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Assistant Professor Receives Fellowship from Center for Hellenic Studies

Francisco Barrenechea, assistant professor of classics in the College of Arts and Humanities, has received a fellowship at Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies to show that, among the ancient Greeks, comedy helped lighten turbulent times by using laughter to offer religious hope.

Barrenechea will be in residence at the center during fall 2015 to work on his book, New Gods, New Devotions: Religious Experiences in Aristophanes' Wealth. It will explore how ancient Greek comedy responded to the cultural and religious changes that followed the disastrous Peloponnesian War, which raged from 431 to 404 BCE and affected the entire Greek world. Among these changes came the rise in popularity of new divinities in response to the crises of the times. Unlike the older gods, who had their good and bad sides, these new gods were entirely benevolent. They cared for and responded to the needs of their worshippers. 

Barrenechea is using Wealth because the play, first staged in 388 BCE, shows this more personal and philanthropic relationship between gods and men.

"What I want to find out, is how Aristophanes' comedy relates to the anxieties and hopes that accompanied this important change in the religious life of the community," he said.

Too often, today, laughter and religious belief appear to have parted ways. A believer who lives his or her faith with a dose of levity is rare. Barrenechea said he wonders why that’s the case.

"Politics, for instance, can be easily wedded to humor and comedy programs such as The Daily Show may even go so far as to inform, through laughter, their audience’s political views. But this does not seem to be the case with religion. What do we lose when we consider humor and religion separately?" he asked. "Humor is undoubtedly present in religion, but how does it impact religious beliefs and experiences? I wish to present Aristophanes' comedy as a testimony to the possibility of a salutary bond between humor and religious belief."

Barrenechea became interested in the topic while working on an essay about his visit to a Mexican sanctuary. The walls were covered with small paintings hung by devotees that depicted personal miracles accompanied by brief narratives. Barrenechea found parallels between the Mexican and ancient Greek cultures when he learned that similar miracle stories were inscribed on the walls of the sanctuaries of the ancient Greek healing god Asclepius.

"Aristophanes was surely influenced by these testimonies, since he centers Wealth on one of these miracle stories," he said. "Perhaps it is not surprising to find comedy pick up such every day, personal attachments to divinities by ordinary people, but I began to wonder: what does humor contribute to this experience?"

Barrenechea's research interests include ancient tragedy and comedy, in particular Euripides and Aristophanes, Latin epic and the performance and reception of ancient theater in Latin America. He joined the University of Maryland in 2012. Barrenechea received his Ph.D. in classics from Columbia University in 2005.

Barrenechea will use the center’s library and scholarly community to continue his research for the book.