Home > Grand Forks Notes, North Dakotiana > Damnatio Memoriae and The Ralph

Damnatio Memoriae and The Ralph

One of the more interesting sub-plots in the ongoing University of North Dakota logo and nickname scandal is the fate of the mighty Ralph Engelstad Area. This monumental structure has hosted UND Ice Hockey games for the past 10 years. As its web site puts it (drinking deeply of the ancient art of ekphrasis): “It’s impossible to describe the $104+ million Ralph Engelstad Arena in just a words, but it is described by many as the ‘finest facility of its kind in the world.'” In short, it is a lovely facility, built by an eccentric donor who built the arena and established it it as a separate entity from the University. A not unbiased description of the most controversial element of Ralph Engelstad’s life appears in wikipedia.

In recent years, the defining feature of The Ralph (as it’s affectionately known) are the thousands of images of the Fighting Sioux logo including a massive one in inlaid granite on the floor of the lobby. By all accounts, the almost ubiquitous use of the logo was intentional, and the controversy surrounding the logo threatened to derail the construction of the building.

Now with the logo and nickname almost certainly put to rest, the University, the State, and the NCAA are stuck with this monumental building emblazoned with thousands of symbols of the Fighting Sioux. Fortunately, the West has several well-established traditions for dealing with just this kind of controversy. The best known perhaps is damnatio memoriae, or the damnation of the memory of an individual. Practiced by the Romans for centuries, this involves the removing of the name and image of an individual who had fallen afoul of popular or political favor. Typically this occurred after the individual’s death. In practical terms this involved erasing the name and often times image of the individual physically from monuments. In fact, this typically occurred among the elite, political, classes and, as a result, almost always had a monumental component. In many cases, the practice of damnatio preserved just enough of the name of the discredited individual to remind a viewer of that individual’s fate. So it did not involve eradicating the individual from all public memory as much as preserving some tiny fragment of the individual to remind the public of that individual’s fall into dishonor. In the ruthless and competitive world of Imperial Roman domestic politics, it was not enough to defeat one’s opponent. The memory of that defeat

The practice of damnatio memoriae found a subtle variation during the Christian period when groups of Christians sought to suppress the practice of paganism. Like in Roman politics, the Christian goal was not necessarily to defeat the pagans. In fact, most Christians thought that the power of the old gods had suffered defeat at the time of the incarnation (i.e. when Jesus, the son of God, came to earth). Christians in the 4th-6th centuries, then, were merely the mopping up operation. That being said, there are numerous incidents where Christians sought to mark the defeat of the pagan gods through the symbolically charged destruction of their temples and symbols. In one of my favorites from Mark the Deacon’s Life of Porphyry of Gaza, architectural fragments from the burned and desecrated temple of Zeus in Gaza (the Marneion) were used to pave the courtyard of the Christian church erected in its place, so that:

“When, therefore, the ashes were carried away and all the abominations were destroyed, the rubbish that remained of the marble work of the Marneion, which they said was sacred, and in a place not to be entered, especially by women, this did the holy bishop resolve to lay down for a pavement before the temple outside in the street, that it might be trodden under foot not only of men, but also of women and dogs and swine and beasts. And this grieved the idolaters more than the burning of the temple. Wherefore the more part of them, especially the women, walk not upon the marbles even unto this day.” Mark the Deacon, Vita Porphyrii, 76.

In most cases, it was the desire to monumentalize one’s memory (or one’s causes) made damnatio memormiae possible. In this context, the problem of removing all the logos from The Ralph evaporates. In fact, keeping some of the logos present and visible (or at least obviously under erasure) will remind visitors of the controversy and, in particular, who lost and who won. (And it will remind all of us that at least part of this controversy has nothing to do with actual Sioux, and almost everything to do with the structure of power between donors, the NCAA, and the University community.)

I’ve offered some more thoughts on the logo and nickname controversy here.

  1. BrianB
    April 27, 2010 at 10:46 am

    Excellent entry! I love it when you tie the current world, especially locally, to antiquity.

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