What is Art For? Part 9.2 Ancient Greece

Evolution of consciousness in Europe 5: The Mediterranean Iron Age

Dr Charles Whitehead continues his series of  blog posts on the many functions of artin ‘What is Art For?here investigating Ancient Greece, a source of inspiration that has served artists for centuries.

Ancient Greece

Athens became great not despite but because of its misogyny

Camille Paglia (1990)

E.H. Gombrich, in his magisterial work The Story of Art, entitles the first of his two chapters on Greek art “The Great Awakening”. I admire the scholarship and clarity of this book which is very enjoyable to read, but he does not define what kind of “sleep” people were in before this “awakening”. And surely some people would regard the advent of Christianity or the dawn of Islam as a much greater awakening, implying that Classical Greeks themselves were not yet fully “awake”. Others would see Christ and Mohammed as late flowerings of the “Axial Age” which began in the 6th century BC, allowing the pre-Socratic philosophers and Orphics to be at least a little bit conscious. Still others might favour the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, or even the Counter Enlightenment. At least one cultural historian proposed a precise “Pivotal Moment” on 25 May 1543, when Copernicus published his De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), which showed that the movement of the heavens could be best explained by the movement of the observer.

The Greek Archaic period (ca. 800-480 BC) was influenced by the monumental sculpture of Egypt but soon developed a greater sense of movement and free-standing naturalism.  Left: “Lady of Auxerre”. Kore (female grave monument). 7th century BC.  Centre: Later Kouros (male grave monument). Ca. 530 BC.  Right: “Strangford Apollo”. Ca. 490 BC.

Gombrich opens the Introduction to his book with the famous line: “There really is no such thing as Art,” and goes on to say that “art” has different meanings in different societies and even for different individuals. But despite that, he cannot escape from his Eurocentric assumptions, including the idea that art must be naturalistic (though he then has to do a U-turn on “modern art” because he is an apologist and feels obliged to praise even Bridget Riley and Jackson Pollock for being so experimental and pushing the boundaries of art). But he does clearly distinguish the two main meanings of “art” – the aesthetic and the iconic.

The Classical period of Greek art (ca. 480-323) has left few original bronzes because this valuable metal was usually melted down and reused. Spectacular exceptions survived on the sea bed, deposited by shipwrecks.  Left: The Artemision Bronze of Zeus hurling a thunderbolt (ca. 460 BC) was recovered from the sea off Cape Artemision, in northern Euboea, Greece. Several features were originally inset, probably with bone for the eyes, silver for the eyebrows, and copper for the lips and nipples.  Centre & Right: The Riace Bronzes, two Greek warriors, cast about 460–450 BC, found in the sea near Riace, Calabria – on the sole of Italy’s “boot”.

Classical sculptors did not portray females naked until the 4th century BC.  Left: Praxitles was the first to create a naked goddess acceptable to Greek tastes. His Aphrodite of Knidos holds her right hand in the Venus pudica gesture of sexual modesty. Greco-Roman copy, original 365 BC.  Right: Female figure in the “wet drapery” style which seems to reveal more than it conceals, fetishizing the female body. Attributed to Timotheus, ca. 375-350 BC

Of course the art of the Classical period is stunning and unprecedented; for the first time in history artists celebrated the beauty of the human body in all its anatomically perfect – and idealised – splendour. But, despite the cautionary notes in his Introduction, Gombrich remains part of a Eurocentric tradition that has long idealised Classical Greece and the Greek-inspired art of the Renaissance. Western art buffs in the 19th century thought of ancient Greece as the dawn of Western civilization, the birthplace of philosophy, theatre, and democracy, and a world of glistening white temples and pristine marble sculpture. They would have been shocked to learn that Greek artists painted their work in colours that would have struck them as distressingly vulgar. They did not think of Greek philosophy as ex vacuo rationalization often leading to absurd conclusions, or recognise the origin of theatre in ancient Dionysian revelries that would have shocked Victorian sensibilities. And they certainly had little idea of just how strange – to more modern eyes – ancient Greek society was.

The way history was taught to me as a boy gave the impression that European civilization owed everything to the Romans and Greeks. It was self-evident, but not mentioned, that Europe got its dominant religion from the Hebrews, and that this had an enormous impact on European society, culture, and thought. It certainly crossed no one’s mind that science and scientific research in Europe began with Arabian science and Arabian alchemy, despite so many scientific and mathematical terms being of Arabic origin, and even our numerals being “Arabic”. The first research laboratories, with much of the equipment you would see in a chemistry lab today, were built by alchemists. The Arabs, in their turn, received alchemy from China via Persia, and numerals from India, including the zero sign which makes place value possible and revolutionized mathematics. The Gauls were mentioned only as “barbaric tribes” described and defeated by Caesar, though I suspect that western culture gets much of its individualism, dynamism, and ideology of freedom, from the heroic Iron Age of Gallic and Germanic Europe, and not from the stolid and regimented Romans.

I do not blame my school for these biases. Ever since the Renaissance much of the scholarly thought in the West has worn classical blinkers. The Renaissance itself was triggered by a re-discovery of classical Greek and Roman literature whilst artists were influenced very much by Greek art. By the nineteenth century, the Renaissance itself was being idealised, and so was Classical and Hellenistic architecture and sculpture. And it created that fantasy of serene white columns and sublime white naked bodies. 

It was a fantasy not shared by the ancient Greeks themselves. They had words for poetry, epic, comedy, tragedy, theatre, music, and dance. But they had no word for “art”. Sculpture and painting, taken together, were glossed as tékhnē – meaning craft, skill, technique, or “knowing how”. The Latin ars, from which the word “art” derives, had the same meaning. Tékhnē and ars both referred to all kinds of mechanical skill: Socrates specifically mentions playing the harp, generalship, piloting a ship, cooking, medicine, managing an estate, smithing, and carpentry. For him, the most liberal “arts” were warfare and farming. There was no concept of “fine art”, and poetry was esteemed more highly than the visual arts. Superior men work with their minds, whereas sculptors merely work with their hands – a more lowly occupation. Plato regarded natural forms as poor copies of an abstract ideal, so “art” for him was a poor copy of a poor copy, and works of art were at best entertainment and at worst a dangerous delusion. Aristotle too saw art as imitation, but he held that imitation is part of human nature, evident from childhood, and necessary for learning. But these benefits he credited more to theatre than to painting and sculpture.

Hellenistic art is conventionally defined as starting with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. Alexander’s empire extended to India and Egypt, influencing art on three continents as well as bringing exotic tastes and foreign artists into Greece. Fit subjects for art became far more wide-ranging to meet the demands of a wealthy domestic market. Artists began to depict strong emotions and non-idealised themes such as suffering, sleep, old age, and death. Multi-figured groups like the Laocoön, people of all classes, and vignettes from everyday life were common.  Left: Boy pulling a thorn from his foot, 3rd c BC.  Centre: Old drunk woman clutching a wine flask by Myron, 3rd c BC (for the original).  Right: Eros taunts a lascivious Pan whilst Aphrodite prepares to slap him with her sandal.

So what is meant by this “Awakening”? Does it mean that after the Ice Age (when artists proved that they could paint naturalistically) people fell asleep for eleven thousand years? To his credit Gombrich does not say that, merely noting that prehistoric and “primitive” (his word not mine) artists had different interests and intentions. But there is a real sense in which people and whole societies can shift from relatively unconscious to more conscious waking states, and vice versa.

It is well known that the human mind and brain are capable of dissociation – which means different parts can get separated off, and the different parts may or may not be aware of each other. That is obvious in multiple personality disorder (or dissociative identity disorder in America). But it also happens in hypnotic trance, and hypnotherapists will point out that such trance states are a normal part of everyday life. For example, if you get absorbed in a good book, awareness of your surroundings can fade – though other parts of your mind are still aware and monitoring everything as usual. When you read a novel or watch a movie you will often identify with the fictitious characters to such an extent that you care about their pain or happiness almost as though they were your own. Similar things happen when daydreaming or playing a role – pretending to be the person we think others expect us to be. It means that the human brain can run more than one mind in parallel, which I think is one reason why we have such large brains.

I have suggested – based on the logic of Emil Durkheim, subsequently expanded by Chris Knight, Camilla Power, Ian Watts, and others – that the “human revolution” was the result of the first ritual (in the uniquely human sense of the word). Since human minds dissociate so readily, ritual trance at that time was more than likely. In that experience, I have argued, our ancestors lost their essentialist perceptions of bodies, but gained an awareness of their spirituality. If you’re an atheist, of course, you will regard this “spiritual awareness” as delusional. But research in America and Britain has found that at least 40% of people surveyed have at least one spiritual experience during their lifetimes, and that in most cases such experiences have profound and life-changing effects. They usually lead to increased tolerance and compassion for others, a new enthusiasm for and enjoyment of life, and a change to a more fulfilling and rewarding life-course or career. So, however “delusional” the content of spiritual beliefs, spiritual experience is objectively real and beneficial.


So just how conscious were these Greeks?

“Boy love” in ancient Greece. Such titillating scenes, painted on the tondo (inner base) of a cup, would be gradually revealed as the drinker consumed the wine.  Left: Young man and teenager engaged in intercrural (between-the-thighs) sex, fragment of a black-figure Attic cup, Archaic, 550-525 BC, Louvre.  Right: An erastes with his eromenos. The youth holds a bag of nuts, probably a courting gift from his lover. On the wall, a sponge and strygil (scraper). Tondo of an Attic red-figure cup by the Brygos-Painter, Classical, 480-470 BC, Ashmolean Museum.

Greek society developed an extreme form of patriarchy in which women had very limited freedom and power. Men in their thirties commonly married girls in their early teens, and women were not free to socialise outside the home. The exception was Sparta where women more often married in their twenties and virtually ran the whole domestic economy, because Spartan men lived in military barracks and ate with other men in a communal mess. Spartan husbands and wives were encouraged to lead separate lives so that, when they did meet, there would be a powerful copulation and hence more vigorous sons to maintain the Spartan army. An unintended consequence of this abstinence may have helped to cement the morale of Spartan troops – it has been suggested that their bonds of loyalty were strengthened by unconscious or unacknowledged homosexual love. The Sacred Band of Thebes, in contrast, fought lover beside gay lover for explicitly tactical reasons – no warrior wanted to be shamed in the eyes of his beloved, and fought the more courageously in consequence.

Greek and Latin had no words for heterosexuality or homosexuality. Both Greeks and Romans dissociated sex from gender – for them, copulation was not a matter of gender but of power relations between a penetrator and a penetrated, enacted by one of superior and dominant class upon one of inferior and subordinate class. Gender only came into the picture in so far as women were considered to be inferior to men. So it was seen as quite natural that men should have sexual relations with women, boys, and slaves. In Greece, pederasty between bearded men and beardless boys was institutionalised as paiderastia, meaning “boy love”. In Athens, the older partner was called erastes, and it was his duty to educate, protect, love, and provide a role model for his adolescent eromenos (beloved). This was perfectly open and above board. The boy’s parents would be well aware and hopeful that their son would attract an exemplary and generous lover.

Left: A female aulos-player entertains men at a symposium; red-figure kylix (wine cup), 5th century BC, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.  Right: Inside of a kylix depicting a hetaira playing kottabos, a drinking game played at symposia in which wine dregs were flicked at a target.

A second institution which permitted homo- and heterosexual license was the Greek symposium. This was the major social event attended by aristocratic men from 8th century BC, and also by wealthy men of lower class from ca. 450 BC. These all-male drinking parties were held in an andron or men’s room – built for that purpose in the home of the host, often near the entrance so that guests did not see the private areas. The men would be served and entertained by boys, slaves, and musicians, often female, and sexual favours for a fee may have been on offer. Guests would also enjoy the company of hetairai – high class prostitutes famed for their wit and intelligent conversation. Often highly educated and wealthy, these women did not sell one-off sexual favours like the lower class pornai but were usually paid for a long-term relationship. Presumably the host’s wife was supposed to turn a blind eye to what went on in the andron. In fact hetairaiprobably enjoyed a better quality of life, and certainly more freedom, than married women. They had children, owned their own homes and property, and were richly rewarded by their wealthy clients.

But the greatest contradiction to the idealised view of ancient Greek society has to be the mystery religions, especially the cult of Dionysus. Greek sources repeatedly insist that Dionysus is a foreign god, arriving late in Greece after roaming the world as far as Phrygia and India, who could not convince others that he was a god until he turned Etruscan pirates into dolphins, and had to struggle to persuade the established gods to allow him and his mortal mother Semele to join them on Olympus. Archaeology proves otherwise, for two tablets written in Linear B, from Mycenaean Pylos, mention the name di-wo-nu-so, and date to the twelfth or thirteenth century BC. Some scholars now think that the cult may have originated as early as 6000 BC, in the Neolithic. Certainly his cult was established well before the Classical Greek period, and Dionysus may well be one of the earliest and most established of the Greek gods.

Left: Maenad (raving one) with a thyrsus. slain leopard, and snake coiled around her head. Tondo of an Attic white-ground kylix 490–480 BC from Vulci.  Right: Dancing maenad with head thrown back in traditional ecstatic pose. Detail from a Paestum red figure skyphos(deep wine cup) made by Python, ca. 330-320 BC.

So why did the Greeks insist that he is a foreign newcomer, often titled “the one who comes”? This must be essential to the specific quality of his divinity – he represents a power coming from the wild unknown, outside civilization, outside state religion, and even outside human self-consciousness – as if reversing a million years or more of human evolution. It is clear from surviving hymns to Dionysus that his rites and mysteries were believed to undo the shackles of culture and civilization, releasing his devotees into a primordial and blissful state of “nature”. He is often referred to as Eleutherios(“the Liberator”), as Bacchus, his Roman successor, is named Liber.

Dionysus is primarily a god of the grape harvest, wine, fermentation, and intoxication – and by extension also of fertility, vegetation, orchards, fruit, and the whole of wild nature. His followers, intoxicated by wine, drumming, music, and wild dance, are seized by a sacred ecstasy which is more than mere drunkenness. “Ecstasy” derives from Greek ekstasis meaning “standing outside oneself” and, in the Dionysian context, is also understood as enthousiasmos, or enthusiasm, meaning “inspired or possessed by a god” (en – “in”; theos – “god”). The Dionysian rite is commonly portrayed in art as a procession of dancing maenads (literally “raving ones”), or women possessed by the god, and lascivious satyrs – half human and half goat – with prominent erections. Some maenads carry a thyrsos – a staff of giant fennel topped with a pine cone, wound with vine and ivy leaves, and dripping with honey – whilst others play the tympanum (hand drum or tambourine), the aulos (a reeded double pipe with a shrill, piercing sound), or other instruments. 

Dionysic processions are described as climbing mountain paths to the wild places near the summit, where women, possessed and empowered by the god, would handle snakes, tear wild animals apart with their bare hands, and devour the flesh raw. This is hardly a return to a “state of nature”. Rather, the Dionysian orgia, like that of Cybele mentioned earlier, was an extreme reaction to the oppressive constraints of formal society, probably beginning even before the Bronze Age.

Left: An ecstatic Maenad with an ithyphallic satyr. Red figure kylix, 5th c BC. Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich.  Right: King Pentheus torn apart by his mother Agave and his aunt Ino, who mistake him for a lion whilst possessed by Dionysus. Detail of a red-figure cup by the Athenian painter Douris, ca. 480 BC. The story of Pentheus provides the plot for The Bacchae, a tragedy by the Athenian playwright Euripides.

Dionysus is a god of chaos, sexual licence, madness and insanity, of everything outside civilized society, and of the “beast within”. The subversive nature of Dionysian revels especially attracted those disempowered by Greek society – women, non-citizens, slaves, and outlaws. In both Greece and Rome there were attempts to suppress the Dionysian mysteries which were seen as threatening the social order,  but the cult continued to thrive until the enforced conversion to Christianity in 380 AD. But it never really died, and there have been brief revivals throughout history, even in modern neo-paganism.

 Bertrand Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy, wrote “In intoxication, physical or spiritual, the [Dionysian] initiate recovers an intensity of feeling which prudence had destroyed; he finds the world full of delight and beauty, and his imagination is suddenly liberated from the prison of everyday preoccupations.” It may seem paradoxical that this cult, apparently hostile to all things civilised, may have been the origin of much that Western culture derived from Greece. The mystery religions generally were a counter-movement against Greek state religion and social oppression. Initially they provided a temporary relief from social constraints, but they evolved into salvation faiths offering a permanent state of blessedness and a joyful after-life. By the 6th or 5th century AD, the Dionysian cult had evolved into Orphism.

Left: Dionysos as a winged daimon riding a tiger, from the House of Dionysos on Delos. Hellenistic mosaic, late 2nd c. BC, Archaeological Museum of Delos.  Right: Orpheus charming the animals became a metaphor for Christ saving sinners. The eagle (on Orpheus’ head) commonly represents Resurrection. Marble table leg, Asia Minor, 4th c. AD, Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens.

The Orphic mysteries made the sparagmos – the rending apart – of Dionysus the central feature of its mythos. This is a very ancient theme characteristic of shamanic initiation in which the shaman-to-be has a vision of his own body being torn apart by demons, boiled in a cauldron, and then reassembled from his bare bones, with miraculous new organs often made of rock crystal. Rock crystal was thought to bestow supernatural powers because of its prismatic ability to cast rainbow colours – the rainbow being perceived as the ancient bridge which, in “the beginning times” before “the fall”, enabled people to climb easily between heaven and earth. The snake too – prominent in Dionysian and many ancient cults – has been commonly perceived as miraculous because of its power of self-renewal through shedding its skin. Hence the mythic centrality of rainbow snakes in Africa, Australia, and the Americas, and probably also the serpent in the Garden of Eden, the “monsters of chaos” slain by Marduk and Jehovah (Psalm 9:10), and the colourful dragons of Asia and Europe.

There are significant parallels between Dionysus, Orpheus, and Christ. All three were conceived by a god on a mortal woman (at least in some versions of their myths); all three were regarded as “outsiders” – Dionysus and Orpheus supposedly coming from Thrace, and Christ from Galilee, a multicultural region far less “Jewish” than Judaea; all three died and were resurrected (or returned from Hades), and the last two at least founded salvation religions with concepts of original sin and redemption, opposition between spirit and flesh,  and a blissful reward in paradise for the virtuous.

In the central myth of Orphism, Dionysus was first fathered by Zeus on Persephone, the wife of Hades. The jealous Hera adjured the Titans to kill the infant. Disguising themselves with gypsum, the Titans tempted Dionysus with toys and a mirror, mocked him by giving him a thyrsus instead of a royal sceptre, then tore him apart, boiled his flesh, and devoured it. Athena managed to rescue his heart, and informed Zeus of the murder. Filled with wrath, Zeus slew the Titans with a thunderbolt, reducing them to ash. Humanity was born from this ash, and as a result we have a dual nature: an earthly body (sôma) derived from the sinful Titans, and a divine soul (psyché) derived from Dionysus. According to an Orphic hymn, we are “the children of Earth and of the starry Heaven.” The soul is trapped in “the net” of the body, and we are doomed to an endless cycle of rebirths until we are saved by Orphic initiation and purification, followed by an ascetic life abstaining from sex and from eating meat, fish, eggs and beans (because all these foods contain souls). Dionysus was born a second time – either from the thigh of Zeus, into which the god had stitched his son’s heart, or from the union of Zeus with the mortal Semele. After spreading his joyful and unruly cult around the world, Dionysus was eventually allowed to join the other gods on Mount Olympus, along with his human mother Semele, who became a goddess.

 Orpheus too was born of a semi-divine union, between Apollo (or King Oeagrus of Thrace) and Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. Apollo taught him to play the lyre, and Calliope the composition of songs. The music of Orpheus had the power to charm humans, animals, and even gods, to divert rivers, make trees dance, and stones to jump with joy. He even charmed Hades and Persephone when he descended to the underworld to rescue his dead wife, Eurydice. Hades agreed to let her follow him on condition that he never looked back, which of course he did. Having failed to rescue Eurydice, according to Ovid, he became  “the first of the Thracian people to transfer his affection to young boys, and enjoy their brief springtime and early flowering this side of manhood.” At first Orpheus was devoted to Dionysus but later insisted on worshiping Apollo only. For this apostasy, the Maenads angrily attacked him, first with sticks and stones. But these weapons, charmed by his music, refused to strike him. Infuriated, the Maenads then tore him apart in a maniacal frenzy. His head and lyre, still singing, floated to the isle of Lesbos and became the Orphic oracle whose fame spread as far as Babylon.

The Death of Orpheus. Detail from a silver kantharos, 420-410 BC.

Because Dionysus had the power to inspire and to create ecstasy, his cult had special importance for art and literature. His orgia were favourite subjects of pottery painters, and depictions of Dionysus and Orpheus are common in Greek and Roman art. Performances of tragedy and comedy in Athens were part of two festivals of Dionysus, the Lenaea and the Great (or City) Dionysia. It is well known that theatre originated in ritual, and the great Greek playwrights from the 6th to the 4th century BC owe their art to that unruliest of rites.

Greek philosophy and mathematics also had their origin in the cosmology of Orphism and the closely related Pythagoreanism. Some of the Pythagoreans pre-empted Galileo in attempting to define the mathematical structure of the cosmos, as well as of music. Music was even regarded as one of the four branches of mathematical science: the others being arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. Plato, whose influence on Western philosophy cannot be overstated, was profoundly influenced by Orphic and Pythagorean texts. He founded the Academy – the first university in Europe. Bertrand Russel even claimed that all Western philosophy is just a series of footnotes to Plato. Three Orphic beliefs in particular recur throughout Plato’s work – the body as a prison of the soul, reincarnation, and reward and punishment in the afterlife. In Phaedo, he even quotes Socrates as saying, immediately before his execution: 

“And I conceive that the founders of the mysteries had a real meaning and were not mere triflers when they intimated… that he who passes unsanctified and uninitiated into the world below will live in a slough, but that he who arrives there after initiation and purification will dwell with the gods. For ‘many,’ as they say in the mysteries, ‘are the thyrsus bearers, but few are the mystics,’ – meaning, as I interpret the words, the true philosophers.”

I don’t think we should be surprised that some of the things we regard as foundational for Western culture emerged from the Dionysian sparagmos and the wilful abandonment of civilized behaviour. Widely accepted in anthropology is Victor Turner’s theory of anti-structure, according to which the suspension or inversion of cultural norms is the source of new culture. Theories of creativity also invoke playful or unruly processes.

The rites of Cybele, the Great Mother, were as abandoned and ecstatic as those of Dionysus, and her priests castrated themselves out of devotion to the goddess. Lucianus tells us that men who attended the rites simply to watch, with no intention of self-castration, were sometimes seized by a sacred frenzy, throwing off their clothes, and rushing to the altar where a sword was available for the express purpose of self-emasculation. This cult too has Christian parallels, including the foreign origins of the Phrygian goddess, repudiation of the flesh and the celibacy of priests, and even a New Testament affirmation: “and there be eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake” (Matthew 19:12).

 The Greek mysteries, and especially the Orphics, are a sure sign that Greece, around 600 BC, was entering the so-called “Axial Age”, or “moral revolution”, which will be the topic of my next blog.

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