BMCR 2002.10.32

The Hunt in Ancient Greece

, The hunt in ancient Greece. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. 1 online resource (xiii, 296 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 0801874602 $48.00.

Let’s say it once and for all: Judith M. Barringer’s book is an important one, precise, full of interesting details, mature, controversial in a positive way, highly recommendable. The book is easy to read, not too long (207 pages), with clear illustrations that not only enhance the text, but also help to explain it. Some of the plates could have been a little larger, but this was probably beyond the author’s control. Interesting notes, an extensive bibliography and useful indexes accompany the chapters. A careful introduction presents us with the main themes of the study, and this is followed by four well-balanced chapters of similar sizes.

In her introduction, Barringer defines the scope of her study as the theme of the hunt, rather than actual hunting. She isn’t interested in hunting techniques and considers that hunting in archaic and classical Athens is no longer a necessity, but has become a question of social survival. This allows her to go deep into the Athenian mind. As “cultural constructs” (p. 2), the depiction of hunters in texts and art represent ideas, especially Athenian aristocratic ideas of masculinity and adulthood. Barriger then acknowledges very carefully what she owes to previous scholars, Jeanmaire and Brelich for example, but above all the Paris scholars, P. Vidal-Naquet and A. Schnapp. Like them, she questions the hunt’s cultural importance, but she is more concerned than they are with political and social issues. As a result, her conclusions differ sometimes radically from theirs. As a methodological introduction, the first pages give as a hint about what the book is really about: iconographical studies, social class, sexuality, gender and cultural issues. As the author puts it, “Hunters demonstrate the limits and norms of Greek society and sexuality” (p. 9).

In her first chapter, Hunting, Warfare, and Aristocrats, Barringer shows how images of hunting increase notably at times of doubt and political danger for aristocrats: between 560 and 550 BC and between 520 and 470, there is a numerical and thematic shift in the production of vases. Barringer argues convincely that vase paintings don’t reflect the relation of men to sport, but on the contrary are concerned with social prerogatives at a time when aristocratic privileges are threatened. Hunters and images of hunting are a way of representing the ideology of arete and of Homeric emulation, and are closely linked to military activity. Hunting is (like) a battle, just as battles are (like) hunting in the epic tradition. Literary evidence from the fourth century is known to equate hunting and warfare, specially in Xenophon and Plato: hunting is central to the polis as it is an essential form of education, especially for warfare. Barringer shows that non-mythological paintings of boar and deer hunts create, by the infiltration of martial weapons, a similar confusion between hunting and warfare. Tridents and spears give way to swords, shields, helmets, etc, and hunters adopt heroic or ephebic attire or poses, expressing youthful heroism. Hunts are at the same time paired with battle, chariot or palaistra scenes, in an association that exalts the average male to heroic status. Barringer points out that these scenes are a collection of aristocratic male activities, with aristocratic youths destined to become warriors and hunters. The Clisthenic reform doesn’t affect this trend. On the contrary, “aristocrats struggled to maintain their leadership role and set the tone in artistic and social practices as their political power was officially truncated” (p. 46), an idea underlined several times throughout the book. Finally, Barringer concludes her study with the controversial issue of the ephebic institution in Athens. She opposes Vidal-Naquet’s construct of the Black Hunter and reduces his opposition between hoplite and ephebe: for her, the hunt is not initiatory in classical Athens, and is not necessarily a part of a military training.

In her second chapter, Eros and the Hunt, Barringer deals accurately with the links between pederastic courtship and hunting. The metaphor of pursuing a prey is, as she notes, well known and well studied by previous scholars. Literary evidence is used to show that erotic pursuit and abduction are common topics through which hunting becomes a metaphor for courtship. Vase paintings show animal gifts, such as cocks, hares, etc, from the erastes to the eromenos, and these details are well known as expressions of pederastic courtship. At the same time, Barringer is innovative as she convincingly shows that there is sometimes a complex and ambiguous relationship where the hunter, the erastes, becomes the hunted. Through the power possessed by the eromenos, by virtue of the desire he inspires, or more directly through the direct presence of Eros, the polar relationship between erastes and eromenos shifts to an interchangeable relationship where hunter and hunted change places.

At this point I have only minor reservations about Barringer’s work. Neither her study of the relationship between ephebes and tragedy, nor her conclusions on Ganymede at the end of Chapter 2 are entirely convincing. I fail to see the point of these pages in the general demonstration and would have liked a longer explanation of these issues. I would also have liked a greater sense of nuance when Barringer expresses the reversibility of the erastes/eromenos relationship: the shift in positions is never shown, just implied by the vase painter, and it seems to me that this is more a game played by the painter than clear evidence of Barringer’s point. More disturbing is the repetition of a sentence I do not understand. Several times, Barringer expresses the idea in her second chapter that hunting is a metaphor for courtship, as expressed by literary evidence. The problem is that in three instances, pp. 70, 101 and 123, she seems to tell us the contrary, writing that “pederastic courtship paintings are metaphors for hunting”. It seems to me that the right sentence would be “pederastic courtship paintings are a metaphorical hunting”, as said in a title on p. 85 or p. 111. Unless we have different notions of what a metaphor is.

With her third chapter, Hunting and Myth, my reservations grow considerably. Barringer distinguishes two types of hunting myth, the heroic one, with Herakles or Theseus; and the followers of Artemis, with Kallisto and Aktaion, with a mixing of these two categories in the Calydonian Boar Hunt. She shows that there is also a reversal and a transformation in these myths, the hunter becoming the hunted, with instances of nature changes, from human to animal with Aktaion and Kallisto, or social sex changes, from woman to man with Atalanta. The general idea seems to me valid, namely that “role reversals that occur are only tolerable within conditions that do not endanger the patriarchal order” (p. 171), but I feel frustrated by Barringer’s demonstration: her categories seem to me rather poor and commonplace, such as hybris and transgression. I recognize that the myth of the hunter does include these themes, but I am not sure that this is all that it is about. Does Atalanta really “express a girl’s reluctance to marry and become a wife and mother” (p. 167)? Is Kallisto “a mythological model for the change from adolescence to adult sexuality” (p. 146)? Sometimes I have the feeling in this chapter that hunting is forgotten and becomes a mere detail in these myths. For example I find it intriguing that in Hygin, Fab. 180, Aktaion is no longer a hunter, but a pastor and a shepherd. This perhaps falls beyond the scope of Barringer’s study, but doesn’t the change of function indicate something in the social and imaginary construct of the hunter? Why is nothing said about hunters like Orion, or even Saron? Why is nothing said about false hunters like Minos pursuing Britomartis (a huntress herself) or Athamas pursuing Ino? It is of course impossible for Barringer to deal with all the myths where hunters occur, and even to deal with Aktaion’s, Kallisto’s and Atalanta’s myths in detail. Barringer’s method in this chapter is however an issue: she considers the myths from an iconographical point of view, describes fully and accurately the representations of the hero, but her account of the literary evidence seems to me open to criticism. Even if she reads the texts as separate units each giving one version of the myth, she artificially reunites them in a very brief résumé that forgets all the intriguing details. No attention is given to the text, even to the words that express the myth, and this is for me a serious flaw in this chapter.

Fortunately, in the fourth chapter, Hunting and Funerary Realm, one is brought back to the positive features of Barringer’s study. In her survey of the funerary stelai and white-ground lekythoi of the Attic area, Barringer uses all the conclusions she reached in the first two chapters to express the same connections between hunting, battle, aristocracy and sexuality. The first part of this chapter is therefore a good résumé and at the same time an example of the application of Barringer’s main themes. The second part of the chapter is more innovative as it deals with late classical funerary contexts in East Greece and Lycia: Near Eastern, especially Persian, influence as well as Attic influence merge to create hybrid funerary stelai of which Barringer gives a detailed account. With the Heroon at Trysa and the Nereid Monument of Xanthos, as well as with the Sidon sarcophagi, “hunting becomes more mythological and less metaphorical” (p. 175): various combinations of royal hunt, warfare and banquet show the noble activity of the deceased and at the same time make heroes of mortal men and local dynasts. A very brief but interesting paragraph makes the link between these Oriental potentates and Alexander’s choice of heroic models in Royal Macedonian art at the end of the fourth century.

The conclusion is another résumé by Barringer of the whole book. There are perhaps too many of these summaries: first in the introduction, then at various points in the chapters, finally in the conclusion, the same sentences come again and again. Some may find it didactic, I happen to find it tedious. My conclusion would be that Barringer’s book, despite my reservations about the third chapter, marks an étape in the study of Greek imaginary. The extensive use of iconography is masterful, and one would only wish that more pages were devoted to it so that Barringer could go into more detail, especially from a literary point of view. One may also wonder if the title is really appropriate: I expected, reading The Hunt in Ancient Greece, some things about the vocabulary of Greek hunt. Is it for example so unimportant that hunting and fishing are expressed with the same words in ancient Greek? What does it tell us about the cultural constructs of these activities? And shouldn’t such a book deal, even briefly, with Artemis? A title such as Hunting and the Imaginary in Classical Athens would be more appropriate. This would be more coherent with the scope and the achievements of Barringer’s study.