BMCR 2020.10.16

Mythenbilder und Mentalität in Athen von Kleisthenes zu den Perserkriegen

, Mythenbilder und Mentalität in Athen von Kleisthenes zu den Perserkriegen: ein Versuch zur historischen Psychologie der Griechen. Trierer Winckelmannsprogramme, Heft 27. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2019. 40 p. ISBN9783447112505 €24,00.

Art has a unique power to point towards and reveal potentialities, particularly in times of social and cultural change. This short but effective book addresses images produced in such a period, and investigates the shaping social role of art and mythology in a time and place of world-historical importance, namely Athens at the turn of the fifth century.

The art of fifth-century Athens has occupied a commanding position in Classical Archaeology since the inception of the discipline. Hölscher’s special interest lies in the ‘historical psychology’ of the makers and viewers of these well-known images. He wants to penetrate beyond general notions of a Greek or Athenian ‘miracle’ and analyse more systematically the political and collective psychology that shaped Athenian visual culture in this period. The chronological scope of the study is tightly focused, encompassing only the few decades between the democratic reorganisation of the city under Kleisthenes in 508 and the end of the Persian wars around 449 — a period the author feels must have been marked by extreme mental tensions (“extremen psychischen Anspannungen”, p. 1). The main aim of the study, then, is to uncover the mental atmosphere and driving emotional forces of the radical transitional moment between the Archaic and the Classical, as manifested in art. Hölscher sees mythological imagery as uniquely illuminating for this project, and essential to the argument is a view of Greek visual mythology as a protean field of conceptual experience, in which paradigms and ideals, as well as feelings of horror and despair, were represented and refracted as part of the Athenians’ ethical processing of their historical situation.

These premises are laid out in an introductory section. The study then proceeds to look at three zones of mythological representation in which the Athenians might have found or expressed their psychological orientation: (1) the deeds of Theseus; (2) episodes of love and romance between mortals and gods; and (3) the experiences of Orpheus among the Thracians.[1] A one-page conclusion closes the discussion.

The section on Theseus argues that the hero’s new prominence in the art of the early fifth century was based on his reconceptualisation as a unifying centre of Athenian patriotism. Theseus was reclaimed by Athens at the end of the sixth century as a uniquely important local hero and equipped with a new cycle of deeds and achievements. Hölscher asks what these deeds stood for: what hopes did they affirm or emphasise? The discussion focuses on the ‘six labours’, as depicted in numerous vase paintings and on the metopes of the Athenian treasury at Delphi. For Hölscher, the labours cast Theseus as an ephebic archetype and defender of high culture, a different area of which is threatened by each of the antagonists: the primitive violence of the club-wielding Periphetes is extinguished, clearing the way for a higher ideal of war; the defeat of the tree-bending Sinis guards against the perverse use of technology; killing the Krommyonian Sow establishes the proper hunt as a sphere of masculine activity; Skiron is punished for corrupting the hospitality of the banquet; Kerkyon is overcome using correct athletic skill; and the axe-wielding Procrustes again inverts the norms of aristocratic hospitality, as well as those of proper craftsmanship. The Athenian treasury at Delphi provided these deeds with an authoritative, state-level presentation.

The veneration of an aristocratic champion of elite cultural institutions by a proudly democratic city might seem paradoxical. Hölscher argues that this kind of social tension was not relevant: the radicalism of Athenian democracy and the popularity of Theseus in the visual arts were both part of the same throwing-forward of a profound and newly awoken national, rather than class-based, identity. The youthful, ephebic aspects of Theseus are taken as symbols of the Athenians’ hope in their future, in their families and in their state, and Hölscher leaves the reader with an image of Athens’ daring intervention in the Ionian revolt as an act driven by this new spirit of patriotic exhilaration. The overall picture of Theseus that emerges is not entirely new. Hölscher’s real achievement is to bring out the connection of the images with their historical and psychological context — their time-specific nature — in such a fresh and compelling way.

Episodes of love and romance between mortals and gods form the second area of investigation. Hölscher begins with the myth of Boreas and Oreithyia, and proposes that the changing depiction of their encounter matched the shifting tenor of the age: early portrayals in vase painting convey a dramatic, violent story; later images, made after the god’s protective role in the Persian wars had been recognised, convert the episode into a glorious state myth (“einem ruhmreichen Staatsmythos”, p. 13). Boreas is turned from a wild northern foreigner into a noble partner of the Athenian princess; and additions to the surrounding iconography such as altars add bridal and sacred connotations to the previously aggressive encounter. Hölscher is careful to emphasise that the political associations of the myth were always oblique and remained only one area of extra-mythological significance among many. Yet he sees in this and similar episodes the emergence of a broad and period-specific self-confidence. Increasingly popular images of Zeus and Ganymede, Poseidon and Amphitrite, and Eos and Kephalos project an atmosphere of elation and a belief in the opening-up of undiscovered possibilities. Hölscher criticises negative modern interpretations of these myths, arguing that notions of sexual misconduct and oppressive androcentricity are anachronistic (pp. 17-18). In the context of Greek social norms, these encounters were positive, euphoric visions. They should be seen, it is argued, as expressions of the same optimistic mood that emerged from and directed the dramatic military victories and bold cultural innovations of their period.

The third section discusses images of Orpheus among the Thracians. Again, a change in the representation of the myth is related to a contemporary reorientation of cultural attitudes. Images of Orpheus’ violent murder at the hands of the Thracian women, particularly popular at the height of the Persian wars, were in the following decades partially supplanted by peaceful scenes of Orpheus as an accepted musician among the Thracian men: barbarian danger is recast as co-operative cultural partnership (pp. 19-21). These artistic trends are connected with the contemporary historical situation, between c.460-420, which saw Athens free of the Persian threat and able to assert herself politically and culturally. Hölscher rightly stresses that these scenes were probably never thought of explicitly in these geopolitical terms: the important point is that art reflects its social context, is embedded in contemporary modes of thinking, and can be analysed as evidence of the conceptual and psychological trajectories of which it forms a part.

A final, brief section concludes the study and anticipates some of the criticisms that might be levelled against the proposals it makes. For Hölscher the idea of interpreting mythological artworks first as images and stories in and of themselves is inadequate — images and their significances are always produced for specific people and particular societies; there is no such thing as images as such (“Bildwerke und Bedeutungen als solche gibt es nicht: Es gibt nur Bildwerke und Bedeutungen für bestimmte Menschen und Gesellschaften”, p. 21).

The subtitle presents the study as a Versuch, an attempt or experiment, and naturally for a preliminary essay of this kind there is space for both disagreement and development. Analysis of the political aspects of mythological images has long been a controversial issue. Hölscher gives it the careful handling it requires, but for some this will not be enough, and there are moments when the argument does not fully convince. The first object discussed in the introduction to the study — a cup by Onesimos decorated with scenes from the destruction of Troy (plate 2) — is a case in point. The violence of the imagery is felt to mirror the Ängste of the times, but these kinds of scenes are depicted just as horrifically in Homer, and vase paintings with an opposite mood, such as those with Dionysian themes, were produced in great numbers at the same time as Onesimos’ cup. This complexity within the mythological world of fifth-century vases, and its continuity with that of earlier periods, makes it difficult to isolate and assess the uniquely Athenian and historically relevant psychological components of the images, without introducing an element of circularity into the argument. Hölscher recognises these complexities, but the problem remains, and is compounded by the fact that precise dating of these images, to a level which would allow us to see whether they pre-figure or represent the emotions generated by historical events, is not currently attainable, a difficulty of which Hölscher is also aware (p. 4, 21).

In addition, while Hölscher is right that the historical context of the images was deeply significant — that there was no neutral, discretionary space in which artists could operate — for some it is precisely this Greek context, in which mythological characters had such powerful and distinct identities, that makes the need to interpret the images in and of themselves, on their own mythological terms, so important. Hölscher’s attempt to use these images as historical testimony on the grounds that they existed in a particular context is thus limited if that context was one in which myth and its meanings were especially rooted in enduring heroic and divine personalities and narratives. The examples Hölscher discusses are largely convincing, but in general it might be said that Athenian visual mythology was shaped as much by its own inherited traditions as by the political climate in which it was created. At times the argument seems to underestimate the primary mythological content of the images.

These comments are mainly an indication of the highly stimulating nature of Hölscher’s work, and his approach is far more sophisticated than that of some previous studies, which at times tried to reduce resonant mythological images to blunt political allegories. The real novelty here is the bold attempt to recover a nascent state consciousness by examining the volatile character of contemporary visual representation. Collective priorities and tensions are often lost or redirected in later texts: Hölscher challenges us to see that it was uniquely in art that pressing cultural and psychological notions were defined.

The book is a remarkably concise, model presentation of a set of compelling ideas about Athenian art. It provides an innovative historical analysis of the psychological space in which the ambitious cultural, artistic, and intellectual projects of fifth-century Athens were set in motion.


[1] These themes are discussed by Hölscher in two other recent publications: Die Geschöpfe des Daidalos: Vom sozialen Leben der griechischen Bildwerke (Heidelberg 2018). See BMCR 2019.01.08 for a review. And: Krieg und Kunst im antiken Griechenland und Rom (Berlin 2019), 87-89, 159-162. For a recent Anglophone perspective on some closely related topics: R. Osborne. The Transformation of Athens: Painted Pottery and the Creation of Classical Greece (Princeton 2018).