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Letter to my Dan Dan

Dear Dan Dan,

You’ve been on my mind a lot lately, and the past 2 times I’ve been to Tucson I didn’t go visit you. I’m sorry, I really am. I’m not ignoring you, I just miss you too much. Sometimes I feel like Sansa after Lady died, like I’ll never quite be whole again.

I guess I have so much to say that I don’t know where to start. Kind of like my dissertation at the moment… which I should be working on, so instead I’m writing this letter.

Do we have souls? And, if we do, when do die do our souls live on? Where? Somewhere with internet? I hope so, because otherwise you’d be hard-pressed to read this.

Anyway, I just… you’ve been gone almost seven years, and you’ve missed so MUCH. A lot happens during that time, ya know? (Some things stay the same, though, like me cleaning up after you. Your tombstone can get so DIRTY so quickly!).

Well, I still don’t know how to fill in 7 years’ worth of information in just a letter, so I’ll just highlight what comes to mind, shall I?

Let’s start with me. You died the summer after I graduated from Scripps, I had a steady long-term boyfriend and was about to start my MA studies at UA. Well, I got my MA, but left the boyfriend. I spent almost every summer being academic in either Italy (AAR) or Greece (ASCSA), and got into UVA for more graduate school. I’m focusing on the iconography of Greek heroes on late Archaic Athenian vase-painting, and as long as I don’t botch anything horribly, should be “Dr. Bartlett” by this time next year. “Elizabeth Bartlett, ABD” just doesn’t quite have the same ring, ya know?

Harry Potter defeated Voldemort (turns out he was the final– and accidental — horcrux). Snape always loved Lily.

Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time came to an end with the 14th book, and though many people died it was a great ending and you would have been proud of Mat. I still love Nynaeve and Perrin the most, though.

George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire got picked up by HBO and is about to embark on its third season. It’s full of sex and violence and British actors, and now Mom has read all the books, though there’s still another one (or two?) to come.

By the way, the Mayans were wrong. 2012 came and went, and the world did not end.

Stephanie is studying abroad in Prague, and her blog and pictures just make me want to be abroad, too.

I did spend summer and Fall of 2011 abroad, actually. Okay, I guess I can’t complain too much. And Brie visited me in Athens!

Though it’s the future, we do not have hover boards such as depicted in “Back to the Future II”.

We do, however, have a black President. He just got re-elected for his second term. Yeah, he’s no Bill, but we like him well enough.

Hollywood remade “Les Mis”. Wolverine plays Jean Valjean and the gladiator was Javier. Anne Hathaway did a stellar job as Fontine… and I cried horribly when she sang “I Dreamed a Dream”. Not because she was also crying  at the same time (it was a bit over the top), but because that’s OUR song. Remember when we did that duet of you on piano and me on vocals for the talent show at Stanford Sierra Camp? Man, what was I thinking. You were such a good sport.

Annie got married and is now a step-mom! You would have loved the wedding, there was a live fiddle band and square-dancing and lots and lots of cake. Ted got married exactly a year before that, and it was a great excuse to see Brooklyn and cousins. I am still NOT married.

Joss Whedon did it again with “Dollhouse”. It was only one season (thanks, Fox), and it was awesome. Not as awesome as “Firefly”, but up there.

I still can’t do as many push-ups as you could (100!!!, geez), but I could try. I did set a world record in the 100% Raw Federation for the squat (130kg) for my weight class and age group, and Mommy set a world record for deadlift (92.5kg!) for her age group and weight class. I’ve also become a personal trainer for both Crossfit and Olympic weightlifting, and I compete. Crazy, I know, but you’d be proud. If you were around I’d somehow talk you into coming to a gymnastics gym and getting you on the rings. I bet you could’ve done some crazy shit up there.

We sent a robot to Mars, and it took some cool photos.

A man broke the sound barrier with a free fall from space, and the whole world watched him not die in the process. It was really something!

Weed is now legal in 2 states in the US.

http://trextrying.tumblr.com/ . Yeah.

Gay marriage is now legal in many US states, and that number is growing! I think the main issue there (with our generation) is that it is still an issue. Equality for all, right?

Every year we (Mom and Dad) sponsor summer research for a graduate student in the math department at UA, as well as a yearly lecture series in your name. I’m sure you’d approve.

Bubbe’s the only grandparent left. She’s going to live forever, probably.

I discovered I liked chopped liver, and that I like making it, and that I make it well. You split, I choose.

I still can’t believe you were allergic to tomatoes. You ate them ALL THE TIME.

You were always my favorite sibling, you know 😛 Okay you were my only sibling. STILL. Best older brother a girl could ask for. Fierce friend for all who had the privilege to know you. Intimidating intellect for those who braved to converse about matters of the mind with you. Silly sense of humor.

Even though I focus on heroes of the ancient Greek sort, you’ll always be my number one. Miss you and love you forever and ever.

(cowboy Dandan and the Princess Elizabeth)

Hope the pecan pie is good wherever you are. Mine may not be as good as Dad’s, but I have some on your birthday. Always.

xxxxxxxx

Elizabeth

PS: I may be surpassing you in years, but you’ll always be my older brother. Always. I had to learn the hard way that life is short and precious, so it’s best to just live well, laugh often, and surround yourself with people and things that make you happy.

So here’s to you. Slainte! (you would’ve loved Ireland)

(handsome man!)

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Better. Stronger. Smarter.

My name is Elizabeth, and I am a forever student.

Say it with me now.

“I am a forever student.”

Even though I have 2 degrees, working on a 3rd, and am technically now a professor, I will never stop learning (nor do I wish to).

I believe that it is a healthy endeavor to always strive to learn something new. Reading is a good way to do that. So is doing (experience — and mistakes — make the best teacher?). Combining both is even better.

Now I’m not suggesting that you read the dictionary or encyclopedia from A-Z, or read all non-fiction (though if you haven’t ever read a non-fiction book for fun, might I suggest you pick one up. I promise you they are not boring). In fact, using a well-written book of fiction as an instrument to replace reality with a fantastic place of wherever an author’s imagination took them is a learning tool in itself. Teach your dreams to become reality, and perhaps become a better writer in the process. Ideas of one person can only hope to manifest other ideas in another. Such visions then sprout and grow and produce masterpieces such as “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Once and Future King”. History (as in non-fiction) often influences the fiction and forces the reader to constantly be on their toes to distinguish one from the other. This is most prevalent, I think, in fictional autobiographies such as those by Margaret George. And then there is Umberto Eco, a writer and scholar who manages to produce novels of splendid prose, short witty anecdotes of travel, and also essays on linguistics and physics that he writes in such a way as to grasp your every intellectual sense.

Teaching, on the other hand, is one of the best methods of self-instruction I have ever come across. The more one teaches, the more one learns. I know from my own experiences that I learn from students, from their questions and insights; I learn from the material I read to make me a better teacher (and keep me ahead of the students). This applies to both academic instruction and coaching in the gym.

I’ve often heard that as you specialize you learn more and more about less and less. I can understand that — once I think I know all there is to know about a hero such as Ajax, I come across a new article or book that provides a whole new store of information. Yet as I’ve delved deep into the work of Greek hero cults and iconography I’ve neglected my studies of other aspects of ancient Greece — not to mention ancient Rome! So every now and then I make an effort to brush up on that material.

Now I find that I have to maintain and expand my knowledge of these subjects. I’ll be teaching a course on Greek and Roman mythology through epic literature (Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Metamorphoses) to undergraduates at the University of Richmond in the fall. I’m pretty excited, to tell the truth. I get to write the syllabus and design the class in a way I see fit. Of course “Xena” will play a role, as will other modern pop culture tributes to ancient mythology and epics (“Troy,” “O Brother Where Art Thou” and “Percy Jackson and the Olympians”, to name a few). But what is really great is that it’s forced me to check off a few things on my forever “to-do” list, such as “re-read Virgil and Ovid”. I had forgotten how engrossing the stories are, even in translation.

My parents just started a summer course on Homer’s “Odyssey” taught by Norman Austin (a very distinguished professor). His approach to the epic literature is different than my own, and I’m always curious to hear what my folks have to say about what Prof. Austin’s lecture of the day focused on. Learning from other teachers, who have been teaching a long time, is an opportunity one should never pass up. Seek the brilliance of others to help your own mind shine a little brighter. Go out and take seminars on new and familiar subjects. If you’re good at a skill, or just interested, take a class in it to learn more. No matter how good you are at something, there is always someone out there who is better. No matter how much you know on a particular subject, there is always someone out there who knows more. These are friends you want to make.

So is networking. Some may claim that’s an ugly word, but it’s a necessary one if one wishes to be successful. Not only because the saying “it’s not what you know so much as who you know” is one of the truest sayings ever to leave man’s lips, but also because you can learn from  people who know things. This sounds like a simple concept, one that should be self-explanatory, yes? But too often do we neglect the best resources we have for information: each other.

Be humble, be modest, be eager to learn. From something as simple as drawing a picture to something as complicated as speaking Navajo to something acrobatic such as a back tuck… there’s always something new to pick up.

Hero, Icon, Role Model

A little kid comes home from just another day at school, unceremoniously dumps his backpack on the ground, stomps into the kitchen, and sits down at the kitchen table for a tasty afternoon snack. His father places a plate in front of him. “Ants on a log”. Delicious. As he picks up the first one, careful not to get the excess peanut-butter on his fingers, his father asks him the usual “what did you learn at school today?”
“Stuff”, he replies. –“Did you have a good day?” –“Meh.” –“What’s your homework?” The little boy stalks over to his backpack and pulls out a piece of paper. On the top is printed the following question:

“Who is your hero, and why?”

A deceptively difficult assignment, in my opinion.

Take a moment and answer that question for yourself — who is YOUR hero, and why? Answer this question before you read on. Alyssa has demonstrated this process already http://myhero.com/go/hero.asp?hero=Cooley_MMS_.

(Cover of “Hero” magazine, Issue #5…and 99% sure this image has nothing to do with this post except for the word printed on it.)

Thought of a hero yet? …Good.

Now, riddle me this: how did you define the term “hero”? WHAT, exactly, is a hero?

Checklist: Is your hero living or dead? Does your hero transcend nature? Is your hero male or female (and are you the same or different gender?)? Do you personally know your hero? Is your hero a fictional character? If the question had been “who is your role model” would you have chosen someone different? What about “icon”? Is your hero a celebrity, athlete, or politician? A martyr? Did you have a hard time choosing just one hero — if yes… who are your other heroes?

WHY is this person (or persons) your hero(es)?

Does your hero personify an idea you wish to portray or emulate?

Would you say you “worship” your hero? If so, how? Is it akin to religion?

In the case of the grade-school essay assignment, “hero” has an assumed definition of “role model”, or “someone to emulate”, “someone who inspires” – personifications of morally good values and ideals.

In the case of comic books, a hero is usually a “super” human figure, blessed with unnatural abilities, often strength, and cursed with equally unnaturally gifted foes.

A “super” hero, if you will. More than human.

“Hero” is a term that gets thrown around a lot. This is a shame (yet I am certainly guilty of this crime). The word “hero” should not be taken so lightly, methinks. When a soldier dies for her country, she is honored as a “hero”. When a husband opens the pickle jar, his pregnant wife exclaims “Oh! My hero!”. When Theseus slayed the minotaur and saved the people of Athens from having to sacrifice 7 boys and 7 girls for future years, he became a national hero.

Epic heroes have been around for a very, very, very long time (think Iliad, Odyssey, and Gilgamesh). Hero worship was part of the religious system in ancient Greece and Rome. Heroes were worshipped in a similar manner as were divine figures. With the rise of Christianity, one could argue that the idea of the saint replaced the need for the hero — a transcendental figure one could pray to who was once a living person. In the Middle Ages, heroes of old and new heroes emerged in the literature — Hercules and tales of King Arthur and his Knights. I could try and trace the path of heroes through history, but that would take a very long time, I fear.

What I would rather discuss are the ways in which heroes are categorized. There isn’t simply one type of hero, after all (or is there? I could be very wrong. It happens). Maybe the hero you chose fits into one (or more) of these categories. … and maybe the figures who fall in these categories are better described as “icon” or “role model” (you be the judge).

Category #1: Political heroes.
Whether we think of these figures as “good” or “bad”, their names are stuck in the history books as leaders who left their mark on the world. Some of them include: Mao (in fact much of Chinese hero worship scholarship was written during the 1960s, during the Mao era – “thought control in Communist China … a strict order to write about certain subjects in a certain manner” [Sheridan, Mary. “The Emulation of Heroes.” The China Quarterly, 33 (Jan.-Mar. 1968): 47]); Lenin; Kim Jong Il; Napoleon; Hitler; FDR; Jefferson; JFK; Washington; Lincoln; MLK …. Some of these leaders were heroized during their lifetime, and others posthumously. Interestingly… it’s the Americans I listed who were heroized posthumously. “Heroized” could simply mean “became a revered national figure”, but one must be revered in order to be considered a hero.

Category #2: Supernatural Heroes
Or, more colloquially, comic book heroes. The “Super” man theory is actually one that was developed by early philosophers, and should not be discarded as a childhood notion of a larger than life figure who saves the day. Though these heroes are mythological in character (ex: Superman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, X-Men), they all have extraordinary (physical) abilities that they use in order to protect the weak (except Batman… who has no genetic alterations yet takes it upon himself to use fancy gadgets and superior fighting abilities to catch the bad guys). These heroes are like “super cops”. And they have their “super villain” counterparts, as well. And ridiculously amazing costumes that many of us don once a year (it’s called “Halloween”, and it’s the best excuse to play dress-up after age 10). 

Category #3: Celebrity Heroes
That is, pop culture heroes, many of whom died young: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley (funny how the ‘young’ Elvis is more often revered, yet the older Elvis is more often imitated), Michael Jackson… I could go on. Popular heroes in America have shrines, and people make pilgrimages to these shrines, such as Graceland for Elvis. Other American pop heroes with popular shrines include Will Rogers, Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickock, and Jesse James.

 

Hero athletes might also fall under “celebrity hero” status. In America, baseball is the national past time, and when we think of baseball we think of Babe Ruth. Even before his death, “Babe Ruth Day” (April 27) was celebrated in baseball parks all over America.

Category #4: The Martyr/War Hero
A martyr is someone who dies for his/her (often religious) beliefs. War heroes certainly are no exception. They are people, just like you and me, who sacrifice their lives during the struggle of injustice. They fight for a cause, and do so selflessly. Heroes of war have always been revered and honored (the mound that covers the 192 soldiers who died at the Battle of Marathon when the Greeks fought the Persians is still a site visited today) . And, a little closer to home, one can visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, or battlefields, or military cemeteries in order to pay respect to those who fought for us. 

Even CrossFit, a fitness movement that is taking over the world (or so it seems), honors war heroes. There are certain WODs (“workout of the day”s) with names that form a group called (appropriately) “hero WODs”. They are named after soldiers who died in the line of duty. Whenever a CrossFitter performs one of these workouts, that person will often give more of him/herself toward the workout, fight harder through the pain, resist the desire to quit, because s/he is doing it “for that hero”. It’s a method of hero worship in its own way.The “worship” aspect is performing the workout with 100% intensity as a tribute to the soldier who gave his life for our freedom.

T. H. Auden wrote “no hero is immortal till he dies”. And yet, a 1993 sociological experiment done in Philadelphia asking people who their hero is found that the most common answer was “my mom/dad”, no matter whether the parent was still living or not. After that came celebrities, then politicians, then Jesus [Klapp, Orrin E. “Hero Worship in America.” American Sociological Review, 14.1 (1949): 53-62.]

One could hardly form an argument against modern heroes and modern hero worship, given that we erect monuments and memorials to certain individuals, which are usually larger and more magnificent than those to “ordinary” persons. “While honor creates status, commemoration expresses the peculiar value of the hero as symbol. Monuments, likenesses, relics, legends, and periodic celebrations may be taken as mnemonic devices to preserve the collective image of a hero” (Klapp 1949: 58).The idea of a monument is not just a way to honor the hero/es, but is a method of perpetuating the memory of the individual(s) commemorated.

So. “Hero.” Can we answer the “what” part of “what is it”? This topic gained much popularity by European thinkers in the 18th and 19th centuries: Rousseau wrote about the idea of the hero, the Romantics started to redefine the idea of heroism as it concerned the individual (it was in fact Shelley’s opinion that Satan, in his noble defiance, was the real hero of Milton’s Paradise Lost), and in 1841 Carlyle published 6 in-depth lectures On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic.

In the 1960s, the idea of heroes and heroism gained new popularity. Charles Horton Cooley (1964) connects hero-identification with religion and other transcendental metanarratives. For Cooley, hero-identification was precisely a way for the individual to mark self-transcendent aspirations associated with moral idealism. Joseph Campbell (1968) defined the hero as one who, in response to a call, leaves the familiarity of ordinary life to enter a sphere of transcendental conflict; in returning from which, the hero raises the level of ordinary life itself. Daniel J. Boorstin (1968) maintains that heroes in modern culture have been replaced by celebrities. Whereas heroes were famous because they were great, celebrities are great because they are famous.

…do heroes even exist anymore? Truly? Bertolt Brecht wrote Life of Galileo (1943) during the height of Nazism, and in it he immortalized the following conversation between Andrea and Galileo —
Andrea: “Unhappy the land that has no heroes.”
Galileo: “No. Unhappy the land that needs heroes.”

 

And as for MY answer to the original question: “who is your hero?”. Well, I’ve had to answer to this question, and the answer came easy: my brother.

HERAKLES: A (Brief) Discourse on Heroes, Part 3

Herakles (or “Hercules” to many of you), that Panhellenic hero-god everyone knows and loves, who has muscled his way into modern pop-culture… truly immortal.

 …from Ryan Gosling to Kevin Sorbo… 

…all the way to Disney.

Muhammad Ali may have “wrastled with an alligator”, but Herakles wrestled everyone and everything. Known for his incredible strength, his first feat was to kill a lion whose hide was so tough no weapon could pierce it. So he wrestled it, eventually killing it with his bare hands.

Vatican 20262 -- Herakles wrestles the Nemean lion, Athena looks on.

Hence he was depicted wearing the lion’s hide as his identifying garment. Sometime he wields bow and arrow, sometimes a large club, sometimes both. He often has curly hair and a beard, and a few painters took pains to ensure the viewer understood his hair was curly by inserting thick blobs of slip as if to represent tight curls.

Vatican 16546 -- Guess who?

He was the hero “par excellence” for all of Greece. He was worshipped on the islands, on the mainland, in northern Greece, and even as far as Sicily. Later the Etruscans revered him, as did the Romans. He appealed to all — the traveling hero with brute strength.

It makes sense he appealed to athletes. Offerings were made to him by competitors before the Games at Olympia. What is lesser known is that he appealed to musicians, as well. Herakles is a patron hero of ALL athletes, including those of the mousikos agon(musical contest). Almost everyone is familiar of the deeds of Herakles and the monsters he bested, his muscular athletic build and victorious nature, but few are familiar with the stories concerning the musical education of Herakles. It is no surprise, then, that only a handful of the many visual representations of Herakles during the late Archaic periods depict him playing a lyre as a musical contestant. A handful of Athenian vases dating to the late sixth century depict Herakles holding a kithara (a fancy lyre), standing on a pedestal, flanked by Athena and either Hermes or Dionysos.

Athens, NAMA 635 -- Herakles in center playing a lyre, flanked by Athena and Hermes.

Vatican 16590 -- Herakles in center, playing a kithara, flanked by Dionysos and Athena

Here he is the guitar hero: performing at a mousikos agonin the hopes of winning the monetary prize and golden crown. Musical contests took place in nearly every ancient Greek city. At some major Greek Games, contests in music and similar arts formed a part of the program, on a par with athletic contests. The kithara was the most esteemed instrument, and the first place prize in kithara singing was a gold crown worth one thousand drachmas (perhaps worth as much as $150,000 in modern terms). The contestants won prizes for their success just as athletes won prizes for theirs.

The ancient athletic contests were religious in function, held in honor of a god (Olympics for Zeus, Pythian for Apollo, Panathenaian for Athena… and so on). These musical scenes could be seen as religious scenes, though not as obviously religious as Herakles sacrificing at an altar.

NY Met 41.162.29 -- Herakles roasting meat on spits over an altar

However, the issue of Herakles’s piety is a topic for a whole other blog post.

Watch this space.

THESEUS: A (Brief) Discourse on Heroes, Part 2

Recently I enjoyed a cinematic experience. The title of the movie was “Immortals”, and it was made by the same people who did “300”.

“Immortals” trailer

Aesthetically, it was quite pretty. Very enjoyable for the sake of entertainment. It has absolutely NOTHING to do with the mythical Greek hero Theseus, however, even though that is the name of the protagonist of this CG-enhanced adventure. (Although there was an allusion to a fight with a minotaur and the inclusion of a bull… and even I didn’t actually get the reference until the very end. Then I laughed.) For anyone who cares about historical accuracy (or accuracy of any sort), this movie will be very frustrating: the art and architecture is all over the chronological map and the outfits are fantastical; but the flick has its pros, as well: Ancient Greek is spoken by 4 of the characters, which is pretty cool; there are pretty bodies throughout (at one point a very nude very pretty body); colorful costumes and shiny gods permeate the screen; and let’s never forget the many fun action scenes. ANNNND Mickey Rourke plays the bad guy, so it must be legit.

One thing they did get very right: Theseus was young, he wore a short tunic, and he was beardless. At least, that’s how he is typically portrayed on Athenian vase-painting (where is weapon of choice is a sword, though, not this mythical “bow of Hyperion”).

ARF amphora (early 5th) -- Theseus slaying the minotaur

Who was the Greek Theseus, the man I study? He was the Athenian hero par excellence. He begins his story by venturing to Crete to slay the minotaur and in doing so save his city from having to send any more girls and boys as tribute (er, food). Plutarch gathered all of his stories and with them narrated a biography of Theseus, and in doing so made him appear a real historical figure. He was a king of Athens, he had connections to the Trojan War, he was associated with Poseidon (and Athena), and he completed ‘deeds’ similar to those of Herakles.

Around 500BC, Theseus sees a surge in iconographic popularity. Herakles used to be the popular hero in Athens, but it seems that Theseus for a brief moment almost replaces him, and he is imagined as the ideal Athenian citizen, what every young man should aspire to be. His mythology comes with a set of deeds similar to Herakles’ labors, and around this time period large red-figure Athenian plates are produced which portray these deeds in sequence. He battles evil men (such as Sinis and Prokrustes) and  beasts (the minotaur, of course, and also animals such as a sow and a bull).

ARF parade cup (c510) -- deeds of Theseus

Theseus does not really have set attributes the way most deities and some other heroes do; for example: Zeus has a thunderbolt, Poseidon a trident, Herakles his club… Theseus normally is depicted as a beardless youth, often (partially) nude and wielding a sword (or an axe for Prokrustes), but really he is better identified in context. It seems as if the Athenians themselves are still unsure how to best portray their new main hero. They’re still playing around with whether he has brown or blonde hair, whether he should wear clothes or be athletically/heroically nude, or whether he should fight with a sword or assimilate him to that other awesome hero, Herakles, by giving him a club to hold… and a bull to fight.

This leads to what I like to call “conscious ambiguity”. Herakles’s seventh labor was to capture (not kill!) the Cretan bull and take it with him back to Athens. The bull was released from there and wandered to Marathon (nearby) and Theseus captured the “Marathonian bull” (the very same one) for sacrifice. Herakles is often depicted bearded and nude but for his lionskin helmet and cape while subduing the bull. Theseus is also shown (partially) nude while subduing the bull, sometimes tying its legs together. Sometimes the hero wields a club. In such cases, the identity of the hero capturing the bull is a tad uncertain.

ARF, c490, Herakles/Theseus and the bull

Herakles or Theseus? Your choice! (<– that may have been just the point, indeed.)

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora…

“Ag-o-ra” [ag-er-uh]: (ancient Greece) the chief marketplace of Ancient Athens, center of the city’s civic life.

Today it is the center of a smattering of ruins, some with labels, best toured with a knowledgeable guide in tow to explain it all to you. John Camp, the director of the ongoing excavations at the Agora, would be the best guide to have, and I had the pleasure of this experience two years ago when I was here as a student in the Summer Session at the ASCSA. However, he is not available all the time. In the meantime, read a guidebook, hire somewhere, or explore on your own and just… guess. Ahhh guessing. Guessing is fun, isn’t it? Guessing takes up a lot of my time here in Athens when I explore the city. See, I’m in search for hero shrines. Often I have archaeological records that document the locations of shrines, and I find these extremely helpful. However, other times the only record is from Pausanias, an ancient travel writer of sorts, who might say things such as “there were a few altars dedicated to heroes in Phaleron, near the bay” or “so-and-so had a shrine south of the Olympeion by the Kalliroe Spring”. So specific, right?

Hero shrines are finicky in and of themselves. They come in many shapes and sizes, and we, modern scholars, have no clue as to the “why”. We just hope they come with an inscription that identifies the structure and, if we are truly lucky, the recipient of the offerings. Sometimes hero shrines share a structure with a god, sometimes they are worshiped in an open area with no physical structure other than an abnormal rock formation. Some were worshiped in houses, some were given dedications, some were worshiped at tombs, some were worshiped at the sea. … and so on.

Heroes were worshiped in caves

Heroes were worshiped just NE of the Areopagos

Near the Kalliroe Spring, south of the Olympeion

Base for "Eponymous Heroes" statues in the Agora

possibly the Strategeion (near a Geometric gravesite) in the Agora

Triangular hero shrine in the Agora (also in in Eretria, and 2 in Delos)!

graced with an inscription: "O HIERO"

possibly the temenos of the daughters of Leos

So, my “operation hero-shrine scavenger hunt” has been fun! Lots of “this looks like it could have been important!”. I’ve certainly seen a lot of ancient Athens hidden among the modern buildings. Which brings me to another point — modern Athens has been built up over the majority of the evidence. This makes things… more difficult. A challenge to really exercise my imagination.

Karaiskaki Stadium in Faliro, near the area where hero shrines were (according to Pausanias)

Luckily, I have quite the vivid imagination! And archaeological excavation records. And museums with many, many, many late Archaic Athenian vases for me to study. 😀

Modern Athens is not Ancient Athens

Ancient Athenian site of worship:

Hephaisteion (5th century BC)

Modern Athenian site of worship:

Greek Orthodox church in Moschato, Athens

Last leg of my European adventure: Athens, Greece. My home for the next few months.A city full of ancient, Byzantine, and modern history, full of smoking Greek-speaking spanakopita-eating ouzo-drinking people. The city is an aesthetic slap in the face of culture shock galore. It’s my third time visiting (once briefly in 2002, then with the 6-week ASCSA Summer Session in 2009, and now for 3 months). The monuments are lovely, the graffiti aplenty, the museums brimming, the food overflowing … but it’s feeling like home. Because I’ve made it my home, at least until December.

I have a lovely apartment in the very residential neighborhood of Pagrati, just a couple blocks away from the Panathenaic Stadium. The Agora, AKropolis, Plaka, and American School of Classical Studies are all within walking distance. And walk I have done. I also have ridden the wonderful and extensive metro system here (some of the metro stations are like private museums where they display finds from the the metro excavations), the bus, and even dared to ride on the back of a speeding motorcycle (actually I’ve done this more than once and dare I say I’m getting used to it?).

Like every good European city, farmer’s markets are aplenty. Ripe seasonal fruit, freshly caught fish, recently killed meat, and delicious cheeses are all just at your fingertips. You only have to dare to venture to try a little Greek. Athens’ mongers are a bit more aggressive than I’m used to, however. They were literally throwing plastic bags at me so I could fill them with their produce!

Friday morning market in the Pagrati neighborhood of Athens

Anyway, I have a fridge full of fresh goodies and have renewed my love of παστέλι, the sesame-honey sticks that I normally only eat on Passover. I make χωριάτικη (Greek salad) pretty much every day, and I often pair salmon with τζατζίκι (I’m calling it my Greek tartar sauce — but it’s way better than tartar sauce). Figs are still in season, so I get to nibble on those every day and it’s absolute heaven. And don’t even get me started on the wonderfulness that is Greek yogurt from a clay jar or fresh feta!!!

But I said I’m living here. This isn’t just vacation. This is 3 months full of serious study and research for my dissertation. Annnnd CrossFit (duh).

My days look a little something like this…

Every morning I eat breakfast, pack a lunch, and then walk from my apartment up the hill to the ASCSA. I get a nice view of the Lykabettos Hill on the way.

Lykabettos Hill as seen from Rizari St.

Then I greet the guard at the ASCSA library, get my laptop out of my locker, put my bag in the locker, remember to bring my pen, water bottle, USB flash-drives and any notes upstairs with me to my book-filled carrel. Most of my day has the following view:

Blegen Library new wing

Eventually I go outside to take my lunch break, then come back in to pursue more work. Not EVERY day is spent indoors, since some of my research requires going to museums and their storerooms (Agora storeroom is on Thursday! I believe I’ll spend all day there.. and then return again to spend another day. May have to return yet again). National Archaeology Museum of Athens and the Kerameikos Museum are also on my “to-do” list for research. And let’s not forget about my main playground, the Athenian Agora, which was full of shrines and altars and monuments dedicated to many various heroes!

view of Athenian Agora and part of the Akropolis from the Hephaisteion

Late in the afternoon I pack up all my things, switch out my laptop for my bag in my locker and head to Evangelismos Metro stop to begin my journey to Moschato where Primal CrossFit Athens is located! Depending on connection time, it’s only about a 20-25 minute journey, but can sometimes get pretty crowded. Then my nights are spent with some fabulous people in a very large room full of pull-up bars, rings, barbells, bumper plates, kettlebells, and, of course, Greeks.

Primal CrossFit Athens

In fact, this is where I have the best chance of learning modern Greek. Knowing Ancient Greek gives me a head start on the alphabet and many of the words, and a few months of private tutoring that I had last semester helped significantly with my modern pronunciation of said words. But I find Greek very difficult to hear and whenever I want to say anything my first instinct is to speak in Italian. Well that won’t get me far, now will it? No. It won’t. So I’ve made many friends at this box already, and they’ve all agreed to help me with my Greek (and in return I’ll help some of them with their English, others with their Olympic lifts). This is quite necessary, because in less than a week’s time I’ve already been approached often by Greek strangers on the street or in the subway or in the grocery store asking me questions like I should 1) know the answer and 2) know what they’re saying and be able to respond. Needless to say, I’ve become very proficient at saying  “Δεν καταλαβαίνω” (“I don’t understand”) and “δεν μιλω ελληνικα” (“I don’t speak Greek”).

Hopefully those phrases will be spoken less often by me in the near future.

Meanwhile, I’ll be putting on sunscreen and admiring the north side of the Akropolis.

North slope of the Athenian Akropolis


AJAX: A (Brief) Discourse on Heroes, Part 1

I don’t mean the bleach, and I don’t mean Amsterdam football. I’m talking about the mighty Greek hero.

No one ever thinks about Ajax, the Salaminian hero. Homer described him as “Telamonian” or “Greater” Ajax, a mighty Achaian warrior. Unlike in the movie “Troy”, Ajax does NOT die early in the Trojan War. In fact, he does not die until after the War is over, after Achilles is dead, and then he only dies because he takes his own life. He is probably the only person in the entire Trojan War not to suffer any injury  — even Aphrodite gets cut by a sword! — and yet… yet you may not really know who he is. Poor Ajax, he always gets the shaft.

In Homer’s Iliad, Ajax is described as a warrior of great stature, having a colossal frame and the strongest of all the Achaians. Known as the “bulwark of the Mycenaeans,” he was trained by the centaur Chiron, who was also tutor to Achilles (Ajax’s cousin and dear friend). He was described as vicious, fearless, strong and powerful but also with a very high level of combat intelligence. In Book 15, Hector leads the Trojans into the Greek camp and attacks the ships. Ajax, wielding an enormous spear as a weapon and leaping from ship to ship, holds off the Trojan armies virtually single-handedly (this is just one example of his many super-human feats during the Trojan War). Sadly, Ajax is the only major character either Trojan or Greek who does not receive personal assistance from any of the gods who take part in the battles.

Despite his mighty prowess, Ajax (the poor guy) always gets the short end of the stick. He doesn’t get assistance from the Olympian gods (Athena is so cruel!), he doesn’t get Achilles’ armor even though HE was his good (best?) friend AND the one to save his dead body from the battlefield scavengers (stupid Odysseus and and eloquent way with words), and he couldn’t stand the shame of it all to the point that he, “conquered by his own sorrow,” committed suicide by falling on his sword.

As for his hero aspect, the kind of hero that was actually worshiped in real life, well… the Salaminians believed Ajax fought with them against the Persians in the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC (Hdt. 8.64) and dedicated a captured trireme to him after (Hdt. 8.121). Ajax, who in the post-Homeric legend is described as the grandson of Aiakos and the great-grandson of Zeus, was the tutelary hero of the island of Salamis, near Athens, where he had a temple and an image, and where a festival called Aianteia was celebrated in his honor. He was also the Eponymous Hero of the Attic tribe Aiantis, and a statue of him was worshiped in the Athenian Agora (Hdt. 5.66). Can Achilles say that? No. Can Odysseus? No. Can Agamemnon? No. Finally Ajax gets a little credit!

But what aspect of Ajax’s life does the Athenian vase-painting actually portray? NOT his mighty prowess in battle, but instead his losses and struggles in life and also his friendship with Achilles — though even then he’s shown LOSING to Achilles. Sometimes Athena is present in those scenes, just to rub it in that she’s there to support Achilles and not there for Ajax. The scenes mainly depicted are very emotional: 1) playing a boardgame with Achilles; 2) carrying Achilles’ dead body; 3) quarreling with Odysseus over the armor of Achilles; and 4) his suicide.

The earliest depiction of Ajax in Attic art is on the Francois Vase c.575BC (him carrying the body of Achilles).

Ajax carrying the dead Achilles, Francois Vase handle

Exekias, Ajax and Achilles playing a boardgame

After this, Exekias (the second half of the 6th century BC) played a major role in developing the popularity of Ajax in Attic vase-painting.

Exekias, Ajax preparing for suicide

He was the first to compose the ‘boardgame’ scene and the first to compose Ajax’s contemplation of his suicide (rather than the act of the suicide itself, which involves more gore but much less emotion). In Exekias’ depictions of Ajax, and those influenced by his subject matter decisions (such as Douris, Makron and the Brygos Painter), the manner in which they portray Ajax reflects an interest in the hero not just as a character from Homeric lore but as an exemplar of a particular kind of relentless logic that results in personal destruction.

According to the Beazley Archive, almost 400 vases depict Ajax, and all of those are scenes from the Homeric epics — not one of them is in any way a religious scene. Apart from his suicide scene, he is always associated with Achilles, and sometimes with Odysseus. Though he is the strong-man hero of the Achaians, he does not receive the respect he deserves nor will he ever measure up to Achilles. In the Iliad, Ajax is characterized as the premier defensive warrior on the Achaian side, but the visual narrative challenges this conception, since he is always coming in second place to both Achilles and Odysseus. It is the noble but sad mythological hero of Homer that the vase-painters choose to portray, not the Attic hero honored with a shrine and cult rites.

And if the scenes of him contemplating and then committing suicide weren’t emotional enough, I’ll end this post with a soliloquy from Sophocles’ “Ajax”:

“Have I not learned this, only so much to hate my enemy as though he might again become my friend, and so much good to wish to do my friend, as knowing he may yet become my foe: most men have found friendship a treacherous harbor” (670-83, J. Moore’s translation, 1975).

Where Have All The Good Men Gone and Where Are All the Gods…

Let’s talk about heroes.

…Dead ones (long dead).

…Mythological ones (Herakles and Theseus!).

…Heroes with cult in Athens (sorry, Achilles, but helllllo Ajax).

….Heroes you’ve probably never heard of (Eumolpos, Triptolemos, Erichthonios, Akamas, Demophon…).

Heroes and their cult are the main ingredient of my dissertation, and their representations on late Archaic Athenian vase-painting are the reasons I’m traveling from city to city in Europe spending hours with vases in museums (lovely lovely hours).

Sometimes I get so wrapped up with organizing my notes from a recent museum visit, or noting connections between this vase and that, or marking when an unusual subject is portrayed, that I forget I am in Europe, in some wonderful city waiting to be explored, and instead I just sit with my notes and my images and work.

This is not a bad thing, really, considering that I *should* be devoting the majority of my time to my dissertation! I want this Ph.D., after all.

So, since heroes are so much on my mind, some of my future posts will be devoted to heroes relevant to my work. This way, in future contexts when I blather on excitedly about so-and-so you can be a little more informed about who so-and-so is! The first ones will cover some of the more familiar heroes, such as Herakles (NOT Hercules, this is Greek vase-painting!), Theseus, and the ever solemn Ajax. I may just start with that last guy, since he’s quickly forming a large soft spot in my heart with his name written all over it. Aww Ajax, the guy just doesn’t get enough credit.

I may also include tidbits on how these ancient heroes of old still play a role in our own pop culture (I like that sort of thing…. cue “Xena” …). To kick things off, here’s the trailer for a new movie coming out based (very loosely) on Theseus. Now that that’s done, I refuse to discuss this trailer any further.