersections
Pompeii’s inscriptions – In Medias Res
Colours and pigment – Hyperallergic
Myth and military wives – Talking Humanities
New Classics training website – Classics in Communities
Philosophy and psychotherapy – Raw Story
Tattoos and classicists – Eidolon
Leather bikini bottoms – The History Girls
Tacitus and Jesus – Aleteia
‘Worthless’ humanities degrees? – BBC Capital
Podcasts, video and other media
Mythology and teaching Latin – Audite
Spartan women – Ancient History Hound
Agrippina the younger – Queens
Interview with Stamatia Dova – Itinera
Discovering the Wall – English Heritage
Plato on referendums – BBC Ideas
Gauls and the Hound of Ulster – Ancient History Fangirl
Free online course on the Arch of Titus – Coursera
Free open access to the TLL – Thesaurus Linguae Latinae