Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Triton and the fate of Misenus

This morning while browsing artifacts in the collections of the Getty Villa, I came across this exquisite gilded silver sculpture of a Triton forming the handle of an oinochoe.  As I described in a post a couple of years ago, the original sea god, Triton, was the son of Poseidon and Amphitrite according to Hesiod's Theogony. Triton is usually represented as a merman, with the upper body of a human and the tailed lower body of a fish. At some time during the Greek and Roman era, Tritons became a generic term for mermen in art and literature. A female version (tritoness) was eventually introduced as well.

Triton was said to dwell with his parents in  a golden palace claimed to be located at Aegae on the island of Euboea in a passage from book 5 of Homer's Iliad. It describes how  Poseidon "lashed his long-maned horses and drove to Aegae, where he had his famous palace" after having destroyed Odysseus' raft with a storm. Later in Book 13 of the Iliad, Poseidon "took three strides, and with the fourth he reached his goal—Aegae, where is his glittering golden palace, imperishable, in the depths of the sea."

Only in later times was Triton associated with possessing a conch shell, which he blew like a trumpet to calm or raise the waves. He was "trumpeter and bugler" to Oceanus and Poseidon. Its sound was so cacophonous that when loudly blown, it was said to put the giants to flight, who imagined it to be the roar of a dark wild beast.

in Virgil's epic poem the Aeneid, Misenus, a brother-in-arms of Hector and, after Hector's death, Aeneas' trumpeter, challenged the gods to a musical contest on a conch shell. He, like Marsyas, was punished for his hubris when he was drowned by Triton.  Aeneas was told by the Cumaean Sibyl at that time that Misenus's body had to be buried before he could enter the Underworld and detailed the necessary funeral rites required that were later adopted by the Romans. Cape Misenum, the headland that marks the northwestern limit of the Gulf of Naples as well as the Bay of Pozzuoli in southern Italy and supposedly named for Misenus,  was important to the Romans since it was a natural shelter for passage into the inner harbor of Portus Julius, the home port for the Roman western imperial fleet.

Image: Gilded silver oinochoe handle depicting Triton from Macedonia or Illyria, 100-1 BCE, at the Getty Villa in Gallery 111, Pacific Palisades, California. Now detached from the vessel of which it was once part, Triton’s scaly lower body serves as the functional part of the handle, and the acanthus leaves from which the torso rises would have hidden the join at the rim. Triton's torso would have projected as a decorative element above the mouth, and gilding elaborates much of its surface. The figure probably held a trident in its left hand, a frequent attribute of sea beings. Such an elaborate pouring vessel would have been part of an ornate set of serving and drinking vessels used at banquets or symposia.

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