First Words

Our age needs heroes. That much is clear. Politicians, superstars, champion athletes and mascots often let us down because they have, well, histories. But as a classicist I contend that, in large enough doses, History is quite a good thing. I’m delighted that Amherst College has figured this out. For there are, mascot-wise, no skeletons in the closet if the mascot is a skeleton in the first place. From having an office on the third floor of the Beneski Building, I’ve learned that this is one problem—for all their issues—that my extinct downstairs neighbors don’t have. (I’m very fond of them, since they make me feel young.)

I can already hear the cheers from the stands: “We’re lean and mean and Pleistocene!”

Nor are we just talking mascot here; we’re talking Hero! And that’s something that Williams and Wesleyan and Swarthmore just don’t have, because you need bones. 

Let me explain with a word from the Father of History, Herodotus, about the ancient traffic in bones: The Spartans, endlessly warring with nearby Tegea, once consulted Apollo’s oracle at Delphi, who told them that Agamemnon’s son Orestes was buried in the territory of Tegea, “where two winds blow against each other.” In The Histories (written before 440 BC), the oracle declared, “Bring him home and you will prevail.” Sneaking into Tegea, the Spartan Lichas encountered a blacksmith who said he had unearthed and then reburied a remarkable coffin, 10 feet long! Lichas had his solution: The blacksmith’s bellows were the two opposing winds. The Spartans stole the giant Orestes, gave him a shrine and beat Tegea thereafter. 

We can guess what happened. Someone centuries before had found the huge bones of some prehistoric beast—perhaps of the horse family—and buried it as a “hero” in the coffin that the blacksmith later found. Similarly, at Olympia was preserved the oversized ivory shoulder of Orestes’ great-grandfather Pelops, which may have come from a whale. When later and poorer generations looked at the massive stones of a ruined palace at Mycenae (assumed to be Agamemnon’s), they figured that only a Cyclops could have lifted them. Such early stabs at archeology offered evidence of a vanished race of superhuman “heroes.”

We have our bones. Williams, be warned! 

But a word of caution: A working set of bones takes maintenance: libations, prayers, protection of the cult site from profane or foreign intrusion and, in many cases, annual athletic games. (Games we already have.) 

And respect. Poorly treated heroes can turn against you. The Greek heroes of cult weren’t necessarily nice people (i.e., not like saints, with their powerful relics): Pelops left a curse on his family that led Orestes to kill his own mother. Other heroes were mighty (Achilles), or mighty unlucky (hit by lightning) or both (Oedipus). Some were beautiful (Helen) but of dubious virtue.

Now there is much for us to decide: How will we feel when we see people in Middlebury or Trinity sweatshirts taking selfies with our Hero? Does our Beneski Museum of Natural History need added security or a priesthood? We know that animal sacrifice is inappropriate and probably illegal in Massachusetts. But mammoths were vegan; do we really have to go there? 

Above all, let there be no closet-skeleton hunting on the Beneski Hero. Everything that needs to be unearthed, has been. I learn from the wonderful Fred Venne, the museum’s educator, that our new mascot has only recently been ID-ed: Columbian mammoth, late 40s (so young!), male, red-haired, walked into the wrong Florida bog, and recruited to Amherst by Professor Frederic Brewster Loomis, class of 1896, in 1925 (making him class of 1929). 

Muckrakers be gone! We already know that Pleistocene muck did our noble Hero in. Let’s get on with the hero cult. As the Spartans learned, big bones can mean a big future! 

Rick Griffiths is the Class of 1880 Professor of Greek.