2022.03.18 | By Gregory Nagy
§14 National Archaeological Museum of Athens
Based on CI_2016.06.24 [via 2016.06.17 via 2016.03.14], rewritten 2018.03.05, 2022.02.28, and now 2022.03.18
§14.1. As we enter the museum, we turn left. We find in the very first hall, to our right, a huge Geometric vase known as the Dipylon Amphora. Here is a utensil that has evolved into something so big that it has outgrown its utility as a utensil (in the present case, as an amphora). We focus on the patterns painted on the vase. They show natural figures—human and animal and floral and so on—surrounded by decorative geometric figures. Represented at a centerpoint of the vase is the human figure of a dead body lying on a bier. The dead human is surrounded by living humans who are making gestures of grief—of lamentation. The primary gesture in making laments centers on the raising of the two arms, up from the elbow. Shown hanging over the bier on which the dead body rests is an expansive fabric, and the painting here represents the pattern-weaving of this fabric in a stylized way. In real pattern-weaving, the patterns woven into a fabric would represent natural figures that are human and animal and floral and so on, surrounded by decorative geometric figures. So, the world that is pictured by way of pattern-weaving matches the world that is pictured by way of Geometric vase-painting. But in the vase-painting here, which represents a fabric that would have shown the many varieties of such woven figures, what is shown instead is merely a checkerboard patterning. So, the painting represents the variety of what is seen in a pattern-weave by way of a simple alternation of black and white squares. As for the human figures that are being represented in the paintings on the vase, lozenge-shapes are used for representing parts of the body. For example, the chest of a human figure is represented as an upside-down triangle. In pattern-weaving, such lozenge-shapes are typical in representing parts of the human body. That is why I think that the techniques of painting figures on the surface of Geometric vases are modeled on techniques of pattern-weaving figures into fabrics. If my thinking here is valid, then it is fair to say that the art of Geometric pottery-painting, presumably performed by professional men, is modeled in some ways on the art of pattern-weaving, presumably performed by non-professional women.
§14.2. Further along in a nearby hall is the statue of a girl named Phrasikleia, standing on a base that bears an inscription that tells about the statue. Evidently, the statue and its base were once markers of the tomb where the girl was buried. Later, the statue of this girl was also buried, sometime between 530 and 510 BCE or so, evidently to protect it from destruction or defacement by political enemies of the girl’s aristocratic family. The base of the statue was not buried but survived independently. The statue, once it was buried and thus hidden away, remained undetected for some 2,500 years, until it was finally unearthed in 1972 at a place called Merenda outside the city of Athens. Reunited with its base at the Museum, this statue (inventory number 4889) represents one of the most exquisite pieces of archaic art, and it preserves most aspects of the artistry that went into its creation, including a wide range of colors, however faded they are by now. An inscription on the base of the statue tells the story of the girl named Phrasikleia:
σεμα Φρασικλειας | κορε κεκλεσομαι | αιει αντι γαμο | παρα θεον τουτο | λαχοσ᾿ ονομα
This is the marker [sēma] of Phrasikleia. ‘Girl’ [korē] is what I will be called for all time to come. Instead of marriage, I have been fated by the gods to have this name.
(The base of the statue is also inscribed with the name of the sculptor: Aristion of Paros.) The unopened flower that the girl holds in her hand is to be contrasted with the opened flowers, intertwined with flower buds, that we see woven into the garland adorning her hair. Some experts think that the flower she holds forever is a lotus, which closes at night—only to open every morning with the coming of daylight. I think, however, that the unopened flower that she holds could rather be interpreted as the unopened blossom of a pomegranate. As for the name of the girl, Phrasikleia, it contains the word kleos, which indicates poetic ‘glory’, and this name ‘points’, as indicated by phrasi–, to an eternal glory that is promised her by the poetry of the inscription whenever its inscribed words are read out loud by a passerby (Svenbro 1988:12–25).
§14.3. Moving beyond the hall that houses Phrasikleia, I now note in passing, as we proceed through adjacent halls, a bronze statue of a bearded male figure throwing… a trident? … a thunderbolt? Is this figure Poseidon or Zeus?
§14.4. Moving far further beyond, I note, in passing, a relief sculpture representing “the apobatic moment”: relevant analysis in Classical Inquiries 2016.06.24 at §9.1B, also at §11.1C. I comment: the apobatic athlete, standing on the left side of the chariot platform, grabs with his right hand the railing on the left side of the chariot as he swivels for his dangerous leap from the platform, ready to “hit the ground running.”
§14.5. Moving still further beyond, I note, in passing, a relief sculpture showing a warrior mourning himself. He is a “marine,” whose task would have been to fight in hand-to-hand combat by boarding the decks of enemy ships in naval battles. Evidently, this marine had been lost at sea, and now we see him sitting sadly on a headland overlooking the watery blue expanse that will not release his body for a proper burial in Mother Earth. The headland is eerily shaped like the prow of a battleship. And the person who is sitting there dejectedly on that headland is not really a person. Rather, he is a kind of disembodied self who is sadly contemplating the irretrievable loss of his own body at sea.
We ascend to the upper floor. I select only a small sampling of the many wonders to be seen there. In this case, I offer only a minimalist description of each sampling:
§14.6 [formerly D7] Wooden panels, dating from the sixth century BCE, found at Pitsa in the region of Corinth. On the surface of the stucco that coats the wood underneath are paintings of a ritual scene. We see a family in the act of performing a sacrifice.
§14.7. [formerly D5] On a terracotta decoration for a temple of Apollo, we see a painting that shows the images of Aēdōn and Khelidōn, two doomed sisters in a myth about their tragic transformation into a nightingale and a swallow. In this fragmentary painting, we see an inscription that labels the sister on the right as ΧΕΛΙΔFON. The Greek lettering here spells khelidwōn, dialectal variant of khelidōn, which means ‘swallow’. In another version of the myth, the sisters are known as Procne and Philomela. For an analysis of this myth, I refer to my posting in Classical Inquiries for 2016.01.07 §§19–23.
§14.8. [formerly D8] Vase painting that features Hēraklēs in the act of killing a noxious Centaur named Nessos [spelled νεΤοc here]. The best-known version of the myth is transmitted in the tragedy Women of Trachis by Sophocles, where we read that some of the fluid oozing from the dying Centaur was preserved in a vial by Deianeira, the future wife of Hēraklēs. She was led to believe that this fluid could be used as a love-ointment to restore the affections of her husband if he ever strayed. It is made explicit by Diodorus of Sicily 4.36.5 that the fluid was the semen of the dying Centaur. As we read further in Diodorus and in Sophocles, this fluid that Deianeira smeared on the clothing that made contact with the skin of Hēraklēs turned out to be no love-ointment: it became a deadly poison that pervaded the insides of the hero.
§14.9. [formerly D1] Geometric vase featuring an image of two lyre-players (the lyre in this case looks like a kitharā), and each one of the two is sitting on a stool (equivalent of a diphros). #15842.
§14.10. [formerly D2] Geometric vase featuring an image of a chariot with a warrior standing on the platform. #806.
§14.11. [formerly D3] Geometric vase featuring an image of a funerary carriage, flanked on either side by chariots with warriors standing on the platforms; the rails on the left and the right of the chariots are accentuated. #990.
§14.12. [formerly D4] Geometric vase featuring an image of a “mistress of animals.” The dating on the label: around 675–650 BCE. #355.
§14.13. [formerly D6] Geometric vase featuring, along one of its bands, a series of chariots, one after the next, each one of which is drawn by two horses, but at least one of which is drawn by four horses, not two. On the platform of the four-horse chariot stand two warriors, one of whom is the driver while the other holds a spear. Only one warrior stands on each one of the two-horse chariots. It looks as if the warriors are wearing boar’s-tusk helmets decorated with horsehair plumes. Along a lower band are “hoplites” carrying round shields, as distinct from the “body-shields” of the warriors standing on the platforms of chariots. The date on the label: around 720–700 BCE. #894.
On the upper floor, there is also a hall featuring a small selection of the finds, once buried under volcanic ash, that have been excavated on the island of Santorini, ancient Thera. There had been an enormous volcanic explosion there, dated around the 1600s BCE. While viewing the few frescoes that are exhibited in this constricted hall, I concentrate on the “swallows in springtime” fresco, where the rock formations are painted in alternating red and blue colors. I note in general a painterly convention that is characteristic of the Thera Frescoes: there is a tendency to “zoom out” for the sake of expanding the scope of a picture, and to “zoom in” for the sake of contracting the scope.
Back on the lower floor, we enter the main hall, featuring a vast collection of finds dating back to the Mycenaean era.
§14.14. [formerly B.1] Before we enter, we look to our right, where we see a small space housing Cycladic art. I draw attention to two figurines, placed next to each other in a display case: one figurine represents the player of a string instrument, prototype of the kitharā, while the other represents the player of a wind instrument, prototype of the aulos. These two instruments were the essential accompaniment for most forms of song and dance in the later periods of the second and first millennia BCE and beyond.
That said, we enter the main hall, featuring finds dating back to the Mycenaean era.
§14.15. [formerly B2] Adorning the entrance to the main hall are blocks of carved stone found in the “Grave Circle A” of Mycenae. I note the hunting scenes depicted in the carvings. Just as this carved stonework is now a prime marker for the prestige of the Museum, it was a comparably prestigious marker of Mycenaean civilization. Grave Circle A is dated to the sixteenth century BCE.
§14.16. [formerly B3] The blocks that I have just described frame our view of the first display-case, inside which we see face-to-face the most celebrated object found in Grave Circle A. It is the golden death mask of “Agamemnon.” Since this find from Grave Circle A predates by roughly four centuries the conventional dating, by ancient sources, of the Trojan War, the linking of this death mask with the leader of the Achaeans in such a war is fanciful. Inside the same display-case are two exquisite daggers that I note in passing. From here on, as we view other findings in this hall, I will simply say “note,” not “I note.”
§14.17. [formerly B5] Note a set of gold-leaf scales (#9 in the relevant display-case) buried along with the bodies of aristocratic women in Shaft Grave III of Grave Circle A of Mycenae. Among the decorations on the gold-leaf “weights” that accompany the scales are representations of butterflies or moths. A word for ‘butterfly’ or ‘moth’ in ancient Greek is psūkhē, as we learn from Aristotle and other ancient sources. Better-known meanings for this word psūkhē in Greek include ‘breath of life’ or ‘spirit’ or even ‘soul’. Comparing the expression “life hangs in the balance,” I argue for the significance of representing a moth or butterfly as a “weight” to be weighed against the ‘soul’ at the moment of death. There is a cognate idea in Homeric poetry, as in Iliad 22.208–213, where Zeus is weighing on his golden scales the lives of Achilles and Hector, and the technical word for this idea is psūkho-stasiā, meaning ‘weighing of the psūkhē’ on a set of scales.
§14.18. [formerly B7] Note the displays of fresco paintings of two figure-eight shields, featuring representations of the natural patterning of spots to be found on the hides of cows: the shields made from cowhide in the Mycenaean era preserve such natural patterning, and the artistic representations of the cowhide shields transmit naturalistically the same patterning. On the idea of a cowhide shield as an exteriorization of the interior heroic self, I refer to Nagy 1990b:263–265.
§14.19. [formerly B9] A boar’s-tusk helmet.
§14.20. [formerly A1] We find at the farther end of this hall a slanted-horizontal display case containing seals and sealings. One seal, found in a Mycenaean tholos tomb at Vapheio near Sparta, shows the image of a man in a long robe who is carrying a fenestrated axe (CMS I.225). This axe is shaped like a capital P with a vertical bar bisecting the semicircle attached to the straight line of the P. In a vertical display case nearby—it is to our right as we face the two posts from the “Treasury of Atreus”—we actually see the fenestrated axe (inventory number 1870): this object had been buried together with the seal that shows the picture of the man carrying the axe. And the man who is pictured on the seal is the same man who had been buried in the tomb containing both the axe and the seal that shows the man carrying the axe; in fact, the seal was attached to the man’s wrist (Yasur-Landau 2015:141). It has been observed about this axe that, by the time it was buried with its owner in the Mycenaean tomb at Vapheio, it was already “a centuries-old ceremonial weapon,” dating as far back as sometime between the 20th and 18th centuries BCE (Yasur-Landau pp. 139, 146); both the axe and the seal had been acquired from Minoan Crete (Yasur-Landau p. 141).
§14.21. [formerly B8] Note the “Warrior Vase,” dating from the late Mycenaean period, depicting uniformed helmeted warriors heading off to war. Behind them is the figure of a woman with uplifted arms. This gesture signifies the performance of lament.
§14.22. [formerly B6] Note a particularly large seal-ring on display, featuring a depiction of what archaeologists guardedly describe as a “religious scene.”
§14.23. [formerly B4] Note the depiction, on a rhyton (#8 in the relevant display-case), of a wartime siege that is evidently cognate with depictions of sieges in the verbal art of Homeric poetry. I speak here of a cognate relationship between the visual arts and the verbal arts. I use the word “cognate” here to indicate that these two forms of art, visual and verbal, are related to each other, yes, but there is no need to suppose that the visual arts are dependent on the verbal arts—or vice versa.
Nagy, G. 1990a. Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. Baltimore. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Pindars_Homer.1990.
–––. 1990b. Greek Mythology and Poetics. Ithaca, NY. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Greek_Mythology_and_Poetics.1990. Revised paperback edition 1992.
–––. 2009. “Hesiod and the Ancient Biographical Traditions.” The Brill Companion to Hesiod, ed. F. Montanari, A. Rengakos, and Ch. Tsagalis, 271–311. Leiden. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:Nagy.Hesiod_and_the_Ancient_Biographical_Traditions.2009.
–––. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge, MA. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_NagyG.The_Ancient_Greek_Hero_in_24_Hours.2013.
—. 2015. Masterpieces of Metonymy: From Ancient Greek Times to Now. Hellenic Studies 72. Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Masterpieces_of_Metonymy.2015.
Yasur-Landau, A. 2015. “From Byblos to Vapheio: Fenestrated Axes between the Aegean and the Levant.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 373:139–150.