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)

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