To Murder a Statue: Mythological Re-Imaginings and Black Lives Matter

by Daisy Norfolk

The recent destruction and vandalism of colonial sculptures across the globe both within and external of the Black Lives Matter movement have elicited a series of responses in regards to issues of race, marginalisation, and whether or not people should be destroying colonial statues. Both the actions and reactions of statue destruction illuminate the contemporary re-imagining of the ‘classical identity’ within Western society. Ancient Greece and Rome have long been celebrated as the founding civilisations of Western society, and thus their values, ideologies, and institutions have been preserved not just historically, but through the continuation of a cultural legacy in the West. The first section of this essay will address Western society’s idealisation and mimicry of classical mythology and the contemporary repercussions of this. The second will examine how colonisation was, and continues to be, legitimised and defended as an act of culture within the classical identity. The third section investigates Western anxieties surrounding the demolition of the classical identity via the destruction of colonial ‘heroes.’ The final section examines how ‘murdering’ colonial statues is an effective action in illuminating racial marginalisation and challenging those with invested interests in the classical identity.  A re-examination and rejection of Classics as a perceived living culture is necessary to understand the actions of statue destruction within the Black Lives Matter movement. 

It is imperative to reject classicism as a re-imagined cultural identity due to colonial and thus contemporary glorification and idealisation of ancient Greek and Roman societies within the Western viewpoint. In some ways Western society has created its own aetiological mythology stemming from the concept of ancient Greece and Rome as a foundation, worshipping Greek philosophers and Roman politicians. Thomas Eliot wrote ‘We are all, so far as we inherit the civilisation of Europe, still citizens of the Roman Empire.’ This lengthy ‘legacy’ of Western civilisation stemming from classical roots is something that has been parroted throughout centuries. However, this has led the West to model its society on the values, ideologies, and practices of the Classical period. For instance, after the Wurundjeri Land was stolen by Batman and Fawkner ca 1835 CE, the Hoddle Grid was erected atop the colonial settlement two years later in 1837 CE. The Hoddle Grid was modelled after the Hippodamian Plan, a widely popular city plan during the Classical period, fifth century BCE. Many Greek cities adopted the plan and it was even imposed on Greek colonies such as Alexandria. Not only were European colonists modelling the ‘ideal’ city from Classical Greece, but they were also mimicking its colonisation process of building a city in their image atop colonised land. 

Furthermore, erection of famed colonists’ monuments—such as the Columbus statue in Columbus Park that was beheaded in June 2020—show the West’s continued idealisation of their self-perceived classical heritage through mimicry of white marble and the format of megalithic individual dedications that resemble classical sculptures. Although Classical Greek and Roman sculptures were colourfully painted, the Western romanticisation of the white marble as inherently ‘classical’ in style prevails. The way the Classical period was raised on a pedestal by Western society informed the actions and beliefs of Europeans in the colonial era. Furthermore, the way classicism and colonialism is celebrated today creates a cultural legacy that perpetuates the ancient social institutions of Greece and Rome, thus the classical identity must be dismembered in order to facilitate decolonisation. 

The preservation of Classics within Western cultural identity led to the perception of colonisation as a cultural institution during the colonial era and has subsequently informed contemporary treatment and understanding of those deemed ‘colonised.’ Johnson highlights the striking resemblance between the artworks A Native Wounded While Asleep and The Dying Gaul and suggests that the comparison between Gauls and the First Peoples emphasises the past in prediction of the future. To paint an Aboriginal man as a Gaul not only preluded European intentions as Johnson suggests, but also justified and glorified the violent colonisation of Australia as a cultural institution carried over from the Classical period. Furthermore, Dougherty’s examination of the role of Apollo in the founding myth of Corinth suggests murder, as a bloody purification ritual, is inseparable from colonisation in Greek mythology. Similarly, applying this to the aetiological narrative of Cadmus slaying the native serpent in the foundation myth of Thebes, we can see how colonial murder can be conceptually perceived as a ‘positive’ and ‘cleansing’ force within classical mythology. Cadmus slays the native serpent and Athena instructs him to plant its teeth into the ground which grow into the spartoi who fight each other until only five men remain. Cadmus and the successful spartoi build Thebes atop the site of this bloodshed. From the chthonic ritual bloodshed of the native serpent and ‘sown-men’ the site is ‘purified’ to begin anew as Thebes. Murder is culturally emblematic in Classical aetiological mythologies, its colonial overtones are also so, and romanticised allusions to this phenomenaas seen in A Native Wounded While Asleep—show endorsement and continuity of this culture of colonisation for Europeans in the eighteenth century. 

Furthermore, the heroization afforded to the murdering of these native monsters is also thematically prevalent in Classical mythology—as seen in Hercules slaying of Cacus at the future site of Rome—and parallels can be drawn between such mythology and Western views on European colonisation as a ‘civilising’ force. This heroization of colonisers continues today in contemporary statue erections, such as the institution of a new $3 million Captain Cook memorial at the site of the First Fleet’s landing announced in 2018. The statue is to contain ‘Indigenous elements’ and is described by then Treasurer Morrison as ‘a place of commemoration and recognition and understanding of two cultures, and the incredible Captain Cook.’ The heroization of colonial figures such as Captain Cook and the positioning of him as a reconciliatory figure between colonisers and First Peoples further solidifies the argument that contemporary Western culture promotes the perception of past colonisation as a ‘generative’ and ‘civilising’ force despite colonial murder. The proposed monument serves to reinforce an understanding and recognition by Western society of the ‘two cultures’ as ‘coloniser and colonised.’ This concept of ‘commendable’ colonisation stems from the classical identity which colonial and contemporary Western society continues to adopt, and rejection of this identity is essential in the pursuit of decolonising history. 

The defensive reaction of many within Western society to the destruction and vandalism of colonial statues exhibits anxieties surrounding demolition of the classical identity. Phillips states those who tore down the statue of seventeenth century slave trader Edward Colston are accusing ‘white society of being fundamentally evil’ and that ‘these demonstrations have been a form of insurrection against western society and its institutions.’ Similarly, Australian PM Morrison defended Captain Cook over the possibility of a statue being removed of the coloniser in the UK, ‘in his time [Captain Cook] was one of the most enlightened persons on these issues’ and falsely claiming that ‘there was no slavery in Australia.’ His defence against the destruction of historical monuments came closely after the Federal government was contacted by a lawyer of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Aboriginal Corporation from the Pilbara region urging them to prevent the destruction of 46,000-year-old ancient deep-time rock shelters by Rio Tinto’s mining blasts. The government refused to intervene and Juukan Gorge cave, the only Australian site to show continual human habitation since the Ice Age and a significant cultural and historical location for the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Peoples, was blasted away in May 2020. PM Morrison however did not feel this particular kind of historical destruction warranted action nor comment. Recontextualising colonial ‘heroes’ elicits anxiety in non-Indigenous Australians as it draws attention to these figures’ real historical legacies, that is, illegal dispossession and violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Once this is acknowledged, it calls into question the entire legitimacy of the settler-colonial state.

Additionally, the defensive reactions of counter-protests ‘protecting’ statues against activist destruction illuminates the ideological protection of the West’s self-perceived classical heritage. In one of these counter-protests, some 150 turned up to guard a statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, London that had been spray-painted with the words ‘was a racist’ during Black Lives Matter protests. One of these counter-protestors, David Allen, in response to the vandalism claimed ‘my culture is under attack.’ Although often ignored, Churchill’s racist ideologies were clear and often intertwined with colonial commentary. In 1937 he stated he did not believe that it was wrong for a ‘stronger race, a higher-grade race’ to ‘come in and [take] their place’ when referring to the colonisation of First Nations land. The immortalising of war-time leaders in monumental form is a remnant from the classical era, as is justifying colonial violence on the premise of ‘superior race.’ In Australia, mounted police guarded a Captain Cook monument in Hyde Park during a Black Lives Matter protest. Against the backdrop of overwhelming numbers of Indigenous deaths in custody, we must ask ourselves why an inanimate object representing a long-deceased colonial figure is protected by police but First Nations people are not? Considering this, colonial statues represent cultural longevity and unbroken ideological traditions that justify violent colonisation through the self-perceived cultural and racial superiority of Western society’s ‘classical heritage.’ 

However, destruction and vandalism of colonial statues within the Black Lives Matter movement is one of the many prominent ways activists have responded to racial marginalisation. In examining how actions of marginalised groups within classical mythology are treated by wider society, we can see contemporary similarities emerge. Take Medea, who is often considered to overreact when confronted with Jason’s new wife-to-be by murdering the Princess and her own children. However, as highlighted by Foley, agency plays a key role in the murders of women in classical mythology. Medea, as a woman, is subject to strict social expectations and has moral obligations surrounding the way she should act. There is no socially acceptable way for her to bring Jason to justice for his infidelity, nor is there any ability for control over what happens to herself and her children if she is left to the mercy of the new arrangement. Therefore, she seeks an alternative avenue to take control of her own fate, and thus murders her own children.  In doing this, she can interrupt and challenge Jason’s prerogative. Similarly, Clytemnestra has no capacity to bring Agamemnon to justice for the murder of her daughter. She cannot leave her domestic role and she cannot represent herself in the law courts as a woman. The murder of her husband is a way she can execute justice while also highlighting issues regarding the roles of women in society. These characters were villainised in the mythological narratives of antiquity for breaking social rules. Their violence was determined to be extreme and unjustified, whereas Agamemnon’s murder of Iphigenia is treated as neccesary for military glory and Jason’s violent acts during the Trojan war were heralded as heroic. We can similarly witness disparity in the ‘heroic’ violence of colonial murder versus the ‘criminal’ violence of statue destruction in contemporary society. 

For instance, forms of opposition and civil disobedience ‘approved’ by the Western mindset—such as protests without property damage—benefit Western society while disadvantaging marginalised communities. This is because Western society has written the ‘rules’ of protest and civil disobedience to prevent harm to things valued by the West—such as colonial statues. These rules protect colonial cultural heritage but, as witnessed in the Juukan Gorge cave blasts and continued erection of the Carmichael (Adani) coal mine against the demands of the Wangan and Jagalingou people, it does not protect First Nations people’s cultural heritage. These colonial statues are valued by the West for their legitimisation of colonisation, and their continued legitimisation of Western sovereignty. Harming these statues visually disrupts this legitimisation and causes fears of the dispossessed First Nations people reasserting sovereignty. Further, the designation of a protest as ‘violent’ if it involves property destruction affords property privileged and preferential treatment over the lives of activists. Batons, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets were and continue to be used on Black Lives Matter activists across the globe by police and militia, authorised in multiple instances to protect private and federal property. Here civic monuments, or rather the institutions they represent, are protected at the expense of harming activists. Evidently colonial statues represent more than just property, but ideologies, institutions, and an entire culture entrenched in classical roots. The metaphorical ‘murdering’ of the colonial figureheads who represent classical institutions such as slavery and colonisation is a justified reponse by Black Lives Matter activists to the classical identity independent of pre-defined ‘acceptable’ protests.

Clearly, the destruction of statues within the Black Lives Matter movement prompts a re-examination of classical heritage and colonialism’s role in contemporary society. Upon investigation it is evident that Western society idealises classical mythology and colonial heritage, embodying values, ideologies, and institutions from these eras. One of these institutions—colonisation—has and continues to be viewed within the Western perspective as a ‘civilising’ and ‘generative’ force. Acts of statue destruction are interpreted by some within Western society as a ‘demolition’ of Western cultural identity. However, the act of this destruction itself is an appropriate response to historical and contemporary racial marginalisation and is a way that effectively challenges preservationists of the classical identity. Ultimately, rejecting the classical identity that remains prevalent in Western society today is necessary in decolonising history, and is paramount in understanding why someone would ‘murder’ a statue.

Image source: https://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/2020/06/10/christopher-columbus-statue-beheaded/

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2 Responses to “To Murder a Statue: Mythological Re-Imaginings and Black Lives Matter”

  1. muclass

    Very well written! A fascinating topic across history, including how statues combine the ancient classical ideal with the legacy of colonialism and slavery.

    Like

    Reply
  2. Jessica Mellen

    I just wanted to thank you for writing this! I am doing a presentation on contemporary iconoclasms (particularly the beheading of the Christopher Columbus statue in Boston last June) and I hadn’t even considered the connection between Western classicisms and the racist ideology Columbus symbolizes. I hope it’s alright if I quote you (with credit of course)!

    Like

    Reply

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