Tag Archives: ancient

Classical References in Lady Gaga’s Applause

Lady Gaga’s new video has hit the scene and it is as weird as ever. I’m a fan of some of Lady Gaga’s music, but I am really not for the whole over-the-top, attention seeking, randomness that is found in her videos or her VMA dresses. This isn’t a blog about Lady Gaga, though, it’s about Classics. I watched the video because I have friends who are huge Gaga fans and because let’s be honest all that attention seeking really works. I immediately picked up on two classical references. I read the Buzzfeed article and don’t know that I believe all of the references that sight pulled out of this video, but I do agree with the two classical ones. They are the myth of Icarus and the myth of Venus’ birth.

In short summary, Icarus was the son of the inventor, Daedalus. Daedalus invented wings made of wax so that they could fly, but warned his son that if he flew too high the wax would melt and he would fall to the sea. Icarus flew too high, the wax melted, and he died. I liked Buzzfeed’s explanation for the reference to Icarus saying that maybe Gaga became “too consumed in her own art.” The problem with this is that they are not taking into account what the song is about. The song repeats over and over that Gaga lives for applause. That is why she chooses the use of Icarus. He flew too close to the sun and she is saying that she may be doing the same. She lives to fly higher and higher and be more and more loved by her fans. Gaga who we know is obsessed with duality, as mentioned over and over in her career, knows that wanting to more love from her fans constantly and being addicted to that fame is a catch 22. There are good and bad things about fame and flying high.  Gaga, clearly, loves the stage, the show, the attention, and she craves all of these things. That’s what the story of Icarus is about. When it comes to a good thing, don’t get greedy.

Now Icarus was not fortunate enough to be reborn the way Gaga is in her video. Her birth is very obviously a reference to the goddess Venus. Of course, Venus, is all about love and sexuality. These are not uncommon themes in Lady Gaga’s music or videos so it’s no surprise that this is the goddess she chose to be reborn as. Venus was born from the sea which some people take as a purifying experience, however, the creation myth of Venus/Aphrodite most commonly accepted in the classical world is that she was born from Uranus’ sea foam when Cronos cut off Uranus’ genitals and threw them into the sea. That’s a myth twisted enough for Lady Gaga.  Her rebirth as Venus might be simply a reference to the sexuality for which Venus is known or if I’m going to take things as deeply and reach a little the way Buzzfeed has, it might be her return to love and passion for her music and her art which the Icarus reference has shown us has gotten away from Gaga a bit.

Not my style when it comes to videos, but I am happy to point out the classical references and even more happy that they are there. Classics is thriving in popular culture as much as ever. In this case Lady Gaga, surely, knew what she was doing when using them. In other cases they pop up inadvertently because these myths and themes are more ingrained in our world than most of us realize. For more about these references keep an eye out for more posts. As always comment with your thoughts or suggestions for what you want to read about.

referenced:

Buzzfeed http://www.buzzfeed.com/azafar/every-cultural-reference-you-probably-didnt-catch-in-lady-ga?bffb

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MLB PEDs, A-Rod, and Ancient Cheaters

With all of the talk surrounding baseball, Alex Rodriguez, and the seemingly never ending use of the word “cheating” I thought it would be interesting to discuss what happened to the ancient cheaters. So we know Alex Rodriguez has been suspended for essentially cheating; using performance enhancing drugs, although more of the suspension comes from impeding the MLB’s investigation and simply his obnoxious arrogance. While A-rod is just the most recent cheater to join the ranks of Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, and of course Barry Bonds, it is not the first time the question of legacy comes up for a professional athlete. The same questions about remembrance have been brought up about many other athletes such as Tiger Woods, Jim Thorpe, and Lance Armstrong.  We are still waiting to see how most of these will play out (exception being Jim Thorpe, I think he is remembered well, but then his crimes are not considered very serious nor cheating by most people). We can say that McGwire has been passed up multiple times now in Hall of Fame elections and prior to the steroids scandals many were calling him a first ballot Hall of Famer. For the most part, however, it remains to be seen what people will be saying about the steroids era in 10, 20, 50 years.

In the ancient world there were different theories about handling such people. While the Roman example didn’t apply to athletes as much as politicians and traitors, sometimes the same person fit all of those categories I guess, for comparison purpose I will say damnatio memoriae was their method of handling such unwanted stigmas. Damnatio memoriae is a system put in place by the Roman Senate to completely erase someone from history and that was meant in the most literal sense of erase. They would remove inscriptions with his name, remake statues to remove his image, and seize all property. Due to the nature of the practice not a ton of information is known about it, but it was used a few times in the imperial period for emperors who were disliked by the emperor succeeding them or for people who conspired against the emperor.

This is an instance when the Greeks handled things very differently than the Romans. The Greeks would put the story of cheating Olympians everywhere. Yes, cheating happened even in the original Olympic Games. When there are riches to be won and glory to be had, unfortunately if unchecked, cheating will occur; you may say a laurel wreath isn’t exactly riches, but many athletes received rewards either from their home city-state or through other means, but I digress as usual.  The Greeks actually erected statues, using the money of the cheaters, which were to serve as warnings to future athletes. On the statues were elegiac poems, interestingly the same style of poem found on grave markers. These poems extol the values of how the Olympics are to be won, through physical prowess, and criticize other methods of obtaining victory like paying money.

The contrast of the Ancient Roman damnation memoriae and the Ancient Greek example-making tactics are a good chance for history to show us what should be done. Some are saying the MLB should put a steroids era wing on the Hall of Fame to show the history of the game accurately and also to point out the terrible things steroids did to the game of baseball. This is obviously following the Greek example. The voters have consistently left steroid era players out of the Hall, however, maybe preferring the way of the Romans and attempting to erase them from the history of the game. This will definitely be something to watch in the years to come as many steroid era players reach eligibility for the Hall of Fame.

Comment below and tell me if you are for the Roman way or the Greek way? How about outside of athletics like for politicians, celebrities, traitors, etc.?  

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Matt Damon’s Elysium, Plato’s Republic, and Utopias!

I’ve been too far away from pop culture recently, but I am coming back to it. Having seen a trailer for Matt Damon’s new movie Elysium, I couldn’t help but write a post. Of course, the movie’s title comes straight from one classical concept of the afterlife known as the Elysian Fields. This is very much referenced in the movie Gladiator. There is a lot to discuss when talking about Elysium because it is quite controversial. I want to focus more on this movie’s concept and relation to ancient sources than the arguments surrounding the Elysian Fields. I will say one thing about the Elysian Fields, however, and that is that they are not the equivalent to the modern beliefs many religions hold about Heaven. They were originally reserved for heroes (god-related mortals) and, arguably, later considered open to those who were chosen or initiated into the mysteries. It was also not separate from the underworld, but rather a part of it and therefore the Heaven and Hell dichotomy was not in existence.

That’s enough on the Elysian Fields since they really have nothing to do with this movie other than its title. Clearly the title was chosen because the rich are allowed to live in a paradise (Elysium) while the poor are left stranded on Earth which has been left to ruins. That’s about as much of a synopsis as you will get from me because I have not seen the movie and I am writing purely on the concept with a great excitement to see this film. I also want to see how much I can predict from knowledge of classical works and works of “utopian” literature.

It could be argued that Elysium does not present a utopia because there is still an Earth society which is not at all utopian, but I think it is fair to say that the space station where the rich are living is meant to be a utopia that Matt Damon will somehow alter, destroy, wreak havoc upon, etc. The wiki calls it a utopian space station so I am going with that. It also claims that there are instant cures to all diseases in this space habitat (WOAH COOL!).

So take a step back with me to Ancient Greece and let’s take a look at the first utopian works that we currently have knowledge of.  These works would be Plato’s Republica and Plato’s Laws. The Republic actually attempts to set out standards for a utopian society while Laws sets out a society that is as close to that as possible, but could potentially be governed by real (aka flawed) men. Plato’s ideal society is nothing like what I assume Elysium will be, but that’s assumption based on the fact that Elysium must be driven by wealth. In the Republic there is no such thing as private property, everything is communal including children and food. The children are raised by the community without knowledge of who their parents are. Food is simple, not extravagant. Basically it is that everyone lives a moderate life so that no one is below or above another, everyone is equal.

The most important main goal of the Republic was to be devoid of human weakness. This is the part I find most fascinating both about the Republic itself and its connection to the film Elysium. In the film the focus on removing human weakness comes in the form of physically curing everyone in the habitat of all diseases.  While, I think, Plato would argue that human weakness comes from desires for excess, luxury, satisfaction, etc. it is noteworthy that Elysium considers it purely physical. The nature of Elysium is actually the opposite of the Republic because the idea on the space station is that everyone can afford and has everything they could possibly want.

Of course as with all utopian works we will find out that Elysium is actually dystopian for many reasons, I’m going to bank on it being some sort of human nature flaw. It may come in a form we are not used to like compassion or it may be that the people want more and more and we find there are even limits to luxury. I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out.

That is a wandering, smattering of the origins of utopian works and Plato’s beliefs about utopia. I hope it gave you a nice little base of knowledge. I suggest reading more on these things by reading Plato’s Laws and his Republic. I also suggest Thomas Moore’s Utopia, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Bacon’s The New Atlantis (unfinished, but encourages luxury so may be a good comparison to Elysium).

Leave a comment below arguing with me, telling me your favorite work of utopian literature, or how you think this movie is going to play out. I will hopefully be seeing it shortly and writing a follow up to this.

EDIT: I love District 9 so hopefully this is as good.

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Game of Thrones Red Wedding and Ancient Greek Xenia

WARNING MAJOR SPOILERS: If you have not watched Season 3 Episode 9 and care about being surprised, do not read any further!

So I’m a bit of a Game of Thrones fan which is probably no surprise being that it draws some influence from the classical world, although probably more influence comes from the northern myths, stories, and legends. I found myself spending the last few days watching reactions to the last episode because they are completely hilarious (clip above).  I usually don’t write about obvious evidence of classical influence, but this particular episode brought up a very important theme in ancient literature and epic. This theme is known in Greek as xenia. Xenia is a common rule in ancient cultures of guest-friendship meaning that there is a certain expectation of safety and hospitality among travelers, guests, and hosts. There is also a cool small souvenir and novelty shop in Philly called Xenos (guest/foreigner) but that’s another story.  In Game of Thrones this custom was clearly not upheld as just about everyone who was a guest at the wedding was killed.

Breaking the customs of xenia has a tradition in ancient literature of leading to terrible things and usually huge wars which kill far more people than those involved in the original dispute. I have no doubt that this will be the case in Game of Thrones. This blog is not about my predictions for HBO television shows so I won’t go into them more than that, but what I know from reading ancient literature is that once the rules of xenia are broken, Pandora’s box is opened because those customs of trust are what made travel possible in the ancient world and were necessary to a functioning civilization. Once one side breaks the rules, all sides break the rules. This was so important that to violate xenia was actually insulting Zeus.

Side note: The documentary Craigslist Joe is an experiment in modern American xenia.

Some examples in Ancient Greek literature of breaking these rules are as follows.

  1. The Trojan War- Yes the Trojan War started as a result of a breach of hospitality. This was opposite of the Red Wedding though in that the guest was the perpetrator. Paris stole Menelaus’ wife while he was a guest at Menelaus’ house; whether Helen went willingly or not has always seemed irrelevant to me.
  2. The Odyssey- Xenia is all over this story as it is basically an epic of travel. The most important in my mind is that of Odysseus’ house in which the suitors were demanding things beyond the custom; this doesn’t end well for them.
  3. Euripides Alcestis– This entire play is based on the importance of xenia. Alcestis’ husband Admetus was such a great host that Apollo convinced the Fates to allow him to live past his given time of death.  Ademtus is so devoted to the custom of hospitality that he betrays the last wishes of his dying wife in order to be a good host to the famous Heracles.
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This week I would like to talk a little about legal terms, but more so about The Big Bang Theory. I know that this is not a new episode, but I saw it again recently and thought it perfect to write about. In this episode Sheldon must go to traffic court because he was caught on a traffic cam running a red light while driving Penny to the hospital. His first use of Latin as he approaches the judge is to tell him that he is appearing in pro se, or in representation of himself.  Se is the reflexive pronoun referring back to the invisible subject of this sentence, Sheldon.  Continuing his great use of classical rhetoric and a three legged argument, Sheldon states that he will argue the legal doctrine of quod est necessarium est licitum, “That which is necessary is legal.”  The first thing I must do is applaud the pronunciation as he used the hard “c” in both necessarium and licitum. While this defense has in fact worked in certain cases throughout history, it did not work for Sheldon.  An interesting note about this though is that I cannot find an origin for the Latin phrase in Ancient Rome (if someone finds one please let me know). Instead it seems to be one of those things that has come about and translated into Latin to give it more prestige.  I must say I was very disturbed while trying to find an origin by the overwhelming number of Law websites, journals, and other publications which said quad instead of quod, a word which doesn’t even exist in the Latin paradigm of qui, quae, quod.

Sorry for the short post this week, but there was not a lot to say about this since it didn’t in fact have an ancient origin I could find, and I didn’t have a lot of time today. I will be back with a bigger post next week.

Big Bang Theory: Quod Est Necassarium Est Licitum

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Cosmo Magazine and Ovid’s Ars Amatoria: Sex hasn’t changed in 2,000 years

I’m not going to lie, I find Cosmo to be a hilarious magazine and it became even more hilarious the second I realized that Cosmo is just the modern, female, version of Ovid’s Ars Amatoria. Ovid’s “Art of Love” is basically a guide to love, sex, adultery, etc. Contrary to popular opinion Ovid didn’t just gear his work towards men, rather, it also includes advice for women. The work is broken into three parts which would be found commonly in a magazine like Cosmo. Book 1 is about how to find a woman, book 2 how to keep her, and book 3 is about how women can obtain and keep a man in love. The book is a bit racy, in fact so racy it got Ovid exiled, or maybe it was just that little thing about Julia’s adultery, whatever it was, the poet calls it “a poem and a mistake.”

Ovid’s book is not just about sex, but also includes little things that can be done to keep someone interested. My favorite piece of advice Ovid gives is one that is also covered very regularly in Cosmo, the waiting game. This is basically how to make someone miss you, but not be gone for too long. In modern Cosmo terms that might be considered the three day rule of calling someone or “do you” which apparently translates to leaving time for yourself and not forgetting your friends. It is incredible to me that nothing really has changed in relationships in two thousand years.

Of course there is always the sex part of Cosmo and Ars Amatoria. Both pieces of literature (I use that term loosely) express advice on the physical nature of the relationship. This can be found in every issue of Cosmo and usually is full of things a lot of men might disagree with, but they’re the experts not me. As I went to the website for “research” for this post I found an article titled “The Sexy Body Parts Your Not Using Enough.” This turned out to be an article on how women should use their legs in bed. This reminded me greatly of a line in the Ars Amatoria where Ovid claims that tall women should not straddle their lovers: “quod erat longissima, numquam Thebais Hectoreo nupta resedit equo” (Book 3, ll 778).  This translates very roughly to “because she was taller, the Theban bride (refers to Andromache) never sat on Hector.” I left out the word equo which just describes Hector as a horse, yes that probably has the same meaning as when Cosmo refers to a man as a horse.

The only thing that might differ between Ovid and Cosmo is that Ovid never wrote a useless article like, “What did his weekend texts really mean.”   Although you can bet if text messages existed, Ovid would’ve written about it. Everything else seems to line up pretty well. I’m sure you’ve read Cosmo so if you don’t believe me that nothing has changed, pick up a copy of Ovid and see for yourself.

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Magic in the Woods: Disney Princesses, Once Upon a Time, and Rex Nemorensis

                I recently saw a meme about Disney Princess and it said something like “I need to spend more time in the woods because that’s where all of the good men are.” I thought this was funny because I am a bit of an outdoors man and spend a lot of time in the woods, but then I thought about it and realized that most of the Disney Princesses do find their magic in the woods. This is not a theme only in Disney, however. Since ancient times magic has been found in dark wooded areas and often under great sleep deprivation. Some scholars believe this is due to the effects of sleep deprivation or hypothermia like hallucinations causing people to actually believe they experienced things beyond the realm of daily non-magical life. The following are a few classical examples of this phenomenon some of which you may find to be related.

                The first, and probably most obvious, is that Vergil’s character Aeneas had to go deep into the woods and search for a golden bough in order to gain entrance into the underworld. I have been in the cave in Cumae, Italy that is said to be the entrance to the underworld (my prof kind of ruined the magic for me by saying it was most likely a military defensive establishment to guard the temples at the top of the hill). It is easy to see when on sight that this would be a very dark place and in ancient days would have been surrounded by dark forests.

                A fundamental myth of the forest is the story of the Rex Nemorensis (king of the forest). This tradition, according to Sir James George Frazer, is the basis of many myths (note: some scholars argue strongly against his views). The myth has its roots in Nemi a small town with a very dark lake surrounded by dark forests. The area is sacred to the goddess Diana who has been mentioned before in this blog. Anyway, the tradition is given by Frazer as follows:

“In this sacred grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of day, and probably far into the night, a grim figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if at every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest and having slain him, he retained office till he was himself slain by a stronger or craftier” (Frazer, Golden Bough, p. 1).

While this story is not exactly magical, it has been transformed into many magical myths and shows the roots of our modern obsession with magic taking place in the woods or with characters deprived of sleep. This story is also visited in the show Once Upon a Time as Rumpelstiltskin gains his power from the dark one in a tale almost exactly the same as this one.

                The point is that we often see today, especially in Disney and fairy tale type movies, that magic takes place in the forest. Even the princess from the Princess and the Frog finds her magic and her love in the depths of the woods. This is not a modern invention, but instead a theme that runs deep into ancient times. I hope that having read this, you will look for this theme in a variety of movies and shows and comment on this post with the many examples that exist in today’s pop culture.

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Diana imagery in Grace Potter & The Nocturnals “Never Go Back”

This video provides a stark contrast between the civilized and the barbaric (interesting side note that the word barbarian comes from the Romans who claimed that anyone who couldn’t speak Latin just said bar bar bar bar). Roman writers especially historians and ethnographers, were obsessed with the contrast between their great civilized world and the barbaric tribes around them.  Authors including Caesar, Tacitus, Plutarch, Diodorus and many others wrote at length about the barbarianism of the Gauls and Germans. This video is designed to give a similar perspective.

The girl depicted represents what is pure. She is good and civilized, in her neo-classical home, playing classical music on her cello. Everything she does represents civilization and everything the barbarian children enter the home and do is anti-civilization. At one point a barbarian picks up a wine glass and looks at it in a funny manner then throws it. Tacitus might find this amusing as he described the terrible tribes of Germany drinking unmixed wine. Wine in the ancient days (Greek and Roman) was mixed with water sort of as an additive to water to purify the not so great stagnant drinking water (this is supported by a passage in Homer’s Odyssey but I cannot find the passage, if someone does please post it in the comments). The barbarians of the ancient days could not make music, music was poetry and they couldn’t speak Latin so that wouldn’t work. This is represented in the video by the anti-civilization act of throwing the cello over the balcony.

My favorite classical reference in this video is the girl herself, however.  The moment she pulled out the bow and arrow aiming it at the barbarians and then changing her civilized ways, was the moment I decided this needed to be posted. Whenever I see a woman archer especially one depicted as an innocent young girl I immediately think of the huntress Diana. Diana is virginal and protects children. She is the epitome of the chaste, civilized, innocent lifestyle. This video grabs me though as the image of the archer quickly turns to the means for her lack of civilization. She shoots the flaming arrow into the wall of the house lighting the house on fire and joining the ranks of the barbarian children. She sheds civilization.

Interestingly the song talks about never going back presumably to the man who was barbaric and wrong, but the girl in the video does. It seems to represent the ease with which we can return to dark things, but at the same time extols this lifestyle as a good way of living. The video ends as the girl runs off into the wilderness. This dichotomy is the perfect Diana comparison.

I see the girl in the video as a very Diana type figure. She has the class of a goddess, but the earthiness of the huntress. Diana held reign in the sky and earth. The girl in this music video holds reign over civilization to which she is accustomed, but when the opportunity presents itself she finds her place on earth among nature. More interesting yet is that Diana, according to Frazer’s Golden Bow, is probably one of the oldest deities coming from the Indo-European tradition which means she is present in both the civilized religion of the Romans and the barbaric religion of the rest of Europe.

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Salvete!

             I recently graduated from a university with a degree in Classics. This is my answer to the persistent question which all classicists know well. “What are you gonna do with that?” I have spent years studying dead languages, ancient history, and ancient cultures. I am constantly asked how my education is relevant and what I was thinking in an economy like this going into a field like that. I answer this with words attributed to Horace, “Eram quod es, eris quod sum.” This translates into English as, “I was what you are, you will be what I am.” These words have been etched into gravestones in many parts of the world in every point in history. Yes, they come from the same author who brought you the ever mistranslated “Carpe Diem” (that is a topic for another day).

                What I aim to do in this blog is point out things I notice in my day to day life as classical references. Another writer said to me recently that nothing can be completely original anymore; there is only an original way of looking at it.  I agree. The biggest proof is this never ending trend of comic book superhero movies. The world wants remakes and adaptations, but that is not a new trend. Writers have been borrowing from the classics forever. I must write a small disclaimer here before hate mail floods the comments: I am in no way against remaking and adapting anything for a new purpose. I am simply pointing out classical references. No one is stealing, copping out, being a bad artist, or cheating by using classics (sometimes it is not even intentional). I admire it and thus I point it out. 

                This is not simply about movies, T.V. shows, or music. I will write on any, but not all, references I hear, see, make, etc. My point is not to display every classical reference ever; that would be impossible. I will just jot down the things I notice and write about the ones which I find most interesting. I hope you find a love for the classics and will send along topics about which you want me to write.

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Statuary in Jay-Z and Kanye: No Church In The Wild

This video was brought to my attention by a friend who writes the blog musictomyeyez.tumblr.com. For a cinematic analysis of the video check out that blog, it is very well written; he does make mention of the classical references, but his focus is more on the film aspects. Here, I am just going to look at these references from the classical point of view.

My favorite reference is one that Matt also mentions, the use of a statue which is supposed to look like Bernini’s Rape of Persephone. This statue can be found in the Villa Borghese in Rome, Italy and is something that anyone remotely interested in art or mythology must see. I saw it while I was studying in Rome and it was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. The use of it in this video is great as the story behind the statue has a strong link to the message of the song. The story comes to us from The Homeric Hymn To Demeter. The myth is that Hades took Persephone out of the meadow she was playing in as a little girl and brought her to the underworld to be his queen. There are variations of this stories and varying theories about the willingness of Persephone to go, but it is commonly taken as a message of stealing youth and creating the sadness of Demeter which formed the four season year to which a lot of civilizations are accustomed.  The song, to me, is directly about the occupy movement and possibly the struggles in the Middle East and Northern Africa (at least the Jay-z parts are, Matt explains this). The link for me to Persephone, however, is that it is more and more the case that younger generations wish to stay young and protected longer. The occupy movement comprised mostly of recent college graduates is about security and protection in our political and societal system. The link to Persephone suggests that our society is stealing our youth. This is partly my personal bias as I watch kids give up sports, music, theater, and other childhood fun in order to get ahead in their field so they can secure a job in today’s economy.

There are many great uses of Ancient Greek Gods and Goddesses in this video, but I will focus on only a couple more. The use of Nike (goddess of victory) at 2:38 is very tentative as we have just seen an image of a car being flipped over, then a man is hauled down by police and held to the ground, and then back to a car which has been lit on fire by the mob. It is almost as if the question is being posed, “Which is truly victory?” At 3:32 the horses shown very briefly are, in my opinion, the chariots of justice. This is a statue which has been re-purposed all over the world. The video depicts only the horses which could be yet another question, “Who is pulling justice’s chariot?” Later at 4:26 a police officer is kicked off of the same statue which answers this question by saying the people are pulling the chariot and maybe even the people are the chariot of justice. Matt also analyzes the use of Athena so I will not do that here except to add that Athena is often accepted as a goddess of only defensive warfare and therefore she is a better image of this protest because protests are often about maintaining rights not taking them. This image shows that the people are being attacked and simply defending themselves from the brutality of the police. Overall, these references are a great use of Ancient Greek Mythology and Art to convey a modern message.  Huzzah for the survival of the Classics.

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