Monday, October 11, 2010

Reasoning: The Iconography of Greek Theater #6, Alan Shapiro

Alan Shapiro was a scholar whose work I had a read in some of my college classes. Shapiro a professor of Archaeology at Johns Hopkins and he writes on Greek vase painting, iconography, and mythology. Alan looked like the stereotypical fabulous professor; he was perfectly

The paper that he presented at the Getty was about depictions of the birth of Helen. Specifically, he spoke about one particular piece of art that showed a representation of the birth of Helen from an egg.
This is a picture of part of the pot from this website. [1]
Alan Shapiro opened his talk with an introduction about miraculous births in Greek mythology. Specifically he focused on the different versions of the myth of Helen. The first version involved Zeus perusing Nemisis. Nemisis, in her flight from Zeus' advances turns herself into a swan. Zeus turns himself into a goose, and rapes her. The egg she lays produces Helen; from the very beginning, Helen is an instrument of retribution. According to Shapiro, Leda was not introduced into the story until later.

The first version including Leda introduces Leda as adopting the baby Helen from Nemisis, who does not want it. One possible way in which this adoption takes place is when Hermes brings the egg to Leda and leaves it by her while she is asleep. Later in the evolution of the myth, Zeus chases Leda and turns into a swan in order to rape her. Another possible story, one which does not involve the birth from an egg, is that on Leda and Tyndareus' wedding night, before Tyndareus could join Leda in their marraige bed, Zeus sneaks in and then leaves, so all of Leda's children are conceived on the same night.

There are a variety of red figure vases that show the egg from which Helen is born. These paintings often depict Leda, Zeus, and the Dioskari surrounding the egg. The Dioskari, Castor and Pollux, are usually portrayed as Helen's older brothers, but are sometimes portrayed as her contemporaries [2]. Some of the vases also portray Leda with a look of astonishment on her face, which can either be interpreted as caused by the first time that she has seen the egg or as an astonishment at the hatching egg. Artists competed for the birthplace of Helen-- some portraying Helen as a native of Athens while others placed her as a native of Sparta. According to Shapiro, Kretinus [3] and Euripides both represented the story in plays.

The end of the lecture focused on the comic portrayal of the image of Helen's birth on the stage. Specifically, this particular vase (shown above) portrays, presumably Leda watching surreptitiously through the door into a room in which a character, presumably Tyndareus is swinging an ax at an egg sitting on the table. On the other side, someone, possibly a slave, looks horrified. Out of the egg, Helen bursts, holding out her hand as to stop the attack.

Much of the question and answer session was devoted to the possible interpretations of this vase. Shapiro noted two possibilities. The first was that Tyndareus hears of Leda's marital infidenlity and attempts to murder her offspring with the offender. This was a typical comic trope. Another possibility is that Tyndareus was trying to break the egg open and managed it. Helen emerges and stops him from delivering another blow. There are any number of possibilities.

My thoughts on this scene is that it might come from a play or represent a story where Tyndareus decides to see whether the offspring in the egg is actually his (which borrows from both of the plotlines above) and cracks the egg open, hoping to have some kind of a traditionally ridiculous Greek recognition scene between family member or to realize that this was the product of another man. Shapiro mentioned that the audience would have been steeped in the layered visuals surrounding the different possibilities for the mythology, which makes this avenue possible.

  1. Unfortunately, I could not find the part of the vase that is important to Shapiro's argument. If anyone knows what the vase was called or where I could find a complete picture of it, please post it in a comment.
  2. One image that Shapiro showed was a wonderful mosaic on the floor of a Roman villa which depicted Leda and Tyndareus and an egg which is depicted as housing Helen, Castor, and Pollux.
  3. I am not sure about the spelling on this.

No comments:

Post a Comment