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Q&A: New dean, old classics

Interim associate dean’s research focus is folk medicine text

Published: Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Updated: Tuesday, February 4, 2014 23:02


Shelby Knowles

Steven Oberhelman became interim associate dean of undergraduate programs in the College of Liberal Arts in January.

Steven Oberhelman, interim associate dean of undergraduate programs in the College of Liberal Arts as of January and classics professor, sat down with city editor Jennifer Reiley to discuss his research focuses and more.

THE BATTALION: What is your favorite Greek myth?
OBERHELMAN: Medea. I find Medea fascinating as a very strong independent woman who is tossed aside and used and abused by an entire Greek cultural system as well as by those people for whom she has thrown away her entire life. She has killed, she has betrayed her country, she has turned her back on everything that she stood for and yet she comes to Greece and she’s considered a barbarian. She’s considered an outsider and yet, she herself is intellectually, emotionally stronger than anyone that she meets. Those very strong qualities are what destroy her.

THE BATTALION: What does your current research focus on?
OBERHELMAN: My field of research deals with folk medicine text and looking as to how pharmacology, which is used by village healers or by monks, have roots, no pun intended, going back to the classical antiquity and how the knowledge of medicine, particularly plant medicine, has continued on down over 2,000 years from antiquity down to the present day. I examine texts and then translate them, show the continuity of certain pharmacological recipes, but also showing the recipes will change according to which area of Greece you are [in] because certain types of plants are not available in particular areas or the types of diseases which were treated will vary according to the local population.

THE BATTALION: Have there been any home remedies that you’ve come across that date back to classic times?
OBERHELMAN: Well what’s interesting is that the majority of plants that are used in the recipes are actually garden vegetables, and they are the kind that every Greek peasant still today will grow in the garden. When I was in a small, remote mountain village on Thassos last spring, this elderly woman in the village knows that I had some cracked skin on my fingers and she pulled out this ointment that she had made from the mastic plant as well as parsley and olive oil, and sure enough that’s a centuries-old recipe for dry skin.

THE BATTALION: What got you interested in studying the classics?
OBERHELMAN: I began my undergrad career at the University of Minnesota as a pre-med — did not do very well. The late 1960s were a very volatile and very exciting time period and somehow organic chemistry and calculus were just something that did not attract me, but I had taken four years of high school Latin, was already taking senior level university Latin when I was a fish in college and I just continued on doing that.

THE BATTALION: Do you have an idea of where you want to go next?
OBERHELMAN: Well I’m trying to finish this book in between my responsibilities here. After this, there are some medical texts that have been newly discovered in the Athens National Public Library. My intention is to go transcribe those and then study them. Those all date between the 16th and the 18th centuries.

THE BATTALION: What is your role at the Helios journal?
OBERHELMAN: I have been editor of Helios since 1984. It is devoted to the investigation of studies of ancient Greek and Roman literature society and culture. What separates Helios from many classics journals is that we emphasize the use of new literary theory. This means I have a much younger audience sometimes publishing in our journal because classicists have a tendency to catch up to theory 20 years after it’s happened, but most of the articles that appear in [Helios] deal with gender, with the status of women in ancient society. Usually about 40 percent of our publications deal with one particular topic.

THE BATTALION: What is your favorite Greek food?
OBERHELMAN: My favorite Greek food is the horiatiki salata, the true Greek salad, not the American version. The horiatiki is just wonderfully homegrown tomatoes, particularly if you can get them from a Greek island like Santorini, which has the best tomatoes in all of Greece, with sliced cucumbers and onions and lots of feta cheese, some calimata olives and so much olive oil you can bathe in it.


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