Every place has a history, a collection of stories about the people and events that have marked its development. Exploring this past helps us understand the present, and how we fit into it. This column will delve into aspects of our school’s history, traditions and landmarks in an effort to connect all of us to Bryn Mawr and Haverford’s past and present. If any readers have suggestions for future column ideas, I am always open to new ideas for exploration.
Rachel Ohrenschall, email@example.com
Born out of Zeus’ head, Athena was a goddess to be reckoned with. She was the virgin goddess of wisdom and knowledge, tactical and just warfare, as well as crafts such as weaving. She is often depicted with her helmet and owl – an apropos symbol for a school which prides itself on its collection of intelligent and strong women, according to Classics Professor Asya Sigelman.
“The mainstream myth [of Athena’s birth] reflects both Athena’s relation to the sphere of intellect (she is born not from a womb but from a head) and her military affinities (she is born in full armor).” Athena has been a part of Bryn Mawr for a long time, and is a good reflection of our school, not only because she is a strong, intelligent woman, but also because she was often the patron of Greek cities who viewed her intact virginity as a sort of metaphor for their strong walls. Sigelman explains, “The fact that Bryn Mawr is a women’s school (and has walls around it, or at least part of it, to boot!) makes her cult on campus especially appropriate.”
The statue of Athena in Thomas Great Hall has been there since at least 1907, possibly a part of M. Carey Thomas’s own collection. Though impressive, Athena was not an original Grecian statue. According to the college curator, in an email dated April 1996, the original stood on the acropolis at Athens as a dedication by the Athenian colonies from the Island of Lemnos.
Our cast of Athena is a composite; her body is a plaster cast, painted bronze, from a Roman marble copy of the statue in Dresden Albertinum, and her head is from another marble copy in Bologna at the Museo Civico. She wears the peplos, a woolen garment fastened at both shoulders and an attribute to the aegis, a goatskin breast plate of sorts with snakes on the borders and Medusa’s head in the center.
Visiting her in Thomas Great Hall today, one can see the various offerings that students have made to her: a Judith Butler t-shirt, math homework, and paper cranes among others. According to Sigleman, this is similar to one way that she was worshiped in ancient Greece. “An ancient Greek could approach a deity in an act of personal, private worship, the way Bryn Mawr students leave personal tokens of devotion to Athena.” Currently a thriving tradition, offering gifts to Athena in exchange for good results on exams is a relatively new phenomenon. Though unclear when exactly the tradition started, some sources cite the 1960’s, others as late as the 1980’s. Athena now has a cult following at Bryn Mawr, whereas before she was just a statue.
Most students have either made her an offering or know of someone who has. Anna Sargeant ‘15 saved all of her orange M&M’s to give to Athena to do well on her first math midterm. “I thought I might as well give Athena a gift for good luck. Orange is one of my favorite colors and chocolate is delicious, Athena deserves the best and M&M’s are the best. I’m also allergic to orange dye,” she adds as a reason for her choice of offering, and she is pleased with her exam result. She has thought Bryn Mawr’s involvement with Athena was cool ever since seeing her while visiting Bryn Mawr as a prospective student. She views Athena not as a mascot, but more of a patron. “By giving gifts to Athena she gives us the will to work hard and succeed.”
Anna’s story is common; many students make offerings during finals week to ask Athena to help them with their work, and offering items can be as bizarre as monochromatic M&M’s. Ingrid Asplund ‘14, however, made Athena an offering under different circumstances. Glancing outside during her customs week and realizing what a beautiful summer day it was, she decided to skip the orientation lecture she was attending and skinny dip in the pond behind Rhoades. She lost her underwear in the process and looked through the bushes. Eventually finding them she deemed “the only course of action appropriate was to give Athena my underwear.”
Not only has Athena’s relationship with students changed over time from a statue to a patron, but her appearance has as well. Looking at photographs of her from earlier days, it is clear to see she looks different now. In an early photo of her from the 1944 yearbook, both arms are intact; her right arm is outstretched holding a helmet and her left hand is raised, as if holding a spear. Sometime between 1968 and 1976 her right arm vanished and the fingers of her left hand were damaged. Her helmet isn’t seen in pictures after 1964. Lining up pictures of Athena is like looking at her deterioration through time, from her whole majestic self to April 21, 1996, when she was heavily damaged, the most dramatic part of her life thus far.
According to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer from April 25, 1996 she was stolen in the early morning by a group of Haverford students as an end of semester prank. They took her off of her pedestal in Thomas Great Hall, apparently intending to carry her. Upon realizing how heavy a 6-foot tall plaster cast can be, they dragged her out of the hall, scratching the floor in the process, into a pickup truck and transported her to Haverford. On the ride over she lost both her head and her arm and sustained more damage. According to an email between the dean of the undergraduate college and the campus curator, she sustained a hairline crack on her lower torso, her body was chipped with pieces missing and chewing gum was placed over her eyes. The perpetrators were caught and paid for the $6,000 worth of repairs. Bryn Mawr students were concerned about who to make offers to during Finals week, as the repairs took quite a while, but a replacement was found in a black foam effigy of Haverford’s then president, Tom Kessinger.
Because of this damage and the steep cost of repairs, it was deemed that Athena should be placed out of harm’s way. Today she can be found in Carpenter library in her own niche, while a fake resides in Thomas Great Hall. Unaware of the existence of two Athenas, this reporter went to see them both. Surrounded by various offerings, Athena in Thomas Great Hall indeed looks fake up close, as though she is made of paper mâché. When tapped she sounds hollow like a paper shell. In Carpenter Library, however, one can find the real Athena. Basking in the glow of her own spotlights she stands aloof, high on the west-facing wall. Feeling a sense of accomplishment for discovering her, this author raced up the stairs to get as close to her as possible, and once there saw that a few dedicated students had made offerings to the real Athena. Pennies, a bracelet, and a plastic owl adorn her feet. The tale of Bryn Mawr’s two Athenas is not unknown to all.