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A Q&A with Vanessa James: Greek Myth Still Relevant Today

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November 14 , 2003

A Q&A with Vanessa James: Greek Myth Still Relevant Today

Vanessa James

Vanessa James, associate professor and chair of theatre arts, has been at Mount Holyoke for 12 years. She specializes in set and costume design for theatre and opera and art direction for film and television. She is author of The Genealogy of Greek Myth: An Illustrated Family Tree of Greek Myth from the First Gods to the Founders of Rome. The accordion-style book, which includes a full genealogy as well as color illustrations and stories about Greek gods and heroes, has garnered much positive press since its publication in September. James will talk about her book November 21 at 7 pm in the Rooke Theatre.

Q: Why are people still interested in the Greek myths?
A: We think of ourselves as having advanced beyond our ancestors. But other than electricity and technology, the Greeks would probably still find our lives rather familiar. We still get jealous and angry, fall in love, and have all the same emotional responses. In the myths we can take pleasure in what we recognize. And we can also find excitement in the unfamiliar, the imaginary, and the extraordinary.

Photo: Todd M. LeMieux

Vanessa James’s fold-out
genealogy of the Greek mytht

Q: When did you first become interested in pursuing this project?
A: I’m not certain of the exact moment, but it was early in my life. My father read the Greek myths to me as bedtime stories, and it gave me a lifelong passion for Greek art and literature. When I was eight years old, there was a competition in school to find as many gods and goddesses as possible and put them into a family tree. I became crazed for it. I won easily. No one even came close. My next direct involvement with Greek myth came when I was designing a play based on Bulfinch’s Mythology in New York. I was looking for information about the characters and where they came from. It was difficult to find the visual and textual materials I needed as they were in so many different places. Particularly the genealogical information was very scattered. So I started to put a chart together for my own use. Eventually I got hooked on the process, rereading Greek literature and researching ancient artworks to serve as portraits for the characters. Eventually, 18 years later, it was finished. I never thought of it as a book, it was in fact, a 20-foot-long paper scroll. Then of course there was no computer program to help when I started. I had to keep it organized in sections in my head and with lots of little pieces of paper containing the information for each person; over 3,000 of them in the end.

Q: Why did you arrange the material as a genealogy?
A: Because it had not been done before in this way and because people have a natural interest in genealogy. It tells them something about who they are and where they came from. The Greeks were very interested in genealogy, too. Being able to trace family history back to the gods gave the Greek ruling class status and legitimacy. When you look at family relationships, you can learn a lot about why people behave the way they do, how the actions of one generation can affect the lives and behavior of the next. Look at the Trojan War, for example. The families that were involved were, for the most part, a contentious crowd—already at odds over many generations. Their histories are a really horrifying collection of stories, an ancient soap opera, full of sex, violence, and brutal revenge. Who can resist?

Q: Do you have a favorite character from the Greek myths?
A: I have several, both good and bad. But Athena is my favorite goddess. First, she was a patron of the arts, and the arts have had the greatest influence over my life. She was the goddess of peace and war and the goddess of wisdom, a gift she inherited from her mother Metis. Even in Zeus’s patriarchal society, wisdom was personified as a woman. I like the story of Athena and Arachne. Athena invented weaving, and when Arachne, the daughter of a wool dyer, showed she was as good as the goddess at this art, Athena was furious. Arachne, fearing divine revenge, hanged herself with her own threads. Athena immediately regretted her behavior and turned the dying girl into a spider and her thread into a web she could weave forever.

Q: Was it helpful to be in an academic rather than a theatre environment while working on this project?
A: I began the book when I was working in theatre and film, but I couldn’t have finished it without the gods and goddesses of Mount Holyoke—particularly Donal O’Shea, who was eternally encouraging through the long publishing process. And thank goodness for the library staff and Aime DeGrenier, Cindy Legare, and Sue Rusiecki, who gave me invaluable technical support when I needed to put the book onto the computer. The College also generously provided three research grants, and my students, too, were a tremendous help.

Q: Are the Greek myths relevant today?
A: It is easy to read these stories and want to draw parallels to events in the world today. The Greeks attacked Troy not only to release Helen from the embraces of Paris, but as an excuse for plunder and acquisition. You could draw some similar analogies to our occupation of the Middle East, even though Saddam Hussein didn’t run off with Miss America.






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