Winkler-Horacek, Lorenz: Monster in der frühgriechischen Kunst (Image & Context 4). Approx. 400 pages, 140 Fig., langue allemande, ISBN 978-3-11-018900-1, 129,95 €
(De Gruyter, Berlin 2015)
Compte rendu par Iphigeneia Leventi, University of Thessaly

Nombre de mots : 2224 mots
Publié en ligne le 2016-05-31
Citation: Histara les comptes rendus (ISSN 2100-0700).
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          This book is devoted to the iconography of monsters from the late 8th to the mid-6th century BCE. In Greek art, namely as they appear in Greek vase-painting, especially Corinthian vases with animal friezes. This well-produced book boasts excellent images, which are incorporated in the text. The main text comprises 468 pages, followed by two excurses with an exhaustive catalog of the beasts and monsters on 1700 Corinthian vases articulated in brief entries. The book includes an updated and extensive bibliography; German and English summaries; and a subject and object index, as well as a catalog of the provenance of the photos. The main part of the book is divided into five chapters. Chapter I is a kind of introduction, dealing with the notion of monsters in modern times and especially in ancient Greek literature and philosophy, which distinguishes between monsters and demons in ancient Greek thought: demons are harmful specters, deified human beings, or even divine powers exercised on human life and destiny. As a result, they do not have a concrete form and are not depicted in figurative art.


         Six sections comprise Chapter II. The first (II.1) defines more closely the monsters that constitute the subject of this study, that is to say hybrid creatures combining different animal/bird parts or even human and animal parts and also vegetal elements. These appear mostly within the animal friezes of the Corinthian vase paintings, combined with wild animals and botanical decorative motifs. These vases show a widespread diffusion throughout the Greek world, and animal friezes occur on these much more often than in the early Archaic vase-paintings of Attica or Eastern Greece. These Corinthian vases thus form the appropriate iconographical source for the examination of depictions of monsters in Greek two-dimensional representations, which is the main domain of Winkler- Horaček’s study (that is, it does not include any isolated statuary dedications, architectural sculpture or terracotta and bronze finds, some examples of which are only occasionally and briefly referred to in the text). From this point of view the title of the book might better have been “in der Korinthischen Vasenmalerei”, or this restriction could have been made explicit in a subtitle.


         The monsters in early Greek animal friezes are conceived by Greek artists as real creatures that represent specific values which are connected to their physical qualities, and thus they function as symbols or “hieroglyphs” as the writer dubs them. In these friezes, the monsters are integrated into a fixed hierarchical system along with wild animals or birds, where the defining element is their torso, and not their head. They stand for the unfamiliar and threatening wild nature; they possess a descriptive character, rather than being part of a mythological narration, and denote the ambiguous and dangerous limits of the civilized world of the Greek polis at the time of its formation. In their interaction with wild animals or birds, monsters may appear in action in the animal struggle scenes, but most frequently, they interact with other monsters or animals potentially (monsters or predatory animals are depicted with a raised paw clearly displaying an aggressive character and a readiness to attack). Finally, monsters can also be depicted actionless adjacent to human figures and in everyday scenes.


         In II.2 of this chapter, Winkler–Horaček studies the depictions and the meaning of the sphinx (the winged human-lion) and its iconographical details (helm: a symbol of braveness; ranks: a vegetation symbol of the fertility of nature). He investigates thoroughly the roots of the monster in the iconography of the Near East, Egypt and Minoan / Mycenaean Greece, explores the mutual interactions between these civilizations and eventually concludes with a discussion of the meaning of the monster in early Greek vase-painting. Finally, the sphinx becomes part of the Oidipous myth in the late 6th century BCE. The problem with the unclear sex of this monster in the various cultural environments where it occurs is also discussed here. But I would like to stress that the beard is not a secure indication of the occasionally male sex of the sphinx, as suggested by the author, since for example Gorgoneia are frequently equipped with a beard though Gorgo is clearly a female monster. In the case of the sphinx, the beard could be another component of a female monster. One should also note that the genos of this hybrid creature in the Greek language (and for all the iconographic examples with sphinxes equipped both with beard and male genitalia) is always female.


         Next comes the siren (the human-bird) in section II.3. The earliest example cited by the author (pp. 183-184, fig. 133) is rather ambiguous, since the maul seems to resemble that of a duck, rather than a human mouth. Also, here the early form of the monster draws inspiration from the art of northern Syria and Assyria, but takes on its canonical form in the late 7th century in Corinthian vase-painting, where the siren loses its predatory claws, and instead appears with the webbed feet of water-birds. As a result, it no longer exhibits a beastly character and is now depicted as a victim of predatory animals or is subjugated to Greek deities (potis or potnia theron) in iconography, before it enters mythological depictions of the deadly women-birds (Sirens) of the Odyssey after the mid-6th century BCE. The lion-griffin, presented in the next section (II.4), also has its origin in the Near East, but enters the repertory of Greek art, again from northern Syria, already in the 8th century (bronze cauldrons of the Geometric period). The lion-griffin in the Corinthian animal friezes is depicted as a predatory hybrid creature, but also as a victim of human hunters, subordinated to the potnia theron, and as the opponent of the mythical Arimaspians from the 6th century onward. The bird-griffin on the other hand (II.5) is a Greek creation from the 7th century, with a wide diffusion in Greek vase-painting in general, but without any connection to Greek mythology. In the sixth and final part of this chapter (II.6), other hybrid monsters, which appear only occasionally in early Greek vase-painting, are briefly discussed. These are the Centaurs (whose earliest appearance in Greek art, is however the well-known terracotta statue of the 9th century from Lefkandi in Euboia,   not mentioned by the author who states the view of K. Fittschen that Centaurs first appear in Greek vase-painting, around 725 BCE) and the Chimaira, which enter Greek mythical depictions in the early 7th century.


         Throughout this chapter Winkler-Horaček  expresses the basic thesis that the occurrence of the aforementioned monsters in the animal friezes where they are incorporated in a hierarchical order (e.g. predatory versus peaceful creatures) abolishes their wild and death-bringing qualities, a phenomenon that also occurs in Greek thought and iconography in the course of the 6th century BCE as Greek heroes exterminate them in Greek myths.


         Chapter III begins with an examination of the syntax of animal friezes with monsters in early Greek vase-painting. After a brief mention of examples from Attic and eastern Greek pottery (section III.1), the author extensively analyses the figural combinations of monsters and animals in Corinthian vase-painting, where different and stricter compositional rules are present (section III.2).  This section is accompanied by a statistic examination illustrated in graphs and is the most original contribution by the author in this study. In section III.3, Winkler–Horaček investigates the relationships of the animal friezes to the real world. Therein it becomes evident that Greek vase-painters included some species of animals that were known among Mediterranean fauna, but that did not occur in ancient Greece, as well as exotic animals, which were totally outside the everyday experience of the individual Greek. Nonetheless, no explanation for the means of this transmission is offered by the author (possible written descriptions by Greek travelers or even drawings?). The philological similes that compare animal behavior (monsters are out of place here) with the qualities and deeds of Homeric heroes are considered to be a constructed reality, comparable to that of the animal friezes. The question of lions living in Greece in the Geometric and Archaic times is further treated by the author who examines the hereupon expressed controversial scholarly opinions. (Indeed, the evidence provided by bones is now clear: there were lions in ancient Greece although we do not know how late on they were present there).


         In chapter IV, Winkler–Horaček undertakes the effort to place the animal frieze in the social context of the early Greek polis. Animal friezes are a general phenomenon in early Greek vase-painting, and the vases on which they are depicted present no distinction of shape (all shapes) or function (findspots: settlements, sanctuaries, cemeteries). Then the author proceeds to his main argument concerning the confrontation of the animals and monsters that represent wild nature with the real civilized world. He explores hunting scenes with animals and monsters represented as actual or potential victims of human hunters. When the hunting scene is combined with the animal frieze, according to the author, the human hunt functions as a counterpart for the animal struggle motif. When human hunting and animals or hybrid creatures simply co-exist without an explicit confrontation, the latter also denote the marginal areas of wild nature where this human activity takes place. On the other hand, depictions that show animals and monsters present in human situations that are incompatible with wild nature, such as the aristocratic symposion, dancing komastai, or Greek warriors (both hoplitai and horsemen)—images that incorporate the aristocratic ideals of the Greek polis—, allow us to understand these animals and monsters as antithetical components to the civilized world. Such combinations sometimes even approach the realm of parody and humor.


         At the conclusion of this chapter, the author recapitulates the ways in which the archaic Greek overcame his insecurities through rational thought and thus re-defined himself. The unfamiliar and deadly hybrids are thus comprehensible by their incorporation into the order of the rational Greek mentality as expressed by their hierarchical relation to real animals in the vase-painting friezes and by their subordination to Greek heroes and gods. To extend the basic ideas expressed by the author, I would say that monsters, as constructed hybrid creatures opposed to natural animals, may also denote from a philosophical point of view the internal flaws of early Greek society, as well as the vices of individual souls, which the force of rationalism must also conquer.


         The final chapter V examines the position of monsters in the borders between the city and the wild as manifestations of a belief that the unknown and unfamiliar are situated at the peripheral areas of the Greek city state (the Greek eschatia). Monsters can, on the other hand, be dealt with in the realm of heroic deeds. As the author states, over half of the known mythical representations in Greek vase-painting of the 7th century BCE have heroes fighting against monsters as their subject (Herakles and the Centaur Nessos or the Centaurs of Mount Pholoe, Herakles and the Lernaian Hydra, Odysseus and Cyclops Polyphemos). In these mythical encounters the values of opposition between the monstrous and human world may take the form of the violation of civilized behavior by the untamed wilderness (e.g., the violation of hospitality, challenges to the institution of marriage).


         The limits of the world are a parallel to the Greek eschatia of the poleis. Monsters as creatures of fantasy and theoretical thought signify real geographical areas at the periphery of the Greek world that became familiar from the adventures of heroes such as Odysseus, Perseus and Bellerophon, who accomplish their deeds outside the Greek territories, in regions known to Greeks through war, trade and Greek colonization of the 8th to 6th centuries BCE, in which Corinthians played a major role. Both the iconographies represented by the animal friezes and the mythical pictorial narration share common structural elements and contribute to the formation of the individual, as well the collective, identity in the cultural community of the early Greek polis. Finally, animal friezes gradually disappear in the 6th century as the social phenomena that generated them gradually dwindled. The Greek polis was by then well-established, while Greek colonization extended the limits of the Greek world.  Of course, the hybrid creatures that dominate this study do not vanish from Greek art of later periods, but continue to occur in mythical narratives, and also appear in emblematic, isolated forms in sculpture and minor arts, points that deserved comment from the author.


         The book by Lorenz Winkler-Horaček presents a panorama of the monsters and animals in interaction with each other and with humans in Corinthian vase-painting of the Archaic period and investigates this subject matter from many aspects and in the context of early Greek society. His interpretations, while not always original, re-define the results of an extensive part of earlier and recent scholarship on this and related subjects. An example is the statement that all figurative elements that appear on the animal friezes, even plants (that symbolize the fertility of wild nature), are not merely ornamental but have a concrete meaning that derives from their physical appearance. Especially praiseworthy is the compilation of the catalogue of 1700 vases and 2300 vase-paintings and their statistical examination, which form the basis for the discussion in the book’s chapters. This study will surely form a constant reference for scholars interested in this subject in subsequent years.