Mapping Greek myths

Dr Ben Swift from the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, and Dr Greta Hawes, from the ANU Centre for Classical Studies in the ANU Centre for Digital Humanities Research's Digital Humanities Laboratory.

The Greek mythic world is a messy place. Depending on which account you read, the twin gods Apollo and Artemis were born on the islands of either Delos, Ortygia, or Paximadia. Helen of Troy had two tombs – one near Sparta, the other on Rhodes – and she was also said to live as an immortal on the White Island, as wife of Achilles. And Prometheus either created the first human out of clay or he didn't; gave humans fire or returned it to them.

“It was a collective production: in antiquity, anyone could tell these stories, anyone could tell slightly different versions of these stories,” explains Dr Greta Hawes, a scholar in Classical Studies at the ANU.

“Unlike Tolkien, who sat down and wrote and re-wrote until he came up with a coherent model for Middle Earth, the Greek mythic world was created by generations of storytellers scattered across the Mediterranean.”

Dr Hawes is leading a project that will make stark the inconsistencies in Greek mythology and map the stories in a completely unique way. She's working with fellow Classicists, scholars of Digital Humanities, and Dr Ben Swift from the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science.

The project, she says, was borne of a frustration she had, shared by others who also research and teach Greek myths, that they don't have good tools for organising all the data the myths entail. They similarly lack the resources needed to properly communicate that data to students and the general public.

The other catalyst for the project was that there has never been a better time to find a solution to this problem.

"I shared these frustrations with Katrina Grant and Terhi Nurmikko-Fuller in Digital Humanities, and they really opened my eyes to the fact that we are in the right moment now to build the kind of resources we want, simply because we have this digital sphere which allows us to work in really flexible and large-scale ways,” Dr Hawes says. "Their support and encouragement has been crucial to getting this project off the ground."

Enter Dr Swift, a self-described “unusually gregarious computer scientist”.

“Ben came highly recommended from my colleagues in the ANU Centre for Digital Humanities Research,” Dr Hawes says. “He has a really good reputation as someone who is very good at translating between what people in the humanities need and the kinds of tools and methodologies Computer Science can offer to make their jobs easier.”

Dr Swift had about the same level of exposure as the average person to Greek myths when he came on board.

“I had a book of myths and legends when I was a kid, and I loved the stories of Jason and the Argonauts, Thor, and the Mount Olympus Pantheon,” he says.

“Because of the place the Greek mythological story world has in Western literature, I've been finding myself discovering I know more than I thought I knew.”

Greek mythology, Dr Hawes says, was thought to have been a world which existed in the Mediterranean but at an earlier period in history.

“It's basically the deep history of Greek civilisation,” she adds.

“By the historical period in Greece, you have a landscape which is dotted with ruins that seemed utterly remarkable – beyond the realm of what people of the time were building. You have these massive stone fortifications – how do you explain them? Well, you have a story about how these great giants called Cyclopes came along and built them.”

Or, she continues, you have a story from Thebes that a lyre-playing hero charmed the stones into moving into those configurations.

Dr Swift suddenly interjects: “Wait... Thor is Norse mythology, right?”

“Yeah, that's right,” Dr Hawes confirms, laughing.

“You've gotta pull me up on this stuff!” Dr Swift replies.

“I just assumed you were having me on!”


Thinking about all the dimensions and facets of Greek mythology that the project is going to map is anxiety-provoking. Somehow, all these elements will be captured and represented: geography, chronology, relationships between characters – and more besides.

So the question is, what will the platform or interface look like?

“The answer is, it's going to look like lots of different tools,” Dr Hawes replies.

“From the beginning, it was clear that we're not dealing with something that we can map in one way.”

The complexity of the project makes Google Maps appear straightforward. Its different categories of data – street view, satellite view, navigation – manage to exist as different layers on the one plane. But the Greek mythological world?

“You can imagine the nature and the different layers you can show on a map of Greek myth, and maybe more than just layers over the top of one another,” says Dr Swift. “There are ways of mapping things that highlight spatial geography, but there are others that highlight the relationships between people, the movement and flow of people and things, the change of things over time...”

In short, he says, there's not going to be one view which gives a user the full picture.

“But by looking at it from different angles and by presenting different views on this data, we'll be able to build up a richer picture,” Dr Swift concludes.

“I can tell you what I'd like it to look like,” Dr Hawes says. “I think the landing page will be a large scale map of the outline of the Mediterranean.”

“The parts of this map that are really rich with mythic knowledge and events will glow in a way. They will draw the eye and look very detailed. But then large parts of the map will be almost dark; because those are the places which are almost not known to the Greek mythic imagination.”

As one starts to drill down, place names will begin to appear.

“Also at some level, we get away from the map,” Dr Hawes says. “I would like to see, for example, a map of Thebes which shows where we can make connections between, say, the mythic tombs that are talked about in literature and some of the archaeological remains that have been excavated.”

Another tool Drs Hawes and Swift want to have within this platform: dynamic family trees.

“If you want to know about a certain figure, you should be able to bring up their family tree,” Dr Hawes says.

“But of course the family trees we're working with aren't easy because you have a single hero who might have disputed parentage; two different traditions saying his father has two different names. Parthenogenesis is also common: where a woman basically gives birth without any DNA from a man. Or autochthony, where someone just springs out of the earth without any parents at all. Or for heroes to have three parents: the mother, her husband who is essentially the stepfather, and then the divine god who comes along and is actually the father of the hero.”

Clearly, there are challenges with digitising and visualising the mythic world.

“It has its own norms and its own essentially biological possibilities,” says Dr Hawes.

The project, ultimately, will reveal where the discrepancies and coherences lie within Greek mythology - of things like disputed parentage, but also things like different cities claiming to be the resting place for the one hero. It'll prompt new questions and old mysteries to be potentially solved.

“How common was it for heroes to have two tombs in antiquity?” Dr Hawes asks. “There's no way at the moment of quantifying that.”

“Is it for example the case that you always have two tombs that are claimed by cities that tend not to have good relationships with each other? Is this always actually about fighting about other matters, which tends to show up with two tombs?”

Dr Swift adds: “The inconsistencies are salient and they tell us things about the way that the real world works.”

“So the whole sort of tagline for this project is: ‘More data, better organised, lets you ask bigger questions',” Dr Hawes says.


The project, which started in 2018, picked up pace in January 2019 with a pilot programme which offered six students from ANU and across Australia the chance to work on the project with Dr Hawes and her colleague from the Centre for Classical Studies, Prof. Em. Elizabeth Minchin. The six were all studying Classical Studies, but brought a grounding in other disciplines too.

Their three-week internship was partly-funded by the Classics Endowment Fund and made use of the excellent facilities of the new Digital Humanities Lab, which was created last year using an ANU Major Equipment Grant and funding from RSHA. What the students did during it, Dr Hawes explains, was “extract the messiness from Greek literature factual assertions, which they captured as data points”. In short, they lifted facts from the texts that are the focus of the project, and plugged them into a database, which will form the foundation of the platform.

The two texts that the project is concerned with in its pilot phase are the 'Catalogue of Ships', from Homer's Iliad, and TheLibrary, a prose mythography attributed to Apollodorus.

The 'Catalogue of Ships' features a long description of the Greek heroes who fought in the Trojan War and where they came from. The Library was written around 1,000 years after Homer by a Greek scholar living in the Roman Empire and tries to do what Dr Hawes' team is trying to do now: capture all of Greek myth and present it in a coherent way.

“We think of this as a really innovative project in some ways, because it's doing things that other people haven't done previously,” Dr Hawes says. 

“But actually, it can only exist because there's been two decades of really good, thorough, committed scholarship in Classics and Digital Humanities, which has produced a whole series of tools we can now make use of.

“This project, as all things do, stands on the shoulders of giants.”

A Research School of Humanities and the Arts (RSHA) cross-college collaboration grant and RSHA visitor funding in 2018 provided the seed funding to put together an investigatory team spanning Classics, Digital Humanities, Design, and Cartography at ANU. It also allowed the team to explore international collaborations, like joining forces with Prof. Scott Smith from the University of New Hampshire, who has already pioneered a number of approaches to mapping mythic small, and Associate Professor Elton Barker, from the Open University in the UK, a leader in Digital Humanities within ancient world studies. 

This team, along with several undergraduate students from ANU and the University of New Hampshire will meet up at a workshop hosted by Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies in July. They hope the workshop will facilitate further collaborations.

This is only the beginning of the project, but possibly the start of something big. For now, Dr Hawes wants to get the back-end of the digital platform right. When the pilot project is complete, they will hopefully have both an authoritative scholarly tool and one that could be used by a member of the general public to get a sense of what the tradition was like. But they're not placing limits on the potential of their work.

“Once we build this platform, it can be used for many different uses,” Dr Hawes says. “Ones we can't even conceive of at the moment.”

The project will host another group of student intern this winter, supported by a CASS Small Research Grant. Applications for that round are now being accepted.

“This is a really exciting initiative to open up research to undergraduate students and show them how a big, international and interdisciplinary project is built from the ground up.”