Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.07.19

Erika Kunze-Götte, Myrte als Attribut und Ornament auf attischen Vasen. Akanthiskos, 1.   Kilchberg, Switzerland:  Akanthus, 2006.  Pp. 104; 55 black and white ills., 4 line drawings.  ISBN 978-905083-23-X.  €31.00; $43.00.  

Reviewed by Nassos Papalexandrou, The University of Texas at Austin (
Word count: 1539 words

This book is aptly dedicated to the memory of Semni Karouzou, whose fecund scholarship provided the initial inspiration for its undertaking. Its quality is commensurate with Karouzou's trail-blazing insights and emic readings of Greek iconography. This is a specialized study. Nevertheless, the very fact of its publication bespeaks the continuous vitality and relevance of Classical studies in Europe or at least in its German-speaking areas. In the preface the author explains that this volume inaugurates a small series planned to include monographs on ivy, vine, laurel, and olive as ornaments and symbols in Greek art of the Archaic and Classical periods. One presumes that the intended audience of this and similar books is wider than the strictly academic one. If this is true, both specialists and laymen alike are well served by this individualized study of myrtle (myrtus communis, μύρτος or μυρσίνη (Att. Gr. μυρρίνη) and its iconographic function as attribute, symbol, and ornament on Attic vases of the Archaic and Classical periods. Most commonly represented in the form of carefully woven wreaths or branches, myrtle subtly alerted the ancient viewers' attention to a wide array of roles, relations, moods, situations, references, and values which are often elusive today. Kunze-Götte's analysis shows that the study of both internal (e.g., strictly iconographic) and external criteria (e.g., context and function of vase, when known) can help us unravel the rich referential capacities of this evergreen and fragrant plant. In this way, we enrich our understanding of the role myrtle played in everyday Athenian life. Likewise, Kunze-Götte points out, the correct identification of myrtle in certain narrative scenes may affect our deciphering of their intended meanings and messages.

The introduction lays out the objectives and methodology of this book. Kunze-Götte first stresses its role as the most frequently used plant in cultic contexts and festivals. Myrtle was the most widely used plant for wreaths, and its usage encompassed a wide gamut of public or private rites, civic ceremonies, sacrifices etc. Matrimonial or funereal in its implications and functions, myrtle was closely associated with Aphrodite and her cult while it had special connotations in the context of the Eleusinian mysteries and beliefs (e.g. the bandles of βακχοι). Despite this multivalence, Kunze-Götte argues that myrtle is often misidentified, mainly because ancient artists never really sought naturalistic verisimilitude. It is of primary importance, therefore, ". . .den Blick für ihre Darstellungsweise zu schärfen" (p. 9) by carefully looking for primal means of its pictorial rendering such as the shape of its leaves (often confused with those of laurel) and berries. It is worth studying the vase painters' conventions and special efforts to make myrtle recognizable, albeit often with rudimentary or cursorily applied brushstrokes--quite understandably they were trying to imbue their subject with indispensable semantic clues. It is precisely the semantic role of myrtle in various iconographic contexts that Kunze-Götte seeks to elucidate in the reminder of her book.

The second chapter focuses on myrtle wreaths worn by gods and heroes. The earliest pictorial formulation of myrtle wreaths can be traced back to Exekias and his followers, who used them either as attributes of death (e.g. on the dead Achilles' helmet in scenes showing his dead body carried away from the fray of battle by Ajax such as on the neck amphora Berlin F 1718) or as veritable elements of funereal costume (e.g the prothesis pinax Berlin F 1811). Equally precise and clear in their implications are Exekias' renderings that showcase myrtle wreaths as elements of festive costume and/or atmosphere. A good example of this is the Vatican amphora 16757 which shows the return of the Dioskouroi, who are welcomed warmly by Tyndareos and Leda. All figures are crowned with myrtle wreaths and Leda holds a pair of well-defined myrtle sprigs.

Myrtle wreaths are also worn by various divinities on different occasions. Most commonly they symbolize the explicit or implicit efficacy of Aphrodite's power. In the Classical period, myrtle wreaths crown the heads of the bride and the groom in representations of famous mythological weddings (e.g. Peleus and Thetis). The myrtle wreath also functions as an index of desire or lust that results in amorous liaisons or weddings. In the late Archaic period Apollo, Artemis, Zeus, Hera, Hermes, Herakles, Athena, Poseidon etc don a type of myrtle wreath with long protruding branches ("Zweigkranz"), certainly a sign of organic vitality and much more. Kunze-Götte briefly discusses many examples that show a wide variability of narrative settings in the context of which the subtler connotations of the plant are often elusive. In a panathenaic-shape amphora in London (BM B 167), for example, the setting is a sacrificial procession, presumably for Dionysos, in which Hermes, Herakles and Iolaos, all myrtle-crowned, ecstatically sing and play music. Is the myrtle crown here only an element of sacrificial attire or it is somehow relevant to the music and tone of the ritual occasion? Similar questions are raised by the almost exclusive association of Apollo Kitharodos with the myrtle wreath in the late Archaic period.. The Kitharodos points to Delos, and he is often shown in the context of the Delian triad. Following Shapiro, Kunze-Götte suggests that this iconographic predilection reflects Athens' pro-Delian political leanings in this period. Yet, Apollo is the god of the laurel from a very early age, and Kunze-Götte wonders why in numerous representations of the struggle over the Delphic tripod Apollo of Delphi is crowned with the myrtle. Did this happen under the influence of the established Kitharodos type? Or, as Kunze-Götte tentatively suggests, did the anti-Delphic political climate enable visual narratives of the strife in which the god was deprived not only of the tripod, the indispensable instrument of divination, but also of the laurel, his standard Delphic attribute? However this may be, it was not until the Classical period that representations of Apollo with laurel wreath became more predominant. But even in this period, myrtle wreaths continued to be used as visual signifiers of the Delian character of the god in relevant narrative settings (e.g. Apollo's punishment of Tityos) or in scenes of sacrifice where this conservative element of sacrificial costume is worn by both sacrificing priests and the Delphic god.

A more variegated and nuanced spectrum of meanings is encoded by myrtle used as subsidiary ornament alongside (or instead of) the ubiquitus friezes of palmette, anthemion and the like. Kunze-Götte shows that, more often than not, special considerations motivated the choice of myrtle. A well-known pinakion in Leuwen, for example, features the epichoric nymphe Epidauros cradling the baby Asklepios in a tondo framed by stylized myrtle. In this context the plant may be a visual pun of a place-name, or it may have to do with its healing function in Epidauros. Likewise, in the fourth century gender-specific funereal vases, such as a category of globular lekythoi or the type C pyxides feature Aphrodite and Eros visually punctuated by myrtle. In these cases, the matrimonial connotations of myrtle subtly dovetail with its funereal significance in ways that signal the prevalent conceptualization of unwed deceased females as brides during funeral--an ethos still surviving in rural areas of Greece to this day. Matrimonial connotations also account for the ornamental use of myrtle in votive or ritual vases specific to Artemis Brauronia or in vases that represent Dionysos' wedding with Ariadne (e.g. the early fourth century cup by the Meleager Painter in London [E 129] in which a myrtle band on the exterior complements a vine full of juicy grapes in the interior).

The semantic potential of myrtle sprigs, branches, and wreaths also is patent when these are represented broken or bent in order to signify, Kunze-Götte argues, the fragility or precariousness of an amorous liaison (e.g in Aphrodite and Adonis scenes such as those of pyxis Würzburg H 5333). The discussion here selectively focuses on numerous vases, which Kunze-Götte analyses with sensitivity and insightfulness. I mention, for example, her analysis of the tondo scene of a pinakion, presumably from a funereal context, in Giessen (Universitätssammlung K III 55, ca 425 BCE), the rim of which is lined with myrtle branches. A Nike, perhaps here a benevolent spirit, offers a broken myrtle wreath to a kale, and Kunze-Götte sees the broken wreath as expressive of a maiden's suddenly "broken," unfulfilled hopes for a wedded life. This reading is, as Kunze-Götte herself admits, tentative but it provides an interesting hypothesis, which is worthy of further study on the basis of well excavated materials.

The book is well illustrated with black and white photos of most of the artefacts discussed. Kunze-Götte has taken special care to alert her readers to details which are hardly discernible in the illustrations (e.g. flaked off color of added details). The copious referencing of comparanda in the footnotes is cumbersome, but it provides a good starting point for those who want to pursue Kunze-Götte's leads further. An index would have been very useful.

The greatest value of the book lies, perhaps, in its making a solid theme out of what at first sight seem to be iconographic minutiae. These, however, very often turn out to hold significant clues for understanding ancient viewers' dialogues with a wide array of mythological or other scenes. Kunze-Götte's study of myrtle in Classical Athenian iconography is a solid case in point.

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