Goddess, wishes, apples
In the back of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, I’m thanked for information about Kinko’s (now FedEx Office) on Tate Street, where I used to work.
Neil was writing the scene where the mysterious Mr. Wednesday uses a fake business card in a scam. He wanted to know if Kinko’s asked customers to verify information they wanted printed.
Had we talked later, I’d have described how UNCG students leave offerings to Minerva. An author writing about ancient gods in modern America might have wanted to know one was still being worshipped at the end of the 20th century.
The statute that didn’t exist when American Gods was published is of someone older than her Latin name. The Roman goddess of wisdom, medicine and war was inspired by both the Etruscan Menrva and the Greek Athena (the claim that the Roman gods were simply the Greek ones under new names is a simplification).
In Roman mythology, Jupiter impregnated his cousin Metis, who transformed into a fly to escape. Fearing their child might usurp his power, Jupiter swallowed the fly, and Minerva was born from her mother inside her father. Creating a forge in her rapist’s head, Metis hammered out arms and armor for her daughter. When this gave Jupiter a headache, he commanded the blacksmith Vulcan to split his head open. Minerva emerged adult and ready for battle.
Her 9-foot bronze statue (atop a 9-foot limestone pedestal on a 2-foot concrete base) emerged in 2003 from the head (and hands) of Greensboro’s James Barnhill, who also created A&T’s February One monument to the Greensboro Four and the General Greene monument at the Greene Street roundabout.
Barnhill told me the commission came from education advocate Dorothy Kearns, then organizing UNCG’s Class of 1953 50-year reunion. “She contacted me about a gift to the university, and we settled on Minerva, the mascot of Women’s College.”
Minerva has been associated with the institution since its 1891 founding by female education advocate Charles Duncan McIver. A 1907 statue, depicting her with a spear and a snake (along with the owl, one her traditional symbols), was installed in the Student Building, which was demolished in 1950. That mass-produced plaster replica of a Roman original fell apart after being moved several times.
Barnhill said his Minerva is positioned to “express the idea that she’s simultaneously inviting students to the university and blessing them as they take their knowledge out into the world. There is a gentle taper to the figure (which actually starts with the pedestal), as well as a simple arc. While somewhat frontal, Minerva looks good from all angles, due to a slight turning in her body. The pleats in her robe mimic the flutes of a Roman column.”
My photos show five red and green apples atop the limestone pedestal on which Barnhill’s bronze sculpture stands, and another 10 at its plinth. More apples will likely appear when exams begin on May 4. Students leave them as offerings for good grades.
In a 2017 oral history interview archived at UNCG’s Digital Collections, assistant director of programs Jeff Lail claimed to have begun the tradition in 2012. “I set up a table in front of Minerva and just handed out apples and told a little story and the thing just took on a life of its own.”
But Mike Harris, associate director of publications for University Communications, told me in an email that the first offering was a coin left in 2007, and the first apple appeared in 2010.
In an April 30, 2013 article in UNCG’s Campus Weekly, Harris described offerings left at the statue as including an apple, flowers, and a letter “addressed simply to M,” noting this was the first message he’d ever seen there.
Since then, he’s seen apples with coins partly jammed into them (“that tradition later died out”) or with wishes or class numbers written on them with a Sharpie, as well as apple juice, apple candy, flowers, pens, a dollar bill, and tokens from Chuck E. Cheese and Boxcar Arcade. “And notes. Lots of notes.” He said he’s never opened a sealed or folded note.
Last weekend before the storm, I saw a young woman looking up at the statue. In her hand was a pear she said she’d brought from the campus Bestway.
“I’m not asking for anything. I just like her, and she’s gotta be tired of apples.” She stared up at the bronze face that seemed to be looking more at her than me. “I don’t know how they get them up there, so I’m going to toss it. Stand back.”
She got it first try. Under the darkening sky, the goddess looked pleased.
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.