Monday, April 5, 2021

Calchas and the prophesies of the Iliad

Despite the addition of a head of Serapis, recut and restored in the 18th century CE, the overall scene of a relief at the J. Paul Getty Museum portrays Calchas, the Argive soothsayer to whom Apollo had given the gift of prophecy. In Homer’s Iliad (II.300-30), the seer foretold that the Trojan War would last for nine years after observing a snake devour a mother sparrow and her eight chicks. The eclectic style of the relief combines the form of a late Classical Attic stele with landscape elements drawn from the Hellenistic repertoire. It was discovered in 1774 at Roma Vecchia in the Villa dei Sette Bassi, which belonged to the senatorial family of C. Bellicus Calpurnius Apolaustus. Such a panel may have decorated a library assembled by a cultured patron well versed in Greek literature. On the underside is a Latinized Greek inscription that reads XEANTHE—likely a version of Xanthe, the former name for Troy.  

It was Calchas who prophesied that in order to gain a favourable wind to deploy the Greek ships mustered in Aulis on their way to Troy, Agamemnon would need to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigeneia, to appease Artemis, whom Agamemnon had offended. Calchas also tells the Greeks that the captive Chryseis must be returned to her father Chryses in order to get Apollo to stop the plague he has sent as a punishment: this triggered the quarrel of the hero Achilles and Agamemnon, the main theme of the Iliad. As kings may do as they please, Calchas finds it necessary to lean on the support of a champion, Achilles, who opposes Agamemnon in assembly. Agamemnon refuses to accept the edict of Apollo that he should give up his prize, but bypasses it by taking Achilles’ prize. There follows "the wrath of Achilles," which is righteous anger on behalf of the divine will. With the help of the gods, Achilles struggles to restore righteousness.

Depictions of Calchas have also been found on 5th century BCE Etruscan mirrors and Calchas along with other characters of the Trojan War were popular subjects of 16th century tapestries.

Relief depicting Calchas observing a serpent attacking a nest of birds, 140-160 CE at the J. Paul Getty Museum. On this relief, a bearded man is seated in right profile on a four-legged stool (diphros) with carved legs and a cushion, and rests his feet on a footstool. With his left hand raised to his check in a contemplative gesture, he supports his left elbow on a gnarled staff held in his right hand. Beneath the chair is a griffin, the symbol of Apollo, god of prophecy. Over his left shoulder he wears a himation that covers his lower body, and sandals. Coiled around the tree in front of him is a snake, which menaces a nest of fledglings and two adult birds perched in the branches. The Pentelic marble head is ancient but does not belong to the original relief; it was recut and restored in the 18th century. The hairstyle and sober expression belong to a divinity, and a hole in the crown for the attachment of a kalathos identifies it as the head of the god Serapis.

Etruscan mirror depicting Calchas in the form of a haruspice, from Vulci, 5th century BCE, at the Vatican Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Waterborough.

The Prophecy of Calchas from a set of tapestries depicting The Story of Troy. late 16th century, from Macao, China, silk and gilt paper, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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