By Lanah Koelle, Fellowship Program Manager & Librarian, Center for Hellenic Studies
ἐπάμεροι· τί δέ τις τί δ᾿ οὔ τις; σκιᾶς ὄναρ | ἄνθρωπος. ἀλλ᾿ ὅταν αἴγλα διόσδοτος ἔλθῃ, | λαμπρὸν φέγγος ἔπεστιν ἀνδρῶν καὶ μείλιχος αἰών
Creatures of a day. What is a someone, what is a no one? Man is the dream of a shade. But when the radiance given by Zeus comes, there is at hand the shining light of men, and the life-force gives sweet pleasure.
Pindar Pythian 8.95–97; translation by Gregory Nagy
As the fellowships program manager and a librarian at Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies (CHS), I recently had the pleasure of co-organizing a collaborative reading of Pindar’s Pythian 8, a victory ode that commemorates the wrestler Aristomenes, an athlete from the island of Aegina. The reading brought together old friends — CHS fellows and authors — along with new friends — Harvard college students and actors from the Reading Greek Tragedy Online project which the CHS began in the first weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown. In the days leading up to our live-streamed performance on June 20, this group of 42 readers in 7 countries transformed into an ancient Greek chorus. We understood our choreography not only as a creative expression, but as an honor for us as global citizens, a privilege that we could spend a few hours dreaming together, examining the intricacies of an ancient song.
No mere apparitions on a screen, this far flung chorus united under impossible circumstances, with courageous dedication to fulfill the challenge of choral performance in a time of physical distancing. Dr. Natasha Bershadsky, Lecturer in Classics at Harvard, cultivated the spirit of community that brought the group to life. With her guidance, we isolated Zoom squares filed into a virtual procession. “The connection between us is very palpable,” Natasha remarked at the end of the performance. “We are right here all together and our connection to the distant past, to the music and wonder of this poem is also there.”
My work on the Pythian 8 reading happened because of a much bigger dream. In 2019 the Isadora Duncan International Institute and the Ecumenical Delphic Union approached the Center for Hellenic Studies with their vision to organize a modern Pythian festival. Such a festival would take inspiration from the humanistic values of the Amphictyonic Council, which managed the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, and promote the Delphic Ideal: peace through cultural diplomacy, freedom of creative expression, and reverence for the environment. While the Center for Hellenic Studies intends to be one of many institutions working together towards a Festival in Delphi for 2021, we also found cause in organizing a festival for 2020. We decided to dedicate this year’s festival to the Muses, goddesses of inspiration, study, and song. While the initial plans were to hold an event at the CHS campus in Washington, DC, COVID-19 offered us a choice: to cancel or to adapt swiftly and move the festival online. We chose to act nimbly and developed a plan for “an ambitious tapestry” of programming, as Zoie Lafis, Executive Director of the CHS, describes the Festival in her welcome address. We planned two days of live-streamed panels and performances, and developed a vast collection of articles and videos that viewers could enjoy asynchronously in a “Garden of the Muses.” Our vision for the Festival of the Muses on June 19-20, 2020 was to bring together artists and researchers from around the world, not only in a showcase of academic excellence and artistic expression, but also in an act of reflection on the state of our current society, and in an act of dialogue with our past and with each other.
In her welcome address for the Festival on June 19, Zoie calls on Mnemosyne, the mother of the Muses, goddess of memory, to aid us in commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. She points to a path for change and healing: “It is with this resolve that we continue to lead our lives as civic-minded persons — families and friends — as citizens of the earth with its boundless promise of cultivating new gardens.” It is with this resolve too that the CHS reaffirms its commitment to antiracism and acknowledges that for too long “Classics” has been wielded as a weapon of elitism and white supremacy. The CHS will continue its work to promote the historical and documentary exhibit, “18 Black Classicists,” a permanent installation of portraits envisioned and curated by Professor Michele Valerie Ronnick and designed by CHS colleague Allie Marbry. The CHS will continue its ongoing collaboration with the legendary and prestigious Classics Department at Howard University by supporting the annual Frank M. Snowden Lecture series and by supporting the next generation of Black researchers of ancient Greece and Rome. The CHS will continue to feature Black voices and Black reception of ancient texts and culture as it has with programs such as: “An Africana Bloomsday” with Professor Carolivia Herron in June 2019, or “Rethinking the Classics: The Works of James Baldwin” in partnership with the Shakespeare Theater Company in February 2020. The CHS is committed to expanding the canon, and promoting research and outreach programs that inspire critical reflection, civic engagement, cross-cultural exchange, and empathy.
In our two rehearsals for the Pythian 8 reading and at the end of the live stream performance, the translator of Pindar’s song, Professor Gregory Nagy, Faculty Director of the CHS, offered commentary to explain why we were reading this ode in this moment and how we could understand the “untranslatable words” of Pindar. Though written in honor of an individual, Pindar’s ode commemorates the lineage of ancestors who produced the victor. Greg explains:
A human in his or her moment in the sun is the realization of the dreams of that human’s ancestors — fathers, mothers, the whole line of ancestors. It’s not that the ancestors are dreaming about us; it’s that they are dreaming us. We come to life because they dream us and we are the realization, therefore, of their hopes and aspirations.
This beautiful idea reverberates across the centuries. We look to Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I have a dream.” We look to Maya Angelou: “I am the dream and the hope of a slave.” We look to Walt Whitman: “I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence … What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you” and to Whitman’s echoes in Allen Ginsberg: “What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman … dreaming of your enumerations!” In our dialogue with the past, we see that the progress of history gives us such cause for optimism. The progress of history brought us to this moment which allowed 42 readers in 7 countries to meet online to perform a 2,500 year-old song. To our modern chorus Greg offered his own dream: “I fondly hope that this group that has brought the dream of freedom back to life in song will have their hopes realized in our lifetime.” Over our week of rehearsals, these ideas so permeated the group that one reader, composer Andrew Simpson, offered his dream in a musical improvisation and video for Juneteenth, and another reader, anthropologist and poet Manuela Pellegrino, offered her dream that her work on Griko, a minority language in southern Italy, finds its way into the hands of her descendants, who have continued the tradition of speaking Griko. Thousands of miles apart, our chorus of Pythian 8 readers are all breathing the same sweet air of radiant hope.
I have been so privileged to work on the Festival of the Muses and to be part of the amazing array of programming at the Center for Hellenic Studies, an “organization that truly is a garden of the Muses,” as Greg says in his welcome address for the Festival. We tend that garden not only to cultivate our minds and understand the past, we study ancient culture for what it can tell us about us. It is undeniable that Pindar’s ancient song, Pythian 8, speaks to our present moment — Juneteenth, a month of Pride, the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment a few weeks away — a moment of reckoning, a moment to reflect on the fulfillment of so many dreams, a moment to believe that there is so much more to come, we dare only dream.
I invite you to enjoy the following materials related to Pindar’s Pythian 8 and the Festival of the Muses:
- An edited, “platonic” recording of the Pythian 8 reading and and a compressed “trailer”
- Our script along with Natasha’s commentary and a link to Greg’s piece, “What thoughts you have of me, and what thoughts I have of you, in poems by Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg” (PDF)
- Andrew Simpson’s “Dreams of Our Ancestors” – June 19 Improvisation
- Manuela Pellegrino’s Dream of Griko (PDF)
- The recording of Zoie’s and Greg’s welcome addresses as part of the Opening Ceremony for the Festival of the Muses
- Greg’s piece, “The Library as a garden of the Muses”
- The Festival of the Muses webpage