Report: Translating Myth book launch

The summer break gives us a chance to look back at some of the events that slipped by without comment over the past year. Chief among these is the book launch event held for Translating Myth in November. Co-editor Ben Pestell has shared his report of the day.

Translating Myth Book Launch

British Centre for Literary Translation, 16 November 2016

Report by Ben Pestell

Last November, the British Centre for Literary Translation at University of East Anglia hosted a book launch event for Translating Myth (edited by Ben Pestell, Pietra Palazzolo, and Leon Burnett of the University of Essex Centre for Myth Studies). The connection with the BCLT was both practical and aesthetic: its academic director, Duncan Large, chairs the editorial board of Legenda’s Studies in Comparative Literature series, which published Translating Myth; but, moreover, it encouraged us, as editors, to interrogate the limits and success of our interpretation of translation.

Following Duncan’s genial welcome and opening of the event, Pietra and I jointly introduced the book. Pietra outlined the boundaries between literary translation and cultural translation, elaborating a theory proposed by Leon of translation as accommodation. This highlights the role played by the translated text in the broader cultural environment of the new language. Literary translation – rather than envisaged on a trajectory from source to target – is conceived as a dialogue across cultures: translation influencing and transforming the receiving culture.

For my part, I reconsidered the interpretation of the term ‘myth’ in the book. Even within literary studies, the book shows the diverse ways myth can be handled, for example, in Harish Trivedi’s consideration of the distinct historical responses in Europe to Greco-Roman and to Indian myths, the latter exoticised and regarded distastefully.

Giuseppe Sofo, Duncan Large, Leon Burnett, Sharihan Al-Akhras, Ben Pestell, Tom Rutledge

Following our introduction, we heard from Giuseppe Sofo, who wrote the final chapter in Translating Myth. Giuseppe’s chapter concerns the multiple stages of translation involved in taking Derek Walcott’s theatrical version of the Odyssey a step further into Italian. In each stage – Homer’s, Walcott’s English, and the Italian translation – keen attention must be paid to language and dialect. Giuseppe’s deft handling of the multiple voices at play made him an ideal speaker at the BCLT. The topic of his paper was ‘Myth, Translation and the Art of the Impossible’, in which Giuseppe stressed that the reproduction of stories is a survival strategy as vital to humanity as physical reproduction, and reflected on the contradictions of invisibility and exposure in the process of translation.

After a short break, Tom Rutledge of UEA delivered his formal response to the book. Extending the traditional opposition of mythos and logos, he considered history as a dialectical foil to mythos. To illustrate this, he chose some telling examples from the book: the citation of Odysseus’ praise of Demodocus’ ‘accuracy’ in his myth-telling song of Troy; Demeter’s new historical locus in the versions of her myth; Yeats as symbolising the nationalising of mythology and the mythologisation of nationalism; and Heaney as personalising the mythological and mythologising the personal. Tom focused on Christina Dokou’s chapter on Timothy Dwight’s early American epic, The Conquest of Canäan (and chided me a little for under-rating Dwight with my glib ‘epic fail’ gag). Part of Tom’s research is into early modern receptions of Virgil, and he wondered what the inclusion of Virgil’s Aeneid – the great historical epic – could add to Christina’s view. Tom noted the tension between epic and mythology in the idea of historical epic: that is, he perceived Christina’s claim of epic as a language of the powerful to be in tension with the idea of myth which so often, he argued, is the site for representing violence suffered.

Pietra Palazzolo, Leon Burnett, Ben Pestell, Duncan Large, Giuseppe Sofo

The proceedings came to a close with a round-table discussion chaired by Leon. For this we were also joined by Sharihan Al-Akhras who wrote a perceptive chapter in Translating Myth which studies the middle-eastern mythical and religious influences on Milton’s Paradise Lost. In the process, we returned to the vexed nature of translation, and Leon mentioned the three categories of translation formulated by Novalis in the eighteenth century. The categories are grammatical (grammatisch), transformative (verändernd) and mythical (mythisch). The latter is elaborated as a form of imaginative cultural communication from an original which need not exist in reality, is not necessarily verbal, and which enriches the target culture. Mythical translation delivers not the actual work, but the idea of it. This allusion to the non-existent or invisible original aptly summarised the direction of much of the day’s discussion. At this point, the wine was opened, and the event’s chronicles leave the written record and return to the oral tradition.

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Myth(s) and Magic in Pan’s Labyrinth

Myth Reading Group

Thursday 22 June

12.00-1.30pm in Room 5B.330

We are very pleased to announce that Eirini Apanomeritaki concludes our discussion of Myth & Magic with a session on Pan’s Labyrinth

Pan's labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth poster [dir. Guillermo del Toro], 2006

In this session, we will explore the ways in which myths, fairy tales, and magic intersect in Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 movie Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno). Set in 1944, five years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, the story of Ofelia and her encounter with a faun continuously straddles the boundaries between magic and reality. Ofelia moves with her mother close to a seemingly enchanted forest where they join her stepfather, Captain Vidal, one of Franco’s officers. The real and the fantastic blend in the movie as Ofelia experiences the horrors of the regime while the faun asks her to carry out a series of tasks that will restore her place as princess Moanna, according to the legend. Ofelia’s tasks, her underground journey to the labyrinth, and the monstrous creatures of the unworldly, mystical realm draw their inspiration from fairy tales and hero quests as much as from classical myths and their imagery (as in Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son).

Selected clips from the movie will be shown in the session. See a review of the film by A.O.Scott, “In Gloom of War, a Child’s Paradise”, 29 December 2009, The New York Times, and María Teresa DePaoli’s chapter as additional reading (“Fantasy and Myth in Pan’s Labyrinth: Analysis of Guillermo del Toro´s Symbolic Imagery”, in Scott E. Hendrix and Timothy J. Shannon eds., Magic and the Supernatural. Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2012, pp. 49-54).





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Merlin and Faust: contrasting representations of magicians in Western literature

Myth Reading Group

Thursday 15 June

12.00-1.30pm in Room 5B.330

We are very pleased to announce that Professor Roderick Main, director of the Centre for Myth Studies, will continue our discussion of Myth & Magic with a session on Merlin and Faust

Merlin and Faust are two of the best-known magicians in the Western literary tradition. In this session we will explore the very different characters and roles ascribed to them. Participants are invited to bring to the session any knowledge and literary references they have about the two magicians.  As a starting point for our discussion, we shall consider Karl Shapiro’s poem ‘The Progress of Faust’ and Richard Wilbur’s poem, ‘Merlin Enthralled’, both of which are analysed in an essay by Robert Bagg, ‘Merlin and Faust in Two Post-War Poems’ [additional reading] (in C. Spivack [ed.], Merlin Versus Faust: Contending Archetypes in Western Culture [Lampeter: Edwin Mellen, 1992], pp. 189-198).


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“[A] sorcerer, a conjuror from the Lydian land” : Dionysus, the Eastern Conjuror

Myth Reading Group

Thursday 8 June

12.00-1.30pm in Room 5B.330

We are very pleased to announce that Shehzad Raj will continue our discussion of Myth & Magic with a session on Dionysus, the Eastern conjuror


Detail of a kylix (drinking cup) by Exekias showing Dionysos sailing among dolphins, c. 530 B.C.E. (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich) [image in the public domain]

Although the line between magic and ritual can be difficult to trace in Greek Antiquity, a defining aspect of magic is abuse. This aspect manifests itself in a range of examples, from abuse of power, resentment of hierarchy, and subversion of ritual to abuse of artifacts and botany reserved for more sensitive purposes.

Dionysus manipulates the forces of nature that warp the line between prayer and spell: herbs, spices, animals and seduction are under his governance. This power extends to the followers he exerts himself through.

While most evidence of magic in Antiquity suggests it was performed by Greek men, in mythology the perceived greed and disrespect necessary to desire control over the natural world is portrayed as belonging to invading foreigners and reckless women. What can we learn from Dionysus about marginalization and magic in the Ancient World? How do myth, magic, and ritual combine in the story of ‘Dionysus, the Eastern Conjuror’?

Please read the following extracts from Walter Otto’s Dionysus: Myth and Cult (1965), pp. 95-103, 171-181.


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Sleeping Beauty and the Fates of Mythology

Guest blog post by Amelia Starling

Sleeping Beauty is heralded as being one of the most passive fairy tale princesses. Whilst this may be true, it is also worth noting that her passivity is not of her own making. At birth, the princess’s fate is irrevocably chosen for her. The wording and motive varies depending on the version of the story, but the outcome is always the same: a long sleep induced by spinning. This fate creates a link between the worlds of fairy tale and mythology, where spinning wheels are more than just a way to make yarn and births are not only attended to by midwives.


Sleeping Beauty is always fated to fall asleep. Edward Frederick Brewtnall, Sleeping Beauty [image in the public domain]

The mythology of many ancient cultures, including Greek, Slavic, Roman, and Norse, contains Fates. These are supernatural beings who literally spin the threads of mortals’ lives. In ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ the casters of the princess’s fate differ but they are usually women with supernatural capabilities such as fairies, witches, or seers.

In The Annotated Brothers Grimm, Maria Tatar writes that ‘fairies, Wise Women, and goddesses – all these women can be seen as kin to the Fates and the World Mothers.’ No matter their guise they are all one and the same, and connected by their prophetic abilities and duties.

Choosing a spindle as the cause of the enchanted sleep provides another link to the Fates, who use spindles to create destinies. It serves as a reminder that the princess cannot choose, or rather, spin, her fate herself. On his blog Raven’s Shire, Ty Hulse writes that using a spindle ‘is more than just a way to make clothes in folklore; it’s a way to make fate. Fate is spun, and magic is woven by women.’ The fates are usually female, and there are usually three of them. In Greek mythology, the Fates are known collectively as the Moirai. Clothos is the spinner, who spins the thread from the distaff onto the spindle. Lachesis is the measurer, who measures the amount of thread given to each lifespan. Finally, Atropos is the cutter, who chooses the manner of each person’s death and cuts their thread when the time comes. The Moirai are present at births to begin spinning the thread of the newborn baby’s life. Similarly, the Fates of Roman mythology, called the Parcae, determine the lifespan of a baby on the day it is given a name. The Parcae are also three women; Nona is the spinner, Decima is the measurer, and Morta is the cutter.


The Moirai are the Three Fates of Greek Mythology. The Triumph of Death, or the Three Fates (ca. 1510-1520), Victoria and Albert Museum, London [image in the public domain]

In Norse mythology, the Three Norns sit beneath Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life. They weave threads of life into webs, or carve runes into the bark of the tree to create destinies. It was a Viking custom for new mothers to eat a bowl of porridge, dubbed ‘Norn porridge,’ as an offering to the Norns in the hope that they would look favourably upon their child.

Offerings are also given to the Fates of Slavic mythology. Their name varies from country to country, but they are generally referred to as the Sudice. Instead of goddesses, they are said to be spirits or demons. They arrive to cast fate at midnight on the third night after a baby is born. Each of them is responsible for a different aspect of life: misfortune, happiness, and death. It is widely believed in Slavic countries that these are the three stages of life, and that the order in which the Sudice arrive on the third night determines the order in which the baby will experience them. It is also said that the words of the final Sudice cannot be undone.

In most versions of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ the seers arrive at the princess’s birth or christening, just like the Moirai and the Parcae. They foretell the princess’s sleep, and then do not appear again for the rest of the story. An exception to this is ‘Histoire de Troilus et de Zellandine,’ which many folklorists cite as being the earliest recorded version of ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ It is from the French novel Le Roman de Perceforest, which was written anonymously in the 1300s. Perceforest is a prequel of sorts to the legend of King Arthur, and contains many references to various gods and goddesses. The women who cast Zellandine’s fate are Greek and Roman goddesses, as opposed to a nameless group of seers. They also have a stronger influence over the lives of both Troilus and Zellandine throughout the story.

The goddesses who attend Zellandine’s birth are Venus, Roman Goddess of Love, Lucina, Roman Goddess of Childbirth, and Themis, Greek Goddess of Destiny. As with the Norns and the Sudice, offerings of food are laid out for them in the hope that they will be kind to the baby. Zellandine’s aunt arranges the dining table, but Themis’s knife falls to the floor out of sight.


Aurora pricks her finger on the witches spindle. Ann Anderson, ‘Briar Rose’ in Old, Old Fairy Tales [image in the public domain]

When the time comes for them to give Zellandine a blessing, Lucina goes first. She states that ‘this child shall be born with a complete and healthy body.’ This is a much more beneficial gift than the frivolous traits (such as beauty, the ability to play music, and good dancing skills) which the princess receives in Charles Perrault’s and The Grimm Brothers’ later versions of the fairy tale.

Next, it is Themis’s turn. Slighted by her missing knife, she declares that ‘from the first spin of linen that she pulls from the distaff, a splinter will prick her finger and in this way, she will immediately fall asleep, and will not wake up until it is sucked out.’ Themis’s status as the Goddess of Destiny implies that this fate is of her own making, and not merely a prediction. Finally, Venus uses her turn to counter Themis by stating that ‘by my art, I will see that the splinter will be sucked out and I will arrange everything.’ Again, this is not a prediction. Venus personally takes it upon herself to use her powers to change Zellandine’s life – and indeed she does. When Troilus seeks her help to awaken Zellandine, Venus becomes akin to a puppet master. She chastises Troilus by calling him ‘cowardly’ because he is ‘alone next to such a beautiful maiden whom [he] love[s] more than any other and yet [he is] not lying by her side.’ He attempts to restrain his desire, but Venus ‘took her firebrand and set Troilus ablaze and it was as if the heat made him lose his mind.’ Her powers of love and lust meddle with Troilus’s emotions, and provoke him to rape Zellandine whilst she sleeps. This results in her pregnancy, and the baby which sucks the flax from her finger to awaken her.


Venus, the Roman goddess of love, uses her powers in the story of Troilus and Zellandine. Sandro Botticelli, La Nascita di Venere (1483-1485), Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy [image in the public domain]

If the order that Zellandine’s goddesses arrived and spoke is compared to that of the Sudice, then the stages of her life can be proposed as such: First Lucina brings happiness, followed by the death-like sleep from Themis, and then inadvertent misfortune from Venus. Or, perhaps Themis could be seen as the bringer of misfortune and Venus as the bringer of death, in that the loss of Zellandine’s virginity is the untimely death of her maidenhood. She is forced to progress to motherhood without consultation.

As to be expected, Zellandine is distraught when she learns that her virginity was taken without her knowledge. However, she is reassured by the fact that ‘the gods and fortune’ wanted it to happen. She also forgives Troilus, because she understands that he too was subject to the influence of fate. Awful as the whole raped-whilst-sleeping plot is, the fact that Troilus was not acting of his own volition and that he and Zellandine were already in love before she fell asleep softens it slightly. Of course that doesn’t completely excuse the incident, but it’s markedly better than Giambattista Basile’s 1636 tale ‘Sun, Moon and Talia’ in which the king decides for himself to rape a random sleeping woman he finds in the woods, and then forgets all about her afterwards. Talia is also awoken by her child sucking the flax from her finger, but unlike for Zellandine this was not foretold and is purely accidental.

In the world of Le Roman de Perceforest, it is abundantly clear that gods and goddesses have immense power over the fate of mortals. Moreover, this power is accepted without question; the characters understand that they are at the mercy of their pre-determined destinies. In the fairy tale ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ the princess’s fate is received with equal seriousness. The roles of its casters may have lessened over time, but their proclamations are no less powerful.

Even today, people in Slavic countries still leave offerings for the Sudice and believe in the three stages of life which they bring. Mythology is not just fiction; it affects how people respond to the world. The Moirai, Parcae, Norns, and Sudice are similar to each other, yet also unique to their own cultures. Linking them together is the universal concern that, like the princess in ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ we may have no control over our futures. But with this also comes the hope that, if Fates do exist and if we are kind to them, they will arrange it so that everything works out well in the end.



Maria Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm: The Bicentenial Edition, W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.

Anon,Histoire de Troilus et de Zellandine’ in Le Roman de Perceforest. Found on JSTOR:


Ty Hulse, ‘Understanding the Fairies of Sleeping Beauty’ on Raven’s Shire, 2012.

‘The Three Norns’ on Norse Mythology,

Bryan Hill, ’The Three Fates: Destiny’s Deities of Ancient Greece and Rome’ on Ancient Origins, 2015.

‘The Narucnici’ on Journeying to the Goddess, 2012.

‘Sudaje – Female Spirits in Slavic Mythology’ on Meet the Slavs, 2014.

Fairy tales:

Giambattista Basile, ‘Sun, Moon, and Talia,’ 1634.

Charles Perrault, ‘The Sleeping Beauty in the wood,’ 1697.

Jacob & Wilhelm Grimm, ‘Little Briar-Rose,’ 1812.

Amelia Starling is a writer and folklorist. She graduated from the University of Winchester with a degree in creative writing, and is currently an editor for Folklore Thursday. She blogs about folklore and fairy tales, and is especially interested in Sleeping Beauty, witches, and the ocean. You can follow her on Twitter @amyelize, and visit her blog at

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Myth and Magical Realism in the work of Ben Okri and Zakes Mda

Myth Reading Group

Thursday 25 May

12.00-1.30pm in Room 5B.330

We are very pleased to announce that Jeremy Solnick will continue our discussion of Myth & Magic with a session on myth and magical realism in the work of Ben Okri and Zakes Mda

Xhosa boys before circumcision ceremony

Xhosa boys before the circumcision ceremony

In this session, we will be discussing two seminal but very different works of magical realism.  Ben Okri’s The Famished Road was published in 1991 and is loosely based on a country that might be Nigeria.  Zakes Mda’s The Heart of Redness was published in 2002 and is about post-apartheid South Africa.  Both novels use a myth based style of magical realism to draw readers into an alternative reality where the fault lines of their dystopian communities are exposed through the agency of non-human characters seemingly immune from the rules which govern everyday life.

Please read the following extracts: The Famished Road, The Heart of Redness, and  André Brink’s essay, “Interrogating Silence“.


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Out of Nature: Myth and Magic in the Early Modern Period

Myth Reading Group

Thursday 18 May

12.00-1.30pm in Room 5B.330

We are very pleased to announce that Dr Leon Burnett, founding director of the Centre for Myth Studies, will lead a discussion of myth and magic in the early modern period.


Jean Paul Laurens (1838-1921), Dr Fausto, oil on canvas, Rio Grande do Sul Museum of Art, Brazil [image on the public domain]

In every historical period, mastery of myth and magic has appeared to offer the opportunity – sceptics would say the illusion – of escaping the natural bounds that constrain humanity. Myth, like religion, appeals to the imagination and binds a community, but magic goes further: it grants power exclusively to the person who possesses knowledge of its operations.

The reading material for this session is taken from two major dramatic works of the early modern period, The Tempest and Doctor Faustus. They pose the question, implicitly, of what is at stake, from a mythical perspective, in the relationship between a magus and his company, when enchantment plays a central role in the action.


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