BMCR 2003.03.11

Images of Myths in Classical Antiquity

, Images of myths in classical antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. xxvi, 305 pages : illustrations ; 26 cm. ISBN 0521782678. $25.00 (pb).

There is no lack of good, general, well-illustrated books on Greek myth and art, and at first glance one might assume that this latest publication is simply more of the same. However, Woodford, who has written a number of popular books on Greek art, has taken a different approach, placing the works of art first and foremost, and extending the scope to all of classical antiquity. The result is more than good, general and well-illustrated; this text carefully and imaginatively leads the reader through a judiciously chosen range of mythological scenes, demonstrating how ancient artists made choices, used formulas, and adapted, transformed or even confused episodes from the wide world of myth. While the majority of illustrations are Athenian vases (one of the author’s areas of expertise), they range from a seventh-century B.C. relief pithos to a fifth-century A.D. Roman mosaic. Included in the mix are many of the major monuments of classical art such as the François Vase and the Bassae frieze, but even works of “abominable execution” (201) are reproduced if they illustrate a point. One finds here not only the old favorites (Herakles, Theseus, centaurs, Troy) but also obscure and previously unrecognized subjects like the daughters of Anios. The author, who is no stranger to the British Museum, even ventures to deal with those two great conundra of classical art housed therein: the Parthenon frieze and the Portland vase.

At the beginning Woodford lays the groundwork by showing how artists transformed stories about gods and heroes into recognizable images. She first discusses five devices used by artists to make their pictures identifiable: inscriptions, attributes, unique adversaries such as the Minotaur, unusual situations such as a man riding underneath a sheep, and context such as in the cyclical narratives. (At the end of the book in a chapter called “Misunderstandings and Muddles”, she cleverly takes these same five devices and demonstrates how they are not always reliable as when Achilles is mistakenly labeled Menelaus in an arming scene with Thetis, or a woman [Omphale] has the club and lionskin of Herakles, or Medusa takes the form of a centauress in a pre-canonical version.) W. then proceeds to analyze different aspects of narrative such as the artist’s choice of moment (climactic, before, after, or synoptic) and degree of elaboration (focused versus expansive). The east pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia is chosen to illustrate the tense moment before the main event, the fateful chariot race of Pelops and Oinomaos. W. states that “no hint is given as to the outcome of the race” (38), but this reading ignores the old seer at the right whose facial expression so clearly conveys the outcome, like that of the similarly posed seer on the Amphiaraos krater discussed later (52). In the chapter “Epic Expansiveness versus Tragic Focus” it is clear that the format of the scene is related to the vehicle on which it is depicted: e.g. the narrower the vase the less expansive the image.

The next major section of the book analyzes how compositions were created, transformed, and transferred to other contexts by classical artists. They invented formulas such as the amorous pursuit or used motifs like Eros to convey the otherwise difficult-to-depict emotion of love. On Roman sarcophagi a figure type like that of the half-draped sleeping Ariadne could be transformed into the sleeping figures of Endymion or Rhea. Architectural sculpture receives a separate discussion because of the restrictions imposed on sculptors by the shape of pediments, metopes and friezes for which they had to devise new or transform old compositions. The next section demonstrates how literature, politics, real life, and changing tastes impinged on mythological depictions. More importantly it shows how exceptional artists like the Athenian vase-painter Exekias were capable of inventing entirely new motifs (i.e. undocumented in literature) like Achilles and Ajax playing a game.

The most innovative and intriguing part of this book lies in the last section which addresses “Problems”. Some myths can easily be confused not only by viewers but also by the artists themselves. A case in point is the motif of one man carrying another on his back which is utilized by vase painters both for Ajax carrying the dead body of Achilles and Aeneas carrying his live father Anchises. Subsidiary figures such as women (Thetis, Aphrodite, Creusa) and a child or aidolon are common in both scenes. Sometimes direction (Ajax to left, Aeneas to right) helps, but it is clear that artists occasionally muddled the two episodes. One on-going problem for Greek and Roman artists was how to depict metamorphosis, a common theme in classical mythology. Daphne, Actaeon, and the guests of Circe all are metamorphosed, and artists chose different states of transformation in order to make the victim recognizable. Personifications were devised to deal with abstract concepts like strife (Eris), persuasion (Peitho), and retribution (Nemesis). Because the myths of the boar-hunters Meleager, Adonis, and Hippolytus have much in common, the sculptors of Roman sarcophagi could use similar compositions of a hero attacking a boar for each story, but they also employed subtle details to differentiate them, namely depicting Meleager in a heroic stride, Adonis lying on the ground, and Hippolytus on horseback. The helpful drawings accompanying the photographs of these complex, multi-figured sarcophagi have the appropriate sections shaded to reveal clearly these similarities and differences.

Last but certainly not least, the author examines the various interpretations of the Parthenon frieze and the Portland vase. Wisely she does not choose sides on these continuing debates but presents the cases fairly and succinctly and leaves it up to the reader to form her or his own opinion. This is the only chapter to provide bibliography and the references are up-to-date (as are those in the suggestions for further reading at the end of the book). There follows an extensive glossary of mythological characters and historical figures and three useful appendices which provide overviews of important subjects that could not be covered sufficiently within the thematic format of the text. The first discusses what evidence from antiquity, both artistic and literary, is extant. The second sketches the chronological development of classical art in all major media from the time of Homer to the Roman imperial period. A nod is given as well to Etruscan vase-painters and female artists. The third appendix provides potted accounts of five myth cycles: Jason, Thebes, Herakles, Theseus, and Troy.

The only aspect I missed — and it is a minor one — was a more nuanced treatment of the artistic vehicles of these myth depictions. For instance, a vase-painter may have adjusted the composition depending on whether he was decorating a hydria or an amphora; since the sides of the amphora slope away from the viewer the scene is more legible if the main protagonist is in the center, as in the Helen and Menelaus scenes (figs. 57-58). Often the opposite side of a vase offers clues to its interpretation. The identification of the two boys with the attributes of Herakles on the pelike in Berlin (fig. 167) is really not a “problem” because the obverse shows Herakles carrying the Kerkopes (not mentioned in the text). Also Roman sarcophagi often have carved scenes on the short ends that augment the main scene on the front and so provide further information to the viewer.

With its lucid descriptions, thoughtful explanations, lack of jargon, and avoidance of arcane Greek terms, this book is ideal for students and the general public. It could also help philologists to appreciate the conventions of Greek and Roman art and their potential for conveying the subtleties of myth. Every college course on classical mythology should assign this text, which is available in paperback, so students can understand the visual dimension of the subject. With its generous illustrations of many of the major works of classical art and its sensitive treatment of myth, Woodford’s latest book is yet another leaf in her crown.