In October, Peopling the Past brings you interviews and reflections from scholars whose work investigates monsters and demons in the ancient world, examining their meaning and symbolism and their deeper connections to human experiences past and present.
At Peopling the Past we occasionally feature interviews with educators and researchers who have founded amazing new projects dedicated to making history, archaeology, and related subjects more inclusive.
Can you tell us about Asterion and how it came about?
Asterion is a new organisation dedicated to representing and celebrating neurodiversity in Classics, based primarily in the UK, but with contributors from around the world. There are a lot of neurodivergent people in Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology, but we tend to be scattered. I’m autistic; but until recently I’d never met another classicist who was. The same goes for people with OCD, and ADHD, and dyspraxia, and dyscalculia, and lots of other differences. Because we’re often isolated, we tend to work through our problems alone – but recently a few of us got together and wondered if there might be a way to help one another.
If you’re interested, there’s more on the story behind Asterion in the recent CUCD Bulletin.
What are your goals/what do you hope to accomplish through this organization?
We’d like to make neurodiversity in Classics more visible. We’d like the next generation of neurodivergent students in the discipline to see us here, and to know that there will be a welcome for them, whether they’re autistic, or bipolar, or dyslexic, or undiagnosed but feeling like they don’t belong. We’d like them to know that their differences are not a burden, and that in Classics we value people who experience the world differently.
But that’s a long-term goal. Right now, there are lots of barriers obstructing the progress of neurodivergent students and staff in Classics. So we’re aiming to tackle those barriers one by one, by drawing attention to them and offering simple strategies to reduce them.
You chose Asterion as the face of your organization. Most readers might know this character better as the Minotaur. Why was this symbol chosen?
People often keep quiet about neurodivergence and hidden disabilities – and for good reason. When autistic people like me, for instance, are talked about by others, we’re often cast as not quite human, as burdens to our families or to education services, or as locked away in our own worlds. Scientific studies, the media and support services tend to portray us as somehow monstrous.
That’s why we chose the name ‘Asterion’: the name that was given in myth to the hybrid child before he became cast as the monstrous Bull of Minos. In centring neurodivergent people as our writers and editors, we’re giving the monster a voice. Maybe when we do so, people will realise that difference is not something they need to avoid.
Why do you think characters like Asterion are so fascinating for audiences today? Should we rethink our attitudes towards these mythical beings?
I don’t believe that we need to rethink our attitudes, because our ways of thinking aren’t static. Myth is continually being reinterpreted and reinvented in society: today we find the Minotaur in games, in sculpture, in songs, in poetry books and even stalking the streets of Toulouse. We’re constantly and creatively using myth to explore what it means to live in a world full of challenges, and that’s how it should be.
In academia, though, we often approach creative receptions as detached objects of study, as though we can study difference without being touched by it. That’s where I think we could do better. Professor Susan Deacy and the international ACCLAIM Network have recently begun to explore links between autism and myth in a way that opens up all kinds of possibilities for the active use of Classics in helping children, and that’s an exciting new direction.
What message would you like readers to take away concerning Asterion (both the character and the organization)?
Perspective matters. When you look at the Minotaur, maybe you see an evil monster; or maybe you see a child who was trapped, abandoned and turned into a monster. The ancient world gives us both versions; which one we choose depends on our perspective and what we want to say.
The same is true of neurodiversity. Neurodivergent people bring a different perspective, one which is often ignored. Accommodating neurodiversity means recognising and allowing for different experiences of the world. Celebrating neurodiversity means seeking out those perspectives and valuing them. We hope that Asterion will encourage people in Classics to do both.
Cora Beth Fraser is a classicist living in the North East of England, currently working as an Open University Associate Lecturer on undergraduate and postgraduate Classics modules. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She is also a proud member of the Lego Classicists Family, and holder of a Recognition of Excellence in Teaching Award from the OU. Cora Beth is on the EDI Committee of the Council of University Classics Departments, and is passionate about widening participation in Classics. She is autistic, a single parent and the servant of two opinionated black cats. In her spare time she paints, illustrates and designs bookplates.