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THESEUS: A (Brief) Discourse on Heroes, Part 2

Recently I enjoyed a cinematic experience. The title of the movie was “Immortals”, and it was made by the same people who did “300”.

“Immortals” trailer

Aesthetically, it was quite pretty. Very enjoyable for the sake of entertainment. It has absolutely NOTHING to do with the mythical Greek hero Theseus, however, even though that is the name of the protagonist of this CG-enhanced adventure. (Although there was an allusion to a fight with a minotaur and the inclusion of a bull… and even I didn’t actually get the reference until the very end. Then I laughed.) For anyone who cares about historical accuracy (or accuracy of any sort), this movie will be very frustrating: the art and architecture is all over the chronological map and the outfits are fantastical; but the flick has its pros, as well: Ancient Greek is spoken by 4 of the characters, which is pretty cool; there are pretty bodies throughout (at one point a very nude very pretty body); colorful costumes and shiny gods permeate the screen; and let’s never forget the many fun action scenes. ANNNND Mickey Rourke plays the bad guy, so it must be legit.

One thing they did get very right: Theseus was young, he wore a short tunic, and he was beardless. At least, that’s how he is typically portrayed on Athenian vase-painting (where is weapon of choice is a sword, though, not this mythical “bow of Hyperion”).

ARF amphora (early 5th) -- Theseus slaying the minotaur

Who was the Greek Theseus, the man I study? He was the Athenian hero par excellence. He begins his story by venturing to Crete to slay the minotaur and in doing so save his city from having to send any more girls and boys as tribute (er, food). Plutarch gathered all of his stories and with them narrated a biography of Theseus, and in doing so made him appear a real historical figure. He was a king of Athens, he had connections to the Trojan War, he was associated with Poseidon (and Athena), and he completed ‘deeds’ similar to those of Herakles.

Around 500BC, Theseus sees a surge in iconographic popularity. Herakles used to be the popular hero in Athens, but it seems that Theseus for a brief moment almost replaces him, and he is imagined as the ideal Athenian citizen, what every young man should aspire to be. His mythology comes with a set of deeds similar to Herakles’ labors, and around this time period large red-figure Athenian plates are produced which portray these deeds in sequence. He battles evil men (such as Sinis and Prokrustes) and ¬†beasts (the minotaur, of course, and also animals such as a sow and a bull).

ARF parade cup (c510) -- deeds of Theseus

Theseus does not really have set attributes the way most deities and some other heroes do; for example: Zeus has a thunderbolt, Poseidon a trident, Herakles his club… Theseus normally is depicted as a beardless youth, often (partially) nude and wielding a sword (or an axe for Prokrustes), but really he is better identified in context. It seems as if the Athenians themselves are still unsure how to best portray their new main hero. They’re still playing around with whether he has brown or blonde hair, whether he should wear clothes or be athletically/heroically nude, or whether he should fight with a sword or assimilate him to that other awesome hero, Herakles, by giving him a club to hold… and a bull to fight.

This leads to what I like to call “conscious ambiguity”. Herakles’s seventh labor was to capture (not kill!) the Cretan bull and take it with him back to Athens. The bull was released from there and wandered to Marathon (nearby) and Theseus captured the “Marathonian bull” (the very same one) for sacrifice. Herakles is often depicted bearded and nude but for his lionskin helmet and cape while subduing the bull. Theseus is also shown (partially) nude while subduing the bull, sometimes tying its legs together. Sometimes the hero wields a club. In such cases, the identity of the hero capturing the bull is a tad uncertain.

ARF, c490, Herakles/Theseus and the bull

Herakles or Theseus? Your choice! (<– that may have been just the point, indeed.)

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AJAX: A (Brief) Discourse on Heroes, Part 1

I don’t mean the bleach, and I don’t mean Amsterdam football. I’m talking about the mighty Greek hero.

No one ever thinks about Ajax, the Salaminian hero. Homer described him as “Telamonian” or “Greater” Ajax, a mighty Achaian warrior. Unlike in the movie “Troy”, Ajax does NOT die early in the Trojan War. In fact, he does not die until after the War is over, after Achilles is dead, and then he only dies because he takes his own life. He is probably the only person in the entire Trojan War not to suffer any injury¬† — even Aphrodite gets cut by a sword! — and yet… yet you may not really know who he is. Poor Ajax, he always gets the shaft.

In Homer’s Iliad, Ajax is described as a warrior of great stature, having a colossal frame and the strongest of all the Achaians. Known as the “bulwark of the Mycenaeans,” he was trained by the centaur Chiron, who was also tutor to Achilles (Ajax’s cousin and dear friend). He was described as vicious, fearless, strong and powerful but also with a very high level of combat intelligence. In Book 15, Hector leads the Trojans into the Greek camp and attacks the ships. Ajax, wielding an enormous spear as a weapon and leaping from ship to ship, holds off the Trojan armies virtually single-handedly (this is just one example of his many super-human feats during the Trojan War). Sadly, Ajax is the only major character either Trojan or Greek who does not receive personal assistance from any of the gods who take part in the battles.

Despite his mighty prowess, Ajax (the poor guy) always gets the short end of the stick. He doesn’t get assistance from the Olympian gods (Athena is so cruel!), he doesn’t get Achilles’ armor even though HE was his good (best?) friend AND the one to save his dead body from the battlefield scavengers (stupid Odysseus and and eloquent way with words), and he couldn’t stand the shame of it all to the point that he, “conquered by his own sorrow,” committed suicide by falling on his sword.

As for his hero aspect, the kind of hero that was actually worshiped in real life, well… the Salaminians believed Ajax fought with them against the Persians in the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC (Hdt. 8.64) and dedicated a captured trireme to him after (Hdt. 8.121). Ajax, who in the post-Homeric legend is described as the grandson of Aiakos and the great-grandson of Zeus, was the tutelary hero of the island of Salamis, near Athens, where he had a temple and an image, and where a festival called Aianteia was celebrated in his honor. He was also the Eponymous Hero of the Attic tribe Aiantis, and a statue of him was worshiped in the Athenian Agora (Hdt. 5.66). Can Achilles say that? No. Can Odysseus? No. Can Agamemnon? No. Finally Ajax gets a little credit!

But what aspect of Ajax’s life does the Athenian vase-painting actually portray? NOT his mighty prowess in battle, but instead his losses and struggles in life and also his friendship with Achilles — though even then he’s shown LOSING to Achilles. Sometimes Athena is present in those scenes, just to rub it in that she’s there to support Achilles and not there for Ajax. The scenes mainly depicted are very emotional: 1) playing a boardgame with Achilles; 2) carrying Achilles’ dead body; 3) quarreling with Odysseus over the armor of Achilles; and 4) his suicide.

The earliest depiction of Ajax in Attic art is on the Francois Vase c.575BC (him carrying the body of Achilles).

Ajax carrying the dead Achilles, Francois Vase handle

Exekias, Ajax and Achilles playing a boardgame

After this, Exekias (the second half of the 6th century BC) played a major role in developing the popularity of Ajax in Attic vase-painting.

Exekias, Ajax preparing for suicide

He was the first to compose the ‘boardgame’ scene and the first to compose Ajax’s contemplation of his suicide (rather than the act of the suicide itself, which involves more gore but much less emotion). In Exekias’ depictions of Ajax, and those influenced by his subject matter decisions (such as Douris, Makron and the Brygos Painter), the manner in which they portray Ajax reflects an interest in the hero not just as a character from Homeric lore but as an exemplar of a particular kind of relentless logic that results in personal destruction.

According to the Beazley Archive, almost 400 vases depict Ajax, and all of those are scenes from the Homeric epics — not one of them is in any way a religious scene. Apart from his suicide scene, he is always associated with Achilles, and sometimes with Odysseus. Though he is the strong-man hero of the Achaians, he does not receive the respect he deserves nor will he ever measure up to Achilles. In the Iliad, Ajax is characterized as the premier defensive warrior on the Achaian side, but the visual narrative challenges this conception, since he is always coming in second place to both Achilles and Odysseus. It is the noble but sad mythological hero of Homer that the vase-painters choose to portray, not the Attic hero honored with a shrine and cult rites.

And if the scenes of him contemplating and then committing suicide weren’t emotional enough, I’ll end this post with a soliloquy from Sophocles’ “Ajax”:

“Have I not learned this, only so much to hate my enemy as though he might again become my friend, and so much good to wish to do my friend, as knowing he may yet become my foe: most men have found friendship a treacherous harbor” (670-83, J. Moore’s translation, 1975).