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Colin Mayrhofer (1940–2020)

by Elizabeth Minchin

After having studied Classics at University of Western Australia and graduating with a first-class honours degree in Latin (awarded in 1962), Colin [Max Mayrhofer] travelled to King’s College Cambridge, UK, where he took, as was the custom of the time, a further BA (1964). A Cambridge MA was awarded in 1968. On returning to Australia, Colin held a post briefly at the University of Newcastle (1965) before taking up a position as Senior Tutor in the Classics Department at the ANU, where he remained, as Lecturer and, later, Senior Lecturer, for 32 years (1966–97).

Colin became a member of a thriving Classics department under the leadership of Professor Richard Johnson. Here he taught Ancient Greek and Latin language and literature and certain strands of ancient history. Colin’s knowledge of classical literature was profound. And he taught across all genres in both languages. But it was ancient drama—tragedy and comedy—that truly engaged him. What appealed to him, I think, was the challenge of lifting each text (as it has come down to us, bare of any stage direction) from the page and imagining it—or, indeed, realising it—on the stage. Not only did Colin teach ancient drama but he fostered its production in the Canberra community, supporting and advising, and on occasion performing. He worked willingly with the ANU students’ Classical Society in its productions of Roman comedy, and with several semi-professional groups.

Under the terms of his employment Colin was a member of the ANU Classics Department, but his research activities were largely conducted in quite another sphere. It appears that during these early years at the ANU he was acquainting himself with another major branch of the Indo- European family of languages, the languages of North India, including Sanskrit, thanks to the encouragement and friendship of Professor Jan de Jong. Describing himself as ‘a stranger from another discipline’, Colin completed a PhD at the ANU in 1976 in South Asian and Buddhist studies, supervised by the distinguished linguist Professor Luise Hercus, under the title ‘Studies in the Bṛhatkathā’. This ancient Indian epic (its title means ‘Great Story’) has long been lost but several later adaptations in Sanskrit and Middle Indo-Aryan languages of North India (Apabhraṃśa) have survived. Drawing on these versions, Colin worked towards a reconstruction of the tale. The exercise brought together his high-level philological competence with his abiding interest in good stories and the art of storytelling.

Colin’s major publication, in 1998, was the text and translation into English of the Saṃdeśarāsaka, composed in Apabhraṃśa by a Muslim poet of the 13th century, Abdul Rahman. This tale follows in a tradition of message poems that describe the messages that pass between pairs of lovers separated against their will; however, whereas traditional tales of this kind were inherently pathetic and ironic, Abdul Rahman’s Saṃdeśarāsaka has been handled in what Colin describes as a parodic manner (in this case the lover actually returns before the messenger has been allowed to depart). A reviewer, in congratulating Colin on making this rare text accessible to a wider readership, has observed that it is an important document too for the light that it shines on a period for which little literary evidence has been located.

The poem is notorious for the difficulty of both its language and its style, which, straddling the gap between Middle Indo-Aryan and Old Vernacular, are not sufficiently explained in any reference works. Colin has allowed the charm of the poem to speak for itself. But, ever practical, he has included as an aid to readers a number of lexical indices and morphological tables in which the linguistic data of the entire text has been collated and recorded.

Colin was a brilliant philologist and a sensitive interpreter of texts, but he also enjoyed solving problems and performing practical tasks. One problem that absorbed him for many years was the challenge of how best to teach ancient languages, in this case Ancient Greek and Latin, to beginners, especially to students who had had no experience at all of studying a second language. After many experiments with different teaching programs, Colin, in 1990, proposed a new course of action entirely. Recognising that much time is spent in all second-language courses explaining basic principles of grammar, he proposed that aspiring Ancient Greek and Latin students should be brought together for an initial semester and taught not only the basics of English grammar but also the application of those same principles to both Ancient Greek and Latin. Thus, by the end of semester (in a course with the uncompromising title Traditional Grammar), students would become confident in their grasp of English grammar and would have learnt key principles (and a small functioning vocabulary) in each of the classical languages as well. A modified version of this course, which appears to be unique to the ANU, continues to be offered to Classics students with considerable success. At about the same time, as an early adopter of new technologies, Colin developed an online tool for Latin learners. And, more recently, while in a nursing home in Troyes, he developed an online learning tool to provide ethics training for carers, particularly those tending people with Alzheimer’s.

In activities on campus, Colin was a patient undergraduate teacher, a wise and perceptive postgraduate supervisor, who knew when to guide and when to step away, and an efficient and unflustered Head of Department. Off-campus he was a dedicated theatre-goer, a careful reader across literary genres in a number of European languages, a book-binder (restoring a number of books in the ANU Classics Library), and a warm and generous host. No culinary challenge seemed beyond him, from the baking of his own sourdough bread through to the creation of refined desserts. I witnessed his happy response to one particular challenge when, one evening, he turned out pizza after pizza for 30–40 eager, and hungry, undergraduate student members of the ANU Classical Society from the ovens in the old Haydon-Allen Tea Room.

Colin was also a swimmer, recognised by a Half-Blue from Cambridge while a student and, in retirement in both Perth and France, triumphs in Masters’ Games. An accident in the surf off a Perth beach in 2008 left him a partial quadriplegic, with very little mobility. Colin, always so elegant and athletic a figure, accommodated the challenges that he increasingly encountered with stoic calm.

Through all his years at the ANU, Colin moved back and forth between Australia and France with his wife Jacqueline, whom he had met while he was studying in Cambridge. Jacqueline taught for many years in the French Department at the ANU. When she died in 2017, in Troyes, where they had been living for some years, Colin returned to Australia, to Melbourne, where he died on 18 August 2020.

Colin is remembered by his students and his colleagues for his learning, his tact, his collegiality, and his kindness.

Citation details

Elizabeth Minchin, 'Mayrhofer, Colin (1940–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 April 2024.

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