The Night the Columns of Hercules Disappeared

Columns IIVarious things come to mind as one reads the title of this post. One might expect a read about anything ranging from mythology to magic, but in reality it has little to do with either. Instead, it deals with the disappearance of a Spanish flag that hung above the porch of the new Languages House until a few weeks ago.

There are many plausible and ridiculous reasons as to why an object of this type would disappear from the house, especially if we consider that it was one of four flags that vanished (the others this week). Was the disappearance of the flag intended as some post-colonial rendering of Capture the Flag? Doubt it. Was it stolen by someone who was under the influence of their peers and Tennessee’s finest barrel nectar? A bit more likely. For all we know, the thing could have simply “gone with the wind”. Regardless of why the glory of Spain no longer flies above a porch on Calhoun Street, the incident makes one think. If the flag merely flew away because of meteorological providence, then there would be nothing more to say and my post would end here.

However, let’s assume for a moment that there was human intervention. If so, then the person in question either had a definite idea, or absolutely none whatsoever, of the symbolic content of the Spanish flag. In case neither they nor the reader understands the value of its imagery, I shall explain.

Beyond the red and yellow background, colors which have appeared in variations of Iberian flags for centuries, the dominant feature is a coat of arms adorned with a crown and flanked by two columns also capped with crowns. Two images on this coat are a castle and lion. As Spain was one of the most disputed lands in Europe during medieval times, it is not surprising that its landscape reveals numerous architectural remnants of a turbulent past. The lengthy Reconquista left Spain with Christian and Muslim castles scattered throughout and with one of the most diverse cultural traditions in Europe. A symbol of strength and nobility, the lion has been part of Iberia’s identity since before the Middle Ages and has been on everything from regional flags to sculptures on buildings.

The most salient symbol is two columns on the sides of the coat, the “Columns of Hercules” that unceremoniously disappeared from the languages house. This post is not as concerned with physical columns as it is with two geographical anomalies that meant a great deal for Spain during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. There are two peaks that flank the Spanish and Moroccan sides of the Strait of Gibraltar, features included in the legend of Hercules and his Twelve Works. Centuries later, the figurative columns came to demarcate an invisible barrier between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, one that inspired much thought about what was beyond the columns in the vast expanse of ocean. The initial belief was that there was nothing, as suggested in the recurring Latin phrase nec plus ultra. With regards to the plus ultra that appears on the columns of the modern flag, in the decades before 1492 there was an increasing sense of something beyond the strait, which ultimately led Columbus to solicit funding from the Catholic Monarchs. Plus ultra (further beyond) were words that indirectly fostered the spirit of exploration that ultimately led to the rise of the Spanish Empire.

I am not bothered by the possibility that our presumed flag thief had little consideration for the historical value of the flag. What does bother me is the notion that the person had no clue or care about the implications of stealing and disrespecting an object that not only has meaning for our international students from Spain, but also for a small community of Americans on our campus. In terms of the latter, I refer at the very least to students in my department that fell in love with Spain for the same reasons my wife and I had when we first visited the country years ago. When a student lives in a country for an extended period of time, the experience inevitably creates a sense of love and pride in the land. I am not a Spaniard, but those who know me well understand why I love Spain so much. It is a place that has afforded me a tremendous deal of happiness, especially during some of the worst years of my life.

And I don’t think it would be a distortion of the truth to say that 16 students, who came with me and my wife to Spain this summer, and two others that resided there for a semester have set aside a little space in their heart for things Spanish. Space for the siesta, for the tapas, for the San Miguel market in Madrid, for Campo Grande Park in Valladolid, for Zara clothing, and for the home and conversation offered to them by host families. This is what those students now think of whenever they see a Spanish flag.

As for our students from Spain, they think of their childhood, the creature comforts of home, and all of the friends and family they have left behind in order to study in the United States. For the soccer player from the region of Navarra that recently arrived to our campus, and for her compatriotas who have preceded her as Panthers, the flag is not so much anymore a symbol of Spain’s ambition to explore and conquer the world, but rather one of a country in the present that has a stout work ethic, a festive spirit, and a warm heart.

In closing, I would like to ask the persons who removed the four flags from the languages house to replace them above that empty porch on Calhoun Street. I ask that they do so out of respect to those Drury students who are from Spain, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, and France. I personally do not care what their motives were for lifting these pieces of fabric. All I ask is that they consider the life experiences and personal bonds represented by these flags, in particular for those students who are many miles from home.