Cultural Misappropriation, the Symposium, and Greek Life
By Nathan Brewer '19
Oppressive power structures are only as powerful as they remain hidden. But unfortunately they make such a remarkable career of it, we don’t often see them even when they parade beneath our very noses. And so, in an effort to right a wrong long ignored by W&L and the society we live in, I hereby attempt to unmask the most atrociously flagrant assault on dissimilar cultures in our modern university: Greek Life. Hidden so masterfully in the open, oppressive white Anglo-Saxon power structures have normalized the misappropriation of Ancient Greek Culture to such an extent that none of us even bat an eye when we pass a meaningless string of Greek letters written on our campus residential buildings, or cringe when we hear the words “fraternity” and “sorority.” And why should the Greek System bother a conscientious citizen of the Republic? Because to the Greeks themselves, “Greek Life” is anything but Greek Life.
First, we must understand that at no point in history have the Greeks ever referred to themselves, or to their country, as “Greek.” “Greek” is an exonym applied to them by the Romans, their conquerors, just as Columbus blanketed every Native American, regardless of their tribe, under the foreign term “Indian.” To themselves, the Greeks are Hellons, from the land mass of Hellos. Yet even so, “Greek Life,” as a homogenous whole, did not exist. Scholars often debate when the conception of “Greece” came into being (Persian Wars? The Macedonian Conquest?). Instead, pre-Alexandrian Greece was divided into individual city-states known as poleis which often fought bitterly amongst themselves. Each individual polis had its own culture and way of life. For example, Sparta and Athens are perhaps the two most famous (and most diametrically opposed) poleis. While the Lakedaimonian men of Sparta underwent rigorous physical and mental training in order to become the best soldiers in all of Hellos, the Athenians poured their time and energy into artistry, philosophy, pleasure, and walls (to compensate for their weaker army). If our eponymous Greek Life has any bases in the actual lives of the Ancient Greeks, we are forced to assume that what they mean by “Greek Life” is really “Athenian Life” as opposed to “Spartan Life,” however longsuffering their pledges might be.
So now that we know roughly which culture we are misappropriating, we can delve into the problems inherent within Greek Life (if indeed we can continue to call it that), including its singular use of the Greek (Attic) alphabet. How many fraternity brothers or sorority sisters actually know the Greek alphabet in its entirety? These Greek organizations have stolen the meaning of the Greek alphabet to fashion hip names from mystic-looking runes: Delta Sigma Theta, Pi Kappa Phi, Sigma Nu. What do these letters mean? Nothing. DST, PKF, SN. And The Phi Society? The society of the letter F? These organizations aren’t even clever enough to put acronyms to the Greek letters, let alone their English transliterations. The worst offenders, however, are those which not only misappropriate the Greek letters, but also grossly mispronounce them. Chi-Omega doesn’t sound so cool when you actually sound out the chi. Say “loch” like a Scotsman, and you’ll get the idea. If they really wanted to be creative, they’d throw in a digamma (Ϝ, note: it makes a W sound), or a Sampi (ϡ) or a Heta (Ͱ) every now and again for variety. Thanks for turning one of the most beautiful alphabets in the history of mankind into a collection of meaningless mystic symbols for your single-sex mystery religions.
Nomenclature aside, the party culture of University Greek Life bears little to no resemblance to actual Ancient Greek drinking practices. While we’d all like to think that Dionysus, the god of wine and debauchery, would be at home at our many W&L mixers, ragers, formals, beer-pong tournaments, hall crawls, and Tropicals, Dionysus would much sooner be found at a symposium (“a drinking-together”), a night-long party complete with ritualized drinking, conversation, politics, wine, women, and song. At the start of the symposium, the host and his guests (usually a small party of fifteen to twenty-five men) would gather in a single room full of reclining couches for a mea. After they had eaten, they would elect–either at random or by a majority vote–the drinking master (or “symposiarch”) for the night’s festivities. Then a large pot, appropriately termed the krater, would be set before the drinking master, and he would decide not only how much water would be mixed with the undiluted wine, but also how many drinks they’d have, spaced throughout the night. The symposiarch thus wielded a tremendous amount of power over his fellow comrades. The comic poet, Eubolus, provides these guidelines to good drinking masters: “For sensible men I prepare only three kraters: one for health (which they drink first), the second for love and pleasure, and the third for sleep. After the third one is drained, wise men go home. The fourth krater is not mine any more - it belongs to bad behavior; the fifth is for shouting; the sixth is for rudeness and insults; the seventh is for fights; the eighth is for breaking the furniture; the ninth is for depression; the tenth is for madness and unconsciousness.” These ancient symposiums weren’t just the posh and pristine hubs of intellect displayed in Plato’s philosophical tract of the same name; they could potentially become more raucous than the rowdiest W&L frat parties.
Additionally, part of the symposiarch’s position obligated him to make sure everyone was equally inebriated. Instead of red solo cups, they drank their boos from decorated bowl-like vessels called kylix cups, which, do to their unusually shallow wide-brimmed nature, required the imbiber to sip carefully and with moderation. The drinking master could easily tell who could hold their alcohol based on how much wine ended up on their laps. Spilling wine was considered bad form, unless, of course, everyone else was spilling wine too. After each drink, the men would slip their fingers through the handles on the sides of the kylix and, spinning the cup and declaring the name of their beloved, hurl the dregs of the drink at a predetermined target. If they hit it, their love life would bode well; if not, it was a missed opportunity. In addition to this drinking game, other entertainment would be provided through intellectual conversation, rousing drinking songs, the playing of flutes by maidservants or young boys, the presence of highly educated and somewhat mysterious foreign women called hetairai, and rhetorical or poetic contests, in which one man began the poem and another had to end it.
Contrast the symposium, a highly ritualized and institutionalized drinking of a culture quite different from our own, to a modern installation under an organization which bears the same name, the frat party. The flashing lights, the sticky floors, the overstuffed rooms, the goldfish waiting to be swallowed alive, the music so loud you can’t even think, bodies jostling in chaos, and mass drunkenness, all are hallmarks of Greek Life party culture which carry no resemblance to actual Greek Life party culture. Why should we allow this gross cultural misappropriate to continue in our universities and schools?
We can’t change college life across the United States, but we can make a difference at W&L. I advocate that we stop degrading Ancient Greek culture not only out of respect to the memory of Ancient Greece, but also in diffidence to modern Greece, the true inheritors of their legacy. Westerners often try to co-opt the ancients as our own spiritual forbears, forgetting that their modern descendants look to them as their physical fathers as well. Sometime we care too much for the pot-shards and not enough for the people. And sometimes, we turn their languages and histories into a joke. So in answer to Greek Life: Yes, we can make a difference, and we can do it by first removing the Greek letters from all of the houses and replacing them with their English equivalents. Then, after the masses of sorority sisters and fraternity brothers realize that Greek letters actually make a sound, are apart of a functional alphabet, and aren’t a collection of runic symbols pulled from an old Indiana Jones film, we can work on changing the name.