By Alanna Byrne
*TW: this piece contains mentions of r*pe and s*xual assault*
Back in the third semester of my sophomore year of high school, before the coronavirus outbreak in NYC and when I had to physically go into school, I was assigned one of the most interesting projects for my Latin class.
The prompt was simple: Choose a character or figure from a myth or a historical episode and create an Instagram account for them. There was a minimum requirement of at least 6 posts, each with a relevant photo and a 2-3 sentence caption in Latin. I chose to do mine on Proserpina (Persephone) and a friend of mine did hers on Hades so we could collaborate. Most of my classmates posted pictures of famous paintings portraying their character, but because my friend and I like to draw, we decided to create our own versions of the characters and draw them in our respective art styles.
A lot of the character designs were inspired by a retelling of the myth of Proserpina and Hades called Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe on an app called Webtoon. Smythe’s version includes many lovable, complex characters with an intense, suspenseful plot that you can’t help but love (100% would recommend.) I’m a huge fan of modern takes on classical stories because it forces the creators of these retellings to think outside the box when considering the plot arc, character design, etc. and often times modernized characters are more fleshed out and relatable than the original versions.
Although I tried to avoid my version aligning with Smythe’s version, I think my inner fangirl shines through a little in the color palettes I chose.
Looking back at the project from an art perspective, I’m happy with how my pictures turned out. At the time, I was disappointed in the quality of them, but we always tend to be more critical of our own work. Now, I’m proud since it was my first time drawing digitally. Sophomore year was also the first time I’ve taken Latin as a course, so as a first-year Latinist, the project was a great way to practice writing sentences in Latin and overall made the learning process a lot more fun. However, as I reflect on my interpretation of the myth, I realize that my version of the story contradicts my beliefs.
My knowledge of the story was limited to what I’ve been taught in school, in books and in readings-- mostly Greek mythology prior to high school. But after a quick Google search while looking deeper into the myth over summer, I realized that the Roman version of the myth is “The Rape of Proserpina.” The way the Instagram profile I made for my version of Persephone/Proserpina is romanticized, following the cliche trope of enemies to lovers. I feel that by romanticizing the relationship between Hades and Proserpina, I romanticized rape culture and invalidated victims of sexual assault and rape. A lot of victims are told that they should've "enjoyed it" or that they should be happy they got "attention" and by taking a story that could be about rape and turning it into a mushy-gushy love story is not only feeding into those comments, but denying the traumatizing experience of those victims.
Of course, as classists, there is absolutely NO wrong way of interpreting a myth. We have no way of knowing how the ancient Romans and Greeks meant for future generations to interpret their work. But I would argue that the iterations of the myth that incorporate a romantic element to them are not feminist since by glossing over the same themes, that not only Persephone but many mythological women face, these works validate the misogynistic and monolithic structure of classic myths that we’re trying to avoid today. Given that a lot of rape and sexual assault cases are overlooked and ignored, any way to bring awareness to it is beneficial. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), studies have shown that for every 1000 sexual assaults, only 4.6 rapists are incarcerated, while 99.5% of the perpetrators walk free. (For more info and statistics, click here.)
Now, this was a school project so I can understand that covering the theme of rape and sexual assault could be triggering for any students who were victims and it could be inappropriate for school. But I think it's important for schools to address current world issues instead of glossing over the topic or avoiding it completely. If schools taught their students about consent, not only would they be learning about respecting others, but it would remind them that their voices matter and they have choices, which nowadays many teens often forget. Learning about consent shouldn’t be limited to one age group and it doesn’t only apply to sexual circumstances. In simpler situations (e.g. if someone wants to play a game or receive a hug), understanding consent is necessary so that all parties and their boundaries are respected.
Overall, I think the project was a great way to combine social media, something students already connect with, and Latin, a subject most people find intimidating, to make a fun enjoyable project with a lot of creative liberty. Reflecting on the project afterward made me think about how I could've approached the myth differently and it allowed me to expand my knowledge on topics I thought I knew enough about, which is what a good project should do.
Alanna Byrne (she/her) is a junior at Dominican Academy in New York City. She became very interested in Latin after taking her first class sophomore year and continued to pursue this new found interest by participating in Lupercal’s internship over the summer of 2020. She hopes to continue her journey in Latin and Classical studies by diving deeper into the Classics that she hasn’t read yet. Other than Latin, she likes drawing, reading, singing, and acting. She has an obsession with anime and enjoys nerding out over psychology and math.