Spotlight #22: Glyn Smyth (Stag & Serpent) on his dark illustrations

FAMP Art is one of those names you wish you’d discovered earlier: the New York based company specializes in officially licensed, limited edition screen-printed movie posters. On December 12th FAMP Art will host its first exhibition at the Bottleneck Gallery in New York called The Labours of Hercules. The show will focus on the 12 labour that Hercules conquered according to Greek Mythology. 13 artists have created exclusive prints based on the theme for the show, and today I have the chance to exclusively reveal the crowning jewel of the show: Hercules, depicted by Glyn Smyth (Stag & Serpent).

As a regular Bleaq visitor you might know I love Glyn’s work (you can read and earlier feature here) and was of course happy and excited to show one of his new creations for the first time ever. Glenn was so kind to share the full story behind his latest work, including a video of him screen-printing the poster. Enjoy!

Bleaq: Hi! For those who’ve missed the introduction in the earlier Bleaq feature: could you introduce yourself and your work shortly?
GS: My name is Glyn Smyth and I am artist, illustrator and printmaker based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. My primary focus is on the fields of folklore, myth and magick expressed through my studio identity as “Stag & Serpent”.

If you had to tell somebody about your work and are only allowed to show one piece or series what would you show and why?
GS: That’s certainly a tough question. I’m constantly being exposed to new (or re-discovering very old) influences and I find these quickly end up absorbed and expressed in whatever I happen to be working on at the time… often unconsciously until after the work is finished I may add. As a result of this and from a desire to experiment I think my work tends to shift around stylistically a fair bit. The “Savage Mistress” design which I often use as an avatar perhaps shows one of my more cohesive attempts at melding these various influences.

‘Hercules – Labores Solis’, exclusive screenprint

Glyn printing ‘Hercules – Labores Solis’

In December FAMP Art will host a special show at the Bottleneck Gallery in New York. The show is called The Labours of Hercules, and you’ve created the portrait of Hercules, the crowning jewel of the show. Can you tell a bit more about the show and your piece?
GS: The show chronicles ‘The Labours Of Hercules”, one of the most famous tales in Classical mythology. 12 different artists, each depicting one of these seemingly impossible tasks. In addition to this, a 13th artist would depict Hercules himself – a responsibility bestowed upon me by Alex at FAMP Art. I was already quite familiar with other strands of ancient Greek and Roman myth, but admit I had only a vague familiarity of the 12 Labours of Hercules before I started my research for the show. I was aware that Hercules (or Heracles as he’s known in the earlier Greek tales) was widely considered a divine being (as the son of Zeus he is literally a demigod) and not simply a “hero”. The teachings of Greek mystery schools permeate their myths. and I decided to concentrate my efforts in favour of something that represented these ideas hidden below the surface of the story. In addition I felt that the basic “solar + male” attributes of Hercules would be a nice counterpoint to the “lunar + female” attributes often found in a lot of my other work.

Rather than try and repeat the basic story, I would suggest those unfamiliar with the tale to have a quick glance at the Heracles Wikipedia page which does an excellent job.

There’s a few aspects of the myth I became preoccupied with whilst working on the piece.

(i) Serpent symbolism within the story.

The jealous goddess Hera (herself often depicted as a snake in archaic form, not to mention sometimes being credited as being the mother of the monstrous, serpentine Typhon) is arguably the most important character in Hercules’ life – even his name means “Glory of Hera”. Hera, infuriated by the existence of her husbands illegitimate child sends two snakes to murder Heracles shortly after his birth. The infant dispatches them easily and this scene is frequently depicted in ancient sculpture. Rather than a mere display of strength, one interpretation is that this represents a slaying of the duality inherent in man, the story being one of transcendence from the mundane to the divine. Hercules also conquers the snake-headed Hydra and slays the serpentine dragon Ladon. In another tale related by Herodotus, he also becomes the consort and the father to children of the Scythian Echidna – a beautiful “she-viper” who lives at the edges of the earth (and who I’ve chosen to depict in another small print for the show). Serpent symbolism in antiquity is often ambiguous, but a recurring motif is one of transformation and renewal (as a snake sheds its skin) and I feel that this may lie at the heart of these tales.

(ii) Celestial symbolism with the story.

Although the earliest accounts of the story feature only 10 labours, a common interpretation of the Labours posits them as representing the movement of the Sun through the 12 houses of the Zodiac, in turn representing the path of the initiate unto enlightenment. In one tale, the Milky Way is formed by milk splashing from Hera’s breast as she rips the infant Hercules from it (Zeus tricks Hera into feeding his son). It’s difficult not to discern the symbolism inherent in these tales – the narratives don’t seem to work when taken at face value.

Another interesting fact that came to light during my reading was the idea that a solar eclipse may have heralded the birth of Hercules (at 6.51am on September 7th, 1251 BC to be precise)! Again, this ties in with the ever present serpent symbolism:

“A Latin term for an eclipse of the Sun was “labores solis”, translated “the Sun’s labor”, when the Sun is occluded by the Moon. Hercules as an infant strangled two snakes or serpents. The two serpents might relate to the nodes of the Moon which were termed dragons or serpents in the ancient Vedic tradition; North Node is called Rahu, South Node is Ketu, eclipses occur when there is a conjunction between one of the Nodes and the Sun or Moon. Hercules in lion-skin would be the Sun” – Anne Wright

This clarified the image forming in my head. Instead of Hercules standing under a blazing sun by the Aegean sea, he was now simultaneously bathed in light and darkness. The solar eclipse was perhaps representative of the “midnight sun” (or “Sol Niger”) known to the alchemists. A young, pre-labours Hercules (my depiction based on ancient bronze statues of Greek athletes) stands at the threshold. He does not yet wield his famous club or wear the skin of the Nemean Lion – this is all ahead of him. Between the the twin pillars of initiation, the midnight sun blazing down on him he gazes towards the East where the true sun will rise. Behind him to the West, we see a vision of his funeral pyre with one serpent rising from the embers, another coiled within the earth below. He stands at a place outside of time, between life and death as an eternal symbol.

‘Hercules – Labores Solis’, close-up

Speaking of Hercules: your work contains a lot of referrals to mythology, folklore and magick. What is it about these subjects that fascinate you?
GS: For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of myth is its amorphous nature. These tales change over time and mean different things to different cultures. For some this is problematic, prompting an endless debate over the historic “reality” of a myth versus it’s intended symbolic message. There can be a tendency towards reductionism – implying myth is little more than primitive science, an attempt to explain a world otherwise inexplicable to our distant forebearers. Trying to dissect mythology in this way is an exercise in futility, and perhaps misses the point entirely. I feel these stories operate on many different levels and would argue that the fundamental structures of the most ancient tales have many lessons for us in “spiritual” terms. I would lean towards the ideas of Carl Jung in this regard… that these myths are timeless and are an integral part of the human condition as opposed to mere relics from cultures past.

My views on Magick are similar, in that it’s best essentially viewed as a framework for personal development – “consciousness technology” if you will. These topics are open to endless debate but I would agree with Alan Moore’s assertion that any work of art is to some degree an act of Magick.



‘Celestite’, 2014, limited edition poster for Wolves in the Throne Room

You’ve often created work for underground metal bands and events. How important is music for you as an artist? Is your work influenced by music as well?
GS: Music has always been a source of inspiration for me, and I do tend to listen to a lot of it on a daily basis. Recently this has mainly been a lot of dark ambient and electronic music rather than metal as such – but this varies depending on my mood or even the weather! Whilst I still undertake client projects for bands, my main influences are almost exclusively historical visual and literary sources at this point.

Official festival poster for Doom Over Leipzig festival, 2015

Black Moon Rider

If you could choose one artist for a collaboration (dead or alive) who would it be and why?
GS: I’m not sure to be honest. I entertain enough self doubt when creating work that the idea of collaboration seems fraught with difficulty. Can I cheat and opt for a residency with Koloman Moser in 19th Century Vienna?

What’s the best museum or gallery exhibition you ever been to, and why did you pick this one?
GS: I went to see the “Witches & Wicked Bodies” exhibit at the Scottish National Gallery Of Modern Art in 2013. This was an incredible overview of the depictions of witchcraft over the last 500 years. There’s a great companion book to the exhibition (same title) which I recommend.

With social communities like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter around it’s almost impossible to not have an internet presence. How important is the internet for you as an artist?
GS: The internet is certainly a great resource. It’s quite easy to obtain a lot of reference and research without leaving the comfort of your own home. The growth of social media has enabled artists to find an audience without necessarily relying on galleries or publications for exposure. And you can sell your work directly through an online store without somebody else taking 40/50% commission. All of this is fantastic – no doubt about it. I really like Instagram – it’s particularly suited to keeping track of and discovering other artists. I hope to be more active on these platforms in the near future. Twitter mystifies me somewhat though…

‘Coldest Fire’, 2014

Hag Crown’, 2013, illustration for Bacchus

Last but not least: can you recommend a book, movie or artist you’ve enjoyed lately?
GS: I’ll give you one of each!

Book: “A Trojan Feast : The Food and Drink Offerings of Aliens, Faeries, and Sasquatch” by Joshua Cutchin.

Movie: “Salt Of The Earth”, directed by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado & Wim Wenders. A beautiful, haunting and inspirational look at the work of photographer Sebastião Salgado.

Artist : Niroot Puttapipat. So many good artists out there, so just picking one of my current favourites from the top of my Instagram feed. Crazily intricate and nuanced traditional illustration work reminiscent of Rackham et al.

Thanks a lot for the thoughtful questions, and thanks also to to Alex at FAMP Art for inviting me onboard. Hope people enjoy the show!

The Labours of Hercules will open on December 12th at the Bottleneck Gallery in Brooklyn, New York. You can find more information on the show on the FAMP Art blog or Facebook event.

That’s all for today, thanks for reading! A warm thank you to Glyn for taking the time to shed some light on his work and inspiration, and to Alex from FAMP Art to make the exclusive reveal possible. Have a nice weekend! :)

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