Thursday, January 7, 2021

Sea Monsters in Ancient Art

 The iconography of the Greek kētos (Latinized as cetus) was established in the Archaic period (ca. 600–480 BCE) and remained amazingly consistent for centuries, long into Roman Imperial times. It is one of the creatures that after the conquests of Alexander the Great (r. 331–323 BCE) traveled to the East, where it appeared in Gandharan art and influenced representations of monsters from Afghanistan to India. The kētos has even been suggested as a partial inspiration for the Chinese dragon. - Metropolitan Museum of Art

According to Greek mythology, Perseus slew Cetus to save Andromeda from being sacrificed to it. In a different story, Heracles slew Cetus to save Hesione.The term cetacean (for marine mammals like whales or porpoises) was derived from cetus. In Greek art, ceti were depicted as serpentine fish, sometimes with the head of a greyhound and the body of a whale or dolphin with a divided fan-like tail.  In Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible, Jonah's "great fish" is translated as kētos.

Art historian, John Boardman, conjectured that images of the kētos in Central Asia influenced depictions of the Chinese Dragon and Indian makara. They suggest that after contact with silk-road images of the kētos, the Chinese dragon appeared more reptilian and shifted head-shape.

Those of us familiar with the "Clash of the Titans" films, think of this mythological sea monster as the kraken. The English word kraken is taken from the modern Scandinavian languages, originating from the Old Norse word kraki. In both Norwegian and Swedish Kraken is the definite form of krake, a word designating an unhealthy animal or something twisted (cognate with the English crook and crank). In modern German, Krake (plural and oblique cases of the singular: Kraken) means octopus, but can also refer to the legendary kraken. Kraken is also an old Norwegian word for octopus and an old euphemism in Swedish for whales, used when the original word became taboo as it was believed it could summon the creatures.

If you want to have a little laugh, ask your Alexa device to "Release the Kraken!"

Ritual Water Jar (loutrophoros) with Perseus Battling the Sea Monster Ketos Greek made in Apulia South Italy 340-330 BCE Terracotta that I photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California.

Detail of Loricate torso of Nero, mid 1st century CE, from Bologna via de' Carbonesi, the cuirass is decorated with two Nereids riding on a Ketos and the Gorgon's head, Bologna, Museo Civico Archeologico courtesy of Carole Raddato, CC BY

Mosaic of the Nereids, fragment of a mosaic depicting a Nereid riding a hybrid sea monster (Ketos), it paved a room of a Roman house perhaps of the private baths area (thermae), 2nd century AD, Museo Histórico Municipal de Écija, Spain courtesy of Carole Raddato, CC BY

Mosaic of Ketos, the sea monster, found at Caulonia (Monasterace) in the Casa del Drago, 3rd century BCE now in the National Archaeological Museum of Calabria courtesy of Miguel Hermoso Cuesta.

One of the earliest extant representations of a Greek ketos, or sea monster from a terracotta vase of the 2nd half of the 7th century BCE, Greek, Cretan or South Italian at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Roman fresco depicting Hercules freeing Hesione from the sea monster in front of the walls of Troy found in Pompeii in the Insula Occidentalis, now in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples (inv. 9445) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko (digitally adjusted for perspective and enhanced).

Ritual stone palette with a Nereid (Sea Nymph) and a Cherub riding a Sea Monster (Ketos) from Gandhara (modern Pakistan) 1st century BCE at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Perseus Rescuing Andromeda by Paolo Veronese, 1576-1578, now in the Museum of Fine Arts of Rennes courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Silver Mirror from the tomb of a Roman woman depicting the legend of Phrixus and Helle with the sea monster, Ketos, beneath the flying ram that I photographed at the Palazzo Massimo in Rome.  The mirror was once gilded and covered with an amalgam of Mercury 2nd century CE Vallerano 
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