Why art and storytelling owe a great debt to Greek mythology 

Those with a discerning eye can spot elements of Greek mythology permeating modern culture, from movies to video games, literature to TV shows. (AFP/File Photo)
Those with a discerning eye can spot elements of Greek mythology permeating modern culture, from movies to video games, literature to TV shows. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 25 March 2021

Why art and storytelling owe a great debt to Greek mythology 

Those with a discerning eye can spot elements of Greek mythology permeating modern culture, from movies to video games, literature to TV shows. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Great meaning and authority is attributed to Greek mythology by virtue of its universality and perceived familiarity 
  • Those with a discerning eye can spot elements of Greek mythology permeating modern mediums, from TV to videogames 

LONDON: It is no accident that Classical Greece is commonly referred to as the cradle of Western civilization, and that a seemingly endless stream of fundamental ideas, philosophies, practices, and even words used around the world can ultimately be traced back to the ancient Greeks.

This is especially true of art and entertainment, which owes many of its most enduring archetypes and tropes to Greek mythology – a body of stories and deific characters that document the origin and nature of the world, and which has become so entrenched in popular international culture that, when you know what to look for, it can be difficult to stop.

This inspiration goes much further than just direct adaptations of ancient Greek stories – though there are still plenty of those, from classic adventure films such as “Jason and the Argonauts” to Disney’s adaptation of “Hercules” and modern, CGI-heavy remakes such as “Clash of the Titans.”

Those with a discerning eye can spot elements of Greek mythology permeating modern, ostensibly different franchises such as TV shows “Heroes” and “Battlestar Galactica,” or books like Kamila Shamsie’s “Home Fire” and Peternelle van Arsdale’s “The Cold is in Her Bones.”




Two men look at a tapestry depicting "The School of Athens” during its official presentation at the Greek Parliament on March 22, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

Even the, relatively speaking, young world of video games is rife with direct retellings (“God of War,” “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey”) and modern re-imaginings (“Horizon: Zero Dawn,” and parts of the “Final Fantasy” series).

But what is it about elements drawn from this ancient culture that have endured for so long, surviving and thriving long enough to spread around the world?

Joseph Hammond, assistant professor in the department of fine arts and art history at the American University of Beirut, said: “Greek myths, like all myths, seem to offer two things. The first is truths about us and the world, and the second is instruction and examples to emulate.

“People retell and represent them because they seem meaningful – because they are retold and represented commonly, and they are legitimized by authorities and by their great age.”

Greek mythology is populated with stories, characters, and behaviors to which we attribute great meaning and authority – by virtue of their universality and their perceived familiarity.




This handout picture released by the Greek Culture Ministry on November 15, 2020, shows the head of an ancient statue of the Greek god Hermes, in Athens, which has been unearthed during excavations for sewage system improvements in central Athens, the ministry of culture said on November 15, 2020. (AFP/Greek Culture Ministry/File Photo)

We experience the same resonance with noble heroes such as Eric Bana’s Hector in “Troy” as we do with Neo from “The Matrix” – one a simple, albeit Hollywoodized, retelling and the other a sprawling epic that draws on multiple mythologies and philosophies.

We enjoy Scar in “The Lion King” as he schemes in his Hades-inspired underworld and get swept up in Voldemort’s obsession with fatalistic prophecies and dynastic mysticism in the “Harry Potter” books. All these stories, very different on the surface, connect with us in strikingly similar ways.

“The circulation of ideas and images in modern, Western Europe was curated by art academies, museums, galleries, growing literature on art and aesthetics, and the patronage of aristocrats and royalty,” Hammond added.

“They had a particular set of truths and moral lessons that they found expedient – included among those ideas is that they had discovered the universal singular standard of truth, beauty, and art, grounded in the art and literature of ancient Greece.

“This belief in their cultural superiority fed other factors leading to imperialism that further spread and entrenched ideas about the universality of ancient Greek motifs into the colonies – including in the Middle East.”




Atmosphere at the premiere of Warner Bros. 'Clash Of The Titans' held at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on March 31, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. (AFP/File Photo)

Not all art and entertainment, in the Middle East and other parts of the world, is universally underpinned by Greek mythology. Hammond pointed out that the degree to which some colonies accepted or rejected these ideas, images, and stories was a topic worthy of discussion in its own right – but the legacy of Greek mythology remained widespread.

After all, it is no great leap to see the story of Sinbad blinding a giant (taken from the Arabic folk tale collection “One Thousand and One Nights”) as bearing all the hallmarks of classic Greek myths and critics have argued that many of Sinbad’s stories resemble tales by seminal Greek poet Homer.

However, it should be noted that a 2003 retelling of Sinbad’s tales by Hollywood producer Jeffrey Katzenberg was criticized for its Hellenistic portrayal of the Arab hero, in which every Arab reference was removed and replaced with something vaguely Greek. The ensuing furor showed that the origins of any great story are always up for debate.  

There is also a tendency to confuse universality with simple quality. “Clash of the Titans” and its sequel may be very obvious examples of enduring Greek storytelling, but that does not change the fact that, as critics around the world agreed, it also was not very good.

But there is no disputing that, around the world, art and storytelling owe Greek mythology a great debt – and continue to revel in, and draw upon, its rich and storied legacy.


Review: ‘Hawkeye’ — shot through with heart and sure due fame

 The ever-expanding Marvel universe returns to the small screen for ‘Hawkeye’ — a six-part series. (Supplied)
The ever-expanding Marvel universe returns to the small screen for ‘Hawkeye’ — a six-part series. (Supplied)
Updated 6 sec ago

Review: ‘Hawkeye’ — shot through with heart and sure due fame

 The ever-expanding Marvel universe returns to the small screen for ‘Hawkeye’ — a six-part series. (Supplied)

LONDON: After the cinematic bombast of recent Marvel movies “Black Widow,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” and “Eternals,” the ever-expanding Marvel universe returns to the small screen for “Hawkeye” — a six-part series starring the eponymous, world-weary archer, played by Jeremy Renner. Disney’s previous live-action MCU shows (the genre-bending “Wandavision,” buddy movie-esque “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” and the multiverse-spawning/spanning “Loki”) all had their own unique feel and style, but from the very start of “Hawkeye” it becomes clear that this is an altogether more human affair.

The show starts with a flashback to 2012, and the Battle of New York featured in the first “Avengers” movie, only this time we see events through the eyes of Kate Bishop, a young girl living in a beautiful NYC penthouse with her parents. As her home takes a pounding from alien invaders, Kate is saved by an arrow from Renner’s Clint Barton. Reeling from the death of her father, Kate asks her mother for a bow and arrow, and vows never to allow herself to be helpless again.

Two years after the events of “Avengers: Endgame,” Clint is in New York with his family, trying to squeeze as much Christmas cheer as possible out of the holidays, while still struggling with hearing loss (from all the explosions), the trauma of the last few years, and his secret past as the murderous vigilante Ronin. When a now-adult Kate (Hailee Steinfeld) winds up stealing the Ronin suit and attracting the attention of some shady underworld types, Clint reluctantly dusts off his superhero gear and resolves to set things right.

Hawkeye has always been the least theatrical of the MCU Avengers, and Renner’s reluctant hero feels right at home in this lower-stakes, holiday-themed limited series. (The first two episodes were available from launch, with weekly instalments on the way.) 

“Hawkeye” is guilty of some missteps, with plot holes wider than an exploded penthouse, but Renner and Steinfeld have sublime chemistry — he as the cynical, aching superhero and she as his overenthusiastic sidekick (and, presumably, eventual Avengers replacement). 

It’s just charming enough to make you overlook its flaws.


‘Jews of the East’ Paris exhibition traces group’s centuries-long presence in Arab world

A Jewish wedding party on the street next to the synagogue in Wadi Abu Jamil, Beirut, June 2 1957. (João Luis Koifman)
A Jewish wedding party on the street next to the synagogue in Wadi Abu Jamil, Beirut, June 2 1957. (João Luis Koifman)
Updated 15 min 23 sec ago

‘Jews of the East’ Paris exhibition traces group’s centuries-long presence in Arab world

A Jewish wedding party on the street next to the synagogue in Wadi Abu Jamil, Beirut, June 2 1957. (João Luis Koifman)

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron recently attended the opening of an exhibition in Paris that traces Jewish presence in the Arab world.

“Jews of the East, a Multi-Millennial History,” hosted by the Arab World Institute (IMA), has been billed as a “cultural event of international significance.” It includes displays of archaeological remains, liturgical objects, jewelry, costumes, ancient manuscripts, paintings, and photographs, along with music and audiovisual installations.

For Macron, the show provides a “great lesson” about “coexistence, mutual enrichment and exchanges between monotheisms.” He said: “Identity is always more complex than we think and feeds of other identities.”

A Jewish girls school in Baghdad around 1900. (Photothèque de l’Alliance Israélite Universelle (Paris), n° 165, Collection Liliane Alazraki)

The exhibition, which runs until March 13, contains works from collections in France, the US, Spain, the UK, Belgium, Brazil, and Morocco, and highlights the ancestral cohabitation between Jewish and Muslim communities. It focuses on periods of rich artistic and intellectual creativity as well as erratic violence.

Of particular interest to Saudi visitors will be three photographs of the Khaybar Oasis — located on a major caravan route in the Hejaz. In ancient times, it was home to Jewish tribes. “Today, there is a French team of archaeologists undertaking research on the spot to better understand this complex history of Jews and Muslims in this historic place, with the consent of the Saudi authorities,” IMA president Jack Lang told Arab News.

The curator of the exhibition, Benjamin Stora, is a university professor and historian specializing in the Arab Maghreb. He explained that Jews were present in North Africa before the arrival of Christianity. “The Jewish community in the Arab Maghreb spoke only in Arabic, except in certain regions where they either spoke Berber or a mixture of Spanish, Hebrew and Arabic,” he said.

This intersection of the three languages reflects the cohabitation of communities which included expatriate rabbis from Andalusia who settled in Tlemcen, Constantine, and other cities in the Maghreb. 

Jewish people, he said, left an “undeniable imprint” on the culture of the region, especially when it came to craftsmanship. “My ancestors, originally from Constantine, were jewelers and made snake-shaped objects that women wore at parties and weddings,” he explained.

The Jewish Bride of Rabat-Salé, Salé (Morocco), 1934-1939. (IMA: Jean Bescancenot)

Discussing political and religious tensions between the two communities, he said: “The period of French colonization and the Cremieux Decree of 1870 (granting French citizenship to Algerian Jews but not to Muslims) marked the separation of these two native groups, Muslim and Jewish.” That separation was exacerbated by Algeria’s war of independence, he added, which saw many Jews side with France.

The subject of a Jewish presence in the Arab world is, of course, an emotional and thorny topic for many, and Lang stressed that “the exhibition absolutely does not address the political questions of today.” But Stora, who has spent more than 40 years researching the contemporary history of the Maghreb region, stressed the need to preserve cultural history. “We cannot reduce this to the Palestinian issue, to colonization, or to the departure of the Jews. It is also a question of preserving memories, which cannot wait for all political questions to be resolved.”

His sentiments were echoed by Lang, who said: “This institute can only truly fulfil its vocation if it is open to all the spiritual and intellectual heritages that have marked the history of the Arab world.”

A postcard from 1910 showing the inside of the Grand Synagogue in Aleppo. (Gross Family Collection trust)

Denis Charbit, a professor of political science at the Open University of Israel and a specialist in 20th-century Jewish history, said the exhibition had an important role to play in the fight against ignorance and pointed out that the Jewish presence alongside Arab and Berber populations dated back 2,000 years, adding that it was “necessary” to integrate the exile of Jews from Arab countries into the exhibition and to ensure that the region’s cultural history is passed on to future generations.

“It is not a question of a single history, a single religion, a single culture, but a plurality of interventions, cultures, civilizations of languages, as well as a passage of populations,” he said.

“Never before has the history of the Jews in these countries, which have become Arab countries today, been told on a millennial scale,” Lang said. “It is a way of repairing ignorance, of showing that the Arab world has a rich religious and cultural history, which fashioned its originalit


Jeddah’s new Hayy Jameel arts hub is on a bridge building mission

The center’s opening exhibition opens December 6 in collaboration with London’s Delfina Foundation. “Staple: What’s on your plate?’ examines the thought-provoking complexities of food culture. (Supplied)
The center’s opening exhibition opens December 6 in collaboration with London’s Delfina Foundation. “Staple: What’s on your plate?’ examines the thought-provoking complexities of food culture. (Supplied)
Updated 02 December 2021

Jeddah’s new Hayy Jameel arts hub is on a bridge building mission

The center’s opening exhibition opens December 6 in collaboration with London’s Delfina Foundation. “Staple: What’s on your plate?’ examines the thought-provoking complexities of food culture. (Supplied)

JEDDAH: As a Saudi arts professional, Sara Al-Omran has first-hand experience of the booming artistic scene in her home country. Since the establishment of its Ministry of Culture in 2018, Saudi Arabia has launched an international film festival, hosted concerts by internationally renowned musicians, and is creating the world’s largest open-air museum at the ancient Nabatean site of AlUla. 

“The last five or six years have seen a transformation,” Al-Omran tells Arab News. “It’s been really exciting for all of us involved in this scene to see this growth in cultural production and the establishment of new institutions and initiatives.” 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Hayy Jameel (@hayyjameel)

Al-Omran describes the port city of Jeddah as Saudi Arabia’s ‘capital of art.’ Like everywhere else in the Kingdom, it is undergoing some major changes, but it also has its own unique modern cultural history. Back in the 1970s, the late mayor of Jeddah, Mohammed Said Farsi, decided to turn it into a ‘city of sculpture.’ Jeddah’s streets, squares, corniches and fountains were lined with around 600 works by renowned artists including Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, and Julio Lafuente. Jeddah is also the headquarters of the Saudi Art Council and is home to a number of contemporary art galleries, including Hafez and Athr.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Hayy Jameel (@hayyjameel)

And now there’s a new kid on the block. Hayy Jameel has the ambitious aim of becoming Jeddah’s home for the arts. The 17,000-square-metre, pearly white complex is an offshoot of the Art Jameel organization, set up independently by the Jameel family to support the arts in the region and to collaborate with foreign cultural institutions. In recent years, Art Jameel has opened the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai and Atelier Cairo, which provides artisanship workshops and preserves traditional arts in the Egyptian capital. 

Visual and performing artists, filmmakers, photographers, designers, entrepreneurs and art enthusiasts are all welcome to join the Hayy Jameel community, its organizers say. With its state-of-the-art facilities and wide scope of interests, this creative hub is a first for the country.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Hayy Jameel (@hayyjameel)

In Arabic, the term ‘hayy’ means neighborhood. It’s a fitting name, as the new center will be located in an accessible residential area, Al Muhammadiyah, which contains a number of other smaller cultural venues. 

“We’re trying to build bridges with everybody that’s here,” says Al-Omran, who is the center’s deputy director. “There are two wide sets of stairs that take you inside Hayy Jameel. There are no gates. Everybody is encouraged to come into the building and just wander around, any time of day.” 

Designed by the Tokyo and Dubai-based architectural firm waiwai, Hayy Jameel is wrapped around an airy main courtyard — called Saha — that is dotted with trees. “The way it’s built takes inspiration from traditional Levantine houses in Syria and Lebanon, where you have a central courtyard and everything surrounds it. That is really exciting for us, because it allows us to share audiences,” explains Al-Omran. Four different spaces surround the courtyard: Hayy Arts, Hayy Cinema, Hayy Learning, and Hayy Studios. There is also an integral focus on championing Saudi-based entrepreneurs — those who’ve started a baking institute, or a comedy club, or a concept store selling handmade goods, for example — who can become partner-tenants at the center.  

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Hayy Jameel (@hayyjameel)

Hayy Arts will host temporary exhibitions as well as works from Art Jameel’s collection, while Hayy Learning is dedicated to research and in-person virtual education. Hayy Studios will provide bespoke spaces for makers selected for participation in the center’s residency program, which will begin in 2022. Hayy Cinema is a game-changer, billing itself as the Kingdom’s first independent cinema. It houses a 200-seat theater and a screening room. 

The facility will not only support aspiring film directors from the region, but also highlights the deep-rooted changes happening in Saudi society. 

“In 2017, the ban was lifted on cinemas in Saudi and that allowed for the cinema industry to be established,” Al-Omran says. “So far, there has been a big focus on commercial cinema. We’re very excited to offer something slightly different — a space that really looks to support independent and more experimental film productions. It’s a space where filmmakers can meet their peers and research, learn, and develop their scripts.” 

The center’s opening exhibition opens December 6 in collaboration with London’s Delfina Foundation. “Staple: What’s on your plate?’ examines the thought-provoking complexities of food culture and its impact on the world’s communities. It features 21 artworks — including installations and sculptures — by artists from the Gulf, Europe, and South Asia, and delves into the entanglements of food, industry, trade, colonialism, and labor. It is in keeping with Hayy Jameel’s programming ethos of “having a conversation that is rooted locally, but contributes to a global conversation,” according to Al-Omran. The exhibition will be accompanied by food tours and a few culinary workshops, enlightening participants on, for example, Jeddah’s traditional cuisine. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Hayy Jameel (@hayyjameel)

In addition, Hayy Jameel will host a special installation for three months, in which 11 Saudi artists, including Manal Al-Dowayan, Rashed Al-Shashai and Dana Awartani — will present large-scale light works. It is adapted from the recently launched “Noor Riyadh,” a festival of light that takes over the Saudi capital. 

While it is very much a part of the ambitious plan of cultural enhancement currently underway nationwide in Saudi Arabia, Hayy Jameel manages to be an intimate, contained space. But the purpose behind it and the ideas and activities it promotes are expansive. 

It’s specific but universal in its goal of providing a platform for creatives, enthusiasts and learners. And it serves the very necessary function of bringing art lovers together in a permanent single location. 

“One of the center’s main objectives is to establish a much-needed infrastructure to support the growth of different creative entities and enterprises,” says Al-Omran. Hayy Jameel works on a circular model: Inspiring and nurturing local talent and, ultimately, giving back to the community. Its slogan is telling, then: ‘From Jeddah to Jeddah.’


What We Are Reading Today: Managing Medical Authority by Daniel A. Menchik

What We Are Reading Today: Managing Medical Authority by Daniel A. Menchik
Updated 02 December 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Managing Medical Authority by Daniel A. Menchik

What We Are Reading Today: Managing Medical Authority by Daniel A. Menchik

Exploring how the authority of medicine is controlled, negotiated, and organized, Managing Medical Authority asks: How is knowledge shared throughout the profession? Who makes decisions when your heart malfunctions—physicians, hospital administrators, or private companies who sell pacemakers? How do physicians gain and keep their influence? Arguing that medicine’s authority is managed in collegial competition across venues, Daniel Menchik examines the full range of stakeholders driving the direction of the field: Medical trainees, clinicians, researchers, administrators, and even the corporations that develop groundbreaking technologies enabling longer and better lives.


Sudanese short film could make Oscar shortlist

Sudanese short film could make Oscar shortlist
The film has received such a positive reaction from audiences around the world. Supplied
Updated 01 December 2021

Sudanese short film could make Oscar shortlist

Sudanese short film could make Oscar shortlist

LOS ANGELES: Amid the uncertainty about the future of arts and entertainment in Sudan after the military takeover, the Sudanese short film “Al-Sit” may make the short list for an Oscar this month.

Currently touring 160 international film festivals, “Al-Sit” has already won 23 awards, including three that qualify it for Oscar consideration. It has lifted both filmmaker Suzannah Mirghani and the fledgling renaissance of Sudanese cinema into the international spotlight.

“Al-Sit” has already won 23 awards, including three that qualify it for Oscar consideration. Supplied

The 20-minute short film was created by a crew of mostly Sudanese actors and filmmakers, during what Mirghani described as a “honeymoon period for artists” after the 2019 revolution. The film tells the story of Nafisa, played by Mihad Murtada, a 15-year-old girl being pulled between the marriage her parents have arranged for her, the plans for her life being laid out by her village matriarch grandmother — Al-Sit — and the desire to choose for herself.

“That idea has always stuck in my head. What does this girl really want in her life, and how does she deal with the situation?” Mirghani said.

The child of a Sudanese father and a Russian mother, Mirghani grew up in Sudan and watched many of her friends grapple with the same situation she would one day write about.

“Arranged marriages are very common in our part of the world, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing because the family just wants to do the best for the child. But sometimes too much love is suffocating, and the person who is supposed to be the most protected turns out to be the person with the least choice and the least voice.”

The short has lifted both filmmaker Suzannah Mirghani and the fledgling renaissance of Sudanese cinema into the international spotlight. Supplied

These questions stayed as a young love of movies grew into a passion for filmmaking. After studying media and communication at university, she moved to Qatar and took classes at the newly opened Doha Film Institute. She produced five short films before returning to Sudan for “Al-Sit” with partial funding provided by the institute.

“I was really pleasantly surprised about how beautifully you can make a film in Sudan even though there is no film industry,” said Mirghani, who pulled triple-duty as writer, director and producer.

Lead actor Murtada was chosen from a pool of five girls, the only five in the country who auditioned.

“We advertised the entire time. We only got five girls because it’s not really a profession that is encouraged in general,” Mirghani said. However, the first-time actor was perfect for the role.

“We got maybe over 100 young men to audition because acting, Hollywood, this is something that they aspire to and because young men in the Arab world are generally more free to choose their own path, which says a lot about the politics of this film as well.”

Lead actor Murtada was chosen from a pool of five girls, the only five in the country who auditioned. Supplied

The role of Nafisa’s businessman husband-to-be went to Mohammed Magdi Hassan, who, like Murtada and the rest of the young cast, had no prior film experience. The older actors, such as Rabeha Mohammed Mahmoud, who plays Nafisa’s grandmother, were also new to film acting, but all had careers as theatrical performers.

“Everyone just did it,” Mirghani said, recalling how her early concerns about working with such a new team were happily proven wrong.

“We were location scouting and when my production manager heard that we needed a cotton field he said, ‘Why don’t you use my cotton field?’ It was a perfect connection.”

Filming was done primarily in the village of Aezzazh, but when it came to filming Nafisa’s family’s home, which Mirghani intended to be a traditional Sudanese home made with dried clay and mud, she was surprised to find that all of the village houses were made with bricks.

“Al-Sit” is distributed by Mad Solutions in the Arab World and will continue screening at film festivals internationally. Supplied

“They were fancy,” she said. “A lot of the men in the village work in the Gulf. They bring back money, and they have fancy houses in the villages.”

The shoot was saved when a crew member once again offered their family’s home as a production location.

“We had to shoot the mud house in Khartoum, in the capital,” Mighani said, smiling about the irony of the situation. “You learn a lot about yourself and your own preconceived notions.”

Mirghani is very happy that the film she and her team worked hard to produce has received such a positive reaction from audiences around the world. She’s eagerly looking forward to seeing if “Al-Sit” can represent Sudanese cinema at the 2022 Oscars.

“This is the beauty of making a film in Sudan, where you don’t have a film industry, but you have really passionate enthusiastic people,” she says. “We are now in danger again of going back to military rule and stifling creative expression, so we hope and pray for the best.

“Al-Sit” is distributed by Mad Solutions in the Arab World and will continue screening at film festivals internationally.