Homer in Art

Casey Dué-Hackney



Men blinding Cyclops
Men blinding Cyclops

Men blinding Cyclops-1
Men blinding Cyclops

Did Ancient Greek Vase Painterís know Homer? Or, to put it another way, are the legendary scenes depicted on archaic and classical Greek vases illustrations ofthe Homeric Iliad and Odyssey?

Some of the earliest recognizably mythological scenes in Greek art show Odysseus and his men blinding the one-eyed Cyclops, an event narrated in Odyssey book 9. In the Homeric version of the tale, the Cyclops keeps Odysseus and several members of his crew trapped in a cave and savagely eats them two at a time. With no easy means of escape, Odysseus cleverly gets the Cyclops drunk on strong, undiluted Greek wine and then, while he is in a drunken stupor, Odysseus and his men blind the Cyclops with an olive wood stake [1]. In fact, Greek artists know doubt knew the Iliad andOdyssey, but their compositions were representations of myth, not text. The HomericIliad and Odyssey narrate traditional tales and were composed within an oral tradition going back hundred if not thousands of years before the Classical period.

Men blinding Cyclops-2
Men blinding Cyclops
Men blinding Cyclops-3
Men blinding Cyclops

The epic poets working within this oral tradition were representing myth through verbal narrative . The artists, on the other hand, drawing from the same storehouse of tradition, represented myth visually [2]. Each medium had its own rules and; conventions, but there are many similarities between the two processes. The pressure of the traditional themes, plots, and language for a poet can be compared to the pressure of traditional iconography for a painter. Both poets and painters probably knew several versions of the myths they depicted, and had to choose among them as they composed their narratives. This is one reason why vase paintings often differ in significant details from the Homeric versions of the same tales.

Myth iconography
Myth iconography
Myth iconography-1
Myth iconography

Ancient Greek vase painters, moreover, faced a number of obstacles that affected their compositions. This archaic cup [3] from the mid sixth century BC and now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston depicts a scene from Odyssey book 10, in which Odysseusí men are transformed into pigs by the goddess Circe. In order to convey the idea that the men are in the process of being transformed from men into pigs, the painter has chosen to depict them as half human and half pig. From the waist down they are still men

Achilles
Achilles
Hydria
Hydria

On this black figure hydria [4], also from Boston, the painter has conveyed a story by conflating into one scene several episodes that are narrated at the end of the HomericIliad. Achilles is dragging the corpse of his enemy Hektor, whom he has just killed, around the tomb of Patroklos, Achillesí best friend. On the left side of the painting [5], Hektorís parents, Priam and Hecuba (who are the king and queen of Troy) are lamenting as they watch their son being dragged. Patroklos gets killed by Hektor in book 16 of theIliad, while Achilles is absent from battle. Achillesí grief and fury upon his return are so intense that he is almost bestial, relentless in his pursuit of Hektor and savage in his treatment of Hektorís body. The gods are shocked, and send a messenger, Iris, to put a stop to it. In the Iliad, Iris does not go directly to Achilles, but rather to his mother Thetis. It is Thetis who convinces Achilles to hand over the body of Hektor to his parents for burial. In this painting we see Iris in the center of the scene, raising her arms in gesture of lamentation and protest that will put an end to the dragging.

Archiac cup
Archiac cup
The painter may be depicting a different version of the story, or he may be simplifying the chain of events in order to convey a narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end. This painting conveys, all at the same time, the death and burial of Patroklos, the subsequent death and dragging of Hektor at the hands of Achilles, the intervention of the gods, and the mourning of Hektorís parents, on which note the Iliad, likewise, concludes.