Black Olympians: re-presenting the Greek gods

Content note: racism, in particular anti-Black racism, and white supremacy (this note also applies to all linked articles); ableism

Slight departure from the usual Linear B-related content around here, but I want to share a fantastic collection of photographs depicting the Olympian gods – which I already shared on social media, but here I have more space to reflect a bit on these photos’ significance and also share some relevant resources. The photo series is entitled “20 gods and goddesses for 2020” (in Spanish: “20 Dioses y Diosas para 2020”) by photographer Ana Martinez and stylist Mario Ville Kattaca. Here are just two of my favourites (though choosing was incredibly difficult):

You can see the whole collection here.

Why do I love these photographs? Well, artistically, I think the photographer and stylist have done amazing things with the way they use colour, and light, and texture; I love the combination of and contrast between the powerful, divine imagery in the way the models are posed, their fiery eyes and attributes like Artemis’ bow or Nike’s wings, and the way much of the clothing and drapery evokes classical clothing, with the more modern features like the trousers and sneakers. As the Swansea University Department of Classics, Ancient History and Egyptology tweeted, these “capture perfectly the over-the-top grandeur of ancient giant gold-and-ivory statues“.

Most of the positive comments I’ve seen about these on social media have tended to focus, as I also initially did when sharing them, on aesthetic features like these. However, in the context of the current urgent need for Classics as a subject to address its own racism as well as its use by and complicity in white supremacy more widely – a subject on which a lot of important work is being done by Classicists of colour in particular: see more below – it feels important to say explicitly that this series’ portrayal of ancient Greek deities as Black is also a reason to love it. Not that this is actually separable at all from the artistic choices I referred to already – all of these features combine to simultaneously affirm these Black models’ connection to the classical past (the white drapery, the canonical items associated with each god/goddess), while undermining traditional conceptions of that past (the contemporary clothes) and in particular its supposed material and ethnic whiteness (on the connection between the – incorrect – view of ancient status as entirely white and white supremacist views of the classical world, see this article by Sarah Bond; on ancient Greek artistic representations of people with black skin, see this article by Sarah Derbew).

Unfortunately, though (sadly) not especially surprisingly, there are quite a few negative responses to these images in the replies to the tweet from Swansea mentioned above, some of which are more upfront than others about the fact that their objections are due to the models being Black. People much more qualified than me in this area have written plenty before about the racism inherent in this kind of objection: in particular, when racists expressed outrage over the BBC’s casting of several Black actors in their 2018 series Troy: Fall of a City, the website Pharos, which documents the usage of Greco-Roman antiquity by racist and white supremacist groups, posted a series of responses which are worth reading in full for their explanations of why it’s both racist and poor scholarship to object to a Black actor playing (for example) the Greek hero Achilles or, more broadly, to claim that ancient Greeks were ‘white’:

1) Ancient Greek attitudes towards Black Africans – on ancient Greek ideas about skin colour and literary portrayals of Black people

2) What did Achilles look like? – on the complications of physical descriptions, especially relating to skin and hair colour, in the Homeric poems; see also When Homer envisioned Achilles did he see a black man? (Tim Whitmarsh).

3) What makes a Homeric hero a hero? – on the epic tradition and the relationship between Achilles and the Ethiopian Memnon

Of course, the anti-racist work that needs to be done in Classics goes far beyond admiring a set of photographs – which are themselves not entirely radical or subversive in every respect; for instance, as Lindsey Fine pointed out in the comments on this post, these models still conform to contemporary western standards of attractiveness in, for example, their body shapes; similarly, in the portrayal of the blacksmith god Hephaestus, there’s no visible sign of the physical disability which the ancient myths describe him as having. Both of those do feel like missed opportunities to challenge an even wider range of assumptions about what a (Greek) god can look like. But seeing these Black gods and goddesses, and the largely very positive reactions they’ve had as a representation of the Olympians, seemed to me to make them a good way in to also sharing some of the resources written by people more qualified than me, both academically and through their lived experiences as people of colour, to talk about the problem of racism within Classics. Below is just a small selection of pieces that I really encourage all my readers to look at: all of them have really helped me to begin the process (and there’s plenty more that I need to do) of understanding the experiences of Classicists of colour and the systemic racism present in the way the field of ‘Classics’ is conceptualised.

“Fragile, handle with care: on white classicists” and “More than a common tongue: dividing race and classics across the Atlantic” (Mathura Umachandran)

“Reclaiming the ancient world: towards a decolonised classics” (Krishnan Ram-Prasad)

“‘Western civilisation’ means classics…and white supremacy” (Pharos) (content note: this article contains direct quotations of racist, white supremacist, and anti-Semitic statements)

“Against the denial of racism in classics” and “A call to action” (@MixedClassicist)

“White people explain classics to us” (Yung In Chae)

Some thoughts on AIA-SCS 2019” (Dan-el Padilla Peralta)



Author: Anna P. Judson

Researcher of Linear B, currently in Athens

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