This past spring I received the news that I had been accepted to participate in a summer seminar at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens entitled “Myth on Site.” For those of you (probably most of you) unfamiliar with the world of Classics, suffice it to say that the ASCSA is a longstanding institution (est. 1881) of great importance to Greek and American culture at once. The ASCSA, as I have learned over the past 24 hours, contains three of the most extensive Classical Studies library collections in the world. To work here or to go to school here seems to mean the immersion of one’s self into a sort of fraternity; to attend the ASCSA is to build a home in Athens that will welcome you with open arms; a home to which you will want – ache – to return, to contribute. Those who work here speak of it with the faraway glint of a sacred shared experience lingering in their eyes. Already, 48 hours in, one cannot help but feel this sense in every marble stone and clay tile that makes up the school itself.
I sound dramatic, perhaps. Perhaps this is the highfalutin talk of those who hold a sentimentality for academia which others find gratuitous, smarmy, pretentious. But then again, perhaps you have never been to Greece; perhaps you have never been to Athens; perhaps you have never studied buildings and myths and people in libraries and bedrooms and living rooms across the sea only to find yourself one day wandering in the same streets of the same city as those buildings and myths and people. Athens is a city; Athens belongs to her people; she has traffic and noises and smells; she has street performers and peoples’ markets (λαϊκή αγορά); there are crowded buildings, bustling cafes, and so many people. But Athens is an ancient city, and you cannot escape its venerable age in any corner. There are archaeological sites in metro stations, ubiquitous fragments of ancient columns, pot sherds strewn about the ground along with common litter. And then, of course, there are immense temples, powerful reminders of their storied pasts; then, of course, the Acropolis; then, of course, the Propylaea; the temple to Athena Nike; the Erechtheion. But above it all, she looms: the Parthenon, a glorious spectacle of marble whose enigmatic architecture lends it the illusion of bouncing off of the acropolis itself; its marbles stolen; its columns exploded by gunpowder; its insides empty of its titular goddess; its facades covered in scaffolding; nonetheless, there she is, in all her looming, intense glory, presiding over the city, just as it was, just as it has been since it was built some 2,500 years ago.
To be a student in Athens is to participate in a ritual that has continued for thousands of years. To be a female student in Athens is to embark on an opportunity that was not afforded to your sex for some thousands of years; an opportunity for which women like myself fought for (thousands of) generations, and even at the ASCSA until the first female student was admitted in 1885 (Annie S. Peck).
So, here I am. And there is a lot I would like to say about it all, and a lot I want to write down – even just from today – before I forget. And I intend to do so here. But for now I wanted to take a moment for a brief introduction to just how heavy the weight of this gratitude is upon me, how immense the privilege set before me truly is, what a storied ritual I get to be a part of.
I am thrilled to share it with you.
Yet to the remnants of thy splendour past
Shall pilgrims, pensive, but unwearied, throng:
Long shall the voyager, with th’ Ionian blast,
Hail the bright clime of battle and of song;
Long shall thine annals and immortal tongue
Fill with thy fame the youth of many a shore:
Boast of the aged! lesson of the young!
Which sages venerate and bards adore,
As Pallas and the Muse unveil their awful lore.
–Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage