St. Ignatius of Loyola said, “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man.” Career coaches use the question “What were your three favourite activities as a child?” to help people focus on finding a job that sparks the same joy as a child at play. The impact of these formative years before the age of eight cannot be overlooked: they help set the stage for lifelong interests and establish a firm foundation of knowledge.
It was around this age that my mother introduced me to Greek and Roman mythology. I immersed myself in the classical world, going from D’Aulaire’s beautifully illustrated collection of myths for children to the more adult Bulfinch’s Mythology and Hamilton’s Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes.
With the benefit of hindsight, throwing myself into particle physics, engineering, or the financial markets may have been more lucrative in the long run. Because the myths stuck. They burrowed into my subconscious with alacrity and I can still tell you how narcissists got their name or outline the family tree of Bellerophon. Watching The Great Greek Myths on Amazon as an adult means that MrElaineous has to deal with the occasional interjection of “That’s not what happened!” as the French production puts a very French spin on its retelling of the classics.
In practical terms, the results of this childhood exposure were twofold. I grew up to study archaeology at Bryn Mawr College, where Edith Hamilton herself once taught. It also exposed me to powerful narrative structures and story-telling tropes from a young age. It is no wonder that it was archaeological interpretation that captured my interest as a graduate student, where facts, figures, and hypotheses about the past are woven together into stories that form a coherent whole. I also view modern films and television shows with a critical eye if they violate the rules of good story telling as established by authors from over two millennia ago (honestly, I’m amazed and grateful that MrElaineous puts up with my various entertainment-related criticisms and nit-picking).
All of this is to say that my recent visit to Longleat’s Festival of Light felt like a reunion with old friends. The theme this year is Myths and Legends, and a replica of the Greek Parthenon greets visitors on the front lawn of Longleat House. This is billed as the Land of the Gods, and it houses Zeus, Poseidon, Aphrodite channeling Marilyn Monroe from The Seven-Year Itch, and a vampy Medusa with Perseus before he strikes the fatal blow. Apollo, the original golden boy, is there with his chariot and horses to pull the sun across the sky, and even the Minotaur in his labyrinth* decorated with Cretan designs makes an appearance. Beyond is the volcanic Underworld, with Hades and Persephone, three-headed hellhound Cerberus and ferryman Charon, and Heracles battling the hydra.
Chinese lanterns are used to recreate these iconic figures: fabric is stretched over a frame and lit from within to create fabulous colours and shapes. As you may have guessed from the name, they have their origins in China, where lanterns have been made for over 2000 years. Designs made from bamboo and silk have given way to their more modern and robust counterparts, but they are still made in the same Chinese regions and are still as magical as they must have been millennia ago.
This was the fourth year that MrElaineous and I had visited the park for the event, and it has become a large part of our birthdaversary celebrations. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to experience illuminations at a number of different sites: last year’s Alice-themed outing at Sudeley Castle set the stage for a year of Alice in Wonderland events. Christmas at Kew provided an introduction to this magnificent garden. But one of the reasons Longleat remains a must-see favourite is because of the changes that it makes: each year is different and each year they up their game.
This year, for example, mesmerising projections on the front of Longleat House mirrored the mythical theme. The formal flower garden behind the house was re-christened the Garden of Monsters and it was the setting for various beasties from around the world. The British Jack the Giant Killer rubbed shoulders with Anansi the spider from African folklore, an ogre, and a yeti. The Nordic myths were well represented as a kraken attacked a Viking longboat in one of the estate’s ponds, and the god Thor was locked in battle with Jörmungandr, the world serpent.
A hypnotising tunnel of stars led to land full of leprechauns and fairies, while Scheherazade and the 1001 Arabian Nights set the scene for more exotic tales. The Four Constellations, characters in Chinese mythology who MrElaineous and I were originally introduced to through Kung-Fu Panda: Paws of Destiny (don’t judge, it’s very good!), were beautifully designed and ended up being my favourite lanterns. A tunnel of unicorns completed the celebration of all things mythical because, well, why not?
If you’ve never visited the Festival of Light, you’re in for a real treat. If it’s been a few years, consider making a return trip. Indeed, consider making this an annual tradition: your inner child will thank you.
TIPS FOR VISITORS:
- BOOK EARLY: The popularity of the Festival of Light is such that weekends regularly sell out well in advance, so make sure to plan your trip at least a full month or more before you intend to go.
- BOOK THURSDAY: The Festival of Light is typically held on weekend nights and this was the first year I noticed the offer of “Lantern Lates”. These Thursday night slots are cheaper than the standard tickets because the safari park is closed, but this meant that there were far fewer people than usual. If you can visit on a weekday night, I wholeheartedly recommend it. [Please note: the Lantern Lates are done for 2019, but fingers crossed they continue next year].
- DRESS WARMLY: The weather this year was warmer than the past few years: I could still feel all of my body parts by the time we left. However, I was also wearing approximately four layers of clothing. It can get very cold wandering the grounds for several hours after dark, so please dress appropriately. And consider investing in one of my favourite gadgets of 2019: a rechargeable handwarmer.
- WAIT UNTIL DARK: It is worth waiting until an hour after the lights are switched on to see the lanterns in their full glory. Or consider going around twice to see the complete transformation from fabric to fabulousness.
Regarding labyrinths, I must commend Longleat for changes made to the layout this year that meant that there was no need to double back on yourself in certain areas. Each part of the display flowed into each other and there was no longer any feeling of being caught in a maze.