We continue to respect our heritage/amorous affair with our mother-magazine, The Blue & White by posting each issue of the magazine online. The latest issue, available this week around campus, is a cornucopia of delights: a harrowing (and fictional) account of the muscles that guard the cheeses at Westside , a strikingly beautiful account of a trek into Pennsylvania coal country. This month staff writer Claire Heyison recounts the history of an age when Barnard’s Greek Games were sincere.
A group of women, barefoot and draped in cheesecloth togas, enters LeFrak Gymnasium wielding torches. Two priestesses, one first-year and one sophomore, light a fire atop an altar honoring the patron deity, and the sophomore priestess recites a Greek invocation, blessing and celebrating the day. Suddenly, one of the sophomores springs up, issuing a challenge of skills in Greek to the first-year class, who answer. The first-year and sophomore classes then compete in a series of athletic and artistic competitions, presided over by a high priestess from the senior class, a panel of judges, and thousands of spectators. The winning athletes and aesthetes are crowned with laurel wreaths as their classmates celebrate their victory with cries of “Nike! Nike!”
This elaborate ceremony used to take place at Barnard every spring. The Greek Games began in 1903, when the class of 1906 challenged the first-year class to feats of strength loosely based on ancient Greek competitions. The earlier games were informal, and the audience was restricted to students and faculty. Men were forbidden from watching, lending the Games a mysterious, Eleusinian intrigue and thereby instituting the grand Columbia tradition of sneaking into LeFrak to watch the proceedings from the balcony.
Slowly, the Games evolved. In 1908 the categories of song and dance were introduced, by 1909 the students began dedicating each Game to a specific patron deity, and in 1913 men and members of the outside community were invited to watch and judge. As the Games grew in popularity, they attracted guests ranging from Christopher Morley to W. H. Auden (who judged the lyric poetry competition in 1947), and even piqued the curiosity of the Columbia community. As the Spectator put it in 1959: “We came to mock; we stayed to cheer.”
The activities eventually shifted to include a greater focus on ancient Greece, abandoning archery and tug-of-war in favor of discus hurling and chariot racing. This newfound classical emphasis yielded strange and dramatic results, including living statues of Dionysus, musicians playing authentic Greek instruments, and in 1932, a priestess theatrically plunging a dagger into her heart on an altar dedicated to Hera. Though not every class resorted to such extremes, sensationalism became as much a part of the Games as the athletic competitions. As early as 1914, the New York Times reported, “Four very tall girls dressed as shepherds sacrificed a lamb and poured the libation as the entire class knelt in a semicircle before the temple.” Whether the girls really sacrificed a lamb is left unclear, but these grandiose displays attest to the enthusiasm and school spirit that made the Games an integral part of the Barnard experience.
As the audience and the pageantry of the Greek Games expanded, the planning committees and training for the athletes grew with them. The rulebook from the 1926 Greek Games was a tome of 144 pages, the planning committee headed twelve subcommittees, and the participants trained for their events for an entire year. Barnard women were involved in every aspect of the Games from designing the costumes, chariots, and backdrops to handling business, publicity, and space concerns. Astonishingly, planning, training, and spectating were initially motivated and financed by students—a feat made possible by keeping costs low and selling thousands of tickets.
Despite the excitement that initially surrounded the Games, by the latter half of the century, their early energy and enthusiasm had begun to dwindle. While it had once attracted more than 2,000 spectators, by the 1960s, the Games only had 30 to 40 participants from each class, and spectators were mostly upper-classwomen. In April 1967, the Barnard Bulletin reported, “We saw the same people a bit too often as if the talent and enthusiasm had to be spread pretty thin in order to cover the ground. The usual student-composed music was conspicuously missing. The challenges were recited in English, and the audience seemed to find the literal translation of lyric Greek laughable.”
Everything changed after the 1968 Vietnam War protests, when political events beyond Morningside Heights transformed the Greek Games from a symbol of school spirit into an unnecessary and outdated elitist frivolity. Nevertheless, the 1968 Games were given the go-ahead to continue until an hour before they were scheduled to start, when the 40 participants voted them out of existence. The cancellation was intended as a display of solidarity for the protesters, but the Games had also become irrelevant to most Barnard students. More or less official Barnard lore holds that musicians scheduled to play for the Games were kidnapped and held against their will to prevent the festivities from moving forward. A less colorful account claims that the musicians simply declined to play, but given the character of the games beforehand the mythic version seems oddly plausible.
While most students seemed to agree that the time had come to cancel the Greek Games, they still mourned their passing. Barnard’s Vice President Dorothy Denburg, who was a first-year participant during the ‘67 Games, recalls, “I do remember that people felt disappointed that they weren’t happening. I wouldn’t say we were terribly excited by then; we were beginning to be distracted by larger events.” However, Denburg also credits the abolition of the Games to an increasingly apparent lack of student interest. “There were people who cared, and a larger majority for whom it felt irrelevant, by then… it felt like it was the moment for [the Games] to die.”
Yet remnants of the Games can still be found at Barnard, despite the fact that they have been largely defunct for nearly half a century. The statue of the Spirit of the Games still stands outside of Barnard Hall, and even the Student Government Association’s Constitution retains the various planning duties of the Greek Games’ organizers. There have been a few attempts to reinstate the Games, as recently as 2000, when a small group of Barnard student-historians tried to reintroduce the tradition. Their revival introduced updated competitions such as Greek salad tossing, barbecuing, and bowling. None of the inventive revivals have managed to carry over for a second year.
This year’s effort was motivated by a desire to foster Barnard’s chimerical school spirit and, in part, to create a counterpart to Engineering Week and College Days. The Greek Games Committee, comprised of SGA, McIntosh Activities Council, and other volunteers, decided that the Games should combine traditional and contemporary challenges. The result was one day of chariot races, discus throwing, and hoop-rolling, and one day of tie-dying togas, Greek trivia, and pilates. A group of alumnae returned to campus for the occasion, offering assistance, advice, and hurdling tips. For some alumnae, the occasion marked their first and only Greek Games. Enthusiastic prospies also joined the festivities, prompting the addition of an honorary 2015 scoreboard. In the words of Jung Hee Hyun, BC ‘13, co-chair of the Class Competitions Committee, “It was a lot of Barnard loving.”
Though the presence of eager alums and prospective students is encouraging, the success of the revival can only be judged by its reception from Barnard students. As Denburg says, “you can’t graft a tradition onto a student culture.” It is difficult to imagine recreating the level of enthusiasm and over the top theatrics of the original Greek Games without some sense of irony; however, the 2011 Greek Games seem to
have achieved the ideal compromise between making an anachronistic tradition relevant again and remaining consistent with Barnard’s history. It remains to be seen just how relevant this iteration of the Games will be, or whether their chariots will grace the campus again next year.