Thursday 5 May: Tibetan Buddhist views of the Afterlife: The Tibetan Book of the Dead

This week, Fliss Rich introduces a discussion of the Tibetan Buddhist view of death and the afterlife as expressed in The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

In his review of the first full English translation of The Book of the Dead by Gyurme Dorje (Penguin Classics, 2005), Ian Pindar describes it as “a kind of Baedeker for the afterlife, and like the best guidebooks its reassuring refrain is ‘Don’t panic!’” He also adds that C. G. Jung “revered The Tibetan Book of the Dead as a great psychological work.”

In the session, we will consider Sogyal Rinpoche’s modernised version of the book in his The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (London: HarperCollins, 1992, pp. 7, 10-14, 102-107, 282-284), and C. G. Jung’s “Psychological commentary on ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’” (Psychology and Religion: West and East (1938), The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, 11, 2nd ed., London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969, pp. 509-526/pars. 831-858).

Myth Reading Group: Thursday 5 May

12.00-1.30pm in Room 3.318

Poster and texts:

S.Rinpoche.The Book of Living and Dying

C.G.Jung.Commentary on the Tibetan Book of the Dead

Additional reading:

The Tibetan Book of the Dead

C.G.Jung.The Difference between Eastern and Western Thinking  [pp. 475-508]

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Call for Proposals: Afterlives

Centre for Myth Studies

Myth Reading Group

Call for Proposals: Afterlives

Homer and the Ancient Poets 1824-7 by William Blake 1757-1827

William Blake (1757-1827), “Homer and the ancient poets” (1824-7), “Inferno, Canto IV”, Illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Tate London [work on the public domain]

The Myth Reading Group returns in the summer term with the theme of “Afterlives”. The topic can be understood both in relation to myths of the underworld and of crossings between realms, but also as the afterlives of myths and texts from ancient times to the present. We invite contributions of texts which discuss myths of the afterlife, like Plutarch’s account of the Egyptian God Osiris, texts that engage with the afterlife of a mythological character, like Louise Glück’s poetry on Persephone, or texts that function as the afterlives of myth across periods and cultures.

We hope the versatility of the theme will inspire a lively discussion of myths of the afterlife and of the afterlives of myth from varying perspectives. Please see our previous sessions on “Afterlives” for more information.

The Myth Reading Group is open to anyone with an interest in myth. We meet every Thursday in term time, between 12:00 and 1:30 p.m. (Room 3.318) at the University of Essex Colchester Campus. Our sessions include a short presentation, up to 30 minutes, followed by discussion. If you wish to introduce a topic, or have suggestions for texts to be discussed in the summer term, please contact us at


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Report of the Centre for Myth Studies Open Seminar: 17 March 2016

Dr Leon Burnett

‘Reading the strands of Ariadne’s story’

Centre for Myth Studies Open Seminar, 17 March 2016


by Dr Ben Pestell

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Dr Leon Burnett starting his seminar (photo by Eirini Apanomeritaki)

The latest in the Centre for Myth Studies seminar series provided an occasion to consider the unique character of myth from the perspective of the centre’s founding director, Dr Leon Burnett. The seminar series is an extension of the Myth Reading Group, co-ordinated by Dr Pietra Palazzolo. These meetings offer vital opportunities for exploring the international occurrence of, and the interdisciplinary responses to, myth. A brief introduction by the current director of the centre, Professor Roderick Main, emphasized Dr Burnett’s key role in the development of myth studies at Essex. Leon established the undergraduate and postgraduate courses in myth studies, and has worked on two major international conferences, two edited collections (the latest being Translating Myth due shortly from Legenda), and – not least – the long-standing reading group. Leon’s involvement with these various activities at all levels of academic enquiry have contributed to a compelling account of the affective power of myth which he presented to us this evening, using the myth of Ariadne as an exemplar.


Slide showing Mikhail Ivanovich Kozlovsky’s terracotta artwork, “Bacchus sees Ariadne sleeping on the island of Naxos” (1780), The State Tretyakov Gallery, Russia (photo by Eirini Apanomeritaki)

The paper’s title is carefully worded, announcing two connected areas of investigation: the strand and the story. Ariadne is associated with two strands, and Leon questioned whether a narrative story is the best medium for her myth. The two strands represent the thread which was Theseus’s salvation and the strip of beach where she was abandoned by him. Although ‘strand’ is a comparatively modern word, the two senses are mythologically related as mutually supporting motifs: the former as the clew which saved Theseus and thereby brought Ariadne to Naxos, the latter as the site where Ariadne found succour in Dionysus.

For Leon, the story of Ariadne begins on Naxos with Theseus’s departure. Up until then, she plays a supporting role to the Athenian’s heroic narrative. Sources largely agree that Ariadne was daughter of King Minos of Crete, and that she assisted Theseus in his quest to kill the minotaur of the labyrinth, and in return Theseus pledged marriage to her, but abandoned her on the island of Naxos. At this point – as Plutarch noted – accounts diverge. The general direction of her myth tends in this direction: Dionysus wedded her, and she (or her crown) was placed among the stars (a ‘catasterism’) as the constellation Corona Borealis. Naxos, Leon argued, is the nexus: the point from which the linear narrative of Theseus gives way to the pictorial myth of Ariadne; the liminal point – a threshold at the edge of the land and sea.

Portara [5]

Doorway of the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, Naxos, Greek Cyclades Islands (photo by Leon Burnett)

The distinction between linear and pictorial media was clarified by Leon’s description of the mythological status of heroes and gods. Theseus has a biography: a clarity of narrative. There may be structural patterning and parallelism, but all as part of a linear story. On the other hand, the stories pertaining to Dionysus, for example, do not fit in to a narrative series of events. This argument is supported by Walter Otto (in Dionysus: Myth and Cult) for whom ‘genuine myth’ is not found in ‘little stories’ or allegory but in the image or symbol. The mythic, for Leon, is located in this liminal space of gods and paradox, and the liminal cannot be narrated. As he said, ‘the indispensable medium of narration is time’ and the liminal experience is not in time. This is exemplified by Ariadne’s catasterism: the arc of Corona Borealis, or Northern Crown, is the antithesis of the linear thread.


Corona Borealis, Bootes

Corona Borealis, Bootes. Image © T. Credner & S. Kohle,

Yet this myth is expressed in narrative poetry, and Leon drew on several versions which translate the mythic image into a narrative form. In Catullus and Nonnos, Ariadne awakes on Naxos in despair and anger at her desertion by Theseus. Her emotional discharge gives vent to her voice: she finds a speech which was absent during her supporting role in the tale of Theseus. Nonnos, moreover, has Ariadne finding the coexistence of joy and sorrow in loving Dionysus, in much the same way as Dionysus embodies the paradox of ecstasy and terror (a trait in common with other gods and myths). Leon led us in a wonderfully rich discussion, effortlessly encompassing literary and artistic treatments from Plutarch to Eliot, and from black figure vases to de Chirico. The latter’s multiple representations of the statue of recumbent Ariadne in his lonely, colonnaded townscapes perfectly evoke the ungraspable enigma of her epiphanic myth.

Amidst his evocation of myth’s non-narrative, emotional logic, Leon also invited us to reflect on a moment in Catullus’ poem (64) which beautifully brings the mythic to earth in describing the weaving Fates (trans. A. S. Kline):

The left hand held the distaff, wound with soft wool,
then the right, drawing out the thread lightly, shaped it
with upturned fingers, then, twisting it under the thumb,
turned the level spindle in smooth rotation,
and often a plucking tooth made the strands equal,
and fragments of wool, that once projected
from the light threads, clung to their dry lips:
and, before their feet, bright wool from a soft fleece
was guarded by a basket woven of willow.

The image of the thread clinging to dry lips activates the scene so clearly that limiting barriers between myth and lived experience suddenly evaporate. Leon’s illustration of the mythic power of the image left us with much to consider and discuss.

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After-seminar discussion chaired by Professor Roderick Main (photo by Eirini Apanomeritaki)


Dr Ben Pestell was convener of the Myth Reading Group between 2010 and 2014. He is co-editor of Translating Myth (Legenda, 2016), and has published on Aeschylus and contemporary classical reception. His current research focuses on mythical language and modes of thought in modern and contemporary literature. His personal blog includes occasional pieces on myth and tragedy.

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Thursday 17 March: Reading the Strands of Ariadne’s Story

The Centre for Myth Studies is pleased to invite you to our Spring term Open Seminar given by our former Director, Dr Leon Burnett.

Open Seminar
Centre for Myth Studies
University of Essex

Thursday 17 March (5:00pm, in Room 5N.3.9)

Reading the Strands of Ariadne’s Story
Dr Leon Burnett (University of Essex)

Посмотреть полный размер

Mikhail Ivanovich Kozlovsky, “Bacchus sees Ariadne sleeping on the island of Naxos” (1780), The State Tretyakov Gallery, Russia

The story of Ariadne, shaped by her encounters with Theseus and Dionysus, is one of union and separation, of joy and despair, of displacement in life and transfiguration in death. It is filled with an ambivalence characteristic of myth in general and of Greek mythology in particular. In her life, two locations stand out as pre-eminent: the intricate labyrinth in the Cretan palace at Knossos and the deserted beach on the island of Naxos (or, as it is called in antiquity, Dia). Each of these locations provides a striking backdrop for the enfolding and unfolding of the emotional turmoil that may be read in the tale of Ariadne. The seminar paper explores the ‘emotional logic’ of Ariadne’s story, contrasting the treatment of the myth in the ancient world with its manifestation in the literature and art of the twentieth century.

Pre-seminar reading: Catullus’ Poem 64 (The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis)

Dr Leon Burnett is former Director of the Centre for Myth Studies (2008-2014). His research and publications are mainly in Comparative Literature and Mythology. He was the main editor of the British Comparative Literature Association’s house journal, New Comparison, for eight years (1992-2000) and, more recently, he has co-edited three books: The Art of Accommodation: Literary Translation in Russia (2013), Myth, Literature, and the Unconscious (2013), and Translating Myth (2016).

Followed by drinks


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Thursday 10 March: Narrating Persephone’s ‘Afterlife’

In this session, Brittany Kuhn introduces a discussion of the reception of the figure of Persephone in contemporary poetry.

The myth of Demeter and Persephone has been widely studied and ‘translated’ across cultures and periods. Yet, we learn very little about Persephone’s experiences in the Underworld, her relationship with Hades, and her transformation into the Queen of the Underworld. What happens to her when she crosses realms and while she is away from Demeter? How does that impact our understanding of her position as both Kore and Queen?

In this session, we will seek to answer those questions by first reviewing anthropologists’ and psychoanalysts’ theories in regards to this gap in Persephone’s narrative. We will then look at contemporary attempts to imagine the inherent ambivalence of the figure of Persephone as rendered in the poems “A Myth of Innocence” by Louise Glück and “The Bistro Styx” by Rita Dove. It is through these poetic renditions that we can hope to identify Persephone’s “afterlife” and understand its importance to both her mythical narrative with Demeter and her relevance to woman’s everyday life.

Myth Reading Group: Thursday 10 March

12.00-1.30pm in Room 3.318

Poster and texts:

Louise Glück’s “A Myth of Innocence”

Rita Dove’s “The Bistro Styx”

Additional reading:

Homeric Hymn to Demeter.trans.Helene Foley [see especially ll.1-67; 343-495]


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Thursday 3 March: Afterlife of Myth in Béla Bartók’s Cantata Profana


This week, Dr. Anita Klujber introduces a discussion of the afterlife of myth in Béla Bartók’s Cantata Profana.

Bartók’s Cantata Profana (1930), an intriguing piece of modern music, demonstrates the concept of afterlife both in its theme and in its own afterlife. Reflecting its own genesis, the piece is rooted in the “clear spring” of myth. Bartók based the libretto on Romanian and Hungarian mythic sources that can be traced to folk rituals performed at the winter solstice. The complex musical context of Cantata Profana contains echoes of canonic pieces of music, reaffirming their afterlife, while, at the same time, deconstructing basic elements of traditional musical grammar. Bartók’s work itself has a proliferating afterlife as it continues to evoke ekphrastic responses in poetry and visual art. In this session, we will discuss the libretto and some of the archetypal musical elements of the Cantata. In preparation for this session, a comparative perspective is encouraged to awaken resonances with images and ideas discussed in previous sessions including Pan, Merlin, and the San shaman.

Myth Reading Group: Thursday 3 March

12:00-1.30pm   Room 3.318

Poster and texts:

Bartók’s compilation of The Nine Enchanted Stags

Cantata Profana on youtube

Additional reading and references:

János Arany.The Legend of the Miraculous Hind



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Thursday 25 February: The Sibyl’s Afterlives

This week Eirini Apanomeritaki introduces a discussion of adaptations of the myth of the Sibyl in literature.

In the session, we will discuss the ‘afterlife’ of the myth of the Cumaean Sibyl, the prophetess, who appears in both Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Sibyl guides Aeneas to the Underworld in Virgil’s epic, while in Ovid she tricks Apollo and she is, therefore, punished by the god; she is granted a long life but not eternal youth. Inspired by Ovid’s rendition of the myth, Margaret Atwood re-imagines the Sibyl in the modern world and narrates the aftermath of her affair with Apollo in her short story ‘The Elysium Lifestyle Mansions’.

Atwood, Margaret, ‘The Elysium Lifestyle Mansions’, in Ovid Metamorphosed, ed. by Philip Terry (London: Chatto & Windus, 2000), pp. 206-213

Ovid, ‘Aeneas and the Sibyl of Cumae’, in Metamorphoses, Book XIV, 101-153

Virgil, ‘The Cumaean Sibyl’, in Aeneid, Book 6

Poster and texts:

M.Atwood.The Elysium Lifestyle Mansions

The Sibyl of Cumae in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Additional reading:

The Cumaean Sibyl in Virgil’s Aeneid

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