BMCR 1996.04.26

1996.4.26, Barringer, Divine Escorts

, Divine escorts : Nereids in archaic and classical Greek art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. xx, 276 pages, 55 unnumbered pages of plates ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780472104185. $52.50.

This book is an exploration of Nereids in art and, through that art, their meaning in ancient Greek culture. The study has been limited to Greek imagery (including South Italian) of the 6th through 4th centuries B.C., largely vase painting and sculpture, but also mosaics, seals, coins, and jewelry. As B(arringer) points out, the prior scholarship on the Nereids has focused on one object, motif, or text (such as the Nereid Monument from Xanthos, or the Nereids in the Theogony of Hesiod). What has been missing is a “single comprehensive exploration of the Nereids in ancient Greek thought as expressed in Greek art and literature” (p.4). She wishes to fill that void.

As stated in the preface, she asks three primary questions of her material. The first question, how are the Nereids depicted, she answers quickly and succinctly. Nereids can be identified by their inscribed names, by context, and by their attributes, that is, sea animals or armor, the latter associated with the arming of Achilles (pp. 4-10). Discussions of individual images throughout the book expand upon the question of identifying the Nereids.

Another question she asks of her material is, “What changes occur in their method of depiction and meaning, and why do such changes take place?” The answer to this question is also given early in the work. In the first chapter, on the arming of Achilles motif, she discusses the appearance of Nereids in arming scenes from the Archaic through the Classical periods. In the fifth century B.C. there is an important change when the “Nereid riders” appear. These are Nereids who bring armor to a grieving Achilles, and they are seated on sea animals such as dolphins, fish, or hippocamps. The Nereid riders enter the visual vocabulary under the influence of Aeschylus’ play, Nereids, produced in 490 B.C. This motif gained in popularity throughout the 5th century and eventually became the canonical manner for the illustration of Nereids (pp. 30-39).

This book, however, is largely looking for an answer to a third question, “What is the meaning or function of Nereids in each context?” The imagery of Nereids covers a wide variety of myths: the arming of Achilles, the mourning for Patroklos, the abductions of Thetis and Europa, the exposure of Andromeda, the birth of Aphrodite, Herakles’ wrestling match with Nereus and Triton, and Theseus’ Cretan adventure. Nereids also appear in some apparently non-narrative contexts, such as gynaikeion scenes, the Nereid Monument from Xanthos, and the marine thiasos. B. seeks to find not just the meaning of the Nereids in each context, but a connection or common element that accounts for the inclusion of Nereids, that is, the unity beneath the varied imagery.

This quest occupies nine chapters organized into four “thematic parts”: Death and the Afterlife, Marriage and the Parthenos, Nereids, Eleusis and Dionysos, and Nereids in Their Element. There is also a brief conclusion, an appendix with the 441 objects used in the study, a bibliography, several indices, and 156 plates.

In the Introduction B. gives her key argument. She tells us that the “common thread” that binds together the depictions of the Nereids is “their service as attendants of individuals undergoing a critical life transition, a role derived from their popular religious function as escorts or protectresses of sea travelers” (p. 10). She proposes that each of the motifs that depict Nereids reflects an underlying idea, that the Nereids helped individuals through two types of critical transitions, through death to the afterlife or back to life, and through marriage, which is to be seen as a metaphorical death.

In Part 1, “Death and the Afterlife,” she proposes that the “Nereids serve as escorts of those journeying from life to death to afterlife, both in the mythical sphere and in the real world” (p. 66). She offers as evidence for this role as escort the Nereids’ association with Achilles. In chapter 1, on the arming of Achilles, she proposes that the Nereids, in bringing Achilles his armor, were “facilitators and attendants” to his death and immortalization. In chapter 2, on the mourning for Achilles, she discusses their role in his lamentation and their role in escorting him to his eternal reward on the White Island or the Isle of the Blessed (the evidence is largely literary; only one vase painting depicts the lamentation, and two vases might illustrate his transport to the Isle of the Blessed). Thetis and the Nereids, then, are “escorts or attendants of Achilles during his transition from life to death to afterlife” (p. 49).

B. expands upon this, proposing that the Nereids had a broader function, a “more general role in Greek religion as goddesses of mourning and transition” (p.54). This more general role she believes stems from two possible sources: one is their aforementioned association with Achilles, the other, their role as benevolent, protective forces. Travelers appealed to the Nereids and other deities for safety in sea journeys and gave thanks for a safe passage. These same protective powers she sees being called into play regarding death. “Nereids offer protection on two types of voyages, either literal sea journeys or those of the dead from this world to the next, journeys that were frequently understood as voyages over water” (p. 57). She furthermore suggests that the Nereids had the ability to immortalize others, citing Ino who became the immortal Leukothea when she plunged into the sea, or as the author states, “Ino ‘died’ when she entered the sphere of the Nereids and was reborn as an immortal Nereid” (p.55).

In evidence for this more general role she points to a number of literary references in which the Nereids mourn and bury the dead, or escort others to a happy afterlife. The imagery offered as evidence for the Nereids’ more general involvement with death and funerary cult is, first, the “unaccompanied” Nereid rider, that is, the image of a Nereid bearing armor while riding on a sea animal, but without the presence of the grieving Achilles. Such Nereids appear on reliefs that decorated wooden sarcophagi and on two Apulian red-figure vases. She also points to the Nereid monument (chapter 3), interpreting its meaning as “the tangible application of the idea underlying the arming of Achilles scenes; that is, the Nereids escort the dead on their transition from this world to the next” (p. 64).

In Part 2, “Marriage and the Parthenos,” she suggests that the Nereids’ frequent presence in scenes with conjugal themes has as its underlying element the idea that the Nereids serve as escorts for females in another transition, marriage. The Nereids serve as escorts for females making this transition or voyage from maidenhood to womanhood, which she argues was seen as a “voyage to a new state of being, one involving a metaphorical death, liminal state, and rebirth” (p. 121).

In chapter four, “Thetis, Nereids, and Dionysos,” B. looks at the most popular of these conjugal contexts, the Abduction of Thetis by Peleus. Scenes of Peleus struggling with Thetis often include Nereids, although the literary tradition does not specifically mention their presence (pp. 69-71, 86). She proposes that the Nereids, present at the abduction of Thetis, serve as “witnesses” to Thetis’ transition from wild virgin to tamed matron (p. 93).

In chapters five through seven she continues to document the presence of Nereids in other conjugal settings: the voyage of Europa, the exposure of Andromeda, and gynaikeion scenes. The Nereids are depicted in the abduction of Europa on a small number of extant vase paintings, 17 Attic red-figure vases and vase fragments (fish plates), two Apulian vases, and one Greek relief vase (p. 96). The vases show Europa transported by the bull with the Nereids nearby in the sea. She concludes that the Nereids are important as escorts of Europa in her critical transition from maiden to woman; the voyage over the sea is her wedding, a “metaphorical voyage from maiden to woman,” and a journey for Europa from “life to death to rebirth” (p. 107).

Nereids are present at the exposure of Andromeda on three Apulian red-figure vases of the fourth century B.C., where they ride marine animals below the image of bound Andromeda, an offering to the Ketos. B. reads Andromeda’s impending death as a transition, in which the Nereids have a role as her escorts. They are depicted because Andromeda faces either a literal death (a metaphorical marriage to Hades) or a metaphorical death (marriage to Perseus).

The so-called gynaikeion scenes or scenes of the women’s chamber are the last to be considered in this section. She identifies four Attic pyxides and two lekanis lids as scenes with Nereids through the inscriptions; the Nereids are not depicted in the sea or with their customary attributes. Here B. departs from some scholars who would see these names as mere coincidence or attempts to “immortalize” or elevate mortal women (pp. 121-123). One vase, its meaning made clear through the inscriptions, depicts preparations for the wedding of Thetis. The other vases, however, she sees as indistinguishable from those that show ordinary mortals, and she states that the “Nereids appear as ordinary women in a common enough scene of bridal preparations.” Nereids are included in these scenes, she suggests, in their role as escorts and protectresses for the metaphorical death (marriage) that the bride is about to undergo, and that the role of Nereids in mythical weddings (Thetis, Europa, Andromeda), encouraged a crossover: “by extrapolation, Nereids came to be viewed as deities who played a role in ordinary human weddings” (p. 128).

In Part 3, “Nereids, Eleusis, and Dionysos” (chapter 8), B. suggests that the Nereid riders of the marine thiasos are derived indirectly from those in the arming of Achilles scenes, and that the Nereids in these bands would be perceived as escorts of the dead to the afterlife and immortality (pp. 147-48). She furthermore sees a connection to the Dionysiac cult (and the Dionysiac thiasos) and to Eleusis in that all share a promise of rewards in the afterlife (pp. 149-151).

In Part 4, “Nereids in Their Element” (chapter 9), B. looks at the imagery of Herakles and Theseus with whom Nereids appear and again sees the Nereids enacting their role as escorts for those in transition. Nereids appear in scenes in which Herakles wrestles the Triton or Nereus. B. interprets the wrestling match with Nereus as a major life transition, because when Herakles struggles with Nereus he gains the knowledge of the golden apples, the “fruit of immortality,” and so, “The presence of Nereids in these scenes is appropriate; they may serve as witnesses to the event that marks Herakles’ passage from life to a divine afterlife” (p. 162). Nereids also appear on four vases that depict Theseus’ descent to the bottom of the sea. B. explains their presence as accompanying Theseus on a major life transition, they escort him back from a dangerous journey and his emergence from the water is a “type of rebirth after the certainty of death” (pp. 164-65).

B.’s goal is admirable. She is aware that images do not necessarily illustrate texts, and that a study of the imagery on objects (such as vases) may yield insights that supplement or expand upon literary evidence. She makes extensive use of the literary material from Greece and Rome to “elucidate the evidence,” but she is not searching for a one-to-one correspondence between image and text. She has documented in one volume a wide range of objects and narratives in which the Nereids are depicted, and she wisely chose to keep her catalogue to a “fair representation of Nereids in art” rather than attempt an unachievable and impractical exhaustive list of objects. In her desire to push the study beyond a descriptive catalogue she has borrowed from the methodologies of semiotics, anthropology and structural anthropology, but states that “no single method is employed …, because different problems require different approaches” (p.vii).

B.’s conclusions, however, are open to question. Her theory proposes a broad role for the Nereids in ancient Greek cult and life, but there is little evidence to support this proposal, and indeed, much that contradicts it.

B.’s reading of the imagery proposes that death and marriage are transitions, especially as defined by Arnold van Gennep and as found in the structuralist study of Herbert Hoffmann (pp. 11, 56-57, 102-107), and that the Nereids are goddesses or “escorts” of these transitional states.

The difficulty is that B.’s theory is based upon the imagery, not the rites of ancient Greek culture. B. has proposed that the Nereids are goddesses who escort people through two major transitions, marriage and death. The varied narratives depicted on the vases and other objects have been interpreted as a process of death, liminal state and rebirth (in accordance with van Gennep and Hoffmann) as if these images were the rites themselves. Van Gennep’s work showed that this schema or pattern underlies many differing and varied rites, but his numerous examples make it clear that this underlying structure does not guarantee consistency in practices and symbolism. A people may have one divinity who rules the rites of marriage and another who rules the rites of death. The ceremonies and symbolism surrounding the stages of separation, transition and incorporation are often different from rite to rite within the same culture.

In Part 1 B. argues that the Nereids had a “more general role in Greek religion as goddesses of mourning and transition” (p.54). But, the only protective purpose in Greek religious practice that the Nereids have is that of safe passage. B.’s theory proposes that ” … the Nereids serve as escorts of the dead on their (sea) journey from this life to the afterlife” (p. 56), but as numerous white ground Attic lekythoi demonstrate, for most people death was not a sea journey, but a ferry boat ride across the river Styx with Hermes and Charon as their escorts. There is no evidence that this role as escorts of the dead is applicable to the average mortal. Indeed, there is much to contradict it.

The theory also proposes that the Nereids had a role in the immortalization of others, seen particularly in the myth of Ino/Leukothea who “‘died’ when she entered the sphere of the Nereids and was reborn as an immortal Nereid” (p. 55). Yet the literary evidence does not support the idea that the Nereids are responsible for the immortalization of Ino; in fact, some sources contradict it. Ovid, Metamorphoses (IV,531-542), states that Venus took pity on Ino and went to Neptune to plead on her behalf. Neptune then consented to Venus’ plea and made Ino and her son immortal. It is Neptune who has the power to immortalize. Ovid’s Fasti (VI, 495-550), in another version of the story, has the Nereids conduct Ino and Melicertes over the water to safety. They deposit them in a sanctuary where they are then transformed to immortals, but the role of the Nereids is providing safe passage, not immortalization. In Nonnos, Dionysiaca (IX, 61-91, X, 120-123), Ino is given a promise of immortality, and told that this will be her reward from Zeus (Cronion). At the moment of her immortalization, that is, her leap into the sea, it is Poseidon who receives her (Kuanochaites).

The author suggests that the appliqués that decorated wooden sarcophagi, two Apulian red-figure vases, and most notably, the Nereid Monument link the Nereids to funerary or eschatological contexts and that this connection is evidence for their more general role in religious thought as escorts of the deceased. B. acknowledges the possibility of another interpretation (p. 65), that the Nereid monument speaks of the Nereids accompanying a hero like Achilles on his journey to the Isle of the Blessed. Likewise, the gilt appliqués may have been used metaphorically to suggest that the deceased had heroic qualities. The two Apulian vases, furthermore, are capable of a different reading: the scenes above the frieze of Nereid riders that carry figures in so-called “funerary naiskoi,” may have been read by the ancient viewer as buildings in which living figures are depicted, and the funerary theme of the imagery would not exist.

In Part 2, B. proposes that the Nereids had an important role in another type of transition in ancient Greek society, marriage. Yet, can we truly ascribe to the Nereids such a role in ancient Greek life? This proposal is based upon depictions of Nereids in the myths of Thetis, Europa, and Andromeda, and the gynaikeion scenes. There is no substantial record of marriage rites, such as sacrifices, performed to the Nereids. Such marriage rites took place, but the deities involved in weddings are usually Artemis, Aphrodite and Hera.

B.’s theory makes extensive use of the “Bride of Hades” metaphor to link marriage and death. It is proposed that Andromeda’s impending death is a “transition from maidenhood to womanhood, that is, a journey from life to death to rebirth” because she faces a marriage to Hades (p. 118). There is no denying that the Greeks spoke of a death using the symbolism of a wedding, but does a female achieve “womanhood” in Hades? The epigram of Phrasikleia states that she would always be called kore (girl) and it can be read as evidence that a dead girl remains a girl, that is, she does not achieve womanhood in Hades. The “Bride of Hades” is a soothing metaphor for a grieving family, and aspects of a wedding were incorporated into the funerary rites of the unmarried, but the evidence does not reveal a belief in a transition from maidenhood to womanhood when a girl dies.

There remains the gynaikeion scenes. I believe that B. is correct when she interprets a preponderance of Nereid names together on any one vase as more than coincidence or the attempt to glorify mortal females, but the author interprets some of the vases that depict Nereids as views of the everyday gynaikeion with the Nereids assisting ordinary, nameless mortal women. This is a commonly accepted interpretation of such imagery, but one that should be questioned. If a vase carries imagery of a Nereid it cannot be an image of everyday life in ancient Athens, a so-called genre scene. To do so is rather like describing an image of Cinderella about to try on the famous glass slipper as a twentieth-century woman trying on the latest footwear in Macy’s shoe department. A possible alternative reading is that the placement of Nereids in the scene, or any mythical figure, is the ancient painter’s way of saying “once upon a time … “. We may have difficulty in naming all the figures, or in understanding the full import of the image, but to call it an everyday scene would be incorrect.

In Part 3 B. first discusses the sculptures from the Ionic temple of Marasa at Locri (ca. 440-420 B.C.), only to state that it is not a marine thiasos according to the definition that she has adopted from S. Lattimore (p. 143). She explores the literary description in Pliny of a marine thiasos made by Skopas, possibly the 4th-century B.C. sculptor, but also perhaps a later 1st-century B.C. sculptor of the same name. She ably summarizes the previous scholarship on this now lost masterpiece, but one wonders why. The work no longer exists and it was never called a “thiasos” by Pliny. Works that may imitate it come from a period outside of the stated time span of her study and so are not considered. She discusses the west acroteria from the Temple of Asklepios at Epidauros, only to tell us that the female figures could be Nereids, chthonic deities, or Aurae. She tells us, “The Nereid riders of the marine thiasos must derive from those in representations of the arming of Achilles, … “, but to what material does she refer (p. 147)? Perhaps this confusion occurs because the author, in looking for the meaning of the “marine thiasos,” is studying a construct of modern scholarship.

In Part four, her final chapter, B. looks at the imagery of Herakles and Theseus, with whom Nereids appear. B. interprets the wrestling match with Nereus as a major life transition, because when Herakles struggles with Nereus he gains the knowledge of the golden apples, the “fruit of immortality.” Yet Herakles does not yet have the apples, only the knowledge of where they are. This event is hardly a passage to a divine afterlife, and Herakles is not dying, he is winning the wrestling match.

The Theseus imagery is interpreted in a similar manner. Nereids appear on four vases that depict Theseus’ descent to the bottom of the sea. B. explains their presence as accompanying Theseus on a major life transition, they escort him back from a dangerous journey and his emergence from the water is a rebirth (pp. 164-5). An alternate explanation for their presence is that they live there. This tale is not one of a life/death transition, but a recognition of paternity.

The author has presented a theory that gives the Nereids a more general role in Greek religion as escorts for those in critical life transitions based upon imagery and literary evidence. One must wonder why, however, the Nereids serve as escorts largely to the “Rich and Famous”: Achilles, Peleus, Herakles, and the dynast who was entombed in the Nereid monument. They mourn, bury and escort characters of myth and near mythic status. I reach a different conclusion from this same material. The imagery places the Nereids within specific narratives, with particular subjects, and keeps them largely within their element, the sea. The narratives concern the immortal inhabitants of the sea and those who come into contact with them, such as Thetis or Theseus. The stories of Europa and Andromeda, located near or above the sea, are embellished with the depiction of Nereids in their home. The Nereids have a limited metaphorical use in the imagery of funerary monuments. The use of appliqués for wooden sarcophagi seems to have had a brief popularity, and the Nereid Monument, although a major monumental work, does not initiate a substantial number of imitations. In all these contexts the presence of Nereids is appropriate, but their appearance does not support the broad religious role ascribed to them in the theory presented here.