another depressed grad student

Academia is, both literally and aspirationally, a labor of the mind. In those lofty, aspirational moments, we picture the academic as a profound thinker of thoughts, mulling over new ideas and pursuing them with rigor and that well-honed craft of critical thinking that gilds the course goals of all the humanities; in practice, the academic is supposed to be constantly reading, constantly writing, and, yes, constantly mulling. Living in this world, participating in this world, competing in this world involves intense mental exertion along with, all too often, a sheer force of will. There is a pervasive notion in academia that success depends on an all-consuming devotion to your research. To actually succeed in academia, grad students are warned, again and again, that we must give up any hope of succeeding in any other aspect of our lives. These warnings are often touted as humorous quips about having no social life, failing to maintain relationships, losing sleep, and constantly being broke–but behind the self-deprecating humor is the disturbing reality that for too many grad students, these messages are taken to heart. We internalize this narrative of the starving grad student spending their every moment on study and research and writing to the point that the atmosphere is one of competitive self-sacrifice–you’re winning if you’ve cut off any aspect of your life that brings you joy outside of your research.

For an occupation relying on the mind, graduate student mental health is continually forcibly ignored, creating a mental health crisis among grad students across departments. Graduate students internalize this idea of self-denial to the point that they sacrifice their physical health on a regular basis–the self-sacrificing competition often includes how much sleep you lack, how sick you can get before you take a day off from work–and the self-denial of care to one’s mental health is even more ignored. For all the exposure starting to come out, for all the people willing to speak out about their own struggles with mental health, it’s still so easy to tell yourself that you just have to toughen up. And sometimes you’re not just telling yourself that. Sometimes someone else will tell you that. After all, basically everyone is constantly telling you that that’s what they do, all the time.

I read this article by David M. Perry recently, “How to Make Grad School More Humane,” and I just felt… validated. Validated, but also angry. And also scared. And also still helpless.

For roughly ten years I’ve been treating my chronic depression. And for my entire adult life I have internalized the idea that really, it’s all in my head; if I just work hard enough, I can push past it, get over it, and move on, and live a normal life. And part of that is true: it is in my head–but I can’t just get rid of it through sheer force of will. Getting help helps. But it doesn’t fix what is a chronic illness that directly affects my life. But it’s so hard to live in this world, in a society that glorifies the idea of working through difficult times alone and persevering through them, that ignores the existence of mental illness and treats it as a figment of the afflicted imagination, that so often pushes sympathy mixed with the idea of toughening up as the solution to all afflictions, and to not feel self-conscious about asking for help. Honestly, asking for help is really hard. Asking for help regarding something invisible that’s making you sick that you feel culturally shamed into talking about feels basically impossible. And sometimes you ask for help and you still don’t get it, or you get treated with disdain–because, after all, asking for help for mental illness means you weren’t just strong enough to tough it out, right?

(The most disturbing part of writing this, for me, is how embarrassing and awkward it feels–I’m constantly checking this mean little side of me that keeps saying “god, it isn’t so bad. And you should just toughen up. Anyway, what does it matter after all, what will writing about it do?”)

The first time I told my department I had depression was at the end of my first year of graduate school. Nothing really came of it. I didn’t pursue it any further. I just said it, matter-of-factly, at a meeting with faculty, to try and explain behavior that seemed neglectful and lazy, but was in fact born of my inability to will myself to complete simple tasks, which had grown insurmountable and terrifying to me by virtue of the shame that surrounded my inability to complete them. Depression did that. I honestly don’t know what my options would be if I wanted to pursue further help from my university. I’m sure I would have very little trouble googling some solutions, or even asking someone. I feel confident that there probably are options. But despite all of that, I feel utterly helpless, existentially despaired at the notion that I could seek help, could tell everyone, and could still just have to get through everything unable to power through like some of my peers.

Grad school is so often likened to running a marathon. But we would never expect a marathon runner to “power through” if they suffered an injury–a runner would cross-train, would take time off, if necessary; would at least walk for a while before testing the injured appendage again. We would all acknowledge that a runner would risk much further and more serious harm if they attempted to “persevere” through their injury. But when it comes to mental illness, we ask grad students to run their marathon no matter what’s broken, no matter how horribly it hurts, no matter how impossible it becomes. This is the essence of burnout culture, but it’s also a fixture of academia. Toughen up. Power through. Keep your head down, and find a way to make it work.

Recently, I’ve been working through some intense issues in therapy. As mediocre as my grad student health insurance may be, I was actually very easily able to secure a referral to a therapist who specializes in the sort of thing I’m dealing with. But this work is work, too. Working on my mind and trying to fix it hurts sometimes. And it’s exhausting. And I come out of it exhausted in the sort of way it feels to work a new or injured body part and know that you’re helping it in the long run, but for now, it just aches.

I don’t know if it’s helpful to write about any of this, or what I expect to gain or produce from it. But throughout my graduate school experience I have felt empowered and seen and bolstered by fellow grad-students who have been willing to share their own experience with mental illness with me, who have taken the time to empathize with my situation, and who have even simply acknowledged the disturbing omnipresence of this ethos of “toughening up.” I think I thought it might feel good to put it out there, to be another person saying “this has got to stop.” But I also just wanted to reflect on this, on how patently absurd it is that we ask grad students to use their minds for everything, but we never offer constructive methods for how to help keep their minds healthy.

Starting around my second year of grad school, I just forcibly quit the competitive self-sacrifice cycle. I went the opposite direction. I try whenever possible to enthusiastically encourage my fellow grad students to take care of themselves. Don’t stress out about the readings you didn’t finish. Don’t punish yourself for not studying as much as you wanted to for quals. Don’t feel obligated to spend all of winter break catching up on outside research. See your friends. Talk to people outside of this place. Take a bath. Go for a run. Take the weekend off, as often as you can, as many weekends as you can, and don’t feel bad about it. Get as close to 8 hours of sleep every night as you can, and eat your fruits and vegetables. I don’t know if that helps either, but I know I didn’t hear that when I was first starting out, and I wish I had.

I guess that’s the point of all this. I wish I’d heard sooner that there were other people who were angry about this. If I wasn’t on Twitter, or hadn’t been open to my cohort about this in the past, I’d probably feel much more alone. And honestly? It still feels impossible sometimes. I wish I’d known how pervasive this is, and that there are other people who are angry about it, and want to fix it, much sooner in my career. I wish I had started normalizing and internalizing the idea of taking care of yourself in grad school much sooner.


MAJCL Classics Day! Medea: Murderous Mother

Frederick Augustus Sandys, Medea, 1866-68.

NOTE: This post is based on a lecture I recently gave for the Massachusetts Junior Classical League’s annual Classics Day. I had a wonderful time presenting to a group of students from grades 6-12. Presenting on a woman who is so important to me and whom I’ve spent so long studying was a difficult challenge, as it is difficult to fit in such a nuanced, complicated character into a mere 40 minutes, especially to young scholars who have not yet been introduced to her. Below, you may read an adapted version of what I presented. Please note that I understand that study on this particular character especially is complex and full of scholarly conflict; the outline below is rough, introductory, and, as most scholarship, a little biased.


Don’t believe everything you hear. Odds are, if you’ve heard of her, you may have heard some pretty nefarious stories. But which of those are “true”? How does a story about a mythical character become canon? How can one tragedy trying to spice up her story a bit define a woman’s identity for thousands of years to come? In short: how did Medea become “Medea”?

Folks, let’s chat. The most infamous stories about Medea take place in Corinth: After Medea helps the “hero” Jason snag the golden fleece from her father, assists in the death of her own brother to let the Argonauts escape, defeats a giant automaton for them, marries Jason, and has his two children, Jason strikes up a deal with King Creon of Corinth to marry his daughter, Glauce. Jason tells Medea as though she’ll be psyched for his good fortune, and is somehow shocked when she gets upset. Medea, distraught, plots her revenge. It’s not enough to kill Jason or to kill Glauce or to kill herself; Medea wants Jason to feel the most pain humanly possible. She wants to exact perfect vengeance. She wants to utterly destroy him. After much plotting, she devises the perfect plan: first, she’ll kill Glauce and Creon; then, she’ll kill Jason’s children.

The plan is obviously flawed: Jason’s children are Medea’s children. The thought of actually executing the plan causes her immeasurable pain. It takes all of the strength of will that she has to blind her maternal instinct with the vision of her vengeance, and finally, she follows through, lingering in Corinth long enough to see Jason’s reaction, and departing for Athens on a dragon-borne chariot of the sun.

It is the perfect revenge. In ancient Greece, an afterlife is uncertain and unknowable; you can’t rely on an afterlife to make this life worth while. All you can do is strive to accumulate as much glory as possible so that you can live on in your own glorious legacy. But a big insurance for living on in that glory is passing it down to your children. Progeny become known by their parents, and a mutual glorification ensues: the glory of parents lives on through the children; the children’s personal glory is amplified by the reputation of their parents; should the children in turn become glorious, they add to the glory of their parents. Progeny is a future, a sort of afterlife, that you can count on. Take that away, along with the possibility (via Glauce) of engendering more children, and your life is virtually over even if you stay alive. That, and the immeasurable pain of losing two children and the vision of your own future, create the perfect storm of vengeance.

But this story, the Corinth episode – the infamous tale of Medea, the only story of Medea that most people know – is just one version of one part of Medea’s myth. And what’s more: Euripides made it all up! According to the earliest versions of the Medea story, she never killed her own children, and certainly not for any vengeful purposes. When he wrote his Medea in 431 BCE, Euripides thought that the whole infanticide angle would add a complex new twist to an old story. He was right. But he probably didn’t expect it to become the quintessential element of Medea’s mythical identity.

So who was Medea, before she was a Murderous Mother? Let’s look at some other variants of the story.

First, Pausanias, writing in the 2nd c. CE, but about ancient local variants on different stories, discusses Medea in the context of a visit to Corinth and the “Well of Glauce” there. On the well, he writes:

Into this they say she [Glauce] threw herself in the belief that the water would be a cure for the drugs of Medea. [Nearby] is the tomb of Medea’s children. Their names were Mermerus and Pheres, and they are said to have been stoned to death by the Corinthians owing to the gifts which legend says they brought to Glauce. But as their death was violent and illegal, the young babies of the Corinthians were destroyed by them until, at the command of the oracle, yearly sacrifices were established in their honor and a figure of Terror was set up…. [Eumelus says that] when Corinthus, the son of Marathon, died childless, the Corinthians sent for Medea from Iolcus and bestowed upon her the kingdom. Through her Jason was king in Corinth, and Medea, as her children were born, carried each to the sanctuary of Hera and concealed them, doing so in the belief that so they would be immortal. At last she learned that her hopes were vain, and at the same time she was detected by Jason. When she begged for pardon he refused it, and sailed away to Iolcus. For these reasons Medea too departed, and handed over the kingdom to Sisyphus. (2.3.6-11)

To summarize, the old local Corinthian legends that Pausanias recounts tell a very different story about the death of Medea’s children from that portrayed in Euripides’ tragedy and discussed above.  In one local legend, the Corinthians killed Medea’s children as revenge for her poisoning of Glauce; however, their own children started to be killed by the gods. The Corinthians had to set up a figure of Medea to which they made sacrifices. In Eumelus’ version, Medea, after making Jason king of Corinth, tries to make their children immortal at the sanctuary to Hera; when Jason finds out what she’s been doing – and that her efforts have failed – he leaves her, and Medea leaves Corinth as well. In these early local legends of Medea, it is *NEVER* Medea who kills her children. If she does have some part in killing them, it’s because she’s trying to make them immortal.

To look at another example, Pindar, writing in the late 6th/early 5th c. BCE in his 4th Pythian, writes about the impetus behind Medea’s union with Jason. The ode recalls:

But the Cyprus-born queen of sharpest arrows [Aphrodite] bound the dappled wryneck to the four spokes of the inescapable wheel [the iynx] and brought from Olympus that bird of madness for the first time to men, and she taught the son of Aeson to be skillful in prayers and charms, so that he might take away Medea’s respect for her parents, and so that desire for Hellas might set her mind afire and drive her with the whip of Persuasion. And right away she showed him the ways to accomplish her father’s trials, and she concocted with oil antidotes for terrible pains and gave them to him for anointing—and so they agreed to join with one another in a sweet marriage of mutual consent.

To clarify the events that Pindar recountsAphrodite uses the iynx (a sort of lovespell bird-wheel thing) to curse Medea and make her fall hopelessly in love with Jason so that she will help the Argonauts get the golden fleece. Here, Pindar has nothing to say about what happens in Corinth, but he depicts a much different Medea from the infamous image that follows her today. In Pindar, Medea is a respectable priestess with oracular powers who is a victim of Aphrodite’s whims. The worst thing Medea does in Pindar is betray her family. But even then, she doesn’t do it of her own free will; Pindar makes it very clear that the Gods are forcing her into these actions.

Having observed some non-murdery Medeas, we can make a few conclusions: in all of the previous versions of Medea, she is a powerful young woman who falls in love with Jason. She is inherently associated with the goddess Hecate, and has divine connections. Before Euripides’ tragedy, no story accuses Medea of deliberately murdering her children. So when Euripides debuts his Medea in 431 BCE, he adds a radical new change to a familiar myth.

Lucanian Calyx-Krater, c. 400 BCE, att. Policoro Painter, Cleveland Museum of Art.

Medea in Euripides is an incredibly complex character. She winds up murdering her children, but that doesn’t make her a character lacking sympathy for her audience. She struggles between her enormous emotions – pain, anger, deep sadness – and she only knows one thing for certain: she does not want to become an object of mockery for her enemies. She struggles with anger and frustration at the trials of being a woman in the world. She rallies against the fate that would befall her children if Jason would marry Glauce: certain disinheritance, a social death, a life without their mother, and possible execution by their future half-siblings. She feels an anger that is bigger than life itself, and she wails on stage in a visceral manner that almost immediately garners the whole-hearted empathy of the chorus of Corinthian women. Medea carries this empathy right up until the point when she decides upon her path of vengeance – and even then, all the Chorus wants is for her to get a hold of her better senses, to turn away from something so unfathomably, frighteningly painful.

But Medea’s struggle with complex, all-consuming emotions that are larger than herself underscores another, equally important side of her identity: she is volatile, she is clever, and she is dangerously powerful. In his play, Euripides goes to explicit lengths to demonstrate to his audience the fear and discomfort one should carry when watching Medea unfold. Her plan is executed in the most graphic, violent terms possible. Even though the image of Glauce and Creon’s deaths are not carried out on-stage, the messenger speech creates such a vivid and disturbing image of their demise that our immediate instinct is revulsion and fear. Medea, however, finds courage in the news, feels emboldened by her success, and seems to even delight in the efficacy of her designs. It may help to look at some (slightly edited for the sake of graphic qualities) quotes from Euripides:

Messenger: Suddenly there was a terrible sight to see: the color drains from her face; her step unsteady, she tries to go back, trembling from head to foot, and barely manages to stumble into her seat and avoid falling on the ground. … a twofold trouble was warring against her: the crown of gold around her head was spewing out an eerie stream of ravenous fire, and the fine robes, gifts from your children, were eating away the poor girl’s beautiful flesh. … her poor father in ignorance of the tragedy suddenly bursts into the room and throws himself on the body… when he stopped his weeping and wailing he wanted to raise up his old limbs but was held back by the fine robes like ivy by the shoots of laurel. The struggle was hair-raising. He wanted to get up on his feet but she held him fast. If he tried to use force she tore the aged flesh from his bones. After a time he was exhausted and the poor man let go of life. He was not strong enough to fight the disaster. They lie dead together, child and aged father beside her. A tragedy that makes you want to cry (Lines 1166-1220).

As mentioned above, Medea takes courage in these lines; they motivate her to go through with the integral and most difficult part of her plot: to kill her children. But before she executes this plan, and before she hears how successful she has been already, Euripides expounds on the vacillating emotions she experiences through the delivery of a pained and conflicted monologue:

Medea: No! By the avengers down in Hades! There is no way that I will leave my children to be abused by my enemies. [They must die. And since they must, I who gave them birth will kill them.] The plan is underway and there is no escape. The crown is on her head; dressed in the robes, the royal bride is in her death throes; I am certain of it. Now I shall set out upon a most sorrowful road and I shall send them on one more sorrowful still. I want to speak to my children. Dear children, give your mother your right hand to kiss. Oh dearest hand, dearest mouth, and form and noble face of my children, may you be happy, but there. Your father has ruined everything here. Oh sweet embrace. Oh soft skin and lovely breath of my children. Go, go on. I am no longer able to look at you. I am overcome by wrongs. I understand what evil I am about to do but my wrath is stronger even than my thoughts, which is the cause of the greatest wrongs of humankind (Lines 1058-1080).

We know that Medea is going to follow through on her plans; however, Euripides ensures that we also know that Medea herself isn’t so sure – we are privy to her inner turmoil, and see how much she struggles with the prospect of quelling her maternal instincts in favor of the call to vengeance.

John William Waterhouse, Jason & Medea, 1907.

After its debut, Euripides’ image of Medea as a dangerously powerful child-murderer seizes the myth canon. In consequence, subsequent writers will either amplify her ominous image or struggle to fight against it; one such author who attempts to rescue the identity of Medea in favor of returning to the archaic image of an innocent but skilled girl manipulated by love is Apollonius of Rhodes in his Argonautica in the 3rd c. BCE.

The Argonautica is essentially the story of a bunch of seaborne frat boys going on adventures together, featuring the all-stars of Greek Heroism. To summarize Medea’s part in the work, Jason meets Medea at Colchis, where he has arrived to – you know the story already – steal the golden fleece from Aeëtes, Medea’s father.  Athena and Hera, big Jason fans, get Aphrodite to help them help Jason by asking Cupid to strike Medea with an arrow. Medea, helplessly in love with Jason, agrees to betray her family and help him win the golden fleece. Throughout her initial appearance in Apollonius, however, Medea struggles between her burning, uncontrollable passion for a stranger she’s just met – a passion she doesn’t even understand, and finds troubling – and her fear of betraying her family and becoming an outcast in her own home. She doesn’t know why she feels compelled to help jason; she only knows that she cannot physically stand the notion of his certain death should she decide to remain loyal to her father. The audience sees her struggle and sympathizes with Medea. She, like all of us, is a victim of the gods. There is no accountability in her action except that of Athena and Hera, so hell-bent on saving Jason that they are willing to sacrifice the innocence of a priestess to Hecate. Like in the rest of her iterations, Medea is incredibly powerful through her association with Hecate; it is this power which makes her useful to Jason, and which serves as a remnant of her identity in Euripides. She is still powerful, but she is also innocent. Her power is being used against her, and the audience has no feeling that this poor girl, constantly grieving the fact that she is forced to make an impossible choice, could possibly execute such terrifying vengeance.

While Apollonius struggles to “rescue” the young Medea, other later authors will take the image of Medea as a powerful woman skilled in potions and run with it – even going so far as to transform her identity. A literal transformation of Medea’s character comes in the seventh book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The actual “metamorphosis” that occurs in the Medea episode has long been something of a question; unlike most of the stories in his epic, Ovid’s Medea episode lacks a concrete “metamorphosis” into another object or animal. Personally, I view her metamorphosis as that of a young priestess of Hecate skilled in potions transformed into a full-blown evil witch. Ovid takes us on the whirlwind journey from Colchis, where Medea is an innocent young girl pushed by the fire of passionate love to save Jason and betray her family (familiar by now?) to some more troubling tales. Her awesome power is shown for all of its might in the impressive scene where Medea rejuvenates Aeson, Jason’s father, through a risky and literally death-defying potion; however, this scene precedes the harrowing Peliades episode, which is a twisted, horrifying inversion of the same spell that returned Aeson to his youth. In the Peliades episode, Medea happens upon the daughters of Pelias, a man who refused to yield power to Jason. In excruciating, graphic detail, Ovid describes how Medea embarks on unasked for vengeance on behalf of her husband by tricking the daughters of Pelias into murdering their own father under the belief that he will undergo the same rejuvenation process that was so successful for Aeson. For Aeson, the process involved draining the old man’s blood to refill his veins with magic potion; for Pelias, on the other hand, Medea convinces the girls to slit their father’s throat, only to plunge his aged body into a boiling cauldron, no potion to speak of. Medea spends the remainder of her appearance in the Metamorphoses flying over the Mediterranean world, occasionally coming to earth to commit some nefarious deed. A mere six lines is given to the infamous Corinth episode:

 At length, upborne by the snaky wings, she reached Corinth of the sacred spring. Here, according to ancient tradition, in the earliest times men’s bodies sprang from mushrooms. But after the new wife had been burnt by the Colchian witchcraft, and the two seas had seen the king’s palace aflame, she stained her impious sword in the blood of her sons; and then, after this horrid vengeance, the mother fled Jason’s sword (7.391-397).

In Ovid, the Corinth episode feels like a casual occurrence. Half of the discussion of Corinth is about Corinthian legend without any regard to Medea’s actions there. It is almost as if Medea is so twisted, powerful, and evil at this point in the Metamorphoses that her actions at Corinth are no longer shocking, but perhaps even typical. The brevity of the Corinth episode underscores just who Medea has become, both in Ovid and in the mind of Ovid’s audience generally: she is an evil witch, and her mythical reputation as such will remain unchanged until much later reception attempts to redeem her.

(c) Southwark Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Valentine Cameron Prinsep, Medea the Sorceress, 1880.

The final Medea iteration we will examine is that of Seneca in his tragedy, Medea, published around 50 CE. Seneca’s Medea is the evil witch of Ovid, amplified. Never has any Medea shown such a fervor, such a passion for vengeance; never has any Medea been so wholly consumed by the dark side of her chthonic associations with Hecate, the underworld, and magic. This Medea is perhaps the most powerful Medea of them all, capable of changing the very nature of the cosmos. She has the full forces of the darkest parts of hell supporting her, and she is willing to use them at any length to secure a perfect vengeance. Unlike Euripides’ Medea, who is clearly the biggest influence on Seneca’s tragedy, Seneca’s Medea conceives of her final vengeance immediately from the start of the play. Euripides’ Medea spends about half of the tragedy contemplating her next move; Seneca’s Medea, on the other hand, sees the murder of her children as the obvious action from the start. Like in Euripides, she is determined to destroy Jason to the best of her abilities; however, she is already willing and able to do so in ways that pose immense emotional difficulties to Euripides’ interpretation in 431 BCE. In lines 19-25, Seneca writes:

Medea: For the groom [Jason], may something worse remain. I want him to live: to wander through cities as yet unkown, his confidence, his livelihood destroyed; a refugee, frightened and with nowhere to call home, looked on, if he’s looked upon at all, with hatred; a notorious would-be guest, seeking shelter in someone else’s house. I pray he’ll wish we were together still. I now request the worst prayer of them all: that the children show the qualities of their father and their mother combined. My final vengeance is already born: and I have given it birth.

A similar contrast is the fact that Medea’s struggle with her emotions, while still present in Seneca, is much less convincing and sympathetic than that in Euripides. Medea lingers momentarily over her maternal instinct, but that instinct repulses her. It is as though she sees her maternal desire to protect her children as a disgusting inconvenience that she wants to be rid of. She bolsters her courage to follow through on vengeance by reminding herself of the images of deeds past; she reminds herself of the things of which she is capable, the things which have enforced her willingness to perform evil deeds. And she also uses these deeds as further fodder for her anger at Jason and her need for vengeance. But the struggle between her desire to be a mother and her desire to exact vengeance, the conflict that makes her so complex and potentially sympathetic, the turmoil that wins over the chorus in Euripides, is watered down if not entirely absent in Seneca. This Medea simply is not that Medea – this Medea, Seneca’s Medea, aspires to be the Medea that dominates the myth canon: a child-murdering, vengeful, evil witch. The infamous line, “Now I’m indeed Medea,” reveals so much of the aim of Seneca’s work: the murder of her children is what makes Medea into Medea. Without this detail, a detail that was unique to Euripides in 431 BCE, Medea is not recognizable as “Medea.” Euripides’ innovation, by Seneca, has become the defining characteristic of Medea’s mythical identity. The following lines demonstrate a palpable and pointed difference of character between the two tragic Medeas:

Medea: What power have untrained arms to dare great deeds? The bloodlust of a girl! Now I’m indeed Medea. My genius has grown with all these evils I have done. I’m pleased I killed my brother, took his head, and sliced his limbs. I’m glad I tore away my father’s secret source of potency, I’m glad I armed old Pelias’ daughters, had him killed… It is as if I were the sea: violent winds wage war, waves full of grief that rends the heart attack from etiehr side, the waters seethe in indecision. That is how my heart wavers… To their mother they are forever gone and lost, so they must be gone and lost to their father as well. My pain grows once again, my hatred boils, the old avenging fury reaches out for my unwilling yet so lethal hand…. I am as good as childless now it comes to penalizing him. I bore only two; but they’re enough to avenge my brother and father (908-958).

Medea in Euripides was conflicted, but she brought a new, sinister element to the mythical Medea character that remained canon throughout her mythical career. Seneca’s Medea reaches new heights of the sinister. She is a terrifying master of the dark arts, wielding and manipulating nature to her own dastardly ends. A trait of the first Medeas – her association with Hecate, her skill with potions – leads to this final Medea in Seneca: semi-divine master of nature able to obliterate whatever and whomever she sets her sights on.

When he wrote infanticide into his Medea, Euripides probably didn’t know that his “little innovation” would become canon. He certainly wouldn’t have expected the Medea of myth to take on such a solidified identity as an evil witch. But the popularity of this transformation, and the various attempts of authors to either build upon or rebel against it, indicate the incredible power that one work can have over an existing narrative. Who is Medea? Today, she has been adapted into new Medeas: notably, the works Beloved by Toni Morrison and Medea by Christa Wolf seek to reclaim her narrative. She has appeared on screen: Pasolini’s 1969 Medea stars a formidable Maria Callas in the titular role, reclaiming the sympathy and conflict of Euripides’ tragedy in new, subtle ways. But whatever Medea you look at, it is always a reworking of the Medea that Euripides launched on stage. When he premiered the tragedy at the City Dionysia in Athens, Medea came in dead last. But his Medea has lingered on, embedded in all of the Medeas to come after her.

Alfons Mucha, Poster for Medea starring Sarah Bernhardt, 1898.



An Academic’s First Big Conference

The Society for Classical Studies, or SCS, holds an annual meeting each year. It’s an opportunity for Classicists from all over the world to meet, present papers, participate in panels, seek career opportunities, buy new books, and get the scoop on the latest scholarship fads in Classical Studies.

Okay, for those of you who think of Classics as “a bunch of ancient stuff,” the idea of fads or trends in scholarship might seem like a punchline. Trust me when I say that the field of Classics is alive, well, and ever-changing. As a classicist, you’re part of one of the oldest fields of “humanities” study that there is; it is, after all, the foundation on which the “liberal arts” are based. But the way scholars view the ancient world – and, perhaps more importantly, the focus which scholars have when they look at the ancient world – is constantly evolving. You can see just by glancing over the abstracts for this year’s meeting that classicists’ concerns range from the “classics” of classics, if you will – i.e. philology, comparative literature, history, and archaeology – to such vital and modern notions as the digital humanities, modern approaches to pedagogy, and, one of the panels for which I am most excited, “Classics and Social Justice.”

I am proud to take to my little blog here to announce publicly for the first time that I have the privilege of being one of those scholars presenting at the 149th annual meeting of the SCS. In addition, this will also be my very first time attending a major academic conference. And folks, I can’t wait.

There is a world of steps to take before I am ready to attend, however. I have to finish polishing my paper for presentation; this includes doing stacks and stacks of research to feel prepared for the Q&A section of things. But I also have to plan.

There are so many papers presented at SCS each year, and I want to go to all of them. For an academic, or at least for me, reading a list of paper titles feels like going to the Scholastic Book Fair in elementary school – that familiar, intense rush of excitement that comes from seeing a veritable fairground packed with new characters, new storylines, new adventures, and knowing you can only pick a handful to actually take. I want everything. I want to hear each talk, read each handout, listen carefully to each question and each response. Of course, my  aspirations are bigger than my attention span, and there is in all actuality no possible way to hear every paper at SCS. So that means prioritizing. It merits a different kind of research. And in my stationary-obsessed mind, it also merits a new notebook designated solely for SCS; something very scholarly-looking and professional, of course. I even just put in an order for some re-branded business cards.

So how do you pick? How many presentations can you possibly watch; more realistically, how much information can you reasonably meaningfully retain? Thanks to my well-organized music-loving partner, the most similar experience I can liken this conundrum to is that of the Music Festival lineup. He is meticulous about scouring the schedule and formatting his own spreadsheet of acts to attend. And that is the approach I plan to take to SCS, with the caveat that I also want to come at the conference from a new angle: which papers will I, personally, be best able to live-tweet?

Live-tweeting an academic conference is a somewhat debated practice, but it’s also a critical tool for disseminating ideas shared at the conference to those scholars who cannot attend. I have a minimal amount of experience with live-tweeting myself, from our Boston-Area Roman Studies Conference (“Ovid Over Time”) last spring, but I have a lot of experience avidly following other twitter-active academics’ live-tweets of conferences I was unable to attend. As I hope to move forward flexing my live-tweeting muscle, I also want to look into the etiquette and technique behind it.

And, finally, there’s research-research. Actual, bare-bones, bibliography-mining-style research. Digging up what I can find out about subjects, scholars, and the like before I attend. Brushing up on my knowledge of the key concepts and players in attendance this year. Flexing my research muscle isn’t a hard one – the trick will be balancing it with all of the critical research I have to do for my semester’s schoolwork and my winter studies.

Right now is the calm before the SCS storm, but I can see it all charging at me in the not-so-distance. In a mere matter of weeks, I’ll give a draft of my presentation in front of my cohort and faculty. This process is called a “brown bag,” and it invariably produces invaluable feedback. I’m immensely grateful to be in a department that is supportive and encouraging at every turn, and surrounded by a cohort that knows how to give exceptional constructive criticism (a criminally underrated skill in academia).

So I’m nervous, and I’m excited, and I’m grateful. I’m aware of the weight of this opportunity, and aware of the work it took to get here. And even though I still have plenty of work to do, I’m ready.

If you missed it, a link to my abstract – info on what I’ll be presenting at the conference – is available online! Click right here.

High on a hill

It is mid-July in Greece, it is hot, and as our bus pulls up the slope at the base of Mt. Helicon we can hear our busdriver arguing with Tina, our group leader. He is nervous at the prospect of driving the bus up the mountain. Mere days later, we will be careening through tiny roads deep in Arcadia barely making it past the opposing flow of traffic in torrential downpours; however, this is the first and only time that Panos, our driver, questions Tina about her travel plans.

Moments later, the bus begins to fill with dust from the red clay soil of the dirt road.
“He has to turn off the air conditioning,” Tina tells us.
After Panos drops us off we watch the giant, gleaming bus back slowly and expertly over the same road, becoming a tiny toy in the distance that we admire from afar.

But there it is.
The Valley of the Muses.

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Hesiod, the region’s most famous resident, wrote of its quality in his Works and Days that Helicon was “wretched in winter, blistering in summer, never good in any season.” But this valley is where the Muses came to Hesiod to teach him how to sing the truth, how to sing lies; this is where he became the poet to defeat Homer in competition. The muses used to bathe here, sing here, dance here, and one day they happened upon a cantankerous old shepherd to whom they gave a laurel rod and the inspiration to sing of the gods and the things that are and were.

Imagining anybody dancing in this valley – particularly that motif of bare feet of the Muses – is a challenge, to say the least. The ground is covered in the type of vegetation only sheep and goats could love; brambly, thorny, prickly varieties cover the ground; the sporadic olive tree offers extremely limited shade from the sun that beats down on the ground. The valley is full of steep drops, winding paths, and sharp rocks, all of which obscure the Hippocrene spring, sacred to the muses, and the winding, onerous paths to the site of the Museion itself. But all of these elements somehow befit the wily women we often imagine the Muses being – the divine women who coyly told an unsuspecting shepherd: “we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will it, how to utter true things.” Their playful nature resides in the manner in which the landscape hides different things; it feels as though anything could happen in this valley.

Before we begin our descent to the Mouseion itself, as we discuss the life and works of Hesiod while he was working on this hillside, I can hear a strange, erratic, ethereal music in the distance. It is a discordant sound; unpredictable, but strangely melodic. Different tones break through the air, the direction of the sound impossible to pinpoint – until.
I look up.
Leaping effortlessly among the crags and cliffs above us that lead to the summit of Mt. Helicon, a herd of goats looks half-curiously at us as they search for bits of plants in the crevices of the rocks.
In my weathered notebook I write:
In the valley of the muses we hear bells far away in the manner of otherworldly music. Goats descend from Mt. Helicon.
Full of everything, full of the sight and the sound and being there, I begin to cry. Tina tells us we are truly blessed. I feel a sudden sense of transportation, a heavy realization that this is an experience mirroring that on the same spot three thousand years prior, perhaps older; the sights, sounds, smells of this place, everything is the very same, including the spots where kids test out their jumping capabilities under the watchful eyes of mother goats.

In its heyday, people used to flock from all over to visit the Museion in the valley of the muses. What remains on the site now are the Hippocrene spring itself and a few sparse fallen marbles; however, it used to be an open-air sanctuary. I imagine statues of the muses and perhaps their associated gods hiding in the uneven landscape, exposed to the elements they spent so much time dancing and singing among. Here, ancient people would have poetic competitions, games, feasts, dances. We discuss the idea of having our own little dance. Tina says “I think we should share a cookie in the valley of the muses,” and we munch our treats before walking over the Hippocrene spring and back towards our bus.
At the spring, the perpetual song of the cicadas reaches a deafening height; they sing their hearts out in the sudden shade over the cool water. Several of us take relief in the cool waters of the spring.

Back on the bus, I write in my journal:
What does Mt. Helicon look like in spring, covered in wildflowers? In winter with possible snow? This is the valley of the muses where Hesiod was taught to sing. He said it was bad in winter and awful in summer and not great any time of year; he wrote it with the cynical affection only a person in love with his home can earnestly express.

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There and Back Again, or, A Reflection on Athenian Museums & Spelunking

I will preface this with a brief apology that my updates on life in Greece have been thus far quite minimal. I would blame this on the spotty wifi in Attica, but it is truly a consequence of my attempt to live, absorb, experience all that I can – an attempt that subsequently leads to a necessary investment in recovery at the end of each day. The wifi aspect of this journey was an interesting one. I am so accustomed to the luxury of outside communication at my fingertips at all times; on this trip, it was difficult to sign on just to check and respond to emails, let alone to keep in contact with my loved ones. I thank them, especially the ever patient and understanding N, for their understanding in what was a blur of intense and emotional experience; rather a tour de force of sorts of attempting to absorb as much as possible out of each new site, each new town.

I began this blog post back in Loring Hall after our 11-day trip around Attica, still letting the dust settle from our days on the road. I intend to detail as much of that trip as possible, but that is not for now. I find myself wanting to return to my first few days here and the embarrassment of riches I had already experienced before we even embarked on our bus around the country.

If you have been to Athens, it is likely that you have been to the acropolis. But have you ever taken the time to explore the caves that line the path up to the Parthenon there?

We spent our morning walking through the Exarchia neighborhood on our way to the National Museum of Archaeology. The anarchists of Athens hold Exarchia. It is rather haunting to walk by the massive, beautiful building of the old Polytechnic university and know that it is inhabited by anarchist squatters reclaiming this quarter of the city as their own. On the 17th of November, 1973, the Polytechnic was host to a student-organized popular uprising against the Regime of the Colonels. It is still celebrated as a national holiday today; Exarchia still embodies the fervent anti-fascist attitudes leading to the uprising some 40 years ago.

But in the heart of Exarchia, down the block from the Polytechnic university, is the National Museum of Archaeology. It is, as one might expect, overwhelming in its rich, vast collection. Though we spent only a morning there I can already confidently assert that I could have spent several days just poring over the material offered through its many halls. Here is where the contents of the “Treasury”of Atreus are held, amongst other infamous Ancient discoveries; the face that Schliemann beheld and took as Agamemnon’s will still stare you in the eye as you walk through the Bronze Age wing. When I speak of an “embarrassment of riches,” the immense collection at the national museum comes to mind. A veritable cornucopia of invaluable artifacts rests there informing one’s experience throughout Athens. Whatever you see there once rested on the landscape you traverse, spanning the cultural experience of thousands of different generations down to the prehistoric era. There is the marble universe of the classical period, the clay pots of the proto-, geometric, and post-geometric era, and the stunning collection of flawless gold from the Mycenaean era. For the moments you inevitably become overwhelmed by all there is to see, there is a gorgeous indoor garden cafe to rest and process.

Finished with the museum, we walked through Monastiraki, the flea market neighborhood of old Athens, to lunch of gyros and then up to the theater Dionysus. In the blazing heat we discussed the festivals, the incredible tragic works that would have been performed there. Standing on the ancient seats of the theater one looks out on the city replete with concrete now, but which once was mainly pasture and space. I tried to imagine the view, imagine what it would be like to watch a performance with the port of Piraeus in sight, vast fields, wandering herds of goats.

After the theater, we scaled the sides of the acropolis exploring the different caves there. The first is the immense cave to Aglauros, an elusive figure in myth. She is one of the daughters of Cecrops, the “snakey” (and thereby autochthonous) early king of Athens. The most popular variant of the myth cites the birth of Erechtheus, as a consequence of an attempted rape of Athena by Hephaestus; Erechtheus is born from the earth itself, pregnant by Hephaestus’ spilled semen. Athena entrusted a box which held Erechtheus to Aglauros and her sisters, warning them never to open it; however, as often happens in myth, this warning was ignored. Consequently, Aglauros and her sisters went insane and plummeted to their deaths from the top of the acropolis. In another variant, however, a cave dedicated to Aglauros feels more fitting: a prophecy foretold that Athens, involved in a protracted war, would find success if only someone were willing to sacrifice themselves for the city-state. Aglauros, hearing this prophecy, jumped off of the acropolis and saved the city. There are theories that young men would reenact this sacrifice in wartime – not actually sacrificing themselves, but as a show of respect for Aglauros and the prophecy that once saved Athens playing at self-sacrifice to recreate the same successful result. The cave is vast, and now home to a large bird’s nest; a panoramic view of the city sprawls beneath.

Further up from the cave of Aglauros is one to Aphrodite. This cave is particularly charming due to its continued use; dedications to Aphrodite are scattered throughout the ancient niches that were used for similar offerings thousands of years ago. One can see small notes folded up and tucked into crevices in the rock, hopeful wishes from new lovers. Dried flowers scatter the niches, and a stack of beautiful rocks which continues to grow in height.

Finally, there is the cave of Pan. Pan’s cave was dedicated to him during the Persian war, right before the battle of Marathon. Herodotus recalls that Philippides ran into Pan on a journey, who asked him why the Athenians didn’t worship him. “I like you Athenians quite a bit,” Pan said, “but you don’t worship me; I’ve helped you out before and I’ll continue to do so, but why don’t you seem to like me?” As a result of this conversation, the cave was dedicated to him.

Pan is one of my favorite gods. He’s actually the son of my all-time favorite god, Hermes. Pan is interesting because he’s this little magical woodsy fellow who goes about his business and essentially loves anybody who tries to commune with nature – but like all gods, he also has the capacity to be incredibly dangerous. The word “panic” derives from his name for the manner in which he is able to induce paranoid hallucinations in large groups of soldiers who begin to think someone is attacking them and subsequently attack each other. Like most individuals, he doesn’t enjoy being woken up during naptime – high noon, “Pan’s hour.” But in typical god-like fashion, grumpiness takes on a terrifying association when paired with the awesome power of any god. Basically, once you start to read through myth, you begin to gather that it’s not a good idea in general to mess with any of the gods.

The birth of Pan is a delightful story, and I will begin conclude this post on that note. The Homeric Hymn to Pan recounts how Hermes fell in love with a daughter of Dryops, and they had a child together – but Pan wasn’t an ordinary child. He was born with hooves and horns, and a full beard. While the daughter of Dryops sees this and runs away, horrified, Hermes is delighted, laughs, and takes Pan in his arms and brings him to Olympus.

The cave to Pan is just the sort of place Pan would love best. Lots of winding paths and varying entrances and tiny nooks and crannies to sneak into. It also has a little bit of a saucy reputation recounted in the Aristophanes play Lysistrata – basically, it’s a great place to have secret sexual encounters, but you might need to find a good place to purify yourself before you re-enter the citadel.

I will finish by including a translation of the Homeric Hymn to Pan, because I find it truly lovely and the cave of Pan has stuck with me as one of my favorite spots in Athens.

Muse, tell me about Pan, the dear son of Hermes, with his goat’s feet and two horns —a lover of merry noise. Through wooded glades he wanders with dancing nymphs who foot it on some sheer cliff’s edge, calling upon Pan, the shepherd-god, long-haired, unkempt. He has every snowy crest and the mountain peaks and rocky crests for his domain; hither and thither he goes through the close thickets, now lured by soft streams, and now he presses on amongst towering crags and climbs up to the highest peak that overlooks the flocks. Often he courses through the glistening high mountains, and often on the shouldered hills he speeds along slaying wild beasts, this keen-eyed god. Only at evening, as he returns from the chase, he sounds his note, playing sweet and low on his pipes of reed: not even she could excel him in melody —that bird who in flower-laden spring pouring forth her lament utters honey-voiced song amid the leaves. At that hour the clear-voiced nymphs are with him and move with nimble feet, singing by some spring of dark water, while Echo wails about the mountain-top, and the god on this side or on that of the choirs, or at times sidling into the midst, plies it nimbly with his feet. On his back he wears a spotted lynx-pelt, and he delights in high-pitched songs in a soft meadow where crocuses and sweet-smelling hyacinths bloom at random in the grass.

They sing of the blessed gods and high Olympus and choose to tell of such an one as luck-bringing Hermes above the rest, how he is the swift messenger of all the gods, and how he came to Arcadia, the land of many springs and mother of flocks, there where his sacred place is as god of Cyllene. For there, though a god, he used to tend curly-fleeced sheep in the service of a mortal man, because there fell on him and waxed strong melting desire to wed the rich-tressed daughter of Dryops, and there he brought about the merry marriage. And in the house she bare Hermes a dear son who from his birth was marvellous to look upon, with goat’s feet and two horns —a noisy, merry-laughing child. But when the nurse saw his uncouth face and full beard, she was afraid and sprang up and fled and left the child. Then luck-bringing Hermes received him and took him in his arms: very glad in his heart was the god. And he went quickly to the abodes of the deathless gods, carrying his son wrapped in warm skins of mountain hares, and set him down beside Zeus and showed him to the rest of the gods. Then all the immortals were glad in heart and Bacchic Dionysus in especial; and they called the boy Pan because he delighted all their hearts.

And so hail to you, lord! I seek your favour with a song. And now I will remember you and another song also. (Trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White)

Muse with a view

Greece is a country immersed in mythology. Some stories are local, colorful, specific; some are vast and all-encompassing. These myths shape identity; provide etymology; teach lessons; are simply fun, bizarre, absurd, beautiful. Our seminar is entitled “myth on site” for a reason – every patch of every city in Greece is linked to a mythical past.

But the ancient myths of Greece are built into her countryside, her entire atmosphere, along with a new, pervasive cultural mythology as well. The myth of Greece: what she is, what it means to be in Greece, what it means to study Greek mythology, what that mythology has made out of her landscape and her people. There is myth behind the way the pilgrim comes to Greece. There is myth behind the way one walks through her streets. There is myth whispering out of her ancient temples that has grown out of the mythology that built them. Greece is living myth, not only in the sense that she maintains a visceral pride in her ancient heritage, but in the shape that pride has come to take. This mythology is, again, atmospheric; it is nebulous, somewhat intangible. More than any other description I might provide I would leave you with the unsatisfactory cliche that it is a feeling; Greece is a buzz you begin to sense when you start to explore her culture at a distance; Greece is a buzz that makes you feel you might be levitating as you traverse her land.

This feeling derives in part from the powerful understanding that your pilgrimage to Greece reaches back in a tradition so ancient you cannot fathom its depth and age and weight. But your journey to Greece will not match the arduous paths that those who came before you had to take to see her.

The Koile Deme is located in the Southwest of Athens, at the foot of the hills of the Muses and the Pnyx. The hills of the Muses are purportedly the place where Musaeus was born – a favorite singer of the Muses who used to sing on the spot and was later buried there. In contrast to this artistic myth, the Pnyx had a pragmatic political purpose in the ancient world: it was the meeting place of the ekklesia, a popular assembly open to all [male] citizens in ancient Athenian democracy. But Aristotle wrote “Man is a creature of the polis” because the Athenian citizenry lived by a cultural code that emphasized on a profound level the necessity of participation in a democracy. Such was this emphasis that men could actually be fined if they neglected to attend the ekklesia.

A visitor to Athens who docked their boat at the port of Piraeus would walk through Koile along the ancient road where Kimon was buried. They would cross the Long Walls on their way to the hill of the Muses. The Koile Deme has its own impassioned history; like the rest of the city of Athens, this deme belongs to her people; however, in the 1980s it was closed off to its own neighborhood by archaeological projects, open only to those willing or able to pay the fee to enter. The community, in response, stood up in a universal cry for reclamation of their own neighborhood. This is ours, this is where we live; you will not shut us out. The exclusivity of these projects, while sometimes enabling a city to profit on the curiosity of foreigners, risks alienating its own citizens. In this instance, the Koile deme was reclaimed. It is living myth, living history, and as such it remains alive, an active participant in the daily lives of the Athenians walking its paths every day.

From the Koile Deme one begins to ascend the Hill of the Muses. Even the sounds of the city are intact remnants of old: cicadas in the trees make the same rhythmic, melodic clatter of the ancient landscape. Through the olive trees that smatter the hillside in tenacious root systems on the sandy soil the Hill of the Muses rises. On all sides there is no view but olive, but caper flowers, but century plants adorned with carved names of contemporary Athenians and tourists alike. The grade of the hill goes from gradual to rather steep. The climb takes on an intensity in the heat; the olive trees are short, scrappy pieces of assiduous vegetation that offer little protection from the relentless Mediterranean sun.

And suddenly, as the hill begins to crest, you turn backwards. You can see the road from Piraeus. This is the view those who traveled over the sea would have seen; this is the journey that lay before you. What was once a vast countryside is replete with apartment complexes and busy highways and large industrial buildings, but there is the same sea beyond, and the same old roads; the metro still runs along what were the Long Walls; the road in Koile you’ve just traversed is still marked with rivets from ancient carts that moved upon it. Before you, there is the summit of the hill of the muses.

And then you step forward.

The first view of the Acropolis of Athens for any visitor is awe-inspiring. It is impossibly formidable. It is awesome and strong and intimidating, but it calls to you, beckons you forward. This isn’t yours, it’s for Athena. It isn’t yours, it’s for the Athenians. It isn’t yours, but it is yours, it’s open to you, and you, who have made the journey, are welcome, encouraged, to come closer. At the top of the hill of the Muses, you lose your breath. The climb has been steep. You remember, looking back, how long this same journey – a journey that took you maybe 24 hours; maybe less; maybe years of studying or saving; maybe you arrived on a whim – you remember, looking back, how long this same journey would have taken an ancient person standing in the same spot. You feel the weight of it, the weight of never being able to know the weight of that. But you do know, too.

You can understand why Musaeus and the Muses purportedly came to sing here.

A little further up the path, the last remaining shard of the immense Philopappos monument looms, lit up from behind by the sun and staking a large claim upon the Athenian skyline. The Philopappos Monument was erected by Giaus Julius Antiochus Philopappos in the 2nd century CE. Like most monuments in Greece, it is a prime example of sociopolitical propaganda. A blend of Roman, Greek, and Comogene culture harmonize in a triangular relationship to that which is the essence of Athenian culture: the Parthenon. Imagine the Philopappos as the point of an Isosceles triangle, the Parthenon and the Propylaea making the other points. As you stand under the shade of Philopappos’ monument, you look out upon the pinnacle of “Pan-Hellenic” culture. Moreover, its location on the Hill of the Muses is loaded with Athenian significance. In myth, this was not only a favorite dwelling for the Muses themselves, but it was a strategic point in the battle against the Amazons. The so-called Amazonomachy is repeatedly used by the Athenians to assert their authochthony – the fact that they came from the earth, have always been there, have roots going back to the first battles of gods and men.  Later, it was used in battle for the purposes it held in myth; the Athenians used it in the Persian wars and again in the Peloponnesian wars, and later it was taken up by the Macedonians for military purposes as well.  But the monument itself is not simply devoted to the assimilation to Athenian culture. Instead, it blends elements of Greek, Roman and Comogene culture to put Philopappos at home in all three. The lictor procession depicted on the monument ties back to one of the most solemn rituals in Roman culture. Meanwhile, there is a depiction of Philopappos himself, along with the name of his father, seated upon a throne – a dramatic, immense assertion through sculpture of his leadership and his claim to this ancient space. A small depiction of Heracles helps to bridge the gap between cultures, a hero claimed by the Comogenes and the Greeks, beloved by the Romans. It is likely that you have never heard of Philopappos; neither had I. But his monument dominates part of the Athenian landscape.

After the ascent some of us walk home through the national gardens. We walk through the manicured landscape past a small zoo with goats and rabbits and chickens into a park where a small brass band is playing “New York, New York” to a small crowd. The landscape keeps changing, moving, adapting; the people continue to live in their city just like living in any other city. But the currents run back to the river of a rich ancient tradition, a fertile continuous culture visible from every streetcorner Athens.

To Study in Athens

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