Θεοί και…θηρία (Gods and…beasts)

Something that I fought for for ages in my art since about 2014 has been the narrative power of the body. Through the study of anatomy, literature, and Ancient Greek art (mainly looking, but you’d be surprised at what that alone can do), I have been able to understand this code embedded through lots of Ancient Greek art and beyond. I think this exploration and obsession stemmed from me being utterly in love with language learning, so whenever I sense a pattern that remotely resembles a sign of language, I hop on the train and never get off.

This trip to Athens was great because it essentially proved my hypothesis of the body as language in art. The Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry mentions this a bit in his written work “Περί ἀγαλμάτων” (Peri Agalmaton, On Sculptures) of which we only have fragments. He states that the seated pose portrayed a steadfastness of power. So with this in mind I decided to apply this reading to literally every ancient sculpture I saw at the MET and in the cast collection at the New York Academy of Art and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (which has a FABULOUS cast collection btw). From this I started to ask myself many questions regarding the pose: Why is the person standing?, Why is this figure reclining a little more than this other sculpture?, What could the raised hand mean? And what about the bent knee?

For a long time I thought these questions only applied to sculptural work. I later realized this applied to nearly every representation of a deity or beast or character in Greek mythology and it was amazing for me to see the similarity of poses through time. Some of these poses are used still today! Greek mythology is vary complex and there are so many stories, so what I really enjoy is how these complexities can be reduced and channeled through a singular pose. I want to share a couple of my favorite pose archetypes in this post.


Ah, yes, let us start with Athena, the namesake of Athens, the virgin goddess who was born without a mother. She is said to have been born straight out of Zeus’ head when he had a headache and Hephaestus cut open his head with an axe. Gruesome. But the keyword in Athena’s birth story is straight. For our purposes this has a double meaning: one referring to the sudden outburst, and the second referring to her stance (erect, upright). She emerged from Zeus’ head fully armed ready to fight. With this story in mind, I noticed that many fully-clothed/armed, standing (not contrapposto) females were representing Athena. In vase paintings and mosaics she is very easy to recognize because most of the time we can see her other attributes: the aegis (breastplate with snakes and a Gorgon), her shield, a staff or an owl.

Red-figure vase painting of Athena holding a spear and her helmet while wearing her aegis and a little owl flying near. (https://www.theoi.com/Gallery/K8.6.html)

In the case of sculptures, of which we probably have fragments, this recognition isn’t as easily, unless you just read the plaque. But we want to transcend the plaque. It’s more fun. I haven’t myself seen many sculptures of Athena except for at the Vatican Museums, but I did see a beautiful BEAUTIFUL fragment of Athena at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. In this fragment, pictured at the beginning of this post, all we see is a part of feet and what seems to be a part of a dress. I saw this sculpture from across the room and within seconds I figured it was either an Amazonian woman or Athena. Turns out it was Athena. But in other sculptures of Athena I have seen her with her helmet and aegis. Those are the most important. If she is not standing fully erect with her two feet flat on the groundplane, she is probably attacking someone…and winning. Even the attacking pose seems to be quite common amongst the gods. It kind of looks like a spear-thrower pose.

Beasts in submission

I have this assumption that the Greek vase painters were very aware of the groundplane in their compositions, and that they used this groundplane very effectively. If there was an assembly of the gods, they were scattered throughout the body of the vase as if they were in the clouds, or in other words, not occupying the realm of the mortals on the earth. If the gods were in transit, some of them had chariots, and some flew, like Hermes. I particularly started to notice the groundplane used as a positive element was when I saw depictions of the Minotaur in submission. In these vase paintings, and boy are there many, the groundplane doesn’t act as a simple abstract background to be ignored. Oh no no. We all know the basic story, if not it can be found here, but essentially Theseus wins the battle.

But if you think about it, fighting a half-bull half-human creature doesn’t seem like an easy task. I often think about how this scene of Theseus fighting the Minotaur would look in contemporary cinema: lots of action shots, panning back and forth between Theseus and the beast, both grunting and struggling. I feel the Greeks also portrayed this struggle in a very smart and minimal way. The knee. It’s all about the bent knee, folks. Theseus, grabbing the Minotaur by the horns, seems to be twisting his head and thus his torso–which looks painful–while also pushing him to the ground, what I assume to be a sign of the Minotaur’s defeat. BUT WAIT. THE KNEE. The knee is every so slightly above the groundplane which is clearly established. Will the Minotaur suddenly launch itself back up and stab Theseus with his horns? I DON’T KNOW. AND I CANNOT HANDLE THE SUSPENSE.

That is what I read from this.

If we look back at the image from the beginning of this post, we can see that this female fragment in a standing pose is fighting someone. We can tell that the opponent is some sort of beast or creature because, just like in the black-figure vase painting of Theseus and the Minotaur, the bent knee is very close to the groundplane. If we assume that this female fragment represents a goddess, it has the potential to be Artemis or Athena, since both of them often fight. I later came to realize that Artemis usually doesn’t fight in close-contact battles since she has her bow and arrow, so Athena it is. (I also feel like Artemis doesn’t wear a long garment like Athena does).

After thinking all of this within seconds of seeing this fragment from across the room, I finally went up to read the plaque to test myself and my speculation about the narrative. This is what it read:

Lower part of a statue group of Athena and a Giant. Pentelic marble. Found in in Lavrion. The goddess was shown moving to [the] right and attacking the kneeling Giant, possibly Engelados. Work of the 1st century AD., copying a prototype of the second quarter of the 5th century BC.

Needless to say I was very happy about how spot on my immediate reading was when I saw this fragment. When I was in the Cycladic museum, I read a blurb in the museum about realism and symbolism in Ancient Greek vase-painting. It stated that the use of symbolism was imperative in vase-painting because the painters rarely depicted individualistic features, and that by the 6th century BC, an entire visual code had been created depicting every figure in mythology so painters could depict complex scenes. I often think that this use of symbolism goes beyond objects that these figures carry, and are embedded in the body itself.

There are many figures in mythology all with their own code and I’d like to dive into this a bit more. This will be the first of several posts titled “Gods and…”. Stay on the lookout for my next post because I’m going to be talking about effeminacy!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s