Thursday, February 25, 2021

Winged deities of Greco-Roman mythology

Winged male figures that are distinct from Hermes appear quite frequently in Attic art of the mid-sixth century B.C.E. Without inscriptions they are difficult to identify. In all of Greek art, the distinction between the human and the divine, the tangible and intangible, is elusive. Although we do not know all of their names, these figures surely move between various orders of reality.  - Metropolitan Museum of Art

Besides Hermes, one of the best known of these winged deities is Morpheus, the son of sleep and associated with sleep and dreams.   In Ovid's Metamorphoses, he is one of the thousand sons of Somnus and he appears in dreams in human form.   According to Ovid "no other is more skilled than he in representing the gait, the features, and the speech of men. The clothing also and the accustomed words of each he represents."

Ovid gives names to two more of these sons of Sleep. One called Icelos ('Like'), by the gods, but Phobetor ('Frightener') by men, "takes the form of beast or bird or the long serpent", and Phantasos ('Fantasy'), who "puts on deceptive shapes of earth, rocks, water, trees, all lifeless things". The three brothers' names are found nowhere earlier than Ovid, and are perhaps Ovidian inventions although other scholars suggest they may have been of Hellenistic origin.

Of winged female figures, Nike, daughter of the Titan Pallas and the goddess Styx, is probably the most common depicted in ancient Greek art and even on a Sasanian arch built in the 4th century CE at Taq-e Bostan. She retains her wings although most other winged deities in the Greek pantheon had shed their wings by Classical times. Nike assumed the role of the divine charioteer when her mother brought her to Zeus when he was assembling allies for the Titanomachy.  Thereafter Nike flew around battlefields rewarding the victors with glory and fame, symbolized by a wreath of laurel leaves.

Terracotta lekythos (oil flask), ca. 550 B.C.E. attributed to the Affecter painter at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To me it appears to have a Near East influence in the dress of the being and his attendants.

A very Greek-looking Nike on a 4th century CE Sasanian arch in Taq Bostan, Iran courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor mehdi hosseini.

Roman bronze sculptural fragment depicting a winged satyr courtesy of Christie's

Bone plaque with Winged Victory and Autumn, circa 3rd c. CE, at the Walters Arts Museum.

Roman mosaic with winged Eros 2nd-3rd century CE (PD)

Winged Victory, Bronze with traces of gilding. 1st century CE. Height 200 cm. courtesy of Brescia, Santa Giulia Civic Museum.

Another fresco of winged victory from the Villa Moregine in Pompeii, 1st century CE. (PD)

18th century sculpture of Morpheus by Jean-Antoine Houdon at the Musee du Louvre, 1777, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Shonagon.

Morpheus, painted by Jean-Bernard Restout at the Cleveland Art Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Winged Nike, a 4th Pompeian style fresco, 64 BCE (PD)

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Aristophanes: Comedian or Social Agitator?

 Aristophanes, known as "The Father of Comedy" and "the Prince of Ancient Comedy was a comic playwright of ancient Athens and a poet of what has been called Old Attic Comedy. Eleven of his forty plays survive virtually complete.  Born in 446 BC, his works, with their pungent political satire and abundance of sexual and scatological innuendo, effectively define the genre today. Aristophanes lampooned the most important personalities and institutions of his day, as can be seen, for example, in his buffoonish portrayal of Socrates in The Clouds, and in his racy anti-war farce Lysistrata.  His plays consistently espouse opposition to radical new influences in Athenian society. He caricatured leading figures in the arts (notably Euripides, whose influence on his own work however he once grudgingly acknowledged), in politics (especially the populist Cleon), and in philosophy/religion (where Socrates was the most obvious target). Such caricatures seem to imply that Aristophanes was an old-fashioned conservative, yet that view of him has led to contradictions.

 Aristophanes has been said to recreate the life of ancient Athens more convincingly than any other author. His powers of ridicule were feared and acknowledged by influential contemporaries. Plato singled out Aristophanes' play The Clouds as slander that contributed to the trial and subsequent condemning to death of Socrates.  

Aristophanes' second play, The Babylonians (now lost), was denounced by Cleon as a slander against the Athenian polis. It is possible that the case was argued in court, but details of the trial are not recorded and Aristophanes caricatured Cleon mercilessly in his subsequent plays, especially The Knights.

Image: Terracotta amphoriskos (flask) in the form of a bird-man, late 5th century B.C.E., Greek Attic, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This extraordinary vase of a bird-man, of high technical quality, is unique among the examples of Attic black-glazed pottery known today. It almost certainly relates to Aristophanes' well-known comedy The Birds (first produced in 415/414 B.C.E.) and may represent the costume that would have been worn by members of the chorus in the fifth century B.C.E.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Mythical origins of the game of knucklebones in the Mediterranean World

Beginning in 5000 BCE, the talus bones of hooved animals (also known as astragali) have been found in higher numbers than other bones and in contexts unrelated to food preparation in archaeological excavations.  Although the astragalus is not entirely symmetric, it is thought these bones were used like dice in games of chance.

Sophocles, in a written fragment of one of his works, ascribed the invention of knucklebones to the mythical figure Palamedes, who taught it to his Greek countrymen during the Trojan War. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey contain allusions to games similar in character to knucklebones. 

Palamedes was the warrior Agamemnon sent to Ithaca to retrieve Odysseus, who had promised to defend the marriage of Helen and Menelaus. Odysseus did not want to honor his oath, so he plowed his fields with an ass and an ox both hitched to the same plow, so the beasts of different sizes caused the plow to pull chaotically. Palamedes guessed what was happening and put Odysseus' son, Telemachus, in front of the plow. Odysseus stopped working and revealed his sanity.

Odysseus never forgave Palamedes for ruining his attempt to stay out of the Trojan War. When Palamedes advised the Greeks to return home, Odysseus hid gold in his tent and wrote a fake letter purportedly from Priam. The letter was found and the Greeks accused him of being a traitor. Palamedes was stoned to death by Odysseus and Diomedes. According to other accounts, the two warriors drowned him during a fishing expedition. Still, another version relates that he was lured into a well in search of treasure, and then was crushed by stones. 

Although he is a major character in some accounts of the Trojan War, Palamedes is not mentioned in Homer's Iliad but Euripedes and other dramatists wrote plays about his fate. The Greek sophist, Gorgias, penned the "Defense of Palamedes", an oration dealing with issues of morality and political commitment in which he demonstrates how plausible arguments can cause doubt in the acceptance of conventional truths.  Later, the Roman poet Ovid discusses Palamedes' role in the Trojan War in his Metamorphoses and Palamedes' fate is also described in Virgil's Aeneid. 

However, both  Herodotus and Plato ascribe a foreign origin to the game. Plato, in Phaedrus, names the Egyptian god Thoth as its inventor, while Herodotus relates that the Lydians, during a period of famine in the days of King Atys, originated this game.

Two young women playing knucklebones Greek 330-300 BCE said to be from Capua, Italy that I photographed at "The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece" at the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum.

Closeup of one of Two young women playing knucklebones Greek 330-300 BCE said to be from Capua, Italy that I photographed at "The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece" at the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum.

Maidens Playing "Knucklebones" Greek Late 4th or early 3rd century BCE Terracotta that I photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. The maidens are playing an ancient form of jacks, known as astragalus (knucklebones), a game in which five small animal bones were tossed into the air and caught on the back of the hand. The grouping of separate statuettes is almost unknown before Hellenistic times, when artists became fascinated both by the interaction of figures and by the challenge of representing complex poses, such as this crouching stance.

One of Two Boys Fighting Over a Game of Knucklebones 1st century CE Roman copy of 2nd century BCE original from Rome that I photographed photographed at "The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece" at the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum.

Game piece of bone in the shape of a baboon, 332–30 B.C.E., Ptolemaic Period, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Animal ankle joints, anatomically termed astragals, were used as gaming pieces. The knucklebone itself might be carved, or astragal-shaped gaming pieces might be carved from other sources or materials. All were termed astragals, which were used like dice or jacks. 

Terracotta vase in the form of an astragal (knucklebone), ca. 460 B.C.E., Attributed to an artist recalling the Painter of London D 12, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Astragals were popular toys in antiquity. As each side of an astragal is distinctive, what mattered in a game was how the pieces fell. Such games of chance also acquired prophetic or erotic aspects. The poet Anacreon wrote about the astragals of Eros—the dice of Love. It is entirely appropriate that this large example is decorated with a lyre-playing Eros.

Carchemish orthostat at the Gaziantep Archaeology Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Dick Osseman. This is one of a set of orthostats, that adorned the Royal Buttress in Carchemish in Gaziantep province. They are from the 8th century BC. The hieropglyphs at this scene bear the names of children of the Country-lord: Malitispa, Astitarhunza, Tarnitispa, Issikaritispa, Sikara, Halpawaki, Yahilatispa. These are two of three people holding knucklebones.


Sunday, February 21, 2021

The psychological cost of warfare in the ancient world

Then said Achilles, "Son of Atreus, king of men Agamemnon, see to these matters at some other season, when there is breathing time and when I am calmer. Would you have men eat while the bodies of those whom Hector son of Priam slew are still lying mangled upon the plain? Let the sons of the Achaeans, say I, fight fasting and without food, till we have avenged them; afterwards at the going down of the sun let them eat their fill. As for me, Patroclus is lying dead in my tent, all hacked and hewn, with his feet to the door, and his comrades are mourning round him. Therefore I can think of nothing but slaughter and blood and the rattle in the throat of the dying." - Iliad 19.226

As some of you know, I am the spouse of a veteran who has suffered from PTSD since service in Vietnam back in 1967-68. Although the psychological trauma suffered by those who have experienced a traumatic event now has a very modern-sounding diagnosis, it is not a recent phenomenon but has been a plague upon mankind, probably since men began engaging in warfare to wrest the territory or possessions from a competing group or avenge the losses incurred in such actions.

Some scholars have proposed PTSD is a modern phenomenon brought on by the use of explosive weapons like IEDs, land mines, or booby traps and the concussions that resulted from their use.  

In her paper, Caesar in Vietnam: Did Roman Soldiers Suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?, classicist Aislinn Melchior admits that concussion is not the only risk factor for PTSD but says it is so strongly correlated that it suggests the incidence of PTSD may have risen sharply with the arrival of gunpowder, shells, and plastic explosives.

"In Roman warfare, wounds were most often inflicted by edged weapons. Romans did of course experience head trauma, but the incidence of concussive injuries would have been limited both by the types of weapons they faced and by the use of helmets," Melchior observes. Melchior also speculates that death was so common in the ancient world that it desensitized many of its residents to the prospect of unexpected death. 

But in his 1999 paper entitled "The Cultural Politics of Public Spectacle in Rome and the Greek East in 167-166 BCE"  Jonathan C. Edmondson points out that when King Antiochus IV introduced Roman-style gladiatorial combats in Syria in 166 BCE, the Syrians were terrified rather than entertained.

"In time gladiatorial contests came to be accepted and even popular, but only after Antiochus had instituted a local variation whereby fights sometimes ended as soon as a gladiator was wounded."

This hardly sounds like people desensitized to death.

Recently, scholars studying cuneiform medical texts left behind by ancient Mesopotamians point to passages describing mental disorders expressed by soldiers and even a king during the Assyrian Period (1300–609 BCE) when military activity was extremely frequent and brutal. The King of Elam is said to have had his mind changed.  Soldiers were described as suffering from periods where they were forgetful, their words were unintelligible, they would wander about, and suffer regular bouts of depression.

I also think scholars dismiss too readily the psychological aspects of PTSD in the ancient world because of their observations that the ancient world was a far more brutal environment than we have now (outside of inner city ghettos).  They point out how people were surrounded by death because of disease, accidents without proper medical treatment, and entertainments that featured the orchestrated deaths of both people and animals.  I propose that observed deaths occurring in a venue where the observer and the participants are separated both by physical barriers and social hierarchy (most human victims were criminals, prisoners of war, "Others" so to speak, or slaves, those whose social status separated them from the vast number of citizens in the audience) are distinctly different when compared to violent deaths of friends, family members, and comrades, your "band of brothers," fighting right beside you in a person-to-person battle scenario.

Furthermore, ancient executions were designed to further distance the audience from the victim through the use of mythological reenactments or by placement outside the city.

"Crucifixions were usually carried out outside the city limits thus stressing the victims rejection from the civic community. Because of the absence of bloodshed out of an open and lethal wound, which evoked the glorious fate of warriors, this type of death was considered unclean, shameful, unmanly, and unworthy of a freeman. In addition the victim was usually naked. Essential, too, was the fact that the victim lost contact with the ground which was regarded as sacrilegious." - J.J. Aubert, "A Double Standard in Roman Criminal Law?" from "Speculum Juris: Roman Law as a Reflection of Social and Economic Life in Antiquity"

We also cannot forget the medical personnel either.  The medical environment of an ancient treatment facility following a major battle was far worse than in a modern field hospital.  Ancient surgeons attempted to treat often thousands of wounded in a relatively short time compared to only handfuls at a time during the Vietnam conflict.  Ancient physicians were surprisingly quite skilled, especially Roman military surgeons, but they had little but herbal compounds (and honey if the Romans listened to the Egyptian physicians) to ward off infections.  Their patients' mortality rate was much higher than the relatively low mortality rate experienced in Vietnam. 

I sometimes wonder, though, if modern scholars think that ancient people just didn't value their lives as much as we do, since they did not shrink from casualties as high as 50,000 in a single military engagement or investment of an enemy city.  But if you've ever looked at some of the poignant grave goods found in ancient burials or studied the reliefs and inscriptions on ancient funerary monuments, I think you will conclude that we are only separated by time, not by our shared human nature.

This post is a condensed summary of a paper I wrote, "Concussion and PTSD in the Ancient World" back in 2013.  You can read the full article at:

Terracotta plate, ca. 510 B.C.E. Greek, Attic, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The weight of the wounded or dead Amazon is beautifully conveyed by the lowered spears and shield carried by her companion.

Terracotta kylix (drinking cup), ca. 500 B.C.E., Attributed to a painter of the Thorvaldsen Group at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sober depiction of a warrior. While his attendant looks on, he discards his shield and helmet and leans on his spear with a pensive, downcast face. 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Leda and the Swan: Bestiality in the Ancient World

Leda and the Swan is a story and subject in art from Greek mythology in which the god Zeus, in the form of a swan, seduces or rapes Leda on the same night she slept with her husband King Tyndareus of Sparta. She subsequently bears two children from Zeus, Helen (who later becomes Helen of Troy) and Polydeuces (Pollux, one of the Dioscuri) and two children from Tyndareus, Castor (the other Dioscuri) and Clytemnestra. Castor, being the son of a human male, was mortal while Pollux, being a son of Zeus, was immortal.  But Pollux asked to share his immortality with his half brother so each spent half their time in Hades while the other communed with gods on Olympus.

Their unusual conception was just one of several Greek myths in which Zeus seduced or abducted favored mortals while in the form of an animal.  These other tales included Europa and the bull and Ganymede and the eagle.  

Various classical writers recorded that bestiality was common in "other" cultures. Herodotus as well as Pindar, Strabo and Plutarch alleged Egyptian women engaged in sexual relations with goats for religious and magical purposes – the animal aspects of Egyptian deities being particularly alien to the Greco-Roman world. Hittite law mandated the death penalty for intercourse with animals, excluding horses and mules (violators were instead barred from the priesthood and from approaching the king). Likewise,  the Abrahamic religions imposed the death penalty on both the person and animal involved in an act of bestiality. I always view the creation of a law as something needed to prohibit behavior deemed unfavorable that is actually occurring.  

Plutarch, though Greek himself, and Virgil, too, make similar accusations of bestiality among the Greeks, with Plutarch writing in his "Discourse on the Reason of Beasts" that the Greeks committed "very frequently and in many places great outrages, disorders and scandals against nature, in the matter of this pleasure of love, for there are men who have loved she-goats, sows and mares." 

There is some indication that violent sexual encounters, like other mythological scenarios, were acted out as punitive entertainments in the Roman arena. Nero is supposed to have enjoyed a form of bondage with either male or female partners in which he dressed in animal skins to reenact a wild animal attacking a condemned prisoner as frequently occurred in the arena. Cassius Dio also relates how a prostitute pretended to be a leopard for the gratification of a senator. However, such activity was generally viewed by the Romans as undesirable behavior, much like pederasty. But that did not seem to diminish their appreciation of the myth as Leda and the Swan were popular subjects on ceramics and as inspiration for sculpture as well.

Bronze Roman oil lamp in the form of a swan with either Castor and Pollux or Helen and Pollux emerging from its feathers. The children were fathered by Zeus, who took the form of a swan to impregnate their mother Leda.  Now in the Karak Museum in Jordan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Michael Gunther.

Leda and the Swan (Roman, CE 1-100) at the Getty Villa, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributors Dave and Margie Hill Kleerup

Red-figure Vessel with Leda and the Swan (Greek, Apulia 330 BCE) - Leda with the Swan, as Hypnos enchants her, at the Getty Villa , courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributors Dave and Margie Hill Kleerup.

Red-figure Vessel with Leda and the Swan (Greek, Apulia 330 BCE) - Leda with the Swan, as Hypnos enchants her, at the Getty Villa , courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributors Dave and Margie Hill Kleerup.

Mosaic depicting Leda and the Swan, once the central panel (emblema) of a mosaic floor discovered in the vicinity of the Sanctuary of Aphrodite at Palaipafos, late 2nd - early 3rd century CE, Palaepaphos Museum, Cyprus, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Carole Raddato.

Leda with cupid, Roman, 1st century CE, head from Antonia Minor, c. 35 CE, at the Galleria Borghese in Rome, Italy courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Daderot.

Fresco depicting Leda and the swan, from Pompeii, 50-79 CE, Naples National Archaeological Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Carole Raddato.

Reproduction of Leda and the Swan from the Late Hadrianic period courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Mongolo1984.

Leda and Swan, Roman work 2nd century CE after Greek work of the first half of the 4th century BCE, by Timotheus at the Prado Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Caracas1830 (white balance adjusted)

Roman fresco of Leda and the Swan from the Villa Arianna at Stabiae in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Carole Raddato.