Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.08.23

Nassos Papalexandrou, The Visual Poetics of Power. Warriors, Youths, and Tripods in Early Greece. Series 'Greek Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches'.   Lanham, MD:  Lexington Books, 2005.  Pp. 293.  ISBN 0-7391-0734-8.  $35.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by M. Wilson Jones, Department of Architecture, University of Bath (
Word count: 2517 words

The ambitious title of this book, "The Visual Poetics of Power", is followed in familiar fashion by an explanatory and more modest sub-title, "Warriors, Youths, and Tripods in Early Greece". In fact the field of inquiry is even narrower, with its principal focus on the attachments decorating the rims and handles of the bronze tripod-cauldron, and in particular those that took the form of warriors and youths. A certain disjunction between title and content has become the norm in academic publishing, reflecting of course a marketing strategy which, understandable as it may be, can at times stretch the limits of plausibility and so expose the manipulatory nature of the exercise. In this case, happily, the author does rather well in addressing both the promise of the title and the claims set out on the jacket. Papalexandrou extracts from the chosen topic conclusions that do indeed reflect on wider issues, principally the nexus of intentions behind the setting up of dedications in sanctuaries and the communicative role of images in preliterate Greek society.

Already by the Bronze Age some classes of tripod had transcended the utilitarian functions of cooking and heating to become status symbols, princely gifts and prizes; from this it followed that tripods constituted fitting gifts for the gods, and, as the phenomenon of setting up offerings in sanctuaries accelerated, slowly in the 9th century and then more dramatically in the 8th, so too did this type of dedication, with particular impact on the preeminent sanctuaries at Olympia and Delphi. P. hardly exaggerates when he claims that tripods became "the most prestigious dedications in Greek sanctuaries in the Geometric and Early Archaic periods" [p.1], perhaps even "the most revered religious symbol(s) in Greek culture" [jacket]. While its importance has long been acknowledged, and much progress has been made with classification, dating and stylistic analysis, the semantic field of the tripod has been insufficiently exploited. P. seeks to make good this deficit by taking his cue from advances made by François de Polignac, Catherine Morgan, Ian Morris and others in illuminating critical developments in Greek society by means of the analysis of patterns of distribution of this "the symbol par excellence of authoritative discourse, and, hence, of political power and territorial domination" [p.4].

After a brief introduction setting out the intellectual parameters behind this research, the chapters unfold in the following sequence: "The Semantics of the Tripod in Early Greek Culture" [ch.1]; "Figured Labels: The Attachments of Tripods in Context" [ch.2]; "Warriors: Aichmetai" [ch.3]; "Youths: Kouroi" [ch.4]; "The Appropriation of the Tripod by Apollo" [ch.5]. The book comes with an extensive set of supporting notes, bibliography and index, along with an adequate but not exemplary complement of illustrations; given the fragmentary nature of the material under scrutiny more use could have been made of graphic reconstructions as an aid to assimilation.

The research effort operates from the premise that the meaning of the figural attachments on the rims and handles of tripods is inextricably linked to that of their hosts; thus the decoding of the statuettes helps unlock the meaning of the tripod cauldron. Chapter One sets the scene by investigating the perceptual context for these objects in the 8th and 7th centuries, while outlining the range of symbolic values that rendered them so expressive. P. analyses a number of passages in early Greek poetry to show that the tripod was more than a dedication bound up with the display of value, status, prestige and athletic prowess. He contends that it also enshrined the authority that came from the skilled verbal revelation of truth and intelligence. Enrolled in support of this argument are a number of passages involving tripods: the prize that Hesiod won at the funeral games of Amphidamas for his "clear-sounding song"; the thirteen tripods that Odysseus received from Alkinoos and the Phaiacian nobility in large part it would seem out of appreciation for his mastery of truthful oratory; the twenty tripods of Hephaistos that magically came and went to the gods' assemblies; the tripod awarded to the wisest of the Seven Sages (and subsequently to the wisest of all, Apollo); the tripod that Jason and the Argonauts gave up in exchange for navigational information that led variously (according to different versions of the story) to the saving of the Argo and the founding of colonies or the control of the seas. P. also explores the recurrent association of the tripod with acquiring and possessing territory, which comes through in the last mentioned tale, as well as in the Delphic oracular utterance that foretold that victory in the First Messenian War between Messene and Sparta would go to the side that first set up a hundred tripods around the altar of Zeus on Mount Ithome. Indeed, the dual themes of truthful revelation and territorial domination come together in the consultation of oracular tripods, notably Apollo's Delphic tripod and the ring of tripods round Zeus' sacred oak at Dodona. In both cases the tripod acts as the medium by which divine truth is sounded. P. ably orchestrates his arguments and the pertinent evidence, and if at times this can be stretched a touch too far for some tastes, the overall thesis convinces. There are in fact further, if admittedly later, textual fragments that could be cited in corroboration, such as mentions of tripods which "spoke", and of mediums in trance making pronouncements which came "as if from a tripod", while Aristophanes, in mocking vein, had the god "shout from the (Delphic) adyton amid priceless tripods" [Knights 1016].

Chapter Two focuses on the zoomorphic and anthropomorphic attachments on tripods, with the aim of using archaeological evidence to trace patterns of signification in their deployment. The practice of attaching figures to tripods started slowly in the 9th century, with bulls' heads and birds appearing on a minority of examples (the majority having no attachments at all). In the 8th century horses were more popular, and toward the middle of the century human figures began to be introduced as well as horses. As regards the overall development of P.'s argument the most important finding is the demonstration of how the schema of the spear-brandishing warrior (Lanzeschwinger) established by Willemsen in the 1950s came to be largely replaced by a new arrangement of 'handle-holders', in which two figurines grasp opposing sides of the prominent ring handles that were so characteristic of tripod cauldrons. Of more general interest for the student of early Greek sculpture are changes in attribution made for a number of bronze statuettes, including two well-known examples, a kouros from Delphi (DM 2527) and the so-called "Mantiklos Apollo" in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston [Bartlett 03.997]. It is the author's contention that these were not independent free-standing pieces but attachments made for monumental tripods, with the corollary that the number of figurines associated with tripods from Olympia and Delphi could be considerably larger than hitherto thought. The patchy quality of the evidence makes this hard to prove, but the general line of argument deserves serious consideration.

It follows that the role of such figurines was to complement the semantic value of their parent tripods. This idea is investigated in chapters 3 and 4, the theoretical point of departure being an article by Himmelmann of 1964 that regarded figural bronzes of this kind less as representations of real physical characteristics and more as embodiments of contemporary heroic ideals. P. interprets monumental tripods at sanctuaries like Olympia and Delphi as sites of cultural energy, or "stimulants of ritually enacted events, the main scope of which was to celebrate the kleos, the poetically engendered prestige of the dedicant" [p.5]. The figural attachments acted to reinforce the meanings latent in tripod dedications and so to celebrate the qualities required for leadership in the Geometric period, uniting superiority in combat and the mastery of authoritative discourse [p.134], a combination exemplified in the person of Odysseus. This view of tripods as 'frozen ritual' rests in part on the notion that the dedication of tripods was inextricably linked with oral performance. This line of argumentation begins with Havelock's and Ong's demonstration that the formulaic and rhythmical character of epic derived from the mnemonic structuring of prescribed customs, and develops via theoretical work by Foley and others that posits, as P. expresses it, that in preliterate societies the "viewer's experience of the visual is the idea of performativity that is inherent within it" [p.2]. This 'perfomativity' is linked to the hexameters inscribed on tripods from the Theban sanctuary of Apollo Ismenos as well as on the "Mantiklos Apollo", but even the author has to admit that "We do not know anything about the agents of these oral evocations or the rites and ceremonies they entail", and that such ideas are inherently speculative [p.111].

After a detailed examination of the evidence for reconstructing them as such, chapter Four goes on to decode the handle-holders as visual commentaries on the tripods on which they stood. These youths, which came into vogue towards the end of the 8th century, act out a dynamic relationship with the tripod, and their gesture of collectively grasping the handles (and so the tripod as a whole) is seen as a stylized dramatization of the ritual act of dedication on the part of not just an individual, but the community [p.6, 162-3]. The theory is appealing, for later historical documents make it abundantly clear that that tripod was a not just the Greeks' dedication par excellence but in particular their collective dedication par excellence -- the Plataia monument at Delphi is only the most famous example of many that could be cited. I find myself with almost a vested interest in accepting this interpretation, since it might help make sense of the formal parallels between tripods and the triglyphs of the Doric entablature [AJA 106 (2002): 353-390], in as much as tripod imagery on a temple would signal its status as a collective dedication.

But, intriguing as it might be, acceptance of P.'s handle-holder thesis demands more rigorous treatment. It is odd that the author does not consider handle-holders in relation to the genre scene of the struggle for the tripod (whether it takes place between two anonymous opponents or between Herakles and Apollo). It is true that this only became a staple of Greek art in the second half of the 6th century [D. von Bothmer, "The Struggle for the Tripod", in U. Höckmann and A. Krug (eds.), Festschrift für Frank Brommer (Mainz 1977): 51-63; A. Sakowski, Darstellungen von Dreifusskesseln in der griechischen Kunst bis zum Beginn der klassischen Zeit (Frankfurt 1997)]. Hundreds of examples might be cited from this period [e.g. a black-figure vase in the National Museum at Naples [Santangelo 120], but there exist earlier instances too, for example a goldsmith's mould in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford which probably dates to the third quarter of the 7th century.

More or less contemporary with the appearance of the handle-holders in the late 8th century is the famous struggle for a tripod scene depicted on a bronze tripod leg at Olympia [B 1730]. Like the handle-holders the combatants are naked except for their helmets. There is a difference in scale of course, in that the combatants on the tripod-leg grasp the whole tripod, while handle-holders grasp the ring handles, but the conception is similar. Differences in terms of detail include the sideward-upward gaze of some handle-holders (for P. a possible gesture of surrender to the divinity), and their grasping of the ring handles with both hands, whereas the combatants on the tripod leg have one arm raised in an aggressive pose. But a handle-holder from Dodona (Karapanos Coll. 34, P. fig. 49) does grasp with one arm and threaten with the other, just as do the tripod-leg combatants. P.'s neglect of a possible link of this kind is all the more curious given his willingness to recognize in one pair of handle-holders Theseus fighting the Minotaur. According to this interpretation the tripod whose handles they seized functioned as "an ideogram of victory, the valuable object and conveyor of the kleos of heroes" [p.175]. Could not the same logic apply to the other handle-holders he analyses? My concern here is not to launch a counter hypothesis, but simply to underline the value of testing alternative positions in the interest of furthering debate. In fact it is symptomatic of his general approach that P. can get carried away with his personal train of logic, and while the ride is sometimes enjoyable, it is also frustrating for those seeking more balanced perspectives.

The doubts just expressed led this reader to take a more circumspect view of the final chapter, in which the author investigates the nature of the handle-holders' enactment, and relates it to Delphic Apollo's association with the tripod as a reflection of the collective ethos behind the establishment of the polis. There are, however, a number of interesting points, and early texts such as fragments from Alkaios and the Homeric Hymns are explored to good effect. Although the book comes to a full stop rather abruptly, the reader takes away from the end a vivid appreciation of the multi-faceted layers of meaning and subtle mutations that led to Apollo's appropriation of tripods at Delphi.

Like all art, observes P., figural tripod attachments "had a life of their own as well as an interactive character which is still recoverable today." In his efforts "to 'think with' the Greeks" and not just about them he succeeds in this endeavour, and the participatory quality of the text is engaging, even if worries persist as to the danger of over-extension, of retrojecting onto the Greeks thoughts and intentions that they might not have understood in quite the same way. Less engaging, however, is a writing style encumbered by jargon already sounding a touch out-dated and phrases such as "is denotative of" rather than "denotes". These shortcomings render the book more cumbersome that it need have been; the same ideas could have been conveyed without loss of meaning with a substantially lower word-count. The way the theoretical stance is presented makes it seem to be primarily addressed to like-minded colleagues. As stated in the Forward, the series of which this book forms part promotes current methodologies related to other disciplines such as anthropology and literary theory; this is welcome, but it would be more welcome still if key ideas and terms from the relevant areas of concern were digested and referenced back to their sources rather than relying for the most part on publications in the more immediate field.

It is P.'s intention to go on to publish a monograph devoted to a broader study of the Greek tripod [p.63, n.127]. Handled by such a knowledgeable and inquisitive scholar this enterprise is to be keenly awaited. With clearer explication of theoretical precepts, with more reconstruction drawings, and with a more rigorous process of testing the ideas -- even if it might mean drawing back from some of the more attractive but more speculative ones -- there should emerge a worthy successor to this ambitious and challenging project, one which merits the careful attention of scholars and students alike.

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