BMCR 2004.03.06

The Centaur’s Smile: The Human Animal in Early Greek Art

, , , , , The centaur's smile : the human animal in early Greek art. New Haven: Princeton University Art Museum, 2003. 406 pages : illustrations (chiefly color) ; 30 cm. ISBN 0300101635. $65.00.

This copiously illustrated and superbly produced exhibition catalogue provides a useful overview of ‘the human animal’ — composite creatures such as satyrs, sphinxes, etc. — in Geometric through Early Classical art. Offering an introduction to Mischwesen and their evolution over time, the catalogue also addresses questions of current scholarly interest; the most prominent are artistic exchange between Greece and the eastern Mediterranean and representations of ‘the other’ in Greek art. The catalogue is clearly written and accessible to an audience of students and casual museum visitors as well as scholars, and its beautiful illustrations make a compelling case for the aesthetic appeal of the material. Experts in the field may consider the brief overviews of some topics (e.g. Pan, pp. 96-97) cursory, but in general the contributers are to be commended for highlighting interesting topics that deserve further investigation.

Three essays (on horse-man composites, Greece and the East, and other hybrids) are followed by the catalogue proper, covering 100 objects drawn primarily from North American public and private collections. The detailed catalogue entries, extensive bibliographic references, and high-quality color photographs make good use of earlier scholarship and add much that is new, since many of the artworks were previously unpublished. At the same time, the exhibition’s almost exclusive reliance on works without secure provenance means that the discussions in catalogue entries of dating, function, and above all regional styles remain hypothetical.

The catalogue begins with an essay by its organizer, J. Michael Padgett (‘Horse men: Centaurs and satyrs in early Greek art’). Padgett stresses the contrasts between the two man/horse combinations rather than their similarities, arguing that “while centaurs retain many of the noble traits of both horse and man, satyrs exhibit the worst traits of both” (p. 4). His discussion of satyrs is brief, and best considered first. From their origins in Early Archaic vase painting, satyrs are always readily identifiable, and their leading character traits — primarily uncontrollable thirst and lust — are fixed shortly thereafter.

Centaurs, by contrast, took centuries to reach their canonical visual form. So too the centaur’s role in early Greek myth is flexible and varied; Padgett highlights myths of good centaurs and sees admirable qualities even in the troublemakers. Indeed, he suggests that with their courage, aggression, and association with horses, the centaurs appealed to early Greek aristocrats as models to emulate or as worthy foes.

Padgett’s investigation of the fluid and often positive characteristics of centaurs offers a salutary reminder to scholars of Classical art that ‘otherness’ is not a uniform or stable category. On fifth century B.C. Athenian monuments, the centaurs — lacking self-control and the appurtenances of civilized life — serve as analogues for the barbaric Persians.1 In earlier works, for instance the charming bronze statuette that decorates the book’s cover (Cat. Nr. 24), they unite many of the attractive features of civilized men and domesticated horses while remaining somewhat aloof, denizens of the mythological world.

Next follows an analysis of Mischwesen between Greece and the eastern Mediterranean by William A. P. Childs (‘The human animal: The Near East and Greece’). Childs surveys Near Eastern composite creatures and their functions, then potential avenues of transmission to Greece, and finally Greek adaptations/transformations of them. His argument is that, in the Near East, apotropaic functions were paramount and that the Greeks both understood and adopted this in their own early art.

For non-narrative objects such as bronze cauldrons with siren or griffin attachments, a protective function seems very plausible, and Childs’ argument is convincing. For Greek objects bearing mythological narratives, e.g. painted pottery, Childs theorizes that the myths offer a “model for right action” and are thus also analogous in function to Near Eastern apotropaic creatures (p. 67); this seems to me to take a narrow view of the uses of myth in Greek culture and of the Greeks’ role in adapting Near Eastern art. And indeed elsewhere in the essay Childs allows for a more expansive role for the Greeks, as they adopt generalized apotropaic creatures from elsewhere and create particularized myths and distinct personalities for them (e.g. the Chimaira, p. 65). But overall, Childs has written a commendably balanced and dispassionate account of a subject — the Greek reception of Near Eastern art — which has often been a lightning rod for debate.2 His approach offers a model for future studies in this area.

The concluding essay, by Despoina Tsiafakis, covers a mixed bag of hybrids ranging from sphinxes and sirens to the Minotaur, Acheloos, and Pan (‘” ΠΕΛΩΡΑ“: Fabulous creatures and/or demons of death?’). Tsiafakis sees the Near Eastern origins of many such creatures as contributing to their fluid iconography, and does a good job highlighting intriguing images that did not become canonical (e.g. bearded sirens, p. 75).

Given that she covers many very different creatures, Tsiafakis wisely does not push too had to see overarching connections in their meanings and functions. All were exotic but varied in their literary and visual representations, their evolution, and their use. Her entries on the individual creatures are brief but suggestive, and one hopes that they will inspire other scholars to more detailed study. The female hybrids (sirens, sphinxes, gorgons) in particular have been slighted in earlier research and would benefit from further analysis.

The catalogue, with contributions by over twenty curators and scholars, is a model of extensive illustration (every image in color, many in several views), complemented by thoughtful discussion of particular objects and copious bibliography.3 The presentation emphasizes the objects’ aesthetic qualities, a wise choice given that archaeological information is generally lacking. Occasional provenanced pieces, such as a lean, heavily bearded centaur of Iberian manufacture (Cat. Nr. 25), demonstrate the importance of regional styles in the representation of composite creatures; a more archaeologically based study of human-animal hybrids would have much to offer.

The concluding material of the catalogue maintains the high standards seen throughout. The glossary of mythological and archaeological terms will prove helpful to students and those unfamiliar with the field, while the very detailed index will aid specialists in finding specific information quickly.

The Centaur’s Smile, while more of a survey than an in-depth analysis of the topic, nonetheless fills a gap in the English-language scholarship on early Greek art. The past two decades have been fruitful for the study of this period, and new exhibitions, reference works, and scholarly monographs are constantly appearing. Such books have brought into focus both the beauty of early Greek objects and their inherent interest for the development of ancient visual culture. The Centaur’s Smile continues this trend while offering an overview of a hitherto neglected topic in the field, human-animal composites and their evolution from c. 750-450 B.C. With its emphasis on hybrid creatures, the catalogue offers an interesting perspective on a central theme in early Greek studies, the evolving representation of the human figure.4 So too its consideration of both narrative and non-narrative imagery provides a useful counter to works more focused on myth, such as the studies of satyrs by Francois Lissarague and Guy Hedreen.5 And its examination of female Mischwesen demonstrates the heuristic potential of this topic, both for gender studies and for our understanding of early Greek funerary art. Given the quality and quantity of the illustrations (226 color and 77 black/white), the $65 price tag is not unreasonable, and the book would be a useful acquisition for many college libraries as well as those of scholars interested in early Greek art.


1. As argued forcefully by e.g. David Castriota, Myth, ethos, and actuality: Official art in fifth-century B.C. Athens (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), p. 34-42, 152-64.

2. E.g. Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic roots of classical civilization (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987-1991); Mary Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers, eds., Black Athena revisited (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Wim van Binsbergen and Martin Bernal, Black Athena: Ten years after (Hoofddorp: Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society, 1997).

3. They are, in alphabetical order, Nathan T. Arrington, Beryl Barr-Sharrar, Michael Bennett, Jennifer Y. Chi, Jasper Gaunt, Stephen Gavel, Janet B. Grossman, Joan T. Haldenstein, Mary Louise Hart, Seán Hemingway, John J. Herrmann, Jr., John F. Kenfield, Peter Lacovara, Kenneth D. S. Lapatin, Karen Manchester, Susan B. Matheson, David Gordon Mitten, Jennifer Neils, Aaron J. Paul, Jeffrey Spier, Conrad M. Stibbe, Alessandra Balco Sulzer, Carrie E. Tovar, Rex Wallace.

4. Cf. Jane Sweeney, Tam Curry, and Yannis Tzedakis, eds., The human figure in early Greek art (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1988); Diana Buitron-Oliver, ed., New perspectives in early Greek art (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1991).

5. Cf. Franc,ois Lissarague, “The sexual life of satyrs,” in D. M. Halpern, J. J. Winkler, and F. I. Zeitlin, eds., Before sexuality: The construction of erotic experience in the ancient Greek world (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 53-81, and “On the wildness of satyrs,” in T. H. Carpenter and C. A. Faraone, eds., Masks of Dionysos (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993), p. 207-20; Guy Hedreen, Silens in Attic black-figure vase painting: Myth and performance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992).