When I was teaching Intro to Greek Literature, it was sometimes easy to tell the students who had lived a life of privilege, of safety. They were the ones who kept suggesting ways Oedipus could have averted his fate, bootstrap his way out of catastrophe if only he read the signs carefully enough. Not the ones who hated or judged Oedipus, but the ones who were genuinely confused, who kept earnestly suggesting better possible responses to the prophecy and all the devastation that would follow.
I imagine that some of these students might have the same deep bewilderment to see me now. Exactly one year ago, I was at the height of my fledgling career in Classics: I had just passed my penultimate PhD exam, founded the Sportula, and was heading down to San Diego to accept not one but two major awards for this work at the SCS/AIA Annual Meeting. More precious to me than both those awards was my hard won stability after a lifetime of mental illness. On the road trip down I sent a long euphoric email to a former undergraduate mentor: “Two of my grad friends from Berkeley invited me on a road trip there!” I wrote. “This is also so meaningful because….they’re the kinda ppl who i feel never would have invited the crazy/unpredictable me of three years ago to be in a car with them for many hours/days—so I feel like I’m finally gaining some trust from these years of good behavior.”
The very next day, my co-founder would be racially profiled and Sportula embroiled in “political scandal” and deluged by racist trolls. The very next day, I would write to that same undergraduate mentor: “Again, we’ll never be believed bc I didn’t catch the worst of it on video and god knows the word of two psychiatrically disabled POC isn’t enough for credibility…I’m killing myself on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall anyway.”
I would spend the next six months destroying my relationships with my Sportula co-founder, that mentor, and everyone else around me. On the 50th anniversary of Stonewall that June, I would be publicly wrestled to the ground and thrown into psychiatric restraints in front of several fellow grad students, after the person I had road tripped to the SCS with called the cops on me and told them I was a danger to myself.
This sounds awfully sordid and dramatic, but really, the details are mundane. Mental illness runs on both sides of my family. I was going to Break the Cycle, go to therapy, get on meds. I pursued all that, but even as I say it to myself I’m struck with a memory of both my parents mouthing the same thing.
Isn’t that why I fell so hard for Classics to begin with? In a cultural moment of the new, the innovative, a hyper-individualistic notion of “choice” and “the self-made man” within neoliberalism, it was the old poems that spoke to me. The ones that acknowledged that we are who we are only in the context of community, lineage, the heavy weight of both personal and collective histories. How sometimes, we lose: profoundly and without recourse.
“How many there are who degrade the Latin language!” Quam multi sunt, qui verba Latina depravant! -Piccolomini
“The very act of speaking Latin is to be held in high esteem” Nam ipsum latine loqui…est illud quidem in magna laude ponendum -Cicero
“So, I say, Latin speech is common and known to all, but literary speech is not so.” Latinus, inquam, sermo et vulgaris erat et omnibus cognitus, litteralis vero non ita prorsus -Francesco Filelfo
Today the Boston Review has published an essay of mine on a translation of Nicola Gardini’s Long Live Latin! My review is, admittedly, less positive than some others will be (with almost none of the cheerleading another review lavishes upon it) and, truly, more negative than a Classicist’s should be. As a general rule, I prefer not to write hack jobs or take-downs, especially when the author’s sincerity and belief in goodness is so palpable. And I certainly believe that there was a time in my life when I might even have exulted in this book, both because of the pleasures afforded by its own prose and also thanks to the familiar passages it brings together. But, given the world we live in and what we have learned over the past generation, I can’t accept that this book is the way to promote the study of the past. To put it more starkly: this approach is part of the problem.
I cover my qualms with the book in the review in some detail, but the thing I want to focus on here is that Gardini’s ultimate argument is that Latin is worth studying because of the aesthetic pleasure it affords. This aesthetic pleasure arises from an essential circularity: the literature we love provides us with pleasure because it presents the pleasure of the elements we love. Our sense of what is good is created by the canon we have selected to shape us.
Gardini’s picture of the past and of the kinds of Latin worth preserving and contemplating is that of the Western Canon and his argument centers around appreciating the worth of the Western tradition, a beyond problematic category which many have dismantled (see Kwame Anthony Appiah in general and Rebecca Futo Kennedy’s recent blog posts for the history and impact on Classical Studies). The construction of the Western Canon and associated claims of Western Civilization are a kind of aristocratic nostalgia. It is a value-proposition, an identity to be espoused which does not admit additions or revisions easily. Replicating the contents of the past as we have in conventional Classical Studies programs has amounted to the reading of the same authors over and over again with the insistence that we read these things because they are good. And they are good because we read them.
“Good people flock to the tables of the good on their own.”
Classicists who accept this view are often part of the same groups who have ignored or expressed hostility to what they call postmodernism. Indeed, a generation ago the question you had to be able to ask in interviews for jobs as Classicists was “what do you think about theory?” This is not a struggle peculiar to Classics but it is one which is particularly fraught because one history of our intersecting disciplines is not changing, not innovating, and fiercely defending the past as we have built it. And, although the resulting venn diagram of those who complain about postmodernism and those who espouse conservative, retrograde, or nationalist rhetoric is not a perfect circle, it does intersect and overlap.
The fact is that we must now recognize that at least since the rise of European colonialism, race-based enslavement, and the genocidal conquest of the Americas, what we call Classics has been instrumental in providing historical, philosophical, rhetorical, and political frameworks for justifying various supremacies and ethnonationalisms. When we lament that the Classics are being appropriated by white supremacists and Nazis, we are a little late to the party. The use of the past to justify hate and exploitation is a historical feature of Classics and not a bug.
“It seems to me to have been remarked wittily enough that it is one thing to speak Latin, and another altogether to speak grammatically.”
Quare mihi non invenuste dici videtur aliud esse Latine, aliud grammatice loqui. Quintilian
And where they meet is in that same place where Gardini searches for Latin. What all of these approaches to the past have in common is that they reach for a “timeless”, decontextualized, and ahistorical past, that includes largely only “nice” and “beautiful” things, where truth and beauty as they define it is the lasting bequest of Greece and Rome to our times, and where there is nothing of the mess that makes today so confusing: no gender, no race, no sexuality (except that which they like), no disability, no Class, and nothing which might distract from their contemplation of human perfection.
The Paideia Institute is run by disaffected, mostly male, Classicists of an elitist bent whose view of the world resonates with Gardini because, shit, everything would be better if we could just move to the woods and read Horace. If this seems harshly dismissive, consider that work of the PI is strongly centered around Western Civ perspectives, that they believe that the study of the past can be apolitical, that they neither publish their by-laws nor make their funding transparent, that their origin story has as its center the nearly cultic hagiography of a single Latin expert, and that, if they had been given the tenure-track jobs our more complicated world has denied them, their organization would probably not exist.
The Paideia Institute is Trad-Classics with a religious fervor. Let me be clear, I think they have a right to exist and pursue their view of the world; but we should all acknowledge what their work represents—a retrenchment and doubling down, a recommitment to a world that never was in order to seek refuge from the world that is.
To claim that Dirk Obbink’s confusing and likely felonious actions are of a kind with Gardini’s Love Live Latin and the troubles of the Paideia Institute may seem so much of a stretch as to be slanderous. But here’s my pitch. I have spent months thinking about what may have motivated him. I have had dozens of conversations about it and have heard plausible theories: from the altruistic (he did it to save a financially collapsing EES) to the sly (he duped naïve evangelists to get his hands on the New Sappho). And what I keep returning to is: would I have done the same thing?
See, like many of the Paideia Institute (I suspect), there was some religion in my upbringing and one of my first thoughts in these cases is the passing “there but for the grace of god go I…” So, when I read about Paideia’s missteps (and subsequent denials) or contemplate how Obbink broke bad, I think of that game we Classicists sometimes play: what would you trade of extant Classical literature for what we lost. This game assumes that these poems and speeches and books are things, aesthetic objects we can trade like horses or barter without any concern for where they come from or how they got there.
As several articles in Eidolon drive home, modern papyri are things, with histories, trails, and an impact on the world around them. But as aesthetic objects that move us (and to which we move) they have a materiality and power beyond modern geopolitical borders and law-courts. They are the aesthetic objects of desire which Gardini loves and which we hold up as objects of study which in turn lead us to objectify the past. Such endless simplicity of aesthetic reification conditions us to treat what we encounter in the world around us as objects, as aesthetic experiences to be evaluated according to (seeming) Platonic forms.
Obbink already had lots of papyri but he wanted to get his hands on papyri of a certain type because they would increase and confirm the value of what we already have. And don’t get me wrong: our view of Greek poetry has been changed in the past generation by the publication of Archilochus’ Cologne Epode, the historical elegies of the New Simonides, the Telephos myth of the New Archilochus, and the pleasant beauty of Sappho’s Brothers poem. But, both now and in the aggregate over the centuries, how much of the past has been lost or misunderstood because of our ironic longing for more ‘new’ of the old?
Beyond a lust for fame, a desire to contribute to the history of literature, and need to transcend his mortal bounds, I believe Obbink stole papyri to get his hands on a New Sappho because this is, at its core, a metonym for what we do and have done as Classicists. We endow some things with value and neglect others. We ‘innocently’ perpetuate a system and worship a canon without critically examining what the effect of this process is and has been on the world. And when people use theories and techniques outside of Classics to show how Classics works (and doesn’t), we too often reject them out of hand.
Some of the common ground between the refusal of the Paideia Institute to accept criticism (and the tonedeaf cowardice of its anonymous defenders) and Obbink’s actions is class and race privilege, people who are accustomed to doing what they want because consequences are for other people. The ideological stance of Classics as an aristocratic discipline reinforces privilege and provides us with an intellectualized framework for objectifying people and festishizing culture and human experiences into ranked categories. Classici are, after all, people of a certain rank.
If we center our discipline around a system of untested values and universal aesthetics, we not only fail to live examined lives and fall into the trap of emphasizing seeming over being, but we also willfully and violently ignore the scope of human knowledge and experience which is excluded from this closed system. I am not denying the beauty of the past or claiming we should stop studying it, but instead insisting that we stop drop the pretense or accept that some of us need to do something new.
“For this reason, we have two ears, but one mouth: so that we can hear more and say less.” -Zeno
To end with a bit less bile: I don’t think most of us who see the world in the way I just outlined started out seeing it this way. Indeed, I was trained as a pretty basic classicist from high school on. What has made the difference is learning from outside the discipline, listening to people who have been marginalized by traditional approaches, and considering new things without dismissing them out of hand.
Modern rhetoric and social media seem to harden us into stances we may not have taken otherwise or assumptions about others which only echo reality. The Trad-Classicists need to listen: I think it is a basic litmus test of a decent person that, if someone tells you they are hurting and that you are involved, you should just stop talking, listen, and really hear what they are saying. Those of us on the other side? Some, like myself, are too impatient, we want people to change too fast, and we don’t give them enough time.
25 Nov 2019
There have been a few complaints about some of the more polemical comments regarding the Paideia Institute. I apologize for any offense to individuals: I had the organization and its reputation in mind. It is my responsibility to make amends to any individuals on a person by person basis. Please reach out if you would like to talk to me
26 Nov 2019
Lee T. Pearcy has written an essay on Classicizing Philadelphiadiscussing some of the ideas in the essay, but somewhat disagreeing with the move away from treating the past ideally. One of the things his response clarifies for me is that we need to distinguish between discussions of what classics is as opposed to what we could make it.
Dimonisos, the Halkedonian island, took its name from Dimonisos, the first one who worked there; the place has mines of steel and malachite. The best from this mine commands prices comparable with gold; for it is a drug for the eyes. There is also copper to be dived for, two fathoms in the depth of the sea; from there is made the statue in the ancient temple of Apollo in Sicyon, and also those in Pheneus, called from yellow-copper. On them there’s an inscription: “Heracles, son of Amphitryon, dedicated these on capturing Elis.” He captured it under the guidance of a woman, whose father Augeas he had killed, in accordance with the oracle. Those who dig for copper become very able-sighted, and those who have no eyelashes grow them; therefore doctors also use the blossom of copper and Phrygian ash for the eyes.
Pseudo-Aristotle, de Mirabilibus Auscultationibus, 58 (Loeb)
A recent post on the blog, discussed at length (once again) the efforts of decolonization in the field of Classics, a conversation that, though not as widespread as we would like, has occupied some of us for a while. There is an ongoing debate on the use of Western civilization and its relationship to Classics—why is an area study of a rather small part of the ancient world even called classical? Is it about class?—that has indeed traveled far this year, all the way to the darkest corners of the alt-web.
But one of the main caveats in this complex, longer-than-a single-life task, has been in my opinion, the heavy reliance on Anglo-Saxon sources and discourse; I pointed this out to Rebecca Futo Kennedy about her blog post on the history of Western civ, and more recently, to that post on this blog. There’s a wealth of sources in other European languages that we can turn to, in order to understand better the symbolic violence of the Western historical discourse. So, on this occasion I want to turn your attention to an “imperialist other”, a territory (and today a national state) outside of the Western world, but yet at its very borders and part of the geography of the ancient world, to further complicate the relationship between westernization, classical culture and imperialism.
In the Turkish Republic (1923-present), classical culture never played the same kind of pivotal role that it plays in European public life, but its emergence in the early days of the republic (and subsequent eclipse) provides an idea of the depth of interactions between modernization, westernization, archaeology, classical culture and nationalism that shaped the world between the world wars.
As the Turkish Republic emerged from a War of Independence in the course of which the Christian minorities of Anatolia (including its Greek speakers, dating back to the archaic period) were forcibly deported or murdered with the nodding approval of the Western powers wishing to draw a new map of the post-Ottoman Middle East (Muslims, on the other direction, were also murdered and deported in a series of population exchanges between Turkey and Greece), the Greek presence in Anatolia came to an abrupt end. At the same time, however, that the young republic was looking West and not to the “Middle East” (considered backward, ‘Arab’, Islamic) in order to disavow its Ottoman heritage. Modernization is in full force for Turkey to join the community of European nations, and many reforms in the field of education, language and heritage take place. Soon we will find out what Classics has to do with this.
In what follows I will share some anecdotes, documents and sources that are more or less scattered, as the research is still very preliminary, and since Classics and Turkish modern history (not exactly my field) are not necessarily contiguous, I am venturing here into unknown territory; but it will be enough to give an idea of a process that needs to be studied more closely (I wonder for example about the modern reception of Classics in Israel, or the Arab world). I apologize in advance for my incomplete ideas.
As a resident of the Princes Islands, Istanbul’s most remote neighborhood in the Marmara Sea, a group of nine islands known to be inhabited by Greek-speaking population since at least the 4th century BCE (attested in a pseudo-Aristotle), and still one of the very last pockets of a ghostly Greek presence in Anatolia, it has become almost a matter of necessity to dig out these submerged histories, to see if they can shed some light on the absurdities of the present. As the ‘Rums’—the Romans or Greeks of the Eastern Roman Empire—were being driven out (see the novel ‘Farewell, Anatolia!’ by Dido Sotiriou, a moving but by no means objective account of this period), Turks would travel far back in history, seeking for a new mythology once the owl of Minerva had flown away.
Greek during the Ottoman Empire
It is traditionally argued that the end of the Byzantine Empire translated into a death sentence for Greek culture in the Near East, but this was hardly the case. As many historical studies show, though Greeks were a minority, they were ubiquitous throughout the new empire, and adapted rapidly to the sloppy, chaotic and often inefficient Ottoman rule.
We don’t know so much about the Greek educational institutions of the early Ottoman empire, but some schools are thought to have transitioned from one rule to another and survived, and the Phanar Greek School, for example, was founded in 1454. A number of Greek libraries were founded under Ottoman rule, but most remarkable was the library of the Holy Trinity monastery of Halki (our island, known in Turkish as Heybeliada) founded by Metrophanes III in the early 16th century with the donation of 300 books, to be found today in the library of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. A French research project is centered on the history of the library and a critical edition of the manuscripts of the library has been published in French just last month. The Greek scholarship of this long period is rich and vibrant, and most literature of importance written in Greek in this period was written outside of Greece: Istanbul, Venice, Alexandria, Smyrna.
Knowledge of Ottoman would be handy here, but we know from the writer and translator Yasmine Seale’s piece on the reception and translation of Homer in Turkey that the first translation of the Iliad into Ottoman Turkish was done in 1886 by Naim Frashëri. A relatively recent text on the history of classical philology in Turkey (Turkish) puts us in the context of what took place in Istanbul University (founded in 1453) in the 19th century: With the reforms of 1869, arrived in the university courses in Greek, Latin, archaeology, numismatics and Roman law, and then followed by more offerings in Greek and Latin literature, mythology and archaeology in 1874.
This wasn’t haphazard: As the colonial powers began their journey into the collapsing empire through technology and education, German professors of classics arrived in Istanbul University at the same time that authorized European excavations in all the Ottoman lands would begin a frenzy of looting and exporting that not only would enable some of the most groundbreaking discoveries in Near Eastern studies, but would also solidify the modern Western museum, where vast holdings from the region still sit today. The redistribution as appropriation began with the past, and then expanded to the denizens of the present.
The Turkish History Thesis and the Early Republic
The early history of the Turkish Republic presents a picture of confusion. Being a late comer in a world of (already fading) nation states, it was necessary to produce not only a myth that could unify them but also a grand(iose) narrative that would smooth out any gaps, and it is here that archaeology proves useful. As Turkish scholar Tugba Tanyeri-Erdemir argues, “archaeological knowledge was used to create citizens out of subjects of the fallen Ottoman Empire. […] Under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first president of the Republic, the intelligentsia of this newly formed Turkish nation embarked on a quest to discover its ancient history.”
This discovery, known as the Turkish History Thesis and the basis of official historiographical ideology, would of course inevitably lead back to the Hittites: “According to the thesis, the Turks were believed to be the direct ancestors of the Hittites and the Sumerians, and were also thought to have influenced native peoples living in the Aegean Basin, this contributing significantly to the development of Greek civilization. This theory allowed the Turks to claim to be the legitimate heirs (and indeed, practically the progenitors) of all civilizations that had existed previously on the soil of the new Turkish Republic.” (Tanyeri-Erdemir)
It would be of course impossible to travel back into the 2nd millennium BCE without a fair amount of conspiracy. Pan-Turanism, appears in the 19th century as a theory, largely discredited, that all Turkic and Uralic peoples descend from a pre-historic common ancestor in Turkestan, who in the modified republican version, migrated to Anatolia in the 2nd millennium. The typology is interesting because of a detail highlighted by Tanyeri-Erdemir: Between the first and second Turkish historical congress (attended by Atatürk) there’s a shift in mood and audience, from nationalistic archaeology to professional archaeology. In the years between these meetings, there was also a language congress during which Turkish linguists presented the Sun-Language Theory, with the thesis that many languages descended from Turkish after a series of migrations from Central Asia, and their mythical proto-language was severely criticized by the international audience.
The relationship with the Turkish History Thesis is here crystal clear, and though the focus moved to archaeology’s modernization, the discourse had already penetrated the Turkish historiographical consciousness. The thesis of the Altaic languages, encompassing Turkic, Mongolian and Manchu-Tungus, has also been discredited since then.
Another Turkish scholar, Can Erimtan, has written an incredible account (and I strongly advise you to read all of it) of the propaganda tract “Pontus Meselesi” (1922), by Ağaoğlu Ahmet Bey, a Turkish politician and publicist of Azeri background, dealing with the (argument against) establishment of a Greek state in the Pontus region, combined with nationalist propaganda about the grand narrative of the Turkish presence in Anatolia, as follows: “[Anatolia] has been the Turk’s home country, the Turk’s homeland for thousands of years. […] As a matter of fact, the Turks did not arrive in Anatolia with Ertugrul Gazi or even with those who constituted the Seljuk governments. The Turkish race has been present in Anatolia since the oldest and most unknown of times. As has been illustrated by history the first inhabitants of Anatolia were Turanians.”
There’s so much one would like to say here. Archaeology is deeply embedded in the political geography of Turkey, but the readings are currently ambiguous. There’s still a large apparatus of scholarship on Near Eastern studies in the Turkish language, particularly in Hittite. Nazif Aydin published in 2017 a Hammurabi lexicon and a book by Assyriologist Muazzez İlmiye Çığ, “Ataturk and the Sumerians”, was published as late as 2012.
Classical Philology in Turkey
The nationalist narrative obviously couldn’t easily disassociate between Classical Greece, the Greece of Anatolia and the newly emptied out and newly mythical Anatolia. According to Bedia Dirimiş‘s text (Turkish) on the history of classical philology in Istanbul University, Classics is defined as such: “The main purpose of classical philology is Ancient Greek and Roman civilization, paleography, grammar and rhetoric. On the basis of reinterpreting ancient texts from a linguistic and literary point of view, there is a perfect reconstruction of these texts.”
Written only in 2009, this reveals the European bias of the discipline, not only as an apparatus of knowledge, but one strictly separated from the historical continuity of Anatolia. In her account, classical philology as a department appears in Turkey with the university reform of 1933, overseen by Atatürk himself (just like the history and linguistics conference, he’s always at the helm of historiographical ideology), after his first visit on January 15, 1930. Here the young republic’s leader reveals the extent to which the history of the region had been permeated by the question of Anatolia’s past. Atatürk asked a question (recorded in the writings of Mehmet Uysal, 1981): Why is it important to study classical philology in Turkey?
After he wasn’t satisfied with the answer, he asked a different question: Who are the first people of the Aegean, the bearers of the Aegean civilization? Fazil Nazmi Bey (probably a teacher in the department) answered the question with a legend. Atatürk replied: “History is based on the findings of archaeology, paleography, and philology, not myths. I think history shows that the first Aegean people, the bearers of the Aegean civilization came from Anatolia to the Aegean islands.”
With this, the agenda for classical philology in Turkey was set, so that Dirimiş reports in her brief history that as late as 2005, in an academic conference, a professor confirmed this thesis by means of philological and paleographic evidence. And here comes the bomb: “Since the Tanzimat, we have adopted Western civilization as the basis of humanism, human beings at the center of the world, rather than merely imitating the discipline of classical philology.” It has been a long way from pre-historic Turan, to humanism. The humanism of the Enlightenment that whitewashed the ancient world, and provided ample legal justification for the plunder of the earth, so that all universal treasures are kept in one place, for all the universals to see, except when you’re not universal enough.
It is also hard to assess the larger meaning of civilization in a country such as Turkey, living in the no-longer-and-not-yet of globalization, and adopting a postcolonial identity while at the same time remaining an expansionist state, actively engaged in soft power and economic colonization. The depoliticization of the Greek tradition (and the Romans, almost accidentally) is only matched by the hyper-politicization of remote antiquity, from a time when Hittite hadn’t been more fully deciphered, therefore it was possible to make all kind of questionable speculations.
The classical philology, however, that Dirimiş posits as “an education that provides an awareness of the process of spiritual evolution through its history”, is however no longer a part of the grand narrative of the republic. In what follows in her history, there’s a long list of professors, from the first German appointees (including Jews who sought refuge in Turkey during the war and later returned to Europe; this is also discussed in Seale‘s account) through the later Turkification of the department as they received training from earlier teachers. Seale also speaks about Azra Erhat, an early republican translator of Homer, whose life seems fascinating and about whom I haven’t been able to dig anything but vague references. It is also interesting to notice that at least one academic employed by Ankara University was also an instructor of Latin at the Atatürk Lise (high school) during the early republic but I have no evidence at the moment of when this began or ended, or whether it also took place in other public high schools.
Decolonization of Classical Greek in Turkey
A question needs to be posed before it can be answered. Broadly speaking, Turkish academia is not thinking about decolonization of Classics. Still, there are some interesting examples of decolonization practices happening outside of the academia. The Theological School of Halki, an Orthodox seminary shut down by the Turkish state in 1970s (this has been long disputed and is a frequent topic of Turkish-Greek relations) but it still houses the library founded by Metrophanes III (although the original 300 manuscripts are elsewhere in Istanbul), that is open to researchers and contains thousands of volumes in philosophy, history and theology, mostly in Greek but also in other languages.
Despite the enforced closure, the building (located also in Heybeliada) hosts events and academic conferences regularly. The Greek-language publishing house Istos, founded in 2012 in Istanbul (as the local Greek newspaper was disappearing) and the first Greek-language publisher in Turkey in half a century, publishes books in Greek and Turkish, including history books dealing with the history of Greeks in Anatolia and books aimed for a younger audience introducing them to classical Greek literature in Turkish. Recently Istos published an English translation of Skarlatios Byzantios 19th century book, “Constantinople”, topographical, historical and archaeological description of the city.
Greek-Armenian artist Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, herself an islander, has been engaged in decolonization throughout her practice. In her work, largely informed by Classical and Byzantine eras, she has used visual compelling storytelling, iconography, and deep memory-time and traces, to parse fragile moments in the history of the region and reveal the continuity between text and image, past and present, in different contexts that go beyond the boundaries of the city: an aqueduct in Naples, a cave in Athens, or bringing metaphorically the city of Bergama to an exhibition space Berlin, questioning the Pergamon museum, engaged in extended contemporary readings of Greek (and other languages) across eras.
In an exhibition from 2014, “The Land Across the Blind”, the artist creates a magical journey between the Princes Islands—traditionally places of exile— and the San Lazzaro degli Armeni in Venice (another island), traveling between centuries of displacements. The land across the blind is Byzantion, the city founded by Byzas of Megara, lying across from Khalkedon, the place that Persian general Megabazos is recorded to have said that they had to be blind to settle there: “Must we not be blind not to see this? This is the land across the blind. This place that we see every day is the point at which Byzas begins to see!” (Buyuktasciyan)
The Greek-Armenian artist is also responsible for the programming of the Galata Greek Primary School in the central district of Beyoglu, a building now empty as the student population disappeared already decades ago, now being used as cultural institution hosting exhibitions and cultural events; a last attempt to keep alive the faint memory of the long Greek presence in Istanbul. Most recently, Buyuktasciyan opened an exhibition at the IFA Gallerie in Berlin, “Neither on the Ground nor in the Sky”, making reference to the mosaic of an Alexandrine parakeet from Pergamon, held at the museum in Berlin. In the exhibition, the artist created a historical bridge between different historical periods, from the famous Library of Pergamon once at the Acropolis, to the final exile of the Anatolian Greeks. As a part of the public program of the exhibition I gave a lecture/performance in April in Berlin, during which I read poetry of Seferis in both Modern Greek and English, in reference to ruins and the life of stones.
Classical culture does have its representatives in Turkey, for example the very active department of Classics at Istanbul University regularly hosting events and talks, the Twitter account of a young classics lecturer, Cengiz Cevik, tweeting in Turkish about classical literature and ancient philosophy, or the Ancient Greek/Latin recitation competition held at Koc University. All of the above of course deeply embedded in the paradigm of white European humanism. The cultural programming of Türkiye Bankasi, includes a series devoted to translations of classical literature into Turkish, but with a very small pool of translators and a large yearly output, it still remains to be seen if the quality matches the expectations.
And the future isn’t quite looking bright. As the Turkish state turns more and more erratic and isolationist, recently the use of Greek or “Rum” as an insult has reappeared in public life in light of the convoluted Istanbul election, as the opposition candidate has been labelled a Pontus Greek in a propaganda effort to smear his name. A journey through the country’s provincial archaeological museums reveals the dismal picture of the current state of antiquities (where there’s any left, that is), and the neglect of Turkey’s Byzantine and Early Modern Greek heritage, crumbling in front of your eyes, like the Greek Orthodox Orphanage on the island of Büyükada, the largest wood structure in Europe and now at risk of collapse. The most apt metaphor I could find is that of a ruined ruin, based on a fragment of a poem by Seferis:
These stones that sink into the years, how far will they
drag me with them?
The sea, the sea, who can ever drain it dry?(*)
G. Seferis, Mythistorima, XX. (*) the poet translates into Modern Greek line 958 of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, spoken to Clytemnestra as she lures her husband to death. (R. Beaton, 2016)
Αυτές οι πέτρες που βουλιάζουν μέσα χρόνια ως που
θα με παρασύρουν;
Τη θάλασσα τη θάλασσα, ποιος θα μπορέσει να την εξαν-
Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and art critic based on the Princes Islands of Istanbul. He is interested in the Greek heritage of the Asia Minor and the relationship between (pseudo)archaeology and nationalism in the Eastern Mediterranean. He’s also tweeting about Classics, Byzantium, contemporary art and Turkey/Greece.
The people I just listed and the many others who work alongside them face conflict on multiple sides. There is the fight of the field against this racist appropriation; but there is also a fight for the field that I think we are still trying to make sense of. We are constrained both by the disciplines we trained in and the way the history of these disciplines is entwined with structural and institutional racism.
Oh, boy. Do we need another post on this topic? And—this is certainly a fair question—do we need another post on this topic from me? I don’t work specifically on race in the modern world or antiquity. I don’t have any specialized academic training apart from a handful of undergraduate courses and professional training over the years. The fact is, it is really easy for me not to write this.
But, like many of us, I do teach students who see the world differently than I do; and I do train students in disciplines that are steeped in historical problems. Furthermore, I am in the position of trying to lead people who do this with me. I also somehow have helped create a space where some things might be heard. For each of these reasons, I think it is irresponsible not to engage with these issues and not to examine how deeply they go.
“Are you actually saying that describing certain odors as foul is misogynistic? and You are a tenured professor? hahahahhahahhaha!
btw, How is your quickly collapsing civilization at the hands of a swelling muslim horde going? At least when it’s all razed to smouldering embers and muslim men are raping, impregnating or beheading your wives and daughters you can have the satisfaction of saying you weren’t racist or a misogynist.”
Now, this is a typical troll-technique in an attempt to elicit an aggressive response: first, belittle and mock the credentials of the addressee; second, cut to the chase and try to inspire fear by painting a picture of the cultural apocalypse to come. I am pretty good at not taking the bait of the first move, because, hey, sometimes it is surprising that I am a professor and tenured—not only because I will never shake off the old imposter syndrome, but also because I have known plenty of smarter and better people who for some reason did not make it at every level. For the second, well, all I said was the truth: a good part of my family is Muslim. It is pretty hard to fear a murderous, rapacious horde, when you’ve shared their tables, prayed alongside them, and love them.
“He commits a second crime, who is not ashamed of his first”
geminat peccatum, quem delicti non pudet Publilius Syrus, Sent. G11
“Your introduction sounds like you are in favour of the ongoing white genocide – bizarre from someone who would appear to admire white culture and civlization. Or perhaps you are a Jewish Supremacist? Personally I’m with Apion, Posidonius, Apollonius Molon, Manetho, Cicero, Juvenal, Horace etc – letting Jews control the discourse is never a good thing.”
(I am going to sidestep the anti-Semitism here except to say that the comment is clearly made by someone deeply indoctrinated in hate. This is repulsive but unsurprising. Indeed, I have been the target of anti-Semitic comments online on several occasions. I suspect this is because of where I teach. I block Nazis as soon as they announce themselves.)
This was not the last time I was accused of being in favor of white genocide (I have also been called a race traitor). The thing is, well, complicated. First, we can say that white genocide is an insane piece of nonsense sourced locally in South Africa and embraced by certifiable nutballs in Europe, Australia and the United States, as charted out in Harper’s.
“We call those studies ‘liberal’ which are worthy of a free person”
Liberalia igitur studia vocamus, quae sunt homine libero digna, Vergerio de ing. Mor. 23
So, if one were to insist to me that there is a white race—and not a bunch of people with various degrees of comparatively paler skin who come from a variety of different linguistic and religious groups but largely speak dialects of English in the US, UK, and Australia—I would probably be in favor of ending the concept because it exists as a weapon of exclusion. This, in such deranged logic, makes me a race traitor. (Among other things, of course: my family is multiracial).
Now, it may seem like there is only a twisted path from the destructive and demeaning construction of whiteness and our problems with Classics, but let me get back to the point. It has become de rigeur for ‘intellectuals’ with certain affinities who rave about the rise of ‘identity politics’ and post-modernism to lament the collapse of Classical Education and the loss of some kind of shared culture. This concept of a ‘shared culture’ is as chimerical as whiteness. But it is no less damaging.
Indeed, when I wrote a thread in response to Roger Kimball’s paint-by-numbers indictment of the modern academy, our account was unfollowed by someone who felt we were insufficiently championing “our” culture.
Unfollow. Boring ravings.
Yes, it's "our" civilisation. We invented it.
— Carmen Carter QC (Quentin Crisp fan) (@CarmenC30263217) June 2, 2019
My friend, this cultured response is not innocent; it may be ignorant, but it remains an expression of an ethnonationalism that is merely a reflex of white supremacy. (It is also absurd: no one invents a culture. (1) I cannot see how it is ever logical to claim any credit for actions performed by others before you were born. (2) And if you claim the credits, you also owe the debts.) When one person frets over threats to “our” culture, another chants “you will not replace us” with a burning tiki torch.
“For it is not easy to take a false belief from them, not even if someone should refute it completely”
οὐ γάρ ἐστι ῥᾴδιον τούτων ἀφελέσθαι τὴν δόξαν, οὐδ’ ἂν πάνυ τις ἐξελέγχῃ, Dio Chrysostom Orat. 11
There are many kinds of exclusionary approaches. Some are clearly racist (ethnonationalists so proudly wave their black, white and red banners). Others are intellectually decorous, but amount to the same. When Erik exposed the counterfeit claims of modern conservative intellectualism, one respondent chortled (if one can describe a tweet that way) and offered up the example of T.S. Eliot.
When my colleague emailed me, rather than brag about all the smart and insightful people I know who are leading the fight against this racist nonsense, I sputtered, and meandered, talking about how much more there is to do in recognizing that exclusion and, yes, racism, have been central to the disciplines we call Classics not just for a few generations, but for most of the history of the discipline.
Here’s the thing. This is not just about misappropriation. This is about the nature and history of the field itself. Yes, we need to stand against the use of antiquity for hateful and destructive ends; but we also need to work to examine how our discipline has been shaped by these forces. As the kids say, racism is a feature not a bug of Classics as a field. And this gets straight to a conversation I have been having with myself and others since I posted about my myth class earlier in the year: How do you decolonize something that is has developed hand-in-glove with essential exclusionary, colonialist, and racist discourse?
(I am avoiding here the claim that that the material treated by Classical studies is necessarily racist. Much of it is ideological driven and used for racist ends, but I do think we need to be careful to separate material from use.)
“Humanity thinks only about temporary seeds, / Its pledge is nothing more than the shadow of smoke”
Already, I know heads are spinning, but let me just sketch out without supporting evidence the areas of inquiry available to explore how exclusionism has shaped our field and how and when this went from ideology to bigotry and violence. For ease, I will break it into stages:
Pre-Archaic Greece to Hellenistic Period: The material preserved by most forces communicates Aristocratic values with a strong structural misogyny. Ableism is assumed. Much of the early material is, indeed, plurivocal, but the process of selection by later, elitist editors, exacerbates the nature of our evidence. Post-Persian wars the dichotomy of Greek and Barbarian develops. Almost no representation of women and lower classes. Mass enslavement.
Hellenistic period: Less stuff about barbarians! But even more of a skew toward elite culture and the literary remains of a few traditions from Greece proper. Poetry and oral culture did not perish, but it was not preserved to the same extent our already canonized tragedy, lyric, and epic were. Voices of women, lower classes, and non-Greek groups were largely excluded from the record keeping at this time. Flirtation with trans-linguistic cosmopolitanism. Mass Enslavement.
Roman Period: Willful occlusion of pre-Roman and non-Roman cultural groups; adoption of a Hellenistic veneer; Primarily recorded voices are those of male aristocrats. Some use Latin; some use Greek. People can become Roman by speaking Latin and Greek. Growth of empire means even greater occlusion of local and diverse perspectives. Mass enslavement.
Early Christian Period: Burgeoning of anti-Semitism. Perpetuation of much of the Hellenistic canon. Erasure of pagan cultures. Breaking of the Empire into Greek and Roman sides. Roman side preserved Latin Culture; Greek Side preserved Greek culture. Continued ableism. Misogyny. Enslavement.
Medieval Period: Even before crusaders sacked Byzantium, the largely Roman Catholic histories and focus from Rome (and wherever the Papacy moved) discredited, dehumanized, and dislocated the contributions of “easterners” (this, despite the fact that most people who have studied the time period would likely prefer to live in Byzantium to Rome). Christian readings and tending of the canon altered our tradition even more; most intellectual training in Western Europe during this period was theological in focus. As Stephanie Frampton has taught me, the term Classici emerges in the Medieval period to mark off scholars of a certain Class or Rank. This is, in part, about aesthetic judgment; but it is also a continuation of the process of selection and exclusion that began in the Hellenistic Period. Our field’s title, Classical Studies, is therefore implicitly—if not explicitly—exclusionary.
This period also saw the steady narrowing of whose perspective and contribution on Classical Studies is valued: non-Christians (e.g. Muslims, Jews, and even those farther afield) have had their scholarly histories expunged. This continued into the modern era in Europe where Protestants in the North (and England) undervalued and marginalized Catholics.
Rebirth of Philology: From Luther’s theses to the translation of the King James Bible and the religious conflicts prior to the Enlightenment, the seeds of Philology were sewn. Biblical and Classical philology—which first influenced each other in Hellenistic libraries like the one at Alexandria—were odd step-siblings united by basic assumptions about the search for authority and truth and the perfectability of the word of God by man. Anti-Semitism, explicit and not, excluded many voices from these conversations; a majority of the scholars who worked on texts and traditions were upper class; almost all were men; almost all were ‘white’ in the modern, unreflective sense. Mass enslavement in the US and British Empire. Classical ideas and philosophy are used to defend and advocate for colonialism, slavery, and genocide.
German Philhellenism: The rise of European nationalism saw many different types of identities emerge, but one of the more consequential was the German one. Among the intellectual class, there is a deep and confounding correspondence between German national pride and scholarly Philhellenism. Most Classicists acknowledge that our very concept of our field today owes much to 18th Century German Altertumswissenschaft, but few of us as readily acknowledge that one of the central concepts—the uniqueness of the Greeks and their language—was the method by which that very uniqueness could be claimed as a heritage for Germans. The impact of this is clear in German philosophy and in Nazi-adjacent authors like Martin Heidegger.
“Indeed, ignorance is a kind of weakness, but the detestation of knowledge is the sign of a depraved will.”
nescire siquidem infirmitatis est, scientiam vero detestari, pravae voluntatis Hugo St. Victor, Didascalion, Preface 1
There is more to be said about the rise of Classicism in the US and UK following German norms, but I will leave that for others. It is fairly safe to say that the majority of the voices within Classics complaining about the opening up of the field hew to ‘regimens’ and ‘standards’ developed prior to WWII.
The way we train our students, the languages we think are important, the books we think we should read, and the arguments we think are worth making are all shaped in some way by the intellectual and disciplinary prejudices we have acquired over a thousand years. Now, we can take a certain pride in claiming a heritage that is so old, but here again, the credit must be accounted with the debt.
There will be many objections to this periodization, but that is part of the point, it is an invitation to a discussion. But we still live with many of the consequences in our scholarship. For instance, in N. G Wilson’s From Byzantium to Italy—which represents what most Classicists seem to think happened during the Renaissance—the author spends a precious few pages talking about the work of Byzantine scholars. (Although, as has been pointed out to me, Wilson dedicates considerable space to Byzantine scholars in another book. The separation, which was likely not his choice, represents the way most people in Classics think about the transmission of ancient culture.)
The story that is typically told about the Renaissance is usually of how Italian scholars “rediscovered Greece”. This is a patent falsehood. Byzantine scholars from before the 6th century advanced the work of the Hellenistic period to a point not rivalled until after the Enlightenment (even if then). But northern European scholars denigrate and marginalize their contributions to this day (much as in the English speaking world we pretty much ignore the scholarship of modern Greeks.) Such designed ‘oversight’ emerges in every history of Classical Scholarship (Pfeiffer and Sandys are the worst for this). By continuing to tell this story, we reinforce an erroneous notion that centers Rome and Northern Europe as the inheritors of some virtuous past.
“For one who is falling cannot lift others; one who is ignorant cannot teach”
But, really, the entire notion of the “Greek Genius” or the “Greek Miracle” is built on a willful racist denial of the influence of Ancient Near Eastern peoples on Greece (and others) and rooted in an ignorance of the deep cultural and trading networks that connected the Ancient Mediterranean. Diogenes Laertius can claim that Greek philosophy came from Egypt; we ignore him as a naïve mythologos, while we reserve our most forceful mobilization for the Western de-centering work ofBlack Athena. Few people have the expertise to move from Hittites and Hurrians to Gilgamesh and Egyptians. Even when we can get them together, we still have evidence largely of upper classes. There is new work being done on the Bronze Age all over the Mediterranean, but our disciplinary and institutional boundaries have trouble funding and housing the scholars who do it.
And where we draw disciplinary boundaries is only part of the problem. Our field is still demonstrably hostile to women and people of color. Our professorships and placements in top PhD programs still go predominantly to people of the highest classes. Our journals still publish mostly work from white men.
Now, please do not misunderstand me, historians and archaeologists over the past century have used a range of tools to recuperate the voices and experiences of non-elites in Ancient Greece and Rome, but the impact of the evidence they generate is constrained by the conventions and assumptions of the fields they try to change.
The voices of fear and protest that worry over the loss of “our culture” are mostly unaware of what a fantastic confabulation “our culture” is. Instead of worrying about what we risk, we should celebrate what is to be gained from the admission of different voices. In brief, our understanding of the past has been transformed over the past few generations by women’s voices and by those less mutilated by heteronormative culture. Historians from different classes and backgrounds have looked for evidence of past peoples whose lives were never even imagined. Scholars of varied abilities and perspectives on gender and sexuality have helped us understand that the stories we received about the Ancient World were wrong. But there is more work to be done: consider how much of digital classics material is actual accessible? How many of our conferences and conference panels are hostile to women, non-binary scholars, and those of different abilities?
“So, I did not want to write what the unlearned could not understand or what the learned would not care to.”
itaque ea nolui scribere quae nec indocti intellegere possent nec docti legere curaren, Cicero Academica 1.4
A few years back another internet troll told me I was not a real Classicist because a real classicist™ wants to emulate the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Others have called me out for dedicated my life to something I clearly hate. This is, as with most internet trollery, unrefined horseshit. What an impoverished definition of love one must have to think that you can only appreciate something you think is perfect? I have spent the past 20 years of my life reading, learning, and teaching Homer and Ancient Greek out of love and enchantment, but not with blind eye to the cruelty and the pain these things can represent and still effect in the world.
To study the past—to study the humanities—is to engage in inquiry about what it means to be human. To love the human race does not mean we need to deny its imperfections—to me it means that we learn the contours of our weakness as much as our strength so we may help with one and support the other. If I am not a Classicist because I do not emulate the Classical world, perhaps I can be a humanist because I aemulate it in the strictest Latin sense—I strive with it, I struggle to understand it, and I wear myself out trying to improve it.
This is what we need to do in our field. We need to root out and understand what has shaped us and improve upon it for the generations to come.
A Few Updates:
In response to Dr. Ben Cartlidge’s very reasonable response on twitter, I softened the language about N. G. Wilson’s work on Byzantine scholarship. I unfairly used him as a straw man and may have misrepresented his work.
I received a great email from Dr. Lara Fabian who noted that much of what I have written is conditioned by Anglo-American chauvinism and isolationism and, as she rightly points out, is evidence of a type of privilege of English-language scholarship. She has some fascinating and enlightening things to say about the development of Classical Scholarship in Russia and I think I have persuaded her to write some blog posts.
If anyone has responses or work that can help correct/adjust/improve this conversation, please do let me know.
More evidence of my cultural blindspots and fascinating avenues for investigation:
I'm personally working on Turkey & scholarship on Classics (& Near East, Hittites part of national mythology) after 1930s since Turkey is an imperialist other. Classics was meant to connect Turks to "European past" but not to modern Greeks who had just been massacred. @sentantiq
This post is an explanatory (and exploratory) framework for a websiteI have started for a course on Classical Mythology. This website is developing as the central ‘text’ of my Classical Mythology Course at Brandeis University. The website and the following discussion are intended as adaptive and evolving responses to teaching Greek myth.
Through conversations with some of these generous people as well as other friends and colleagues (including Suzanne Lye, Amy Pistone, Kelly Dugan, Tara Mulder, Caitlin Gillespie, Robyn LeBlanc, Hilary Lehmann, Curtis Dozier, Justin Arft), I have clarified for myself that my actions must be commensurate with the roles I play. But they also must be made with the help of and participation of others. (And this is why I am trying to name everyone I have spoken to and listened to about these issues: none of us will change our fields alone; none of us is in this alone.) Envisioning and creating a community is essential, especially when the odds can seem so long and the voices eager to dismiss the need for change so many.
For me, this means trying to align my values with my actions over several separate domains: my ‘scholarship’, my work as a midcareer reader and editor, my role as department chair and in university governance, my mentorship of students at the graduate and undergraduate level, and, finally, but not of least importance, my role as an instructor. While these roles naturally influence each other, the classroom is a place where I know I can take direct and immediate action.
I am going to be working with my department to alter our curriculum, and to change the language of our mission (to align with what we actually do), and to reconsider the way we train graduate students. And I will likely write some posts here and there to talk about these efforts. But, for now, let’s talk about Classical Mythology.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
I have had training at two institutions for what was called “Affirmative Action Advocacy” at one and “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” at the other. For the most part, my training has not been about creating inclusive classroom spaces or diversifying our disciplines; instead it has been about the workplace and hiring practices. At Brandeis University, I have learned a lot from training in our Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion over the past few years, and I think that the basic distinctions plotted by each category are useful both for understanding the manifold character of problems in our field and for adapting our classrooms.
Diversity is something most people can understand to an extent: it means creating and valuing a space that has people from different backgrounds, religions, language groups, genders, sexual orientations and identities, and abilities. But diversity alone can be no more sophisticated than collecting baseball cards if we do not recognize that because of structural and institutional prejudices (racism, sexism, ableism, and on…) the individuals who are representative of diversity do not start with the same knowledge, skills, or emotional stances towards education.
Equity means making the effort on institutional and individual bases to redress the unequal starting points (and this often gets some people riled up because equity is about achieving fair outcomes, but not about giving everyone the same thing). And Inclusion means modifying the space to accommodate the different abilities and perspectives of our community.
I have taken the trouble of spelling this out in part because there is much opportunity for confusion and in order to make my starting point clear. A good exercise before engaging in this activity is to take a self-test for implicit bias. I also think that Robin D’Angelo’s “White Fragility” is an essential read. In addition, check out Amy Pistone’s round-up of a SCS workshop “Centering the Margins: Creating Inclusive Syllabi” (with Suzanne Lye, Yurie Hong, Robyn LeBlanc, and Rebecca Kennedy).
What is Decolonizing?
Decolonizing is a process with philosophical underpinnings in the middle 20th century which seeks to de-center the works of European colonial authorities, to recenter global voices which have been marginalized from our history and literature, and to re-frame the past by listening to the voices of those marginalized by their bodies and class. Decolonizing also means reading the work of scholars who have been traditionally marginalized from our fields and re-introducing non-canonical subjects as a historical corrective.
So, the first question is: can you decolonize the classics? Can we decolonize a tool of colonialism? While the answer is complicated, I think we certainly can: courses that have focused on sexuality and gender, slavery, race and ethnicity, and non-canonical texts have sought to do this in their own way. But what about a myth course?
Decolonizing a Myth Class
There are, I think, two chief aspects of dealing with a Classical Mythology course. One has to do with the courses’ intention; the other has to do with its content. Some institutions and instructors may decide to go the way of Eva M. Thury’s and Margaret Devinney’s excellent Introduction to Mythology: Contemporary Approaches to Classical and World Myths (Oxford, 4th Edition). This book focuses on kinds of narratives across cultures (tricksters, heroes, creation stories) and does an admirable job of integrating major scholarly approaches with clear tellings of the myths involved.
The problem with this text is that it is a little expensive, the publisher puts out new editions with some frequency (changing page numbers, undermining the used book market), and the authors can’t sidestep the fact that the process of canonization in Europe has preserved sophisticated versions of the Greek and Roman narratives and, further, that our aesthetic and academic expectations have been shaped by the canon. I taught using this book for many years and found that the aesthetic inheritance of Greek and Roman materials causes students to ‘marginalize’ material from other traditions in their reception. (That said, I would recommend trying out this book to anyone who is starting a myth course from scratch)
Additional considerations when choosing how to teach a myth class include: the competence of the instructor and the curricular/educational intention behind the class. Let’s take up the second thing first. When I teach myth I always start with a discussion of why it is important to teach a myth course. I introduce what I see as the different methods (Edith Hamilton-style anthology vs. literature based deep context) and an overview of why we might even teach myth.
In the process of introducing the course, I explain that one longstanding reason for teaching myth is “cultural literacy”, namely that since so much of “western culture” is shaped or informed by Classical Myth, one needs to be conversant in it to ‘decode’ it. I trouble this notion from the moment I introduce it, emphasizing that (1) there is no single Classical Mythology (anthologies like Hamilton’s select and present narratives from different periods and social contexts erratically) and (2) “western” reception of that non-singular mythology is uneven and spectacularly strange. Artists and authors revel in the odd and obscure: any course of study set up to provide someone with cultural literacy would be a banal trudge through disconnected detail rendered for erudite allusion.
Yes, I tell my students, a Mythology course can function to educate us about elements used in the creation of the “Western Canon” and can thus be indispensable in mounting a critique of it. But I position my myth course as being about storytelling and the way that cultural discourse functions to shape the way we view the world and what we think our roles in it can be. In approaching myth this way, I start with a healthy dose of cognitive science and psychology on how stories shape the brain and our perception of the world; I also include information on the definition of discourse and ideology from perspectives informed by sociology, linguistics, anthropology, and post-modern theory. As such, I argue, myth should be taught with cultural contexts in mind and with an emphasis on the way stories are altered for specific needs and how they function to enforce and explore dominant ideologies.
Understanding how myth is part of how we see the world and how we are initiated into the act of understanding it, I tell my students, is part of developing a personal “user’s manual” for the human brain. Any deep well of traditional storytelling presented within the right framework can help us achieve this knowledge—any body of narrative from Mesoamerican, South Asian, African, East Asian to modern science fiction can contribute to the same ends. Cultural distance, indeed, helps us appreciate how storytelling shapes us. And instructor competence is critical in unpacking and reshaping the reception of myth.
Basic Principles of the Class
Much of what follows reflects what I do in many of my courses. But I have benefited a lot from talking with Kelly P. Dugan who was kind enough to share her syllabus for a myth course with me.
One principle central to my ‘decolonizing’ of a myth course is transparency about what our goals are in the course and what my basic principles are in teaching it. While I do believe deeply that other storytelling traditions could do the same work, I cannot fully decolonize my myth course (that is, integrate other storytelling traditions into it) because of my own competences and because of the particular advantage myths from Greece and Rome present: anyone who speaks a European language or is engaged with the popular culture wielded as its own form of discourse by these language groups comes with a familiarity in the basic narrative patterns, assumptions, and aesthetics which are embedded in them. Introducing greater justice and equity in our culture means tackling these forces and assumptions head-on. From the foundational narrative of the triumph of patriarchy to the adoption of “the hero’s journey” as a dominant narrative paradigm, the traditions of Greek storytelling continue to have powerful (and often harmful) effects on our world.
On one test of decolonizing the curriculum, then, my approach is an abject failure: but this is, I think, a fate and a challenge all Classical Studies curricula must face head on: our subjects are products and producers of a racist paradigm. We can, I believe, start the hard work of transforming this paradigm on multiple fronts. Within the framework of a course on myth, I think this means we need to focus on the stories and how they functioned within their cultural contexts and also how they are ‘re-purposed’ as ideological tools in different contexts.
Rather than replicate some of the problems of an anthologized myth course which elides cultural differences, I teach an almost entirely ‘Archaic Greek’ myth course which traces the ‘teleologically’ minded cosmic history generalized through Panhellenism in the 6th and 5th Centuries BCE. I pay particular attention to providing studies with multiforms or allomorphs (terms I privilege over ‘variant’, which reifies the idea that there is a ‘master’ narrative from which other traditions diverge) and also to contextualizing these multiforms within particular places, periods, and expectations. I also heavily emphasize that the process of Panhellenization is one of ideological force, defining ‘Greekness’ by exclusion primarily through the creation of a unified other. In addition, I take every opportunity to reiterate the pluralism of “Greekness” (different dialects, peoples, polities, values) and the multicultural origins of much of what we have received as Greek.
The primary content of my course, then, is not particularly remarkable—I use Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns, and the Homeric epics with supplementary material drawn from Apollodorus, Ovid, Greek poets, and fragments I have translated on my own. I have begun the secondary step of decolonizing by providing students not just with the multiform traditions from ancient Greece but also to modern critical responses from diverse scholars (where possible).
Affordability and Accessibility
The biggest step I have recently taken is the creation of a website which uses only free sources for the core readings in the course. Rather than expect students to purchase a large selection of books, I have found appropriate alternatives online and have supplemented with my own translations where necessary (most of them from this website). I have created this space as an evolving and open course for others to use if they see fit and for even those outside of the academy to use as a starting point for researching Greek myth. Each class day has a brief summary, a list of authors who are discussed in the course that day, links to the open source translations, links to blog posts with additional information, and links to articles. There is a page for resources for researching Greek myth; there is also room for adding material by and for students. I am still working on ways to include my powerpoint slides on the website; for now, all slides are available on the University LMS for students. Since the LMS is clunky and not available outside the Brandeis community it is important to me that course material be made fully public.
Developing new materials and responses to myth over time requires a level of knowledge I could not hope to attain on my own. Students have a large range of knowledge and experiences and bring a lot to the course. I encourage students to share links and material with me and I will integrate their work (when they do it and if they wish it) into the course over time. Sometimes this means I have to have difficult conversations in class about why Sparta is less than cool or why Jordan Peterson is a dangerous ideologue, but these are important moments in helping students develop a more sophisticated understanding of how to handle material from the ancient world. Even though I spend a the bulk of the course on Early Greek material, I use the last few weeks of the course to highlight how ‘Greek’ material is adapted to new contexts (and how different ‘Roman’ material is) and how storytelling functions as myth in modern genres like fantasy, horror, and science fiction.
An essential pedagogical understanding is that students bring different experiences, learning modalities, and skills to the course. Some will have a strong grasp of the concept of discourse; others will know myriad details of myth which escape me (as happens every semester). I believe that a course must be created in such a way as to allow all students to succeed in attaining its stated goals. Many students are new to college and need to work or have other reasons for not being able to attend all classes: all students can make up any class or missed quiz by completing extra credit.
Because students have different responses to exams and come with different preparation for studying, I have an adaptive grading process. This means that all exams can be made up to full credit (in addition students can earn ‘extra’ credit at any time in the course by writing responses to supplementary material posted on line). This also means providing students with plenty of extra time for exams and assignments and honoring all accommodation needs without creating obstacles. Finally, the course’s activities need to be aligned with its goals: the course starts out lecture heavy to help create a common ground, but I increasingly move toward discussion and workshops. The final assessments are student-designed projects that allow them to work and rework ancient narrative structures. (In earlier versions of the course I have had some success in bringing storytellers to class and having students retell myths in their own words.)
Some Future Plans
I teach this course every other year. In addition to updating course materials and continually adding in the work of underrepresented authors and linking to comparative myths in other traditions (a particular weakness of the current format), I need to improve the accessibility of the course. I will eventually create audio versions of each class; but I also need to work with my campus accessibility services to make sure that the powerpoints and website material can work for students of varied abilities. One of the reasons I chose to use wordpress instead of my campus LMS for the material beyond opening up the course to the world at large is that the wordpress site populates to mobile devices fairly well.
In general, however, I hope to benefit from students and researchers who care enough about myth to add to the material on the website. I look forward to any comments and additions and will integrate them as I can. Please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you would like to be able to add supplementary material directly or if you have any advice for uploaded the powerpoint slides to the website. I am also profoundly unvisual and have an (unjustifiable) antipathy towards video. I would be particularly grateful, then, for links to appropriate, useful, humorous or otherwise significant video clips. Finally, I would like to integrate more material about reception, but this is another one of my weaknesses.
When I was applying to graduate school and asked what it was like, I remember my first Greek teacher telling me a story about his PhD qualifying exams. During the two-hour oral component, some eminent professor of distinguished achievement remained conspicuously silent. When he did speak up, he looked critically at the examinee (a Homerist) and asked a single question: “What is the name of Odysseus’ mother?” My teacher could not remember and it caused enough trauma that this was the story he used to characterize his experience in graduate school almost 30 years later.
When I was in a PhD program myself, this anecdote was the first thing that came to my mind as I looked over the returned draft of the first three chapters of my dissertation. Most dissertations leave behind them legacies of confusion, shame, and pain. Mine was not completely traumatizing, but that’s because, after struggling for six months to write over 100 pages of well-footnoted dreck, I had the audacity to throw everything away and start from scratch. During a feverish long-weekend in February 2006, I re-started from page 1 and ended up writing the first draft of a ‘chapter’ that, at over 100 pages, became the first three chapters of a messy, long, but ultimately ‘successful’ dissertation. (Spoiler: I passed).
When you submit chapters of your dissertation to advisors, the ensuing period of silence can be maddening. (And sometimes that long wait never ends.) When I did receive a marked-up version of my magnum opus, I scurried away from my advisor to start poring over his responses, hoping for some clue that I was on the right track, to divine some sign of my future. And inside: Corrected misspellings; Commas inserted and deleted; A Greek accent was repaired. The longest actual comment I could find was scrawled next to a footnote: the word “Phaeacia” was scratched out, next to it: “The Phaeacians live in Skheria.”
This was not the first warning I received in graduate school about the world into which I was seeking initiation. Any failure to translate adequately in seminars was met with sudden questions about obscure aorist stems. In casual conversation, I remember being corrected for calling someone “long-lifed”, when the right way of saying it is “long-lived”. But I am a blustery and confident sort. When I was asked in a seminar why I didn’t know the defective aorist of bainô, I responded, probably with a bit of acid, “because I am a student. I am here to learn.”
The first lesson I was taught in graduate school was either to shed the Socratic notion of owning up to my ignorance or be prepared for shame as a reward for my loyalty to Platonic dogma. The second lesson was really just the application of one I already knew: the best defense is a good offense. Know the nitty-gritty details; and, if you don’t, just put someone else on the spot first.