The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Elizabeth Shepherd
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
The Lion Gate at Mycenae.
When did you first come across this source?
I went straight from University in St. Andrews to the Classics PGCE in Cambridge to my first teaching job. Here I was startled to learn that, as well as the comfortable and familiar A level pleasures of Ovid in the Sixth Form, and the Cambridge Latin Course in the lower years, I was expected to set myself up as an expert in Mycenaean Civilisation for my U6 Class Civ set. I actually wanted to get out of it and the first few weeks felt a little bumpy – I’d never taught anything that wasn’t literature or language and I knew nothing of the subject. However, the class seemed to enjoy it and what with all the hours in the evenings trying to get one step ahead of them and building up my folder I came to love it too, and we all found artefacts such as the bull’s head rhyton and the lion hunt dagger really quite exciting. I’m really thankful to my then Head of Department, John Bird, for throwing me in at the deep end and taking me right out of my comfort zone with that one – and for supporting me so subtly and kindly through it. Ever since, I have believed in teachers learning new material as they teach, and in the importance of having a dynamic and challenging approach to subject knowledge rather than settling to teach something which one has done for years without supplementing it with fresh material. The fulfilment of learning and the joy of new discoveries enables us to pass that joy on to our students year after year. There’s only actually one course I’ve been asked to teach that I didn’t enjoy by the end – I won’t mention it here as I don’t want to put anyone out!
Can you tell me a bit about the Lion Gate and its context?
This is the main entrance to the citadel of Mycenae, which had been inhabited from about 2500BC, though this gate dates from during its most prosperous time in about 1250BC. Perseus, according to tradition, having enlisted the help of the Cyclopes to move the stones, founded the city and Atreus and Agamemnon were fabled to be among its later rulers. Mycenae was partly destroyed towards the end of the 12th century, though the walls remained, with early modern excavations begun by Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s.
The limestone filling the relieving triangle above the gate depicts two lions, or lionesses, their front paws resting on altars which might express the Homeric idea of the divine right of Kings, as well as serving as the ‘oldest coat of arms in the history of the Western world’ (George. E. Mylonas). The lions are headless and various theories have proposed that the heads were made of bronze and other metals, or made of a softer stone more apt for carving detailed images. The animals’ heads were turned face-on to those entering Mycenae, impressing a sense of awe and strength on those visiting, and a sense of protection and pride and identity on the Mycenaeans themselves. The gateway and its approach functioned as a means of defence for the city, as an army approaching the gate, carrying shields on their left arms, would have been forced by walls on either side to narrow their formation as they approached; on the top of the Cyclopean western wall, Mycenaean defenders could attack the army’s unprotected right-hand side.
What is it about this source that appeals to you?
Throughout school and university I studied very little in the way of material culture and as a literature specialist it surprised me to find that this is a material source representing a whole site for me, which I look at every day (it’s my school screensaver!) and which inspires me every day with the beauty, harshness and influence of the subject I have chosen. (Given my time again, I’d choose the same again. Are there any Classicists who don’t feel this?!)
We took a school trip to Mycenae the year I was teaching this module for the first time and one student in particular who had been in my class that year decided to woo the woman of his affections by giving her a personal guided tour, pointing out first out the details of the Lion Gate then moving on to information about the sally port and the megaron and so on. As well as being a source of pride to me as he accurately waxed lyrical using what he had learnt in my lessons, he managed to impress the girl sufficiently to have her hanging on his every word for the rest of the trip. The Lion Gate brings people together! On that same trip I remember our museum visit and the thrill the class and I got from seeing the ‘Bull’s Head’ rhyton in real life.
I was telling my husband about the Lion gate a little later and he told me how the entrance under the tunnel to Anfield Football Stadium applied the same principles of inspiring pride, loyalty and optimism in the Liverpool team and nerves and awe in visiting teams, proclaiming in white letters around its iconic liver bird badge ‘This is Anfield’. I am delighted to have told this to many a class since, as part of many a discussion comparing the ancient world with our own, but actually it is the dusty, hot, imposing, dry, powerful ‘otherness’ of the Lion Gate which intrigues and entrances me time after time. It has even influenced the way I visit the British Museum; instead of heading forward at the entrance I often now turn left to make a quick visit to the artefacts from the Mycenaean era.
What else do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Choral singing has been a big part of my life since school and I was supposed to be taking part in the Three Choirs Festival again last summer but lockdown put paid to that. For now I am doing lots of reading and cooking and piano-playing and buying several pointless items such as shelves full of mosaic equipment (I actually made a small mosaic of the Lion Gate which is currently in my classroom) and I have joined the Conqueror Challenge, involving walking the length of Hadrian’s Wall. I’ll try to complete this before my birthday in summer and am currently just past the Metro Centre!!
A proud-to-be-Northern lass by birth, having taught Classics (and variously English, EAL, EPQ and History) for over 20 years in Britain, Milan and for a couple of summers in Hong Kong, Elizabeth Shepherd has finally returned with her family to where the heart is – Worcestershire – where she teaches Classics.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.