The unsettled settler: Herakles the colonist and the Labours of Marian Maguire
A paper by Greta Hawes
presented at the conference, Hercules: a hero for all ages
Leeds, 24th-26th June, 2013.
In Herakles writes home, a striking lithograph from Marian Maguire’s The Labours of Herakles, the black-figure hero scribbles away inside his wooden homestead. The distinctive, conical peak of Taranaki seen through a window locates the scene on the western cape of New Zealand’s North Island. Above his head, Maori carvings – pressed into new service as bookends – guard a small library which takes in Homer, the Bible, and accounts of life in the South Pacific. A Greek-Maori dictionary hints at the practicalities, and problems, of cultural translation; the ongoing effort of understanding, and the constant battle to be understood. Fredrick Maning’s Old New Zealand would offer mediated insights of another kind. Written by one of the most famous Pakeha-Maori, it is an account of Maori culture written for a European audience by a man at home in both worlds.
Herakles has also been consulting Anne Salmond’s Trial of the Cannibal Dog, published in 2004. This detailed account of the voyages of James Cook in the south Pacific turns on the theme of inter-cultural contact, communication and transformation. Captain Cook’s small wooden vessels introduced to the Pacific a radically new worldview. This was no event of unilateral cultural imposition, however, nor indeed a strictly bilateral encounter. What might elsewhere be described superficially as a “clash of cultures” becomes, in Salmond’s hands, a complex, manifold picture of human diversity: curiosity and fear, generosity and mistrust, friendship and profiteering, ethnographic study and misconstrued intentions, perceived offences and retribution. Cook brought into the South Pacific new technology, new customs and conventions, new forms of military and social hegemony, new livestock, and new diseases; but Polynesia, likewise, was full of novelty and innovation. This set of encounters, then, required responses from both sides and no-one — least of all Cook and his floating Europeans — escaped unchanged. In Salmond’s account, Cook’s long voyages of exploration transformed his personal worldview; the pragmatic sea captain from Whitby, citizen of an Enlightenment England that is foreign even to us today, navigated and charted not merely the seas of the Pacific, but its cultural currents. As he sought to make sense of, and to exploit, those he met, his horizons changed. He entered into ceremonial friendships with elites across Polynesia becoming, knowlingly or not, embroiled in ongoing political, military, and religious disputes. His story ends with the long 3rd voyage, during which even his own men came to refer to him by his Polynesian name, Toote. He was greeted as an ancestral spirit in Hawai’i, but his violence was ultimately countered with hostility. He was killed, stabbed with an iron dagger brought to the island on his own ships, and his body ceremonially dismembered. As Herakles writes home, The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, securely nestled on a bookcase, hovers ominously above his head. What lessons might this Greek hero, once beset by a ferocious, man-eating dog in his own life, draw from the story of his predecessor in New Zealand? The parallels are telling: two mythical voyagers, both sometimes semi-divine, remembered variously as beacons of civilisation, and as agents of barbaric destruction.
Herakles’ energies, in any case, are clearly taken up with transformations of a different sort. Through the window of the homestead, we see the fruits of his labours – a farm takes shape in land half-cleared of its forest. Herakles’ heroic efforts will create the lush pastures for what is now a booming dairy industry. For the moment, though, we see only the backbreaking work of clearing the land. This is the practical side of colonisation, making inroads into the interior and rendering it useful to support a new way of life. But Herakles is not landscaping an empty hillside. What might seem a modest, necessary bush track to one bystander, is intrusive to another. In the late 1870s and ̕80s, the Maori community at Parihaka, not far from this little homestead, waged a campaign of non-violent resistance in the face of ongoing land confiscations. They built fences across roads like this one and ploughed up encroaching farmland, protesting the realities of ownership in a way which was both practical and symbolic. Progress is an ambivalent concept.
Inside the homestead it is comfortable, civilised, even. This Herakles is a collector of souvenirs. On the mantelpiece sits an amphora depicting Captain Cook in black-figure; there is a postcard from ancient Greece and a tourist statue of the Venus de Milo — presumably from the gift shop in the Louvre. Surrounded by his smug cultural baggage, Herakles is caught up in a mood of quiet, industrious concentration. “Writing home” is an activity redolent of nostalgia. It conjures up the image of bonds stretching across the ocean, back to what poet Denis Glover would later describe as “quaint old England’s quaint old towns”. And yet that innocuous phrase, “writing home”, hides any number of realities — divided loyalties, difficult pasts and strained relationships. For any number of reasons one might relocate — or be banished — to the other side of the world. To whom does Herakles write from this outpost in the South Pacific? To his murdered wife and children? His absent father? His ever-hostile stepmother? Where would be “home” for him? Maguire’s Herakles fits into New Zealand’s colonial history as he fits in anywhere: he is a recognisable individual: eye-catching, solitary, larger than life, and always somewhat out of place. And in this cycle he is also somewhat out of time. This is the joke of the bookcase, which features Aristotle’s Discourse on Place and Time a work either never written, or no longer extant. Our time-traveller is well read in the latest classics of ethnography and science: he has Cook’s journals and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species; but he can also scan Salmond’s postcolonial commentary. He has books which give practical advice on colonial life, and the nostalgic Old New Zealand, which harks back to an even earlier period of ‘true’ pioneer adventure. This Herakles is not merely out of place on his deforested hillside. He is also a relic of a different age, and this, too, is in keeping with convention: how much comfort might he derive if he were to reach up and grasp the Iliad or the Odyssey, in which he was already, to the more discerning Greeks of the classical period, an outmoded hero?
Maguire’s skilful compositions attract the eye with their elegant design and clever visual puns. But the weaving of Greek myth and art into the narrative of New Zealand history is no mere pastiche. It offers a deeply unsettling perspective on this familiar material. Beyond the witty “in jokes” lurk a series of troubling questions. Herakles is a convenient cipher for figuring the complex and messy dynamics of colonisation. He introduces a necessary element of intellectual distance being, at once, the archetypal symbol of Western culture, and nobody’s true ancestor. His sojourn in New Zealand, then, is at once both obviously fictional, and – or, rather, therefore – deeply symbolic of something else. Maguire’s disjunctive rendering creates deft commentary out of an unsettling blend of innovation and familiarity. She creates a recognisable world which is not quite as it was, but nevertheless clearly becoming something like what it will be. Her decontextualised, anachronistic, constantly-shifting fragments make the commonplace seem foreign. This Herakles is a tourist, he doesn’t belong, and will soon move on. After all, he always did. Even in antiquity, Herakles seldom lingered in one place long enough to put down roots. Vagrancy is an integral part of Herakles’ character. It is also an index of his popularity as a cultural cipher, one that can be moulded at will. Maguire has said of Herakles that “[y]ou can get [him] to do anything you want”. Exploitation of his malleability is not an exclusively modern conceit.
Herakles has never been a single figure; in antiquity he was an amalgam of different useful properties. His mythological narrative was loosely unified by the canonical Labours, but admitted flexibility, diversity and paradox. He can be said to embody - broadly - a corporate vision of Greek identity, and yet he remained a distinctly rootless hero. He was a possession, in various ways, of all Greece but never restricted solely to any one location, or any one particular role. It was this adaptable homelessness which made him the perfect conloniser. The malleable plasticity of Herakles came into play as the Greeks sought to make sense of a widening world. Herodotus, for example, talks of the Herakles revered amongst the Egyptians and attempts to reconcile this figure with Greek traditions, concluding that the Greek hero must be merely a replication of the older Egytian one. (2.42-5) Here, then, Herakles is no longer a symbol of Hellenic exceptionalism, but a figure through which a Greek writer can attempt to get a new perspective on his own culture from outside. This model of religious syncreticism emerges, too, at prominant points of contact, like western Sicily, where his cult became fused with that of the Phoenician Melqart. In the expanding world of the ancient Mediterranean, then, Herakles could serve as an agent of translation, providing a point of cultural overlap between Greeks and their neighbours.
But this sense of colonisation as a fluid and reciprocal process tends to be lost in the basic plots of myth. Herakles' wide-ranging journeys provided a unifying framework for the geographically diffuse Greek world. He was a central figure through whom colonies could connect themselves to a conceptual Greek homeland; they had followed in Herakles’ footsteps, and thus inhabited land once associated with him. So, for example, Herakles’ journey westward in search of Geryon's cattle provided a convenient peg for the charter myths of the Greek cities of Sicily and southern Italy. Three very similar stories, from Croton, Locros and Abderos have Herakles as the accidental murderer of a friend on these sites. He then either prophesies or orders the future construction of a Greek city by the tomb of its now-eponymous hero. In this way, his activities legitimated and made inevitable later Greek expansion into this area; the Greeks had not simply claimed this land, they re-claimed it.
Herakles’ journeys domesticated the wider world; his actions opened up the Mediterranean, making it suitable for habitation. Most famously, he re-landscaped the Straits of Gibraltar, creating a narrow channel which blocked the ingress of sea monsters (Diod. Sic. 4.18.5). Diodorus describes Herakles’ killing of the giant Antaios as part of a broader ideological programme, with Herakles working to create the prosperous world of the historical present (4.17.4):
“Following up this great deed [the defeat of Antaios] he subdued Libya, which was full of wild animals, and large parts of the adjoining desert, and brought it all under cultivation, so that the whole land was filled with ploughed fields and such plantings in general as bear fruit, much of it being devoted to vineyards and much to olive orchards; and, speaking generally, Libya, which before that time had been uninhabitable because of the multitude of the wild beasts which infested the whole land, was brought under cultivation by him and made inferior to no other country in point of prosperity.” (trans. C.H. Oldfather)
Here Herakles enters a land devoid of people and leaves it a safe and useful space. Seen from this perspective, Herakles is a straightforward agent of civilisation and progress. We can certainly find anxiety elsewhere in antiquity regarding the value of Herakles as a model for ethical behaviour. Likewise, we might recognise some irony in the fact that Herakles’ constant wandering is an index of his inability to settle properly into the kinds of political life which he was said to have established everywhere. But such ambiguity is seldom explicitly highlighted in his ancient role as a coloniser. This particular facet of his heroism afforded only unproblematic benefits to those who come after him. Civilisation and the imposition of Greek values and Greek economic priorities are, in this way of thinking, one and the same; and the land must be tamed, by force if necessary, for them to flourish.
Maguire’s Herakles is not the founder and initiator of colonies, like his ancient counterpart, nor an explorer, like his precursor Capt. Cook. Rather, he is a settler, engaged in the tedious, backbreaking work of occupying a new land and creating a new community in it. This Herakles cannot simply conjure up a transformation as the ancient one did in Libya. Herakles clears the land offers up a vision of what such transformation entails. A wooded hillside is half-cleared of trees; a fence marks the new boundaries of this emergent paddock. Above, smoke billows into the sky. Burning off standing bush is hot, dirty work, and Herakles’ face is lined with ash. There is a new weariness to his features; he seems gaunt, haunted even. His lion’s skin still snarls menacingly around him, but its teeth are chipped and worn. “Clearing the land” turns out to be another ambivalent phrase. Herakles is not only burning off forest to carve out his farm; he is also asserting his ownership over this parcel of earth, manipulating it to his needs. Diodorus described Herakles’ efforts in straightforward terms as the removal of monsters, the institution of agriculture and the arrival of its attendant prosperity; here we see a different scene redolent of the dark heroism of the colonial programme, and its intractable consequences. The ancient Antaios, connected as he was to Gaia, might be understood in Diodorus as a figuration of the wilderness which inhibits human habitation. In clearing his patch of New Zealand, Herakles sees off a different kind of monster, a taniwha made homeless by the fire. Herakles’ model of economic value, based on dairy cattle and demarcated hectares, leaves little room for cohabitation.
But the Taniwha is no straightforward symbol of nature; and perhaps neither is Antaios. One man’s monster is another’s protective spirit. What goes unsaid in Diodorus’ passage becomes clear in Maguire’s rendering of the fight. Taniwha are not integral to the New Zealand landscape as such, but to a distinctive Maori perspective on it. In toiling towards his vision of civilisation and prosperity, Herakles not only dominates the land but he imposes his own, Victorian assumptions onto it. British legal structure frequently proved at odds with Maori conventions. These conceptual conflicts turned New Zealand into a battle ground. Incompatible claims and models of ownership came up against each other, and against radically changing social, political and economic values. Less visible to history was the ongoing ideological battle fought out over landscape. With the transferral of land and its transformation, one set of stories ceased to be told, and another grew up. In ridding his new land of its resident taniwha, Herakles is clearing this paddock of the genealogical and mythological traditions to which it once belonged. In its place, he creates a new mythology, one which is imported, but transformed by native conditions.
As Herakles labours over his desolate patch of future farmland, he dreams of Arcadia. This Arcadia is a pastiche: it is the Arcadian wilds imagined by enlightenment painters as an ideal escape, and it is the Arcadia of ancient Greece, a concrete location in the centre of the Peloponnese, home to the Erymanthian boar celebrated even in antiquity for its distinctly other-worldly existence. As Herakles digs, his estimations of value are not merely economic; he reaches for an aesthetic and cultural ideal. Arcadia is both his homeland — so perhaps he mourns its loss — and the world which he might build on foreign shores. In both cases, it is unattainable: how can one place be made to look like another? And how practical a model would a utopia provide, anyway? This impossible dream of a verdant spot free from work or worry has an ominous subtext. In Arcadia, the rabbit held by the maenad might be understood as a symbol of the region’s easy fertility. But in New Zealand, this gift proved destructive. Within a few decades of their introduction, they had ruined great tracts of grassland, and now require constant culling. Like his ancient counterpart, this Herakles re-landscapes his world. Where in antiquity colonisation could be plotted as the simple act of translating an unknown location into a Greek one, our postcolonial world shows this transformation to be partial and fraught. Herakles will not create, or indeed recreate Arcadia; these islands could not become a new Arcadia just as they did not become a new Britain, as they were billed to be, or even a new Zealand, as Abel Tasman’s cartographers would have had it. The nation that Herakles helps to build has its own history, and its own contingencies.
So, where does this leave us? The study of the relationship between antiquity and its modern reception has the potential to be mutually-enlightening. Maguire’s Herakles should send us back to the Greek stories of colonisation, and spur us to think about the ways in which ancient myths can plaster over any number of difficult realities. The fact that Diodorus describes Herakles’ civilising labours without mentioning the toll they might have taken on him personally becomes a telling silence; the idea that he cleared virgin territory only of monsters and wild beasts becomes a happy fiction. What does the ancient Herakles, by contrast, bring to Maguire’s work? In short: his own brand of unsettling complexity. His sojourn in the South Pacific introduces chaotic perspectives on time and place. It is narrated via a visual vocabulary which forces the viewer to reconcile the disjunctive nature of colonisation, and to confront postcolonial questions about belonging, cultural authority, and ownership. As a foreign, imported hero, he introduces a modicum of intellectual distance: this is not a direct narrative of colonisation, but a mythical one, in which the viewer has a different investment. But this new myth of Herakles, for all its deliberate symbolism, does not give us another colonising automaton. The new environment effects its own transformations, chipping away at the hero’s characteristic resolve, and his aloofness. Like Capt Cook, Herakles does not emerge unchanged. The penultimate image has Herakles volunteering for the Gallipoli campaign alongside his new brothers-in-arms. The final image has him locked in perpetual combat with the Taniwha. But unlike the fight with Antaios, this is no easy victory. The triumphalism of imperial heroism rings hollow. We leave Herakles, then, intertwined ambiguously with this new monster, subsumed by him, one grasping the other, neither winning nor losing.
British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow
University of Bristol