Sunday, 23 June 2013

The She-Cyclops on the Devon Hercules

I am doing this blog one-eyed (yes, Homer tells us that there were some female Cyclopes in other caves when Odysseus visited Polyphemus the Cyclops’ island). A routine opticians’ appointment turned into a whole day in the Eye Hospital because the retina attaching my left eyeball to my brain is now ‘latticed’ like a window or pie and they thought it was about to detach. I have been sent home with a ban on banging my head against the wall while listening to Black Sabbath. Worse, I have been told to cancel all future engagements in contact sports.

'Abraham Cann' ('the Devon Hercules') by Henry Caunter
This means that I will not be able personally to revive the ancient art of Devon Wrestling at a conference on Hercules in Leeds on Tuesday. My interest in this was inspired by a painting from 1846 of Abraham Cann, one of the last champions in Devon Wrestling, in which his achievements are compared with those of the Farnese Hercules. Devon rules were horrifically brutal, even permitting shin-kicking in shoes 'soaked in a bullock's blood and baked in a fire, making them hard as iron.'

Devon wrestling was therefore the equivalent of the ancient athletics event called the pancration or 'Beating your opponent by all available means', which allowed men to do absolutely anything to their opponent except attack their eyes and genitals. My fantasy is that the custom was left behind in the south-west of England by the ancient Greek explorer named Pytheas who
Pancration, Ancestor of Devon Wrestling
once sailed from the Mediterranean to Cornwall.

Cann was a Devon farmboy. His bouts, arranged at taverns, were notoriously rowdy, and attracted notably cross-class audiences including both gentlemen who provided the prize money and labouring men there for the drink and the display of testosterone.

'Hercules & Antaeus' by Lucas Cranach
The portrait of a touchingly curly haired Cann, by including the Farnese Hercules in the picture, on a base which depicts a classical wrestling match, implicitly equates the ancestral local custom with the sporting feats of ancient Greco-Roman heroes. But there is also a specific reference to Cann’s greatest victory when he won the title ‘Champion of the West of England’ in 1826. He defeated an enormous Cornish publican named James Polkinghorne by executing a full-body ‘throw’ to the astonishment of all onlookers. 

This invited a comparison with Hercules’ victory over the giant wrestler Antaeus, previously invincible, who was rejuvenated by his mother Earth every time he hit the floor. So Hercules held him off the ground for as long as it took for his energy to dissipate completely.

Cardinal Alessandro Farnese
Since it was rescued from the Baths of Caracalla in 1546, the Farnese Hercules has been one of the most widely recognized of all ancient statues. It got its names from its collector, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, but reproductions soon started to appear in the gardens, courtyards and dining rooms of the rich all over Europe.  It is now in the Naples Archaeological Museum.

Owning Hercules, Rich-Man Style
A similar reference to the statue is included in this other portrait, by Daniel Haringh, of a 17th-century Dutch goldsmith. The close parallel between the reproduction of the Farnese Hercules in these two paintings shows just how the social significance—the ‘cultural capital’-- of classical artefacts is contested in European art.  But Cann, who could never dream of owning expensive works of art, could actually experience what it felt like to be an insuperable classical hero, and take up the posture of the Farnese Hercules, in his own physical body. Whose Classics is it anyway?

[PS Although I won't alas be wrestling I will still be giving the paper at the conference, jointly with Dr Henry Stead. You can find out more about classical culture in body-building and wrestling on our project website Classics and Class, where we will soon publish a version of the paper].

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