Comfort Classics: Amber Taylor

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 Amber Taylor

Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?

When I was 16, having just entered A level, I had no idea what I wanted to be or do with my life and so I frantically searched for comfort from whatever source I could find. Through homework, exams and all the other pressures being a teenager had, including choosing a career path, it just so happened that I stumbled upon a quiet comfort in Classics. More specifically, in my A level Latin class.

I was a class of 1 – yes, 1 – and I thought this was magic. I got to sit and talk about Roman Mythology, history and gods and everything in between for at least an hour every day with teachers that made the subject come to life. And the best part? I got to translate all these stories from Latin.

This is where I found my greatest love; Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book 3; specifically, the story of Pentheus and Bacchus, leading into a narrative of Acoetes and the Lydian Sailors.

When did you first come across this text?

I discovered this text in my Lower 6th year of grammar school and it was my verse set text. Every week, for a couple of hours a day, I got to sit and translate lines of Ovid and delve deeper and deeper into the mysteries of Bacchus’ power. I was absolutely entranced by it – perhaps I was a maenad in a previous life…

It was in falling in love with the Classics that I began to fall in love with teaching as well, as I watched the 3 most brilliant Classics teachers to have ever lived (a tad biased, I know) convey their subject with passion, excitement and, always, humour. I’m very fortunate to say they changed my life, not only by letting my 16-year-old self discover what she wanted to be, but for allowing her to form an interest in a world that will, hopefully, last a lifetime.

Can you tell me a bit about this text and its context?

After abandoning a political career, Ovid dedicated his life to verse. Initially exploring the themes of love and sexual intrigue in his earlier work, he turned to writing more ambitious poems; notably the Fasti (‘Calendar’) and the Metamorphoses.

By the time Ovid had entered exile, for reasons we will never fully know (carmen et error: “a poem and an error” according to Ovid himself), the Metamorphoses was not completely finished. Written to parallel Virgil and his epic the Aeneid, Ovid writes using dactylic hexameter across 15 books (3 more than Virgil’s). Rivalling Virgil not only in style but in scope, the Metamorphoses covers everything from the creation of the world to the deification of Julius Caesar, a year before Ovid’s birth. The poem comprises 250 different stories from myth and legend all tied, however loosely, by a common thread – metamorphoses.

What is it about this story that appeals to you most?

I actually had this discussion with a friend recently, who also happened to convince me to take part in this (thanks Derek). I think it’s the small human qualities, contrasted with the divine and magical that Ovid brings out so brilliantly. For example, when Acoetes tells his tale of how he came to discover Bacchus’ power, he initially tells of how his boat docks at Chios. He then describes how they disembark the ship, feeling the squelchy sand under their toes. Even from my first reading of this text I loved the simplicity of this detail, a minute human action often gone unnoticed, but Ovid, thinking it important, finds a way to include it.

Running alongside this, of course, is the divine. In the main storyline of Pentheus and Bacchus, Pentheus is killed by his mother and aunt as they confuse him for a wild boar in their delirious worship of the god; ironically Pentheus never physically ‘transforms’ as the theme of metamorphoses would suggest (although, in discussion with my colleague, Derek McCann, he posited that Pentheus does indeed, in a sense, transform when he is tragically beheaded); instead, the power Bacchus holds over the Bacchants allows for Pentheus to be transformed in their minds, meaning that instead of seeing a son/nephew standing before them, they perceive a wild boar ready to be hunted.  

As a primary teacher, I love to compare this notion of divine power to things that children would find relevant when I tell them this story. When I first read of Bacchus turning Acoetes’ ship into ivy as it sailed through waves of sailors-turned-dolphins, I very vividly imagined the ivy coiling around the oars of the ship and mast in the same way pixie dust covers the ship at the end of Disney’s Peter Pan. Something about the use of Ovid’s ‘creeping’ language as he slowly paints the image of ivy growing across the ship and reveals Bacchus’ true identity always felt magical – like a Disney story.

And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?

My day to day is actually primary school teaching, so Classics tends to be what I look at to cheer myself up, although I do try to bring it into the primary classroom where I can. When I’m not doing that I love to cook and bake, a skill I ended up developing, as many did, over the first lockdown. I recently made a pasta dish that I’m very excited about.

Aside from that, I love music, getting coffee and walking in reasonably flat forested areas. I have a dog too – Belle – who is slightly antisocial but very cute. Please see attached photos below for evidence, as I couldn’t choose just 1.

Amber Taylor is a recent graduate of Stranmillis College, a College of Queen’s University Belfast, in Primary Education (BEd Hons) with her dissertation being titled: Classics in the Primary Classroom: An Exploration of Teacher and Pupil Perspectives on the Benefits, Challenges and Future Development of Classics Education in the Context of Primary Schools in Northern Ireland. Currently she works as a Primary 3 teacher in a small school in the Greater Belfast Area.

Amber sits on the Board of the Classical Association of Northern Ireland (CANI) and on the Central Council of the Classical Association of Ireland (CAI). You’ll find her every Summer at the Belfast Summer School in Classics teaching Beginner’s Latin. Amber is currently also working with Helen McVeigh at Classical Greek Tutoring (@BelfastClassics on Twitter) to run a weekly Beginner’s Latin class commencing in September 2021. Dates and information on the course will be released by @BelfastClassics at a later stage.

Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.

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