Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Oh, You Classical People!

Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928), "Reminiscences of a Student's Life," Arion 4.2 (Summer, 1965) 312-346 (at 332-333):
One scientific friend, Francis Darwin, had lasting influence on me. Classics he regarded with a suspicious eye, but he was kind to me. One day he found me busy writing an article on the "Mystica vannus Iacchi." "I must get it off to-night," I said industriously. "What is a vannus?" he asked. "Oh, a 'fan'," I said; "it was a mystical object used in ceremonies of initiation." "Yes, but Virgil says it is an agricultural implement. Have you ever seen one?" "No," I confessed. "And you are writing about a thing you have never seen," groaned my friend. "Oh, you classical people!" It did not end there. He interviewed farmers—no result; he wrote to agricultural institutes abroad, and, finally, in remote provincial France, unearthed a mystic "fan" still in use, and had it despatched to Cambridge. Luckily he also found that his old gardener was perhaps the last man in England who could use the obsolete implement. On his lawn were to be seen a gathering of learned scholars trying, and failing, to winnow with the vannus. Its odd shape explained all its uses, mystic and otherwise. Three months later I despatched a paper to the Hellenic Journal on what I had seen and did understand. It was a lifelong lesson to me. It was not quite all my fault. I had been reared in a school that thought it was far more important to parse a word than to understand it.

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