Challenge the Canon: 3 books to kick-start your curiosity about the past
This year, the theme is ‘Challenge the Canon’ for Classics Abroad 2021 in Florence & Online, our summer course devoted to exploring classical antiquity through the literature, art, history and culture of Florence.
What is the Canon? Broadly speaking, the ‘Canon’ refers to those well-known authors or works that have been considered culturally significant in any given field. These typically form the basis of a school or university curriculum. But theories about humanity and history, too, can become ‘canonical’ if they gain enough authority to be considered general truths in any given society. For example, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution or Aristotle’s Theory of Natural Slavery.
But how does an idea become canonical? Who has been included in, and excluded from, the Canon? Does the Canon reflect, or create, societal biases? In the lead up to Classics Abroad, we’ll be sharing some recommended reading and ideas to kick-start your curiosity about the past, whatever your subject background.
This month, we’ve chosen 3 books that will open up your mind to a gender-holistic study of 3 areas: civilisation, literature and mythology.
1. The Chalice & the Blade, Riane Eisler
The introduction of The Chalice & the Blade poses the following questions: “Why do we hunt and persecute each other? Why is our world so full of man’s infamous inhumanity to man — and to woman? How can human beings be so brutal to their own kind? What is it that chronically tilts us toward cruelty rather than kindness, toward war rather than peace, toward destruction rather than actualization?”¹ You might not find Eisler’s theory of “dominator culture” on your average school curriculum, and yet it provides an answer to these questions that has the potential to transform civilisation (and the study of civilisation) as we know it.
The book re-examines the past and presents a theory of cultural evolution that differs from prior studies, by taking into account “the whole of human history (including our prehistory) as well as the whole of humanity (both its female and male halves).”²
It begins by reconstructing the presence of a “Goddess culture” in Neolithic and Palaeolithic ages, followed by a look at creation myths from the East and West, Greek mythology, the birth of Christianity and onwards to Eisler’s own time of writing.
What emerges is a theory that whether a society is more peaceful or warlike depends on how the fundamental relationships between women and men are structured at all levels of a society, and whether that society leans towards a “dominator” or “partnership” model. In this way, it provides a new framework not only for studying the past, but also for a creating a better present and future.
In fact, The Chalice and the Blade led to the creation of a real-life Centre for Partnership Studies: seeking to put Eisler’s theory into action, raising awareness of the ongoing negative impact of “dominator culture” worldwide and providing ideas for implementing a collective shift from dominator to partnership models of society.
2. How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ
If you’ve ever wondered how a literary canon gets created and sustained over time, this is the place to start. Its corpus of interest is English literature from the last few centuries in Europe and the United States, and yet the analytical tool kit Russ provides could be applied to any historical period — including today. As Russ explains at the end of her prologue: “What follows is not intended as a history. Rather it’s a sketch of an analytic tool: patterns in the suppression of women’s writing.”³
What happens, Russ asks, when certain (invisible) barriers exclude specific people from making it into the Canon and yet these people somehow “commit art” anyway?
What happens when “some white women, and black women, and black men, and other people of color too, have actually acquired the nasty habit of putting the stuff on paper, and some of it gets printed…”?⁴
What follows is a succinct and highly entertaining breakdown of 11 common methods used to maintain the status quo in the English literary canon. Thanks to Skye Shirley, guest tutor and founder of Lupercal Legit — for this recommendation!
3. Pandora’s Jar, Natalie Haynes
It’s easy to grow up thinking that there are a certain number of fixed events in Greek mythology: Perseus beheads Medusa, Theseus abandons Ariadne, Medea kills her children. And yet, as Professor Helen Lovatt once suggested, ancient mythology could be compared to modern memes. The origin of a myth or meme can be difficult to locate, because they transform as they transmit. There is often not one, authoritative version of a myth but many parallel and competing versions over time.
But which version do we tend to remember? And which version of which characters? These are the kinds of questions which Natalie Haynes addresses in Pandora’s Jar, challenging the canon of Greek mythology with some intellectual detective work on 10 women from Greek myth and their afterlives in modern literature and art.
“Which version of a story we choose to tell, which characters we place in the foreground, which ones we allow to fade into the shadows: these reflect both the teller and the reader, as much as they show the characters of the myth.”⁵
 The Chalice and the Blade, Page xv.
 How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Page 6.
 Pandora’s Jar, Page 3.