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The 22nd Breathitt Lecture to Explore Evolution of Pandora, and Woman, in Literature

By Whitney Hale

(Jan. 19, 2016) — Claire K. Oldfather, a University of Kentucky classics and folklore and mythology senior from Madison, Alabama, has been selected to present the 22nd annual Edward T. Breathitt Undergraduate Lectureship in the Humanities at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21, in the UK Athletics Auditorium at William T. Young Library. Oldfather's free public lecture focuses on the evolution of the Pandora motif and how woman has gone from being characterized as wondrous to a witch.

The Breathitt Lectureship was named for an outstanding UK alumnus who showed an exceptional interest in higher education and the humanities, Gov. Edward T. Breathitt. The lectureship is awarded to an undergraduate who has eloquently expressed the qualities of mind and spirit, including one or more of the basic concerns of the humanities. Each year all undergraduate students are invited to apply for the lectureship.

Oldfather's lecture, "How Pandora Traded Her Jar for a Cauldron: Tracing a Literary Motif from Hesiod to the Brothers Grimm" will explore a motif recurrent in Western literature that over time attributes the same constellation of characteristics to magic that it originally ascribes to women. Eventually, women’s magic nature came to be represented in literature not at a positive attribute, but as a dangerous and negative trait. Oldfather seeks to illustrate that calling women witches in the medieval period has natural roots in antiquity; the conception of woman from the classical world creates the witch of the modern one.

The research and lecture on the Pandora motif grew out of Oldfather's undergraduate research experience studying magic in antiquity.

"While researching conceptions of magic in antiquity with Dr. James Francis, I became fascinated with the recurrence of the same attributes associated with women," Oldfather said. "At the same time, I was taking a course with Dr. Linda Worley in which we studied the accusations against magic users in the Early Modern witch trials. The list of attributes and the list of accusations were the same. I was interested in the implications in an association between women and magic and chose to study it through my most familiar medium, literature."

The Breathitt Lectureship is presented by the Gaines Center for the Humanities, part of the Academy for Undergraduate Excellence within the UK Division of Undergraduate Education. As part of the lectureship, a student is given the opportunity to write and deliver a humanities-oriented public lecture on the topic of their choosing. The student speaker is chosen through an application process that includes a lecture proposal submitted by the student to an independent committee of readers.

In recognition of her selection to deliver the Breathitt Lectureship, Oldfather also will receive a commemorative award and a $500 honorarium.

Oldfather, the daughter of Dana and Duane Oldfather, is pursuing a double major of classics and the topical major folklore and mythology, as well as a minor in art history. She is also a member of the UK Honors Program. The Breathitt Scholar loves the breadth of topics she has been able to explore as part of her studies at UK.

"My freshman year of high school, a professor at a college I was visiting teasingly told me that I would have to choose something. I challenged that point and still do," Oldfather said. "The degrees I have chosen have allowed me rather interdisciplinary study. I have always loved history, literature, languages and art. It was the possibility of studying all of these together that drew me to the flexible and overarching classics degree. From that foundation, I branched out to study of the medieval world, especially its literature, through my folklore degree. Finally, as an archaeology student, I am interested in the visual and material culture of societies; thus the art history minor. Together my degrees enable me to study culture in multiple and nuanced ways."

Oldfather's studies have earned several honors, including membership in Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society and Eta Sigma Phi Classics Honor Society and the opportunity to present research at the Bluegrass Classics Undergraduate Conference at Transylvania University last fall. In addition, she has received a department excellence award for folklore and mythology studies from UK's Department of Modern and Classical Languages, Literatures and Cultures and three German Book Fest Awards.

Outside the classroom, Oldfather is a long-standing member and current president of Reformed University Fellowship. She has also worked as an intern and gallery attendant at the UK Art Museum. Additionally, she is a member of the service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega and has worked for UK's Office of Residence Life as a peer mentor for the iNET Living Learning Program. Over the summers, Oldfather has served as an area supervisor at archaeological field schools.

Upon completion of her undergraduate degree this May, Oldfather plans to pursue graduate studies in Celtic and medieval studies to prepare for a career as a professor.