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Bringing Greek Myth Into British Sign Language

Written by Liz Gloyn |

Dr. Liz Gloyn reports on her on-going partnership with visual artist Howard Hardiman to retell Greek myth in BSL.

One thing that classicists know is the power of myth. So many of our students and the general public first encounter and come to love the classics through the stories of Greece and Rome; the continued popularity of retellings of myth, both classics like those of Robert Graves and the D’Aulaires and more contemporary versions like Stephen Fry’s recent Mythos and Troy, speak to the strength that myth still has, both in terms of cultural capital and narrative force. But what if these stories aren’t accessible to you?


BSL chart


While the Greek myths have been translated into multiple languages, as far as I am aware there are so far no attempts to make them accessible in British Sign Language. According to the British Deaf Association, 151,000 people in the UK use BSL, and 87,000 of them are Deaf; for many, BSL will be their first or preferred language. I have been working in partnership with Howard Hardiman to create video pieces of performance poetry in BSL which tell stories based on classical myth, and thus make these stories accessible to an audience which uses BSL. Our work also seeks to highlight that we can only ever know classical myths in translation, by reanimating the narrative through the physicality of a silent language.

Our previous collaboration produced two videos, one capturing the transformation of Harmonia and Cadmus into serpents [] and the other offering a long-form retelling of the Callisto myth []. The experience of working together in preparing these videos and working with the Deaf actors who performed them helped us learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t; for instance, the Callisto piece was far too long, while the focus of the Harmonia/Cadmus piece on a single element of the myth, spoken by Harmonia, had much better pacing and energy. We also wanted to give the language used a suitably archaic tone, which led to some fascinating discussions; the sign for ‘king’ uses the shape of a modern crown, which was totally inappropriate for archaic Greece, so we needed to come up with a way of communicating ‘king’ using the flexibility and responsiveness of BSL.

Retelling labyrinth myth

Our approach for these pieces had been to create an English working script and then consult with the Deaf actors about the text to turn it into a BSL script. We decided this wasn’t the best way to approach the issue, and instead wanted to produce both a working English script and a roughed-out BSL script, performed by Howard, as a basis for creating a more polished performance piece. The ICS Public Engagement Grant supported the development of this working script for a short monologue spoken by the Minotaur in the Labyrinth at some point before meeting Theseus; the result is available at []. 


Pasiphae vase


Our academic collaboration for this piece focused on the nature of thread and spinning in the ancient world, which became the dominant imagery for exploring the story and the nature of the labyrinth and myth itself. We also worked on developing a visual lexicon for the Minotaur story itself, invoking the wonderful vase painting of Pasiphae breastfeeding the Minotaur on her knee (Paris BnF inv. no. 1066), which fed into both the story and the BSL used to express it.

Our next step will be to work with a Deaf artist to create a formal performance piece, although the COVID-19 pandemic and our personal circumstances mean that will have to happen a little further in the future than we had hoped. We hope to continue collaborating to create a good video library of stories from classical Greek myth, and to explore ways of sharing these with the BSL-using community in the future.