The Spirit of the Greek Games

How many times have you walked down the brick path past Barnard Hall over the years and wondered, “Why is there a statue of a girl in a toga on campus?”

 

Greek Games statue, circa 1999. Courtesy of the Barnard College.

 

The statue itself answers; on its base is inscribed, “Barnard Greek Games / This Statue is Presented to the College / By the Class of 1905, Founder of the Games / To Commemorate the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary / Of Their establishment in 1903.” (A line of Greek text is also inscribed, but we’ll come back to that in a bit.)

For more than half a century, from 1903 to 1968, the Greek Games were a central part of campus life at Barnard College. An annual competition between the Freshman and Sophomore classes, the Greek Games were “an attempt to reproduce as nearly as modern conditions permit a classic festival… a contest in athletics, lyrics, costumes, music and dance” (O’Donnell, 1932, p. 3). For Barnard’s students, they were a place for creativity and competition, for athleticism and aestheticism, but most of all, for fun. Although attempts have been made in the years since their cancellation to re-instate the Greek Games at Barnard, the main reminder to current students of this once grand tradition is a weather-stained bronze statue, tucked away in a corner, going mostly unnoticed, except as a curiosity, by people who hurry by on their way to somewhere else. However, this statue embodies the spirit of the Greek Games, an integral part of Barnard’s history, and as such, deserves more than a passing glance.

As the statue’s inscription notes, it was given to Barnard College by the Class of 1905, the founders of the Greek Games, to commemorate the 25th anniversary of their creation. According to reports in the Alumnae Bulletin, the Class of 1905 commissioned artist Chester Beach in 1924 to start work on a sculpture that would be presented to the college in 1928, on the 25th anniversary of the first Greek Games. Mr. Beach worked faster than anticipated, and the statue was presented to Barnard College on Commencement Day, 1927. Although referred to by a variety of names, notably Torch Bearer, the Runner and Barnard Greek Games Statue, the name that finally stuck was Spirit of the Greek Games. Perhaps because, as Agnes Wayman, the Head of the Department of Physical education, said:

 

Greek Games statue, spring, circa 1980s. Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

 

“The spirit of the Greek Games as typified by the statue of the Torch Bearer, which stands in the entrance to Barnard Hall, is symbolic of the real meaning of the Games. The maiden in Greek tunic – a composite of the modern participants – has received from her teammate the lighted torch and is striving to pass it on – lighted. Thus the spirit of beauty, a light eternal, is passed from class to class, year to year, and it is this spirit that makes the games enduring” (O’Donnell, 1932, p. ix).

The statue was well received, even by those who were not Barnard Alumnae. In 1928, the organizer of the International Art Exhibit requested that Dean Gildersleeve allow the statue to travel to Europe to be part of a display of art on athletic subjects, in support of the Olympic Games in Amsterdam. Dean Gildersleeve agreed, on the condition that the statue be displayed as “Spirit of Greek Games,” instead “of the Greek games,” because she felt that the Greek Games had “assumed a place such as only an abstraction of a proper noun can express” (Barnard Bulletin, 1928, March 9, p. 1).

The Spirit was returned to Barnard at the end of the year, no worse for wear, and re-ensconced on her pedestal… her inscribed pedestal, which, as it turns out, has an unfortunate typo that no one seemed to notice at the time. In addition to the information about the Class of 1905, the pedestal has a line from Aeschylus’s play, Agamemnon, engraved in its base.

ΝΙΚΑΙΔΕΟΓΡΩΤΟΣΚΑΙΤΕΛΕΥΤΑΙΟΣΔΡΑΜΩΝ

 

Torch bearer and Greek Games Chairman Ruth Neimzoff '62 poses with the Greek Games statue in Barnard Hall, circa 1960. Photograph by Jack Mitchell, courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

 

Translated into English, it reads “Victor is he that runs first and last,” meaning that in a torch or relay race, victory is won by all the runners on a team, not just the swiftest participant. However, astute readers of ancient Greek will notice that the chiseler of the inscription replaced the letter Π (Pi), the first letter of the word “protos” or first, with a Γ (Gamma), turning the word into “grotos,” which has no meaning.

This apparently went unnoticed until 1961, when an astute reader sent a Letter to the Editor in the Barnard Bulletin, to call attention to the gaffe. This astute reader, according to their signatory line, was none other than Aeschylus himself.

So the next time you are walking by on your way to somewhere else, take a moment to look at the Spirit, to remember the Greek Games, and to marvel at the fact that even sculptors of monumental works sometimes need spell check.

Written by Elizabeth Parker, Archives Intern, QC GSLIS ’11

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Margaret Mead at Barnard

Margaret Mead ’23 sitting on roof of Barnard Hall, circa 1920s. Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

In any anthropology class you take at Barnard, the professor will take a few minutes out of the first lecture to tell you that Margaret Mead, the brilliant scholar responsible for introducing anthropology into the public conscience, was once a student at Barnard.  In 1920, a “frumpy” Mead transferred to Barnard from DePauw University as a sophomore.

Mead had trouble fitting in at DePauw.  She was socially ostracized and turned down by many sororities during the rush process because she didn’t dress “in fashion.”  At Barnard, however, she found “and in some measure created–the kind of student life that matched [her] dreams….friendships were founded that endured a lifetime of change.”  By the end of her time here, she knew what she could do in life.

At the time that Mead attended, Barnard only had one dorm and so overflow students lived in Barnard owned apartments near campus, much as upperclassmen do today.  Here, in a Claremont Apartment, Mead began to develop the close circle of friends nicknamed the Ash Can Cats.  The moniker was given them by drama teacher and Barnard legend Minor Latham, whose comprehensive drama survey they all took together.  Noted poet Leonie Adams was, along with Mead, the leader of the group.  Mead described the Ash Can Cats as “unusual” and “half Jewish, half Gentile,” a contradiction which Mead thought sparked debate among the girls.  They thought of themselves as radicals but spent many nights engaged in studies and academic debate rather than partying.  It was clear that they meant “radical” in an intellectual sense.  Mead’s Ash Can Cats belonged to “a generation of young women who felt extraordinarily free.”

Originally an English major, it was at Barnard that Mead took her first anthropology class taught by the pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas.  She met Ruth Benedict, who was then serving as Boas’  TA and who encouraged Mead to major in Anthropology, telling her that philosophy could wait but that the field of anthropology was moving now.  Benedict belonged to the culture and personality school of anthropology and was later recognized as one of the other key female anthropologists of the 20th century.  Mead formed a strong relationship with Benedict and Boas, and her interest in anthropology directly affected the Ash Can Cats outside of discussion–she drew up a kinship chart for the group, similar to ones used by field anthropologists at the time, to organize her friends.  At the top were the parents, Deborah Kaplan, Leonie Adams, and Mead and then the children, who included Viola Corrigan and were noted for their “whimsical humor.”  The chart continued and all the way through to a “great grandchild” that the Ash Can Cats “adopted” during their last years at college.

Three “Ash Can Cats” seated on a bench holding balloons. From left to right: Léonie Adams ’22, Margaret Mead ’23, and Eleanor Pelham Kortheuer ’24, the Jungle, circa, 1921. Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

In her years post Barnard, Mead made some significant breaks from the teachings of her anthropology mentors, rejecting Boas’ practice of salvage anthropology and moving into a more public sphere of anthropological study.  She always remained, however, unchanging in her gratefulness to Barnard for her undergraduate years, still the girl who wrote, a few weeks into her residence “I love, love, love it here.”