Tuesday, September 10, 2019

You be my Hercules, I'll be your Athena.

So, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has told British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that he wants to help Johnson with the Herculean task of getting a Brexit deal, to be Athena to Johnson's Hercules. A number of commentators have taken this as a subtle jibe against Johnson, intended as a reference to Athena's intervention after Hercules went mad and killed his wife and children (or, according to the BBC, when she prevented him killing his family).

I love this image - Athena is so casual. 'Here I am, nothing to see here, just holding up the sky ...'
I actually don't think Varadkar's reference to being Athena to Johnson's Hercules is quite the dig some people are making it out to be, or at least not in the way they're taking it. 'Herculean tasks' refers to the Twelve Labours of Hercules, and there's a strong tradition in which Hercules was aided in his Labours by Athena (it's all over metopes of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, for instance - see the image above). That's surely what Varadkar means, rather than any reference to the less pleasant sides of Hercules' personality (e.g. his tendency to drunkenness, gluttony, public urination, and yes, going mad and killing his children).

But there is a dig is in the power dynamic implied. Ireland Athena to Britain's Hercules? Vardakar Athena to Johnson's Hercules? Ireland's goddess to the UK's demi-god? To judge from how Brexiters and government ministers have recently spoken about Ireland, they would conceive of it as being the other way round; they see Ireland as the weak neighbour, to be helped, patronised and pushed around by the UK. And that is Varadkar's subtle jibe at the UK, a reminder that, with the rest of the EU27 behind them, Ireland is in the best position its been in a thousand years to tell the other island to go fuck itself, and yes, they're going to have some fun with that.

Also, as Liz Gloyn says, if anyone ever offers to be your Athena, seriously consider running.

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