A Curious Case of the Classics

A Curious Case of the Classics


In undergrad, I had a roving academic mind and I couldn’t settle on a major. I didn’t want to study English and miss out on learning new and exciting stories from history, nor did I want to settle on History and miss out on the beautiful poetry and rhetoric that comes with an English degree. When I finally stumbled into my alma mater’s Classics department, it turned out to be a match made in heaven.

My first class in the department was called Poets, Lovers, and Monsters, and we explored Greek and Roman poetry and mythology. I was hooked. Classics was able to capture my heart because it is about a time period as opposed to a subject. All within my major, I was able to study philosophy, political science, art, architecture, poetry … the list goes on and on! Still, the core of my degree was learning and exploring Ancient Greek and Latin.

One of my favorite things about knowing those classical languages is how they help me to understand English. I look at a word and I can often find Greek or Latin roots within it that can help me to understand what that word really means. For example, one of my favorite words is theoxeny, which is made up of two very simple Greek words. First being “theo” which means God, as in theology, and “xenia” which means stranger or guest, as in xenophobia. So if you understand those two words, you can then understand that theoxeny means god as a stranger. We see this a lot in old fairytales where a prince is cruel to a beggar woman who turns out to be a beautiful fairy in disguise. A modern example of this would be the opening of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, when the young prince insults the old woman, who then transforms him into a beast.

The Greeks themselves were very scared of theoxeny. They were terrified of accidentally offending one of their twelve Olympian gods so they had this practice called xenia, where if a stranger or someone in need knocked on their door they would treat them with the utmost respect. They would invite the stranger in, feed them a meal, and get them anything they need. Then, after catering to all of the strangers’ needs, they could ask the stranger their name or who they were. This practice is a beautiful thing and it teaches us a lot about the Greeks – as well as the importance of treating people with respect.

Now I am a graduate student at New York University studying cultural psychology and art in a degree I built myself. Both of these fields are areas I would never have been exposed to in other majors. Each time I go to write a paper or analysis a text, I am thankful for my education in the Classics!

About the author:

Katie Mears is currently pursuing her Master’s degree at New York University, and specializes in teaching writing, history and Latin.