Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.04.13

Pandora's Box: Women in Classical Greece. An Exhibition organized by The Walters Art Gallery.

Reviewed by Jenifer Neils, Case Western Reserve University,

"Pandora's Box" -- the multimedia exhibition, not to be confused with the new pop-up book of the same name published by Bullfinch -- is the first major exhibition devoted exclusively to women in Greek (read Athenian) art and myth. With the exception of a sixth century kore from the Acropolis, all 138 objects in the show are from fifth- and fourth-century Greece, with a decided preference for Attic red-figure and white-ground vases which total ninety-six examples. Fragments of marble relief sculpture are also plentiful, with sculpture-in-the-round, terracottas, bronzes and gold jewelry scattered throughout. The exhibition as shown in Baltimore (now on display at the Dallas Museum of Art until March 31) is arranged more or less thematically. After a video overview (see BMCR 96.04.16), the viewer is introduced to Classical representations of women in general on grave stelai and white-ground lekythoi where the well-known, but as yet not securely identified, "mistress and maid" motif dominates. The first section presents the imagery of the bride, especially as depicted, and romanticized, on Attic wedding vases, the loutrophoros and lebes gamikos. Just before entering the gynaikon through two "classical" wooden doors, the viewer is treated to a brief and sanitized (no doubt for the sake of NEH funding) glimpse of the activities of the hetaira. Once inside the women's quarters where a warp-weighted loom is recreated, a small group of vases illustrates women's indoor life of work (textile-making) and entertainment (music), but with no reference to other roles which take place outside the oikos, such as priestess or water-carrier, so often depicted on Attic vases. So much for the life of "real" women; the exhibition then shifts to women in myth and religion.

A separate gallery is devoted to those myths which best convey one of the emphatic themes of the exhibition: woman as container. Here such diverse scenes as Pandora and Danae, Persephone and Erichthonios appear on a brilliant array of vases and some fine classical sculpture. There are eight vases alone alluding to the birth of the Athenian king Erichthonios borrowed from as far away as Palermo and Fulda, although unfortunately not the squat lekythos by the Meidias Painter -- a unique all-female scene -- from nearby Cleveland. One might quibble that this last is quintessentially a myth of patriarchy, since the child is born not of a woman but from the earth. The splendid krater from St. Petersburg is well worth seeing as one of the few representations of Danae receiving the golden rain, and it is as far as the viewer is allowed a glimpse of the sex life of women.

The other predominant theme of the exhibition and catalogue is the metaphor of woman as wild animal, and in particular a bear. While on the one hand it is a great coup to display the rare, but unfortunately unprovenanced, krater fragments which illustrate cult activity at sanctuaries of Artemis like Brauron (nos. 98-100), on the other hand it is an exaggeration to state that "the animal with which women are most closely associated in Greek myth is the bear." Given the near absence of bear imagery in Greek art, a large color photo mural of a she-bear occupies the better part of this space. (Actually women are much more often associated with birds in Greek myth, but this association is not mentioned in the exhibiton, other than in relation to sirens.) The obsession with bears has led to some erroneous statements such as "bears were extinct in Greece by classical times and probably long before." In fact Pausanias mentions bears in Attica (1.32.1), on Mt. Taygetos (3.20.4), and in Arcadia (8.23.9), and their remains have been found in woody and hilly areas throughout Greece. A viewer could get the mistaken impression that all Greek girls ran nude races as an essential rite de passage ritual in honor of Artemis, whereas it seems more likely that it was a select elite of Attic girls.

Continuing the theme of woman as prey are vases depicting Peleus' wrestling match with Thetis, and her subsequent domestication via marriage. Other pursuit scenes such as Poseidon chasing Amymone and Atalanta preparing to wrestle Peleus are also seen to support the hunting metaphor, although weapons per se are absent. Poseidon's trident, for instance, is his attribute without which we would be unable to recognize him, just as Amymone's is the hydria. And Atalanta looks less like the hunted and more like a formidable foe whom one might encounter these days at a fitness center. The rape of the young Kassandra, not seen here, is a myth that lies closer to the reality of Athenian marriages in which the bride was usually a teenager and her groom a man of thirty.

The final section deals with "mythical women as images of apprehension": Amazons, maenads, Thracian women, Eos as pursuer of boys, Circe, Medea, Medusa and the sirens -- in sum all females who are capable of transforming or killing men. These are the negative, vengeful and often crazed figures of myth; one misses the women of legend who actually support men, like Penelope, Ariadne or the pieta-like Eos who picks her son's corpse from the battlefield. Admittedly there are more troublesome women in Greek myth than positive role models, and monstrous women make for better vase (and exhibition) copy than well behaved helpmates. But just as we must temper the heroines of Greek tragedy with the more realistic women of comedy, so the legendary men-slayers so popular in early Classical art should be set against the later Classical scenes of divine weddings and Meidian gardens where men and women are blissfully intertwined.

The major achievement of bringing such high quality objects together in an exhibition does allow us, not only to revel in great masterpieces of Greek art, but also to ask probing questions about women's existence in classical Greece. Sometimes, however, the reading of the imagery goes askew. For example, in the gynaikon section we learn that prostitutes also mastered the textile arts. Of a fully draped woman stuffing a pillow on a white-ground lekythos by the Pan Painter (cat. no. 46), we are told that "she must be a prostitute because she languidly stuffs balls of wool into a pillow that is of a type used at symposia, male drinking parties with prostitutes. The ancient viewer would have contrasted this display of half-hearted labor with the industriousness that was prized in the ancient housewife, who prepared the textiles used in the home." Is it the Severe-style aesthetic perhaps that makes figures, including the industrious housewife, on vases of the mid-fifth century look languid? In whose houses did male drinking parties take place? Are hetairai ever depicted on vases used for the cult of the dead? These are just some of the questions which come to mind in seeking a more nuanced reading of any particular Greek vase. In the realm of myth when it is claimed that "A dying Amazon takes revenge by using her gaze to win her murderer's love," could the reading be overly romanticized? Male combatants regularly gaze into each others' eyes when locked in mortal combat, and we do not suspect them of homoerotic attraction.

Ultimately, perhaps appropriately for an exhibition called "Pandora's Box," the viewer carries away the Hesiodic, misogynist view of women as a bane to men. Even the color photos of modern-day parthenoi which dot the exhibition, do not mitigate the message of women as a vengeful, dangerous subspecies who must be "caged" in the house and "tamed" by their husbands lest their bestial natures wreak havoc in Greek male-dominated society. More homage is paid to Artemis, the slayer of Aktaion, than to Athena, the helpmate of heroes. Women are viewed almost solely in relation to men -- their husbands, lovers, slayers -- whether led, chased or slain -- we are left in the end with "a beautiful evil."