A friend of mine (not a classicist) found a vintage Latin Magnetic Poetry set and gave it to me. It’s not so much for Latinists as it is for English-speakers familiar with Latin: it’s got all the familiar phrases from law (habeas corpus) and Catholicism (in nomine patris) and general fancy talk (caveat emptor).
I decided to give it a go, and see what syntactically coherent sentences and phrases I could put together in classical-ish Latin. I set myself the rule of using every word in the kit, and not reusing any word that wasn’t duplicated in the kit. Don’t bother scanning them, as they’re not metrical, but who’s to say they aren’t Saturnians?
Some of them sound like they could plausibly have been written or at least thought by an actual historical Roman:
ars firma uitae est scientia in libris life’s reliable skill is book-knowledge
homini est nihil beati humankind has no share of happiness
Magna Mater omnes forma mala amat the Great Mother loves everyone who has a bad body
uidi populum facile errare et labi ad bellum
I’ve seen the populace easily going astray and slipping towards war
aurea uox mea non est pura my golden voice is not pure
sic ego rebus maximis gratias non emeritus sum that’s why I haven’t earned thanks for my super-great accomplishments
Some had a feeling of banter that could, if you squint real hard, fit in a comedy of Plautus:
amor ab ipso bono quem hominem amas; te uici, Maria
I’m loved by the very nobleman whom you love; I’ve beaten you, Maria
idem sum de quo delirium est I’m the very guy everyone’s crazy about
tu Brute carpe artes pauperes salis dum gratia patris fiat tibi absurdo
you, Brutus, pick out the impoverished arts of wit so long as you’ve got your dad’s good will, you ridiculous man
aue homo quid in curriculum uadis de quo non bene cogito?
hey, dude, why are you wandering onto the racetrack that I don’t think well of?
Others entered the danger zone, of either hanky panky or sacrilege:
ueni ad opus sub toga filii proximi I got to work underneath the toga of the boy next door
coitus habeas tremens ante nauseam may you, trembling, have sex to the point of nausea
pax alma mirabilis pacifici Satanas domini beati toto anno aureo in cetera terra beata
the wondrous nourishing peace of the peace-bringing blessed lord, o Satan, within the entire golden year in the remaining blessed land
nosce unum partum e culpa dei: filius caueat de te pater et de poena dura et nomine minimo delicti
recognize one born out of God’s mistake: the Son is on guard against you, Father, and against harsh punishment and against the slightest name of criminal action
But the best ones took me into the realm of the bizarre:
lupus bipes Christum in flumina sequitur minima cum cura
a wolf walking on its hind legs chases Christ into the rivers he don’t give a fuck
alter emptor lupi mortui exit e gloria populi the dead wolf’s other buyer has lost the good reputation of the public
uiam inueniam aut bona faciam absentia nulla fide
I’ll find a way— or I’ll make all my property disappear with no regrets
mortem malo sed corpus magnum uirile ago per uitam annum perpetuum
I prefer death but I drag my giant manly body through life for an endless year
And in case it wasn’t clear what the whole Magnetic Poetry set was trying (with middling results) to do, notice that one standalone magnet at the top of the photo: LATIN.
I managed to use every single word in the kit, which means this page has the sum of all Latin Magnetic Poetry options — so now it’s your turn to mix & match. Post your handiwork in the comments!
This week we turn to Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, a story of the sacrifice of a daughter so armies can go to war to fight for the return of Helen. Euripides asks us to consider what is like to be Agamemnon. What pressures eventuate in the sacrifice of his daughter? This play questions of who is in charge in a crisis and ends with a dim view of the Achaean army, which is compared to a mob screaming for the sacrifice of Iphigenia and threatening to stone Achilles if he gets in the way. Irrational mobs? Agitation to sacrifice one to preserve freedom of action for the many? There’s nothing here to resonate with current events at all.
“People have different natures;
They have different ways. But acting rightly
Always stands out.
The preparation of education
points the way to virtue.
For it is a mark of wisdom to feel shame
and it brings the transformative grace
of seeing through its judgment
what is right; it is reputation that grants
an ageless glory to your life.”
My name is Mary McLoughlin, and I am the creator of the Playing Sappho project (and of many lyres). Playing Sappho is both the name of my project, and my website where I have a blog and YouTube page dedicated to helping people re-create the music of Sappho, through How-To guides on building lyres, and signing in Ancient Greek, as well as some overall background for Sappho and her context.
I designed this project in fulfillment of my Senior Independent Study at the College of Wooster. I deeply love Sappho’s work, but I did not feel like I could add anything significant to the current scholarly debate surrounding her. So, I thought it would be worthwhile to design a project of public history and accessibility. One of the problems with classics, and the study of Sappho, is that it happens almost exclusively at a level of academic discourse (which is what makes websites like Sententiae Antiquae so cool!).
I wanted to make Sappho’s music more accessible, in its entirety. Which meant also helping people build lyres on the cheap, and figuring out how to sing in ancient Greek. I have greatly enjoyed the opportunity to do this work, and post-graduation intend to keep the project going (and building better lyres). It’s important to understand my re-creation of Sappho’s performance is far from ‘accurate’. Today, not much is known about what her performance would have looked like (though I do agree with scholarship suggesting it was public and choral).
I do the best I can, but I am just one person, now in quarantine, as we all are. When I sing in ancient Greek I am trying to make it sound good to a modern ear, Sappho probably would have thought it sounded ridiculous. This project is a love letter to Sappho, and in a lot of ways I feel as though I’m a little kid putting on a grown woman’s appearance and mimicking her work. I am ‘playing’ at Sappho. I believe the beauty of her work is enough; and I hope to share it with others and encourage them to re-create it themselves.
All that being said, I made my fair share of mistakes. I had a ton of issues making different lyres. Bending wood/ other materials was a consistent problem for me in lyre building, as was my final design shape (my final lyre looks more like a lyra than a barbitos). I had issues sourcing materials, and had to compromise on my final lyre by using a turtle shell, rather than a tortoise shell. This lead to its own issues and challenges. I am by no means a skilled craftsman, and my inexperience lead to a lot of mistakes. I am very lucky I still have all my fingers after building several prototypes and my final lyre. I’m also not a great videographer, which is clear from my many videos of my project and process.
My biggest issue in this whole project is that I would often not refer back to my source material as often as I should have – which resulted in my final lyre being the wrong shape, and essentially looking like a different type of instrument (a good way to conceptualize this is that it’s as if I was trying to build a bass guitar, and I have an instrument that sounds like a bass guitar, but looks more like a really big guitar, rather than a bass one). I made the errors of someone unfamiliar with this sort of research and execution, which I am. Though I am fortune in that I did succeed, I have a final lyre which looks cool, and a functional website to showcase my platform.
I also want to make it clear that whatever success I did have is due to the tremendously skilled people that helped me throughout this entire process. I was really lucky to have amazing people help me (Such as Stefan Hagel, Michael Girbal, the creators of Lyreavlos, Sententiae Antiquae, my advisors, my parents, different technology experts and the wood shop technician at my college, to say nothing of all my friends and family who encouraged me). Overall, I was challenged by my absolute lack of knowledge and experience but I never let that hold me back. That doesn’t mean that I was successful or courageous, I just had a good idea which I felt could back up my lack of know-how. How well I executed that is up to debate, but I’m proud of the work I did. I truly hope other people can enjoy it.
Life is pretty strange at the moment. To be honest, we wouldn’t have been going out that much anyway, owing to our second daughter being born just 2 months ago and our lack of sleep not being conducive to extensive exploration of the outside world.
But I like to think (and maybe I’m just kidding myself) that we would at least have ventured out for more than just our weekly supermarket trip. We were all set for celebrating new life, but now it feels even more precious and, indeed, precarious. We’re aware how fortunate we are to be able to stay inside and limit our contact while friends all over the world face significant peril.
Unable to explore the outside world, we have no option but to explore further the inner one. Life can often be solitary for an actor. Of course there are bouts of unemployment but even when acting in a play we’ll spend a significant amount of time working things out by ourselves: we learn and interpret lines, discover actions, develop a character’s playlist (and whatever exercises may form our particular technique), all (at least in part) on our own.
But we always get to share the result of that work with our fellow creative teammates. We are accustomed to working extremely closely (physically and emotionally) with others – our fellow cast members, directors, choreographers, stage managers, technical team, accent coaches, etc. For now, this traditional network of people meeting to create has been placed on hold. So how can we respond?
I suggested to Lanah at the Center for Hellenic Studies that we could start running readings of tragedy once a week to create opportunities for actors and academics to meet online and discover something together. I’ve been passionate about tragedy and its enduring impact since my time as a student, and I’ve devoted a significant portion of my career to exploring the connections between the ancient and modern worlds.
I was really delighted to hear from the CHS that Joel Christensen had been in touch with a similar proposal – and so our first international collaboration has been created. Last week we read scenes from Helen. This week it’s Sophocles’ Philoctetes (a man who knows a lot about isolation). I’ll be providing actors and directors to offer readings and their creative responses – I hope we’ll start to find new ways to use the medium to our advantage as I bring more artists into this project. Check out the CHS homepage for the livestream.
I’m especially intrigued to discover how we’ll use a computer screen as our ’empty space’. I also hope it can provide a fascinating resource for students and even a supportive testing ground for new translations of tragedy. We’ll be meeting at 3pm ET (which works well for my 2 month old), every Wednesday until we tell you otherwise. I hope you’re all staying safe and well.
Editor’s Note: The Second Reading went pretty well, check it out here:
Actors included: Tim Delap, Evelyn Miller, and Jack Whitam with commentary by Norman Sandridge from Howard University.
A week or so ago Paul O’Mahony pulled together a few people from the Center for Hellenic Studies (Lanah Koelle and Keith DeStone) with me and several members of the Kosmos Society (including Janet Ozsolak, Helene Emeriaud, Sarah Scott) with an idea: bringing together Hellenists and actors in isolation to do readings and discussions of Greek Tragedy during these strange times. We talked about how important it is to retain human contact and communication to stay sane, how the arts help us reflect on being human and how in these frightening times the humanities have no less a purchase on our imaginations and our needs than at any other.
We sketched out a basic plan to read a play a week and invite professional actors to read scenes together. And then we tried it out the next day. We recorded it rather than performing it live because we had no idea how well it would go. Here it is:
Designed by Paul O’Mahony with consultation from the Kosmos Society and Joel Christensen (me!)
Scenes include: Helen’s opening speech Helen and Teucer (l. 68-164) Menelaos speech (l.386-438) Menelaos and Old Woman (l.437-484) Menelaos and Helen meet (l.528-661) Menelaos and Helen plotting (l.1031-1093)
I hope you take some time to watch this and read along (we use this text). The conversation was unscripted and mostly unplanned–some of the comments about seeming and being and living at the edge of things or through mediated experiences struck me pretty hard.
We plan to do this on a weekly basis and are looking for experts in tragedy and actors who would like to participate. Please reach out! We hope to give people a chance to spend time thinking about Greek tragedy, engaging with one another, and meeting new people, learning new things.
For next week, we will be running the show live and opening it up to the public:
This is a follow-up post to Deborah Beck’s earlier reflections on plans for Podcasting in the Greek Classroom. (I covered her class’s Iliad podcasts last year) I have read Antigone and taught it many times, but I learned much about the play’s language and meaning from listening to these podcasts and found the experience stimulating in the way some of the best class discussions can be.
The podcasts 10-15 minutes in length and start with an episode hosted by Professor Beck to introduce listeners to the series (for students and the audience). The episodes are based around specific passages from the play which are taught by the students during the course meetings themselves. After the introductory message, Beck moves to summary of the myths around the family of Oedipus followed by a brief overview of the play’s initial plot and the other Sophoclean plays based on these myths, with special emphasis on Antigone’s importance in this play in contrast with what we know from other traditions.
In discussing the prologue, Professor Beck touches upon some of the oddness of the language from our perspective and the crucial themes of the play (the struggle between obedience to the laws of the state as opposed to those of the gods). Beck’s comments work as commentary themselves, moving between individual lexical items and larger thematic movements. It is an engaging way to approach a Greek text, especially refreshing when Beck admits that some of the lexical knots are confusing and difficult to disentangle.
This first episode provides a great introduction to the characterization of the sisters Antigone and Ismene through close attention to the language and syntax of the first 100 lines of the play, emphasizing especially how Antigone is inflexible and Ismene is able to hold contradictory ideas at once. Beck summarizes Ismene’s closing lines (τοῦτο δ’ ἴσθ’ ὅτι / ἄνους μὲν ἔρχῃ, τοῖς φίλοις δ’ ὀρθῶς φίλη, 98-99) as “I both think you’re bananas / and I love you dearly”.
The individual episodes follow this pattern to various levels of success. Episode 2 brings Dylan McKibban talking about lines 191-214 where Kreon makes a proclamation and the chorus’s response. McKibban looks at the relationship between this passage and the play as a whole before focusing on the Chorus’ “unusual” response. McKibban follows Professor Beck in providing close readings of the Greek, but also does a nice job of discussing the relationship between the depiction of Creon in this passage and his appearance later in the play. Especially valuable is the observation that the Chorus implies that, while Creon has the power to make his decision, it does not mean it is right (211–214):
“It is pleasing to you, child of Menoikeus, that
the man hostile to the city and the one loyal to it come to these ends.
The power is yours to use every law, we suppose,
For the dead and however many of us remain alive.”
McKibban ends with a reflection on the experience of teaching the class, noting that it is not is not necessarily the case that “if one can translate the lines, they must already understand them.”
In Episode 3, Cassandra Winkley and Rachel Prichett talk about the trope of messengers in tragedy, focusing in particular on lines 215-242. I really enjoy the way the two speakers highlight the humor in the characterization of the Phulaks, as an impatient child who wants to talk about himself (e.g. Φράσαι θέλω σοι πρῶτα τἀμαυτοῦ, 238). The subsequent conversation about the tension between messengers in general in tragedy and this specific instantiation of the trope is really useful: the speakers compare him to the absurd messenger from Euripides’ Orestes and emphasize how annoying he is to Creon.
Episode 4 has Laura talking about Creon’s discovery of the burial of Polyneices (Antigone 280-303), paying special attention to the change in his language. This speaker’s tour through the Greek is especially good as she draws both on the text and Mark Griffin’s commentary.
Laura picks out well the authoritarian certainty in Creon’s declaration “I know well that these men did these things because they were motivated by money” ᾿Εκ τῶνδε τούτους ἐξεπίσταμαι καλῶς / παρηγμένους μισθοῖσιν εἰργάσθαι τάδε. Laura notes helpfully that while there are many different interpretations of the play, Creon is almost always depicted too simply as an “unhinged autocrat”. Laura’s challenging reconsideration of Creon as a person and not a stock character is a great start for the overall challenge of the play: seeing Creon, not Antigone, as the central protagonist.
Lyle takes the listeners through a discussion of Creon’s leadership (Antigone 304‑331) in Episode 5. He invites someone from the business school to talk about Creon’s actions. This exercise may have been a little more effective if the interlocutor knew a little more about the plot of the play. Nevertheless, the conversation’s move to the behavior in the real world was useful when they turn to speak about hierarchy and insecurity. Especially interesting is the sudden turn to a discussion of Anne Carson’s Antigonick.
There are many wonders and none
is more surprising than humanity.
This thing that crosses the sea
as it whorls under a stormy wind
finding a path on enveloping waves.
It wears down imperishable Earth, too,
the oldest of the gods, a tireless deity,
as the plows trace lives from year to year
drawn by the race of horses….
In the first, Brendan starts with a performance of Robert Fagles’ translation of the first part of the Ode. Before going into the Ode, he discusses the semantic range of deinos. His delivery and range of examples are really effective (and funny in the speaker’s wry way). Brendan explains that the meaning of this passage hinges on how we understand deinos and then moves line by line through the section to argue that man is deinos because he has raised himself beyond everything in nature in an oppositional fashion. Humankind is simultaneously wonderful and terrible.
Where Brendan draws on his experience in philosophy to talk about the relative meaning of deinos, Joseph turns back to the Greek and argues that the meter of the Ode’s second half (354-383) emphasizes the duality of its themes, a feature likely connected to the separations of strophe and antistrophe. Joseph cleverly mines the metrically equivalent passages for parallels and tensions, as in the repetitions in lines 360 and 370 (παντοπόρος· ἄπορος ἐπ’ οὐδὲν ἔρχεται :: ὑψίπολις· ἄπολις ὅτῳ τὸ μὴ καλὸν). Before turning to speak about the class, Brendan turns to a discussion of how this formal duality reflects the plot of the play and resolves in Creon’s character development.
Albion brings a new energy in Episode 8 in a discussion of the Guard’s return in lines 384–414. Albion’s recitation of the Greek and explanation of the composition is both well-paced and infectious—rarely do I hear “zeugmatic” uttered allowed and know that the speaker is smiling! In the end, the analysis of the guard’s motivations helps us understand both the realpolitik at play in Thebes and the subtle characterization available in even so minor a character.
In episode 9, Payton and Nikhil discuss the theme of isolation, starting from lines 415–447. Following a summary of the preceding events and an overview of how both Antigone and Creon are defined by physical and emotional isolation shaped by family history and political roles, they move to an illuminating discussion of how neither character really perceives their isolation in this scene. Especially good in this section is the discussion of the possible echoes in the guard’s description of the “unburial” as a (θείαν νόσον, 421) and ambiguous language reflecting potential judgments of Creon.
Episode 10 takes us to topics of gender and family as Mary speaks about the language of lament in lines 497–530. (Mary wins my heart by starting with a khairete!) As with earlier episodes, she starts by giving a brief overview of the plot running up to the passage before pulling out kinship names and descriptions of relationships offered by Antigone and Creon: the former emphasizes blood relations whereas the latter focuses on political relationships. These differences in diction reflect the major conflict of the play. Mary provides a really deep overview of scholarship near the end of the episode on emotions, tragedy, and politics which surpasses anything one might expect from a student podcast.
The theme of family is central to Episode 11 too, where Katherine asks us to look at the development of the dynamic between Ismene and Antigone (531–558). Katherine situates her listeners in the plot, bringing Ismene out on the stage to try to join Antigone in a “belated solidarity” and focusing on how much they have changed since their appearance in the prologue. Her question about whether or not the portrayal “cements” our prior impression of the characters is a nice way to invite us to think about the experience of witnessing the play as a whole in a short amount of time. To Katherine, Ismene comes of as “rather brave” but perhaps still fickle. In whatever case, this depiction makes her more “sympathetic” and more “real”. I think I will carry Mary’s question about Antigone’s characterization with me for a long time: “If family is so important to Antigone, how can she so easily and so completely reject her sister”?
The other child of this play—Haemon—is the focus of Lexie’s Episode 12, a discussion of the conflict between father and son over Antigone. Lexie takes us through a careful reading of Haemon’s speech to his father, emphasizing that this exchange is qualitatively different from earlier depictions of Creon because of their relationship. Especially good in this discussion is her note about the semantic difference of μανθάνειν as a more humble approach to knowledge (710) and her comments on the anticipatory metaphor of the destruction of the tree, “root and all” (αὐτόπρεμν᾿ ἀπόλλυται, 714).
Payton and Nikhil return in Episode 13 (“Let’s Talk Greek”) to continue the conversation between Haemon and Creon at 738–781. In this episode, we encounter the definition of the agon as a competitive verbal exchange and the use of politeness theory to help us understand the conversation in modern terms. The close reading of the speech exchange–what they refer to once as “verbal judo”–opens up both the intellectual and emotional components of the agon.
There are really two big pedagogical components to this class. The first is the process of preparing the podcast, which is a type of research presentation. The second is a teaching exercise which happened in class. The really clever part of the course design is that the podcast project brings these two strands together. It is really worthwhile to listen to the students go through the metacognitive process of reflecting on what they learned from teaching the class. A tertiary aspect that I think is really important is that this exercise encouraged students to think about the relationship between the parts of the play to its whole. This is, regrettably, something that is often lost in the close-reading exercises of advanced Greek courses.
The production value of these podcasts is somewhat higher than one might expect—some of the producers introduce new music and clips from other media; others bring in different speakers and other subjects. As a group, there is the kind of subject variety and stylistic variation you might want from a series.
If you have the time to add this to your listening queue, it is a great reminder of how deep and challenging Antigone is as a play and how rewarding it can be to work through the Greek with others. Even more interesting for me is the potential for a podcast to function in the place of a traditional commentary. While listening, I imagined an audio track accompanying me as I read the text anew—I am not sure that these individual podcasts can do this exclusively, but if I were teaching this play any time soon, I would assign students to listen to these episodes.
Introducing a new series (#SciencethePast): My colleague, Dr. Alexandra Ratzlaff, has been working with the Brandeis Techne Group as Residents at the Autodesk Technology Center and in partnership with the Brandeis MakerLab run by Brandeis’ very own Ian Roy. They have some pretty amazing work to feature, but in our autumnal mood, here’s a post-Halloween Update.
The Junior Classical League purports to foster interest in the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome and is one of the largest academic clubs in the world with 50,000 members and 1,200 chapters. For the last six decades, JCL has also supported mock slave auctions as a source of entertainment. Humor derived from dehumanization and degradation have no place in our society, especially given our country’s shameful history of enslavement and other forms of systemic racism.
My essay should end here. Ideally, the notion of mock slave auctions in an organization sponsored by the American Classical League should prompt outrage, activism, and sustained action. Too often, though, this kind of racism is tolerated and normalized by those both inside and outside of secondary classics. Latin teachers and other stakeholders, even those who purport to care about social justice, often protect the field over individuals marginalized and harmed by patterns of racism and hostility in secondary Latin.
We can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the state of secondary Classics. We are in dire need of reform.
The Junior Classical League is a space so insulated from the realities of racism that slave auctions have been a common source of entertainment and fun for decades. In 2016, a story about a mock slave auction went viral after black audience members were subjected to this racist spectacle at an Illinois Junior Classical League convention. In a demonstrably deceitful response, the National Junior Classical League and the American Classical League claimed they “regret to hear of the incident” and that “this incident in no way reflects the values we have as an organization.”
The Junior Classical League did not “hear of the incident,” they have organized, promoted and sponsored similar events for the better part of a century. In the 1950s, a teacher wrote in Classical Outlook, “One boy bought a pretty girl just to have her following him around… The club has been asked to repeat the auction in assembly before the whole school.”
Slave auctions continue in the Junior Classical League, often sanitized with the branding “Rent-a-Roman.” The 2011-2012 National Junior Classical League scrapbook contains a picture of a “slave” posing with her “master at the annual Rent-a-Roman.” In 2012, an event affiliated with the California Junior Classical League included this description: “You can offer yourself up for sale or bid on the merchandise to purchase a companion/ money-servant for the rest of the lunch hour.” In 2014, a write up in the newsletter of the Classical Association of the Midwest and South include a teacher touting activities that included a “master/slave program.” The 2017 California Junior Classical League constitution included a reference to slave auctions as a fundraising opportunity: “Should a slave auction be held at the state convention, the money acquired shall go to the state scholarship fund.” In 2018, the Pennsylvania Junior Classical League newsletter contained a report on a Saturnalia event where club leaders are “auctioned off to serve as ‘slaves’ for the night… these individuals will be ordered around by their new masters to fetch food, sing, dance, and entertain.”
Mock slave auctions are just one example of a much larger, pervasive problem in secondary Classics that includes trivializing slavery and turning oppression, and the oppressed, into a source of humor. In 2017, Erik Robinson documented problematic portrayals of slavery in secondary text books. The National Latin Exam, which over 140,000 students take, is notorious for their regressive treatment of slavery and other forms of oppression (e.g. sexual assault). There are too many examples to list here, but one recent question echoed the racist myth of the loyal slave. Loyalty is predicated on autonomy and feelings of allegiance, which mitigates the culpability of enslavers and misrepresents the realities of slavery.
It is beyond the scope of this article to explain why slave auctions are racist and how this kind of humor, even in the context of ancient Rome, supports the messaging and strategies of white supremacy groups. Suffice it to say, these kinds of events are unethical and harmful. Recently, the New York attorney general’s office investigated a school for holding a slave auction, finding “that the teacher’s re-enactments in the two classes had a profoundly negative effect on all of the students present — especially the African American students — and the school community at large.” A student who witnessed the Illinois JCL slave auction told the Washington Post, “Since JCL is primarily white, they are so into their, like, white privilege, I guess, that they don’t know how they can affect minorities.”
The Junior Classical League has abused its monopoly and imposed a twisted value system on its members. JCL membership appeals to students looking to build their college resumes. And, many teachers are contractually required to sponsor a chapter. Our dues should not support this kind of culture. We should not cultivate students’ interest in this distortion of Classics.
The American Classical League has hired a diversity consultant, and in most of my correspondence with them, I am reminded of this fact. It is a positive step for the ACL to obtain the services of an outside expert, but a diversity consultant should be a small part of a larger strategy to eradicate racism from secondary Classics, not a standalone solution. As long as stakeholders in secondary Classics and our post-secondary colleagues protect the status quo through both action and inaction, this culture will persist and become even more toxic.
Concern for people affected by these systemic failures must trump the defense of the organization. ACL, JCL, NLE, and other affiliates exist to promote Classics. Nothing in the promotion of Classics should also include the promotion of racism and white supremacy, especially when hundreds of thousands of children are affected by the way the ACL has shaped the field.
It is time for decisive action and commitment to change.
The co-chair of the National Latin Exam accused me in a late-night Twitter direct message of wanting a spectacle. I do not want a spectacle. (Perhaps that accusation was wishful thinking.) I want the culture of secondary Latin to stop supporting racism and narratives of white dominance.
This goal will take work, not just words. If you are interested in advocating against racism in Classics and want to know how to help, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Meanwhile, here are a few ways the American Classical League and its affiliates can begin to change the culture in secondary Classics. This list is far from exhaustive:
1) Apologize for your role in perpetuating white supremacy and racism. Stop treating each instance of problematic content and practices as some sort of aberration.
2) Remove leaders and volunteers who have aggressively defended and perpetuated the status quo and who prioritize the interests and image of the organization over the well-being and safety of students.
3) Provide information to teachers about how to talk about white supremacy and dangerous appropriations of Classics. Our field has supported racist ideas and is used to legitimize hate and violence. We have a responsibility to equip students to recognize and counter these appropriations, even when they come from within our own field.
4) Remove all content immediately that is incompatible with the goal of “Classics for All” and release an accompanying statement that explains why the material was harmful. Do not legitimize offensive content and practices by engaging in a ‘both sides discussion’ and hiding behind procedure and tradition. Swift action and adherence to procedures are not mutually exclusive.
Colleagues in post-secondary Classics. Here are a few calls to action and points to consider:
1) Find out if JCL held a mock slave auction on your campus. If so, apologize. Do not allow them on your campus. Fraternities have been suspended for holding slave auctions. It is even worse when they are held as entertainment in the context of an academic program for children.
2) Formally condemn the practice of slave auctions and call on the Junior Classical League and, more broadly, the American Classical League, to own its uncomfortable past and repair the damage it has done through events like these and the culture they reflect.
3) If you publish a newsletter or promote activities in secondary Latin, vet them before you provide a platform for abhorrent practices. There is no excuse for a “master/slave” activity to have been featured in a CAMWS publication (or any publication).
4) Stay informed about what is going on in secondary Classics and hold organizations accountable for failures that affect both current students and the future of the field.
For the second year, my advanced Greek class at the University of Texas at Austin is creating a podcast series about our experiences reading and teaching ancient Greek. Last fall (2018), I piloted this idea in a course on Homer’s Iliad that satisfies university distributional requirements in writing and independent inquiry. I thought that a podcast would be a great way to work on both of these skills, while also giving all of us an opportunity to reach out to people beyond our own classroom who are interested in Greek literature.
Our series, “Musings from Greek 365,” was a great first effort – we all had a good time; the relatively small number of listeners who found our work enjoyed it (including Sententiae Antiquae); and I learned a lot, both about the Iliad and about how to create an effective podcast. So did the students. But it was clearly a first effort, and I ended the semester with a long list of what I wanted do differently next time. This fall, with the benefit of the experience and mistakes of last year, we’re off to a great start with our series Sophocles Antigone in 2019.
A podcast series uses a consistent structure for the series as a whole, within which every episode has a lot of leeway for individual creativity. Traditional storytelling in ancient Greece works the same way. In classical mythology, the broad parameters of a given myth are stable, but individual poets, artists, and writers can adjust the details as they see fit. So, each podcast episode in our series consists largely of close reading and interpretation of a particular section of the play that a given student has already taught to their colleagues during a regular class period, along with some reflection on their experience of teaching. But podcasting, like mythology, allows for and indeed thrives on individual choices.
I simply talked for all of my introductory episode, and some students have done that. Other students use music to enliven their episodes, while still others chose to discuss their material with fellow students. In Episode 5, Lyle discussed modern versions of ancient tragedy with a friend in the College of Business, with whom he had read the Antigone in high school. The various media, rhetorical styles, and modes of speaking that students use in their podcasts call to mind the range of meters, stylistic levels, and musical styles in Greek tragedy itself. But at the same time, our shared norms and interests as a class tie together the individual episodes, just as particular characters and themes crop up repeatedly in both the Antigone and students’ podcast episodes about the play.
Podcasting, in other words, reminds us that tragedy is a performance genre, something that can easily fall by the wayside as students struggle through the highly abstract and allusive Greek of a choral ode, or the compressed style of back-and-forth dialogue. Podcasting also makes a fruitful pairing with teaching, itself a kind of performance. In both teaching and podcasting, and for that matter in good writing, we have to decide what we really want to say about our material and how best to say that. If we try to say too many things, or we introduce details that we think are interesting but no one else cares about, we lose our audience.
Furthermore, the manner in which we perform our material can play a huge role in how effectively it connects with an audience. In fact, I decided to go to graduate school to become a professor in part because I had been active in high school theater, and I thought (correctly) that I would enjoy the performance aspects of teaching. And the students enjoy it too. Although each of them has commented – either informally or in their podcasts, or both – that teaching is much more time consuming than they had expected, if you listen to our podcast, you will hear in their own words that they relish the experience and they learned a lot.
Different students, unsurprisingly, came away with different take-aways. In Episode 3, Cassie tells us that she enjoyed her experience as a taste of what having her own class might be like. Laura came to see Creon’s attitude in her passage not as humorous, as she had initially thought when she served as “Teacher of the Day,” but as a complex and even sympathetic character. Laura finished Episode 4 with this summing-up: “If I’ve learned anything from this assignment, it’s that the close reading and the thinking I had to do to teach this passage showed me both the complexity of the text, and the complexity of Creon’s character.”
What has the professor learned? Unfortunately, I failed to come up with a good name for our podcast. I am bad at catchy titles, and this podcast is no exception. I chose “Sophocles Antigone in 2019” to point to the enduring relevance of the Antigone for conversations about justice, law, and good government. This becomes a more cogent aspect of the play with every passing day, but it’s still a boring name.
I did, however, improve the assignment guidelines for how to create a podcast, which I am happy to share with anyone who would like to see them. These guidelines break down the process of producing a podcast episode into a series of concrete steps with specific due dates attached to each. As a result, students complete their podcasts in a timely fashion – a consistent problem last year – and our series releases new episodes on a regular basis throughout the fall semester. I wanted to make sure we had a regular release schedule in part to make the podcast more appealing to listeners.
Better publicity was, and is, at the top of my list of needed improvements. Last year, we had no publicity at all, except what was generated by traffic on Podomatic, our free podcasting platform. This did a real disservice to the terrific work of the students, and one of my main priorities for this year was to learn more about publicizing a podcast. So, we have a regular release schedule, we have some public domain artwork, and I am in the process of listing our podcast with iTunes and Google Play. So far, so good. When this course ends, I’ll doubtless have a fresh list of ways to do various things better next time.
Podcasting is a lot of work. It’s also really fun and everyone involved will learn a lot, often in unexpected ways. At the end of Episode 2, Dylan says, “I’m not just trying to translate the lines, but trying to understand their place in the text and how they serve the play as a whole. This came as a bit of a shock, because I think it’s easy for us to think at first that if one can translate the lines, they must already understand them. After this experience, I can certainly say that’s not true.”
If you listen to our series, drop us a note and tell us what you learned.
“For, that which is instilled into young minds will set deep roots, and will not easily be removed by any force afterward.”
Nam quod teneris mentibus insitum est, alte radices mittit, nec facile postea divelli ulla vi potest
Vergerio, de ingenuis moribus et liberalibus adulescentiae studiis, XLIX
A few years ago, Amy Pistone emailed me during the aftermath of yet another mass shooting to ask if I knew of anything in ancient Greek literature to respond to this all-too-frequent terror. I threw together a collection of passages which didn’t really get to the heart of the issue: the absolute horror of people suddenly killing scores of others, compounded by the practically criminal failure of our public officials to respond with anything more than stock phrases and empty gestures.
I have spent a lot of my life jousting with depression, death anxiety, and the ups and downs of facing up to (and sometimes failing to meet) the challenges of everyday life. For most of my adult life—and a good portion of my formative years—I found refuge and comfort in books, poetry, music and other forms of narrative art. For the past few decades, Homeric poetry and Greek literature in general have helped me guide my life, if not save it. But no matter how much I comb through the remnants of the past looking for that perfect quotation which will unlock the secrets of the universe, nothing seems to match up to the stupidity, the craven profiteering, and the visceral wrongness of children being gunned down in their schools, families executed in their place of worship, or communities torn apart by sudden and public demonstrations of raw, unforgiving violence.
And then, a few weeks ago, Aislinn Melchior sent me a message asking if I could remember a story of “the last hero…the wrestler who pulls down the building on top of his hometown’s school children.” To be honest, I didn’t know the tale, so I did what one does and I asked #ClassicsTwitter. Within a few hours, someone sent me the first passage I posted yesterday from Pausanias. After some simple searches, I found the others. Here’s the main translation again:
“In the Olympiad before that one they say that Kleomêdês the Astupalaian killed the Epidaurian Hippos while boxing him. When he was charged by the referees with cheating and was deprived of the victory, he went out of his mind with grief and returned to Astupalaia.
There, he attacked a school there which held as many as sixty children and knocked down the pillar which supported the roof. After the roof fell on the children, the citizens threw stones at Kleomêdês and he fled into the Temple of Athena. Inside, he climbed into a chest and closed the lid over him.
The Astupalaians wore themselves out trying to open or break the chest. When they finally broke open the chest and did not find Kleomêdês there dead or alive, they send representatives to Delphi to ask what kind of thing had happened with Kleomêdês. The Pythia is said to have given the oracle that:
Kleomêdês the Astupalaian was the last of the heroes—
Honor him with sacrifices since he is no longer mortal.”
For this reason the Astupalaians have honored Kleomêdês as a hero since that time.
The story is short, simple, and strange. Yet in this brevity and strangeness it engages not just with the central problems of Greek heroism, but it also forces us to think about how narrative functions and to revisit our assumptions about this word hero. The more I have thought about these connections, the more I have come to believe that the story of Kleomêdês has something to say about what forces make a mind capable and compelled to slaughter children. To be honest, I have also been thinking about parts of this for years, in particular about the damage perpetuated by our simplistic idea of the heroic narrative. So, this might take me a few words to get through. But I’m going to try.
The Problem with Heroes: To Suffer and Cause Suffering
“I am called Odysseus for evil deeds correctly: / For many who have been my enemy hate me.”
A starting point is that the story of Kleomêdês the Astupalaian is not an exceptional heroic narrative. He flies into a fit of rage when he does not receive the portion of honor he believes his community owes him and then separates himself from that community. Subsequently, he commits an act of violence against an exposed portion of his community in order to gain vengeance for his perceived suffering. Although the community mobilizes against him, he is ultimately recompensed for his lost position through fame. Kleomêdês receives eternal rites as a hero. But—and this is important—the people of Astupalaia record that he is the final one.
While Kleomêdês appears exceptional for that last assertion, the rest of his tale resonates clearly with that of other better known heroes. Both Achilles and Odysseus separate from their communities and commit (or have committed) acts of violence in order to return and gain greater renown than before. Achilles prays for his people to die in the first book of the Iliad; Odysseus slaughters 108 of the suitors upon his return home. Both of them ultimately receive immortal kleos, despite (or perhaps because of) their complex and harmful nature.
It is the simplistic way we talk about heroism rather than anything true about ancient myth and literature that might make us surprised to realize that these two most famous of Homeric heroes could be seen as monsters who murder their own people. But the capacity to suffer or causesuffering is central to the identity of Greek heroes, as Erwin Cook argues well, and central perhaps even to the ambiguity of their names: “Achilles” has been analyzed as “woe for the people” and Odysseus’ named has been folk-etymologized since antiquity as the “hateful one” (who delivers or receives hate). The most heroic hero, Herakles, is also essentially anti-social: he murders his own wife and children and, among his labors, commits many horrors absent any kind of virtue.
When Kleomêdês is called a hero, then, it is not ironic nor is it transgressive. His murdering of children is a regular entry in the heroic CV. The overwhelming force of heroic power is matched by an overweening sense of entitlement and rage at the denial of an expected reward.
The Problem with Stories 1: The Heroic pattern and Metonymic Algorithms
“The first point is that it is not only poets who used myths, but cities and lawmakers did too for the sake of their usefulness, once they noted the native disposition of the story-oriented animal. For humans love to learn; loving stories is a prelude to this. This is why children start by listening and making a common ground in stories.”
Part of what people miss by just reading collections of myth or skimming the Iliad is that early Greek poetry is not just ambivalent about ‘heroes’, it is highly engaged with criticizing conventional heroic qualities. We labor in part with the misunderstanding of what the word hero means. And there is dangerous beneath that cornerstone of every college myth class, “the heroic pattern”, perhaps most well-known popularly in the form of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, the heroic journey. The “heroic pattern” is a crass oversimplification of narrative myth and a naive perpetuation of its limitations
Now, this is probably not the right place—or time—to unpack the problems of the heroic pattern completely, but understanding the impact of two of its features influences the way I think about the modern function of myth and storytelling. First, though, the basic definition: the “heroic pattern” is a narrative plot sequence shared by many stories, from Gilgamesh and Herakles, through the Gospel’s Jesus and to more recent characters like Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. Authors like Joseph Campbell argue that, in a sense, the monomyth is the one true story at the base of all others while more sensitive readers like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung (who certainly influenced Campbell) saw the repeated narrative pattern as evidence of human psychology from experience (Freud’s “family drama”) reflected in turn in social patterns and expectations (Jung’s “archetypes”).
A general issue worth noting is that there is slippage here between descriptive and prescriptive treatments of the pattern. What I mean by this is that folklorists who work with similar concepts record the pattern as an observable phenomenon in the world and use the observation as part of a framework of thinking about how the stories work in the world. While psychoanalysts like Freud and Jung may start from the descriptive perspective, their treatment of human beings and communities becomes reductive and prescriptive when the pattern is used to interpret complex situations too narrowly.
The mythic pattern is already implicitly prescriptive as part of the shared narrative material that shapes our lives (or, from a post-modern perspective, discourse); but it is then made doubly prescriptive when culture salesmen like Campbell (and more recent televangelists like J. Peterson) offer it as a panacea. It becomes supercharged as a commodity: there are businesses that specialize in making sure that your movie script follows the monomyth. There is also no shortage of books to help you write the next film version of the Hero’s Journey.
Two fundamental problems that emerge from this are the monomyth’s content and form. Because the heroic pattern is reflective of latent and immanent social relationships and structures, it enforces damaging stereotypes. Women, for example, have little space to act as independent agents in its plot and heteronormative male sexuality is almost always a dominant structuring force even if it is not explicit (of course, there are multiple angles to a feminist critique of the hero’s journey.) So, the heroic pattern is simply harmful to audiences who are incapable of conforming to the external identity of the ‘hero’—it constrains who they think they can be and implicitly communicates that the best option is to work in service of someone else’s narrative.
But even for audiences who can see themselves as subjects of the hero’s journey, nearly all modern versions of it are deficient because the pattern generally says little about what happens after the hero’s return to his community. When I teach ancient myth, I emphasize that post-heroic narratives like those after the Odyssey or the stories of heroes who fail (e.g. Oedipus and Bellerophon) are critical moments in the continuation of the heroic pattern: they illustrate to their audiences that the heroic life ends and transforms. This, rather than the entertainment of an adventure tale, should be the true therapeutic goal of an exploration of the hero’s journey because it shows that there is value in putting up your sword, in joining a community, in having a family, and figuring out how to live a life of meaning once your youthful strength has gone.
Narratives that fail to explore this greater percentage of human life do us a terrible disservice. Ancient Greek myth, by focusing on what Gregory Nagy has called “the unseasonal nature of the hero,” reconciles the exceptional figure to the life cycle and the community through death and its attendant rituals. This is one reason kleos (“fame, glory”) can function as recompense for actual life lost, but the promise of fame itself distorts again the relationship between individuals and the process of life.
So far, these criticisms are about the content of the conventional heroic pattern. One might profitably suggest that by adjusting aspects of the content (say the gender or race of the participants, the emphasis on what happens after heroic deeds), one can preserve the value of the form. But I worry too that the way we talk about the form is damaging. When we talk about the heroic pattern we use, I think, a linguistic metaphor that seems to imply something discrete, concrete, and predictable. Now, while there is a difference between metaphor and reality, when we use metaphors to talk about something as ineffable and mysterious as the functioning of human minds, the metaphor can shape the development of our concepts about the things they are meant to describe.
As a metaphor, a “pattern” connotes something preset and knowable. The discrete steps and stages of the Campbellian popular version simplifies and “dilutes” the complexity of heroic narrative. But the manner of speaking and the way we treat the “pattern” has the added impact of curtailing how we think narrative and myth work. As a metaphor, the “pattern” or staged journey almost too easily slips into the language of programming. But this simplistic metaphor leads to many people thinking that storytelling and human actions are simply an issue of inputting a code and pressing “execute”.
If coding is the right metaphor for narrative—a thing which I highly doubt—it is much better to conceive of a generative and learning algorithm, one with potential codes which emerge depending on the environment and context. Here, I actually find it better to think about narrative in terms of viral DNA. Stories and narrative function much more like a living organism, with vestigial characteristics, combining and recombining and showing different traits under different epigenetic traditions. Similar narrative responses are triggered by similar contexts and environments.
But even this metaphor occludes the most important part of the way narrative and discourse work: these descriptions miss out on the fact that the audience shapes the tale and that the elements of the patterns in the complex engagement between story and audience necessarily contain their opposite. Each story and element of the story is a compact metonym which can be expanded or reduced and which will shift and evolve in response to audiences.
So, while approaches to heroic patterns from folklore through psychoanalysis to the pop-cultural hit-making of the hero’s journey understand that the pattern is attractive to audiences, they fail to acknowledge that the pattern is shaped in response to an audience whose expectations and beliefs have been shaped by the pattern. There is a perilous circuity to this process as the repetition of the pattern accentuates its extremities even while attenuating the possibility that there are other narrative moves to make.
The Problem with Stories 2: The Heroic Pattern and Toxic Masculinity
“For as long as he lives, a man has no greater glory / than that which he wins with his own hands and feet”
What does this have to do with the tale of Kleomêdês and the end of heroism? When I read his story now, I see both Pausanias’ and Plutarch’s accounts as showing an individual trapped into a series of actions by the stories he has heard and a community struggling to deal with the consequences of its narrative traditions. If we imagine Kleomêdês as a real person, he imitates and performs the roles he has absorbed; if we see him as fictional or a ritualized narrative, he helps the people who tell his stories to explore the the limits of the story he embodies.
Among these options is the very real possibility that ancient Greek communities understood the power of their myths to shape their lives, While this process is not as simple as a choose-your-own-adventure story, it does constrain us to certain modes of action in certain contexts. We all play social roles; our lives and senses of self are shaped by patterned assumptions about what these roles can and should do; when there is a mismatch between our expectations and our experiences, we feel a deep kind of grief, a crisis of belonging, even existential angst.
When the cultural messages we have received have not taught us humility, compromise, or to accept complexity—indeed, when they have formed us instead to expect reward, a clear place in society, and an expression of value through access to sex, adulation, and freedom to do as we wish—we are ill-fit to respond to different contexts and new information. Some people adapt and thrive; the vast majority struggle emotionally. Many fantasize about different possibilities, about breaking the system that disappointed them. A small few turn brutally, unforgivably, and irrevocably nihilistic. And this turn is embedded in heroic narrative itself: if you cannot be the avenging hero or the savior, you can still be the suffering rogue or the tragic king. One city’s savior is another’s slaughtering demon. And when there is no city to save, what remains?
I don’t mean to say anything as simple as mass murder is caused by the stories we tell, whether they appear in movies, books, video games, music etc. But there is a formative and cyclical relationship between the immanent narrative forces in our culture and the extreme actions some members of our culture take. When we flatten out narratives and don’t explore them in their entirety, we refuse to acknowledge the complexity and range of messages conveyed in even the simplest tale. Heroes are about excess: ancient Greek heroes eat excessively, reproduce excessively, suffer excessively, and, when left without recourse, kill to excess.
A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell explored the influence of popular narrative on school shootings in the New Yorker (“Thresholds of Violence,” Oct. 19, 2015). In it, he uses the social economist Mark Granovetter’s work on “behavior thresholds” to explore the basic proposal that school shootings over time are akin to behavior in mob violence, that one’s limit or “threshold” for behaving extremely is lowered when surrounded by examples of extreme behavior.
I have found this idea attractive for some time insofar as it avoids pathologizing individuals and instead examines how aggregate individual choices over time can in part be understood as a function of collective identity and the common repository of possible avenues for behavior. In essence, the argument is a statistical one about marginal behavior: marginalized individuals may be more likely to engage in socially destructive behavior; if they can regain some of their lost ‘rightful’ honor or glory through it and they have observed others glorified for it, then their threshold for engaging in such behavior can drop low enough to initiate action. This, in part, helps to explain the tendency in the US for mass killers to be white and male in a certain age group. This violence is an expression of assumed privilege denied.
But I hesitate when thinking through this explanation because it seems just a little too reductive, a modern form of Plato’s insistence that poetry is dangerous because most people are just too dumb to understand that it is allegory and they extract the wrong lesson from it. This is not to say that there is no truth to the proposal that the stories we experience in the world have a paradigmatic effect on what we think is possible—indeed, if we did not grant fame to mass murderers, there would likely be fewer mass murders.
(And Gladwell’s interpretation of Granovetter’s work seems to be something of a leap from the context and intention of the original work. I have read the latter’s articles and find some of the former’s inferences a bit maddening. This is not to say the conclusions are not powerful, but that they might be better supported with discourse analysis from Durkheim on up through post-modern theory.)
The threshold explanation, however, by focusing on some of the problem ignores the complex causes that put people in a situation in which they feel compelled to choose what the commentariat can only explain as the action of the “mentally ill”. There is, I think, an essential connection between the severe individualism that desires fame so desperately and the essential ‘maleness’ of heroes and ‘the heroic pattern’. The term toxic masculinity has emerged over the past few years to describe part of this. But like the term white fragility, its ability to indicate a basically true set of phenomena is countered by the nearly violent emotive response it elicits from the very people who best exhibit its traits.
Both of these terms describe the range of irritations to paroxysms of fear and violence that ensue when the assumed place of honor granted to an individual or group is ‘threatened’ by new social realities. Now, this might seem like a bit of a digression from where I started, but I think that part of this sense of dislocation and an additional piece to the puzzle of the problem of mass killings comes from our cultural discourse about who we are combined with the stories we tell.
We have a general cultural belief in intrinsic, individual identities which remain largely unchanged through life. Even if this belief falls apart when tested, we can see how it is reflected—and projected—in our political/economic focus on individual responsibility and our political/judicial focus on punishment and incarceration over rehabilitation. The late therapist Michael White, following the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, argues that such a view of a person limits our sense of agency in the world: he calls it “internal state psychology” because it assumes that we have a specific and mostly unchanging set of characteristics which lock us into certain courses of action.
Even if this is in some sense ‘true’—or, perhaps, more true than not—the belief in such a model of personhood has deleterious effects because it makes us believe that we—and others—cannot change. This framework is a type of psychological determinism, and it limits our sense of agency in the world and insists that some paths are closed off to us. The assumption of the internal state traps us in a deterministic world view. A hero must have honor and must gain it through extreme behavior; when the promised reward is not provided, a different narrative step slides into place. A paradigmatic act of violence both performs this determinism and gives the actor the illusion of breaking with the system.
While I have written elsewhere about Michael White’s emphasis on developing an “intentional state” psychology through therapy to facilitate positive change and break destructive patterns, the concept of “internal state” psychology also demonstrates how a concrete concept of identity, dependent on external markers of esteem and ‘patterns’ of behavior, is ‘strong’ up until the moment it crumbles completely. It is a house of concrete cards: when it falls, its pieces crush everything around them.
The Last of the Heroes and the end of Toxic Myth
“It is hard for a man to be truly good, built evenly with hands, feet and mind without blame.”
Is it too much to see in the collapsing school at Astyupalaia a metaphor for the elaborate interdependence and ultimately fragility of a community built together through narrative? Perhaps, but the tale of Kleomêdês the Astupalaian is one of many set at the join between history and myth to emphasize not just the end of the heroic age but to reiterate its justification. The “hero” is opposed to the community structurally (he fights them) and symbolically (he kills the future). The nameless citizens band together only after realizing the damage he has done—they are not free of blame themselves because he was part of their community. The oracle’s instruction to honor Kleomêdês with sacrifices is a type of expiation and the preservation of the memory of what happened. Where later Christian authors like Origin and Eusebius criticize the account for showing how “pagans” would make anyone into a god, I think that the rites afforded to Kleomêdês are really about preserving the social memory of the damage that heroes can do while also marking out that he was the last one.
So the narrative of Kleomêdês in part functions to put the heroic narrative to bed, to consign it to the past, and to offer its final interpretation. In the two variants we have for the oracular line “the last of the heroes”, we find both the temporal and the spatial aspects of this finality marked out. Pausanias’ temporal hustatos (ὕστατος ἡρώων) plots this experience as coming most recently; Plutarch’s spatial eskhatos (Ἔσχατος ἡρώων) puts the hero at the end of a sequence but far away. And I don’t think there is any accident in the fact that eskhatos can also describe extreme actions and the world of the dead. The oracle marks the heroic age as definitively over and leaves this last of heroes as an unambiguous cautionary tale.
Such a narrative, I suspect, is evidence of the complexity of critical thought endemic to the living performance and reception of myth in the ancient Greek world. As I stated earlier, this implicit critical treatment of what a hero is or may be is part of the point of the Iliad and the Odyssey and no less central to the tragic stage in Athens. Indeed, I think that one would be hard-pressed to find an uncritical examination of heroic figures in most of what we have received from antiquity. (Or even in the better heroic tales we consume today.)
Simplistic lessons, constrained senses of self, lost opportunities for belonging—these are all important aspects of why the heroic pattern is insufficient for the complex lives we live and why someone like Kleomêdês turns to violence against his own people. Even to this day, members of our population are raised with expectations based on incomplete or childish narrative patterns which are sharpened and weaponized by a cultural message that our value is intrinsic, individualistic, and based on what we do alone. When the paradigms we are offered let us be saviors or destroyers, how can we be anything else?
Kleomêdês’ individual response represents the internalization of cultural narratives and beliefs; cultural narratives are the structural and institutional forces that act upon individuals and emerge from them in the aggregate. When the experience of the individual clashes with the structural, it creates crisis. We can engage with narrative patterns and alter them over time. But sequestering the tools of mass violence is the most effective way to preserve lives.
And I want to emphasize here again that this is not about pathologizing individuals. This is not about anyone’s personal mental health. This is a cultural problem of dysfunction and social organization that has neither simple explanation nor simple solution. We need to change the stories we tell about ourselves and each other; we need to educate our community from birth about how our minds work and how narratives can condition us; we need to break the restriction of narrative identities and lives lived imposed by biological gender, sex identity, and physical ability; we need to think about whether or not our social organization allows people to live with meaning and a sense of belonging. But, in the meantime, let’s not build schools on single pillars; let’s not give hopeful heroes weapons of mass murder.
As I explore when I teach myth and have over time come to understand as central to the importance of epic, the ancient Greek narrative and performative context was deeply sensitive to a need for storytelling complexity and richness of thought. The long-term engagement with sophisticated ideas provided by myth and poetry invited audiences into a dialogue of generations and ideas at the center of which was their own creation of narratives about themselves and their world, that blend between the stories they heard and the ones they experienced. I deeply believe that this process was in part therapeutic and that one of the reasons Greek epic is so shifty and challenging is that it comes at the end point of generations wrangling over difficult ideas like how a person is valued in their community, how communities govern themselves, and what makes a life worth living.
Literature in its context—and even outside of it—resists simplistic patterning and reduction and provides deep and ambiguous opportunities for engagement with audiences. It does not offer a simple map of directions or a simplistic path to completion because life itself is not a linear game. While we do have milestone moments which socially mark our moves from one “level” or “stage” of life to another, these are social constructions that give us context as we move through the most dangerous stages of adolescence and transition from one family group into another.
Any narrative that does not help us conceive of what happens next, however, is potentially disastrous. The heroic pattern leaves us no paradigm for how to live life when there are no great challenges, how to navigate the world when we are not the strongest or fastest, how to age, bear children, face weakness, and live with imperfect others without killing them.
The story of Kleomêdês takes the heroic tale to what is actually a logical end: it unmasks its toxic core and may even hint at the damaging nature of kleos (epic “fame”) itself. Kleomêdês’ murder of the children is the destruction of his community and a symbolic attempt to outlive it. The fame he gains through heroic rites are forbidden to others by the Oracle at Delphi, but this doesn’t stop people from trying.