Thoughts on the recent Spring Break Trip led by Professor Greg Nagy, Director of the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies
Although my husband Hunt and I had been privileged to participate in Professor Nagy’s fabulous spring break Greece excursions twice before, I had both trepidation and motivation about the 2019 trip.
You see, August of last year I broke my femur (thighbone) and had a dandy 12-inch titanium rod installed. I was filled with trepidation that I would not be able to do the walking the trip required. This in turn led to motivation to work especially hard on physical therapy and rehabilitation! And, because modern medicine is magic and Boston doctors are among the best in the world, I found myself able to go!
It was so wonderful to meet so many delightful and interesting people, each bringing their own background and viewpoints. Having participants with knowledge of business, photography, poetry, mathematics, archaeology, and literature, just to name a few, made it even more enriching.
Especially fabulous was the opportunity to meet in person Maria Eugenia, with whom I participate in such Kosmos online activities as Homer translation! She is an amazing person, with the fascinating perspective of a writer and editor who speaks multiple languages. We enjoyed discussing the places we saw and the landscape of Greece, as well as the impact of ancient Greek language and philosophy on the modern world.
Professor Nagy is so knowledgeable and so able to communicate immense and complex subjects concisely that at the end of each day we all were stunned to learn just how much we actually covered. Learning about ancient Greece and the ancient Greek hero culture from Professor Nagy is like this:
Our first stop was the first capital of the modern state of Greece, Napflio, a charming seaport on the Peloponnesian peninsula and the site of the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies’ Greek headquarters. Many of us climbed the 999 steps to the top of the hill overlooking the city which is the site of the Palamidi Castle, offering views such as this:
We were blessed with clear weather, making for breathtaking views of the plain from the ancient city of Argos to the temple of Hera, where we learned of Kleobis and Biton, the twin sons of the priestess of Hera. Professor Nagy, our fearless leader, states that “it all comes together” for him at the temple of Hera, and it is easy to see why, as it is from there that the enormity of the young men’s feat of pulling their mother’s ceremonial carriage across the wide plain from Argos to the Temple of Hera may be appreciated.
Although we were a fairly large group—over thirty—everyone’s enthusiasm and helpfulness made our visits to even somewhat busy sites, like the tholos (beehive shaped) tomb called the “Treasury of Atreus”, and the ancient site of Mycenae (city of Agamemnon) easy and fun.
These amazing ancient sites bring home the development of the hero culture Professor Nagy so eloquently describes in his books and classes—from the earliest pre-Hellenistic times to the Classical age. It is astonishing that we can, through art, architecture, music, theater, and literature, hear the voices of people from 3,500 years ago. We can hear and see how they thought of themselves and their relationship to the world, the cosmos, and each other.
Our next excursion was to the ancient site of Olympia, which hosted the most well-known of the several periodic games held in ancient Greece. (Other games were held in other locations, such as Delphi, Isthmia, and Nemea). Given that Greek city-states were often at war with each other, it is impressive that the athletes, spectators, and others were subject to a universal truce while the games were going on.
We enjoyed touring the remains of the temple of Zeus and the temple of Hera at Olympia, as well as the archway that still stands, marking the entrance to the running track from what was once a tunnel through which athletes entered, much like football players enter an arena today. The original event at the Olympic Games was the stadion, or foot race, with the tradition naming the first winner as Koroibos, of the nearby town of Elis, in the year 776 BCE.
Our next adventure took us to my personal favorite site, the ancient sanctuary of Delphi, where two of the artifacts that resonate most deeply for me may be seen. The first are the fragments of engravings of Delphic Hymns to Apollo, with the small Greek letters and other symbols in between the lines of text, showing musical notation. Here are the words and music of people from over two thousand years ago, speaking to us. Not only that, but we have been able to reconstruct, to some extent, anyway, how the hymns would have sounded, sung and accompanied by a double pipe, or aulos. I think that is really cool.
Second is the well-known bronze statue of the Charioteer. For me, this is one of the most lovely and inspiring pieces of art ever created. He is so elegant, so detailed, and so lifelike that at any moment he could turn his head and accept the accolades of the crowd for the chariot race he has just won. He is one of the prime examples, I think, of why we should not have the hubris (insolence) to think that ancient people were somehow backward or less skilled and intelligent than we are simply because they did not have electricity or the internet on which they could watch cat videos.
The final days of the trip were spent in Athens, the city of contrasts: crowds and solitude, modern and ancient, silly tourist shops and sublime art and architecture. We experienced fabulous views and high winds on the Acropolis. One could spend decades unraveling the historical and cultural significance of this site, which is the location of the Parthenon (temple of Athena the virgin) and other sacred structures.
One of the most interesting things to see is the Areopagus (the Rock of Ares), just to the northwest of the Acropolis. This was the site where murder cases were tried in ancient Athens. According to the playwright Aeschylus and others, Orestes was tried here for the murder of his mother, Clytemnestra (who in turn had of course murdered Orestes’ father, Agamemnon, when Agamemnon returned from the Trojan war—these stories make Game of Thrones seem tame!).
When we descended the Acropolis, Professor Nagy showed us the site known as the Cave of the Eumenides at the foot of the Areopagus. I love the story, again, most prominently in Aeschylus, telling of Orestes being pursued by the relentless Furies, who were transformed into the Eumenides (the benevolent ones) after Orestes’ trial and acquittal. By this process, the old “blood feud” method of dealing with homicide was replaced by the rule of law.
The last things I would like to mention are the marvelous museums we visited in Athens. The Archaeological Museum, the Acropolis Museum, and the Agora Archaeological Museum contain overwhelming numbers of fascinating and priceless artifacts. I would like to stay for months or years to study them. Although we returned to the US after our stay in Athens, our wonderful memories are forever, just like the unwilting glory of Achilles and the other ancient Greek heroes.
A few of my favorite items are below, with my very favorite being the magnificent Dipylon Vase, a funerary object of marvelous complexity and huge size.
Kelly Lambert is a member of the Kosmos Society