BMCR 1995.01.04

1995.01.04, Hedreen, Silens in Attic Black-Figure Painting

, Silens in Attic black-figure vase-painting : myth and performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. x, 219 pages, 40 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780472102952

The study of the history of Attic drama has inspired many a close look at Archaic and Classical vase-painting. Far greater in scope than its title suggests, this stimulating work discusses a large proportion of early Dionysiac imagery, non-Attic as well as Attic, in its attempt to illumine one aspect.

The book highlights a general issue of iconography: the difficulty of reading sub-text under the constant condition of a lacunose text. In response we try a range of strategies, from the pragmatic (bottom up) to the theoretical (top down). In Dionysian Imagery in Archaic Greek Art (1986) Carpenter provided an excellent example of pragmatic analysis, using many of the same works as H., in attempting to articulate the character and developments of the early iconography of Dionysos. Carpenter’s expressed purpose was to consider only what is certainly visible on and deducible from the pots themselves, in conjunction with contemporary literary evidence. The conclusions of such a carefully conducted, entirely pragmatic approach are reliable, rational and long-standing. The results must contribute to a holistic understanding of Dionysiac religion, but could not be expected to suffice to provide one. We know that more necessarily existed, that the religious and the social outside and informing the painting were much more complex than any “picture” will allow.

Another strategy is to specify and use a theoretical approach as a guiding principle. The reasoning is sound: divorced as we are by time and space from the world in which the vases were originally produced, we cannot understand them in and of themselves and must build models to guide our progress. But while models can aid by offering a structure, there are dangers: models can be too simplistic, given the complexity of reality; and models can encourage both excessive rigidity and illogical modes of thought. 1 In Silens H. builds his case from the principle that archaic Greek art is narrative, and so privileges sequential narrative logic over other possible interpretative approaches. For example the fact that Aphrodite shares no myth with Dionysos provides one argument against her identification as the female portrayed with Dionysos (p.35; see the exclusion of “Dasein” or metaphorical interpretations [p.39], and p.49 on Semele and Ariadne). Much of H.’s argumentation is based on scraps of evidence coupled with (acknowledged) conjecture derived from plausibility within the framework of assumption of narrative.

H. lays out the problem in his introduction: the iconography of silens in Attic BF painting is conspicuous for its “restrictive range, repetitive nature, and lack of obvious narrative content” (p.3) but nevertheless silens were among the most popular subjects in BF. His solution: behind the seemingly meaningless scenes of revelry lies allusion to a narrative, localised on Naxos, and linking silens with Dionysos. The prevalence of the narrative (i.e., silens) in pot-painting arises from the popularity of festivals to Dionysos in Athens; the associated festival activities included performance which can be characterised as proto-satyrplay. Thanks to Aristotle the existence of a “proto-satyrplay” has never been in doubt. The challenge set by H. is: do / how do Attic BF depictions of silens reflect proto-satyrplay? The very fact that he raises the question betrays his readiness to find a positive answer; while arguing that artistic silens were originally inspired by the image of men-dressed-up-as-silens in performance, H. downplays the more bestial appearance of silens over their first generation in Attic art.

The first step (Ch. 1-3) is to establish the existence of a coherent narrative in the scenes with silens in Attic BF; the second (Ch. 4-6) to argue that performance provided the model or source of the narrative. The fullest and earliest extant treatment of the “Return of Hephaistos” (Ch. 1) is the François Vase, where silens appear to be necessary indications of revelry; H. suggests that they were similarly an essential ingredient to the (mainly conjectural) 2 poetic versions of the tale and that subsequent scenes of a thiasos simply abbreviate the Return. The recurrence of some features in 6th c. BF suggests to H. a visual prototype for “the participants, the order of the procession, and the attributes or actions of one or more silens” (p.18). Dionysos’ lonely state in the François Vase’s “Wedding” procession indicates that silens are tale-specific. H. argues further that the banquet prior to the Return took place on Naxos and that the grape-vine functions as a locative attribute of the alsos or temenos of Dionysos there; thus, scenes of Ariadne and Dionysos reclining together in the presence of a grape-vine are to be viewed as taking place on Naxos. Indeed, H. points out that a grape-vine is to be found on one RF cup of Ariadne abandoned.

The discussion about “Ariadne” (Ch. 2) suggests a narrative context for a range of scenes that are traditionally ascribed to a Dasein type; and to situate them on Naxos. The principle that “scenes of myth in BF vase-painting generally focus on an event; they are narrative rather than timeless” (p.50) drives the logic. Ariadne’s mythological link with Naxos is clear. H. argues that the quiet scenes with Dionysos facing a woman represent the moment when he first met Ariadne (39); her raised veil represents a telescoping of the narrative rather than a gestural attribute. Scenes in which a woman walks beside Dionysos are identified as their wedding procession (43-44) and when Dionysos dines in company with a woman, it is their nuptial feast (44-48); both wedding events should be located on Naxos. Other scene-types are less readily placeable in a narrative context: Ariadne and Dionysos seated together and Ariadne in a chariot. Where are silens in all this? They frequently cavort, with or without nymphs, around the principal figures; Ovid and Roman art are cited as evidence for a tradition that silens and nymphs found Ariadne (48-49).

The “Naxos” theme that links the first two chapters reaches its culmination in the reconstruction of a myth of “The Silens of Naxos” (Ch. 3). The task is hampered by shortage of evidence: a possible reference in a fragment of Kallimachos, the opaque testimony of numismatic sources, and the subtleties of silenic iconography. H. derives a narrative syntax from: the presence of silens in all identifiable Dionysos stories located on Naxos; the absence of silens in the non-Naxos myths; the existence elsewhere of silens with their own tales independent of Dionysos. Why should Naxos’ silens be so prominent in Attic 6th c. iconography? The link is found in the Anthesteria festival and the small group of associated scenes of Dionysos on a ship-float attended by satyrs. At the Anthesteria, the sacred marriage of the Basilinna paralleled that of Ariadne on Naxos; and the newly-vinted wine (introduced from Naxos?) was first drunk. The scenes of the ship-float possibly reenact Dionysos’ victory over the pirates or the introduction of the vine. H. associates the scenes of satyrs vintaging for Dionysos (in his Naxian vineyard?) with the Oschophoria.

As a control for the study of the possible relationship between vase-painting and performance, H. turns to “Some Fifth-Century Satyr-Play Vases” (Ch. 4) among which some RF works, e.g. the Pronomos Vase, provide clear indication that performance rather than myth lies behind the image. Tell-tale clues include the phallos-shorts, masks, the presence of an auletes, or a “regimentation” of stance reflective of choreography. But the inconsistency with which the clues are given even on works where they do occur shows that to a vase-painter they were not high priority. H. concludes that their absence is no proof of a lack of performance background for any image, a conclusion which has significant implications for BF representations of silens.

Having stressed the general ambiguity of visual clues for satyr-plays in RF, H. turns to consider the possibility of “Performances of Silens on Black-Figure Vases” (Ch. 5). Students of drama history know well the range of material addressed here: lithobolic megalophallic “hairies”, who twice in Lakonian iconography must be silens; Corinthian padded dancers who occasionally entertain at banquets; Boeotian phallic dancers accompanied by an auletes; and padded dancers and “hairies” in the midst of mythological narrative—all material variously adduced for early versions of different dramatic forms. H. argues for early 6th c. satyric performances from the few early Attic BF images that possibly show a man wearing a hairy silen “body-stocking” and from the interchangeability or collocation of silens and padded dancers which suggests that sometimes the latter performed as silens. He posits satyric performance behind later 6th c. scenes of silens carrying nymphs and silens in “regimented” step serving Dionysos and Ariadne. Two conclusions are drawn: the BF vases show that the subject of performances of men dressed up as silens were the “traditional pursuits of the silens—sex, dancing, and serving Dionysos…” (125); and further, that “the point of departure for the representations” (142) on BF vases was performances of men dressed as silens.

Consideration of the literary evidence for the origins of the satyr-play in “Vase-Painting and Satyric Performance at Athens in the Sixth Century” (Ch. 6) finds it not incompatible with the early-6th c. date suggested by the iconographic evidence (if the latter is interpreted fluidly, following the model of later RF). Vase-painting suggests that the Return of Hephaistos was a popular topic for performance, as was the banquet of Dionysos and Ariadne; but H. suspects that not all scenes with silens were taken directly from performance. Other pots and the painter’s imagination could play an intermediary role. The ancient tradition about Pratinas of Phleious need not mean that satyr-play started in Athens in the late 6th c.; it could refer to a modification or codification of existing practice. The complex persona of silens encompasses comic obscenity and sober attentiveness to Dionysiac ritual; and so they fit Aristotle’s reference to tragedy’s prior satyric state.

In general, H. has succeeded where many have failed: after creation of an exhaustive catalogue of a very large corpus as the basis of his research, he has written an engaging account of the material informed by the cataloguing exercise but in no way dominated by the cataloguing mentality. This is an impressive and praiseworthy achievement. Any lack of wholehearted approval on my part for the process of argumentation or the results should not diminish the respect owed the author for proposing a bold and interesting thesis. The following is a summary of my criticisms.

There is need of clearer delineation of method and articulation of terminology. For example, H. gives the impression of using RF iconography (or not) as is convenient. Though the difference between BF and RF iconography of silens is recognized (pp. 2-3), frequently appeal is made to RF to bolster arguments (e.g. pp. 39, 44, 46-47, 48; 82; 157; contrast 70), even in cases where parallels in BF narrative or iconographic idiom may exist. It is not clear how H. defines “performance” and whether he distinguishes between men-dressed-as-satyrs accompanying a cart with an image of Dionysos in a procession and a narrative choral dance in an orchestra. Material is drawn from many different regions of Greece—vase-painting, literary texts, and reported festival practice—without any discussion of their interrelationships and distinct features. Lack of precision about such details creates the impression of circular argument. Literary evidence is used somewhat cavalierly and with little regard for chronology.

There is a tendency in argumentation to move from possibility to certainty. The suggestion that a grape-vine on a vase connoted a setting on Naxos turns into the use of a vine as evidence for a setting on Naxos. The possibility that an image had to a contemporary viewer a narrative content not visible to the modern viewer becomes assumption of narrative and a concomitant attempt to reconstruct it. The hypothesis that “the ‘initial impetus’ for the representation of these creatures was the custom of silen masquerades” (p.157) is interesting, and maybe even likely, but it does not follow that many 6th-c. pots with silens reflect in a closer fashion specific performances. Some iconographic arguments do not compel, e.g. the clues adduced for silenic independence of Dionysos (p.76); the use of a frontal face to identify one silen as an actor (p.139); the application of the principle that “regimentation” of stance indicates choral dance to cases where it may well result from the poor quality of the painting .

On the mechanical side, the book could have been made more “user-friendly” with respect to citations (such as consistent listing of LIMC references) and illustrations of vases. The latter is particularly true of Chapter 5, which addresses issues that have been hotly debated for a century. Owing to lack of illustration, several important twists to the argument cannot now be followed without ready access to an archaeological library (and knowledge of how to use one). This is unfortunate in view of the considerable interest of the subject matter to Classicists at large.

I agree with the principle that the vase-painters’ experience of silens (i.e., men-dressed-up-as-silens in festival contexts) must have informed their image-making to some extent; but in view of the problems in argumentation noted above, H.’s arguments are not sufficiently compelling to force me to look anew at all Attic BF depictions of silens as evidence for details about what men-dressed-up-as-silens did in archaic Athens. Any argument in the matter is inevitably circular thanks to the limited character of the material available for study. In other words, while I am happy to accept that some of this material supports the existence of “proto-satyrplay,” I feel no closer to a good understanding of what that comprised owing to uncertainty of the extent to which the BF evidence can be pressed beyond clear images of ship-carts.

Caveats aside, H. is to be praised for his smooth manipulation of a large corpus of material and for the success of his efforts to demonstrate the potential value of the iconographic evidence for a major problem of “literary” history; and in the process for raising interesting questions of, and offering useful insights into, a significant body of Archaic vase-painting. 3

  • [1] See the comments of Davies, in Metis 5 (1990), esp. n.1. [2] But see R. Merkelbach on P.Oxy. 670, ZPE 12 (1973) 212-215; my thanks to D. Olson for this reference. [3] The only confusing typos are: n.1 on p.24, the Kleine Schriften reference is 5.2:5-35; “pl. 17” for “pl. 18” at the bottom of p.47.