Notebook, 1993-


[From: Brendel, Otto F. Part Three: The Early & Middle Archaic Period. Chapter 12 - Literary Aspects of Archaic Art, The Emergence of Literary Subjects - Mythical Themes in Greek Art. In Etruscan Art. New York: Penquin Books. 1978.]

Mythical Themes in
Greek Art

[Note: Plates included in the text are not included here.]

Mythical Themes in Greek Art. In Greece poetry preceded every other art. Literature, that is poetic fiction, shaped the concepts in which men learned to recognize themselves as existing in particular social and personal conditions, over and above the great generalities of life and death. For fiction, if not true to fact, can yet be true to experience. Story-telling can dwell on individual happenings and impart significance to the seemingly accidental. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the Greek mind was first awakened to itself and the world around it by invented narratives.

From the eighth to the sixth centuries the Greek myths went through a decisive stage of their poetic redaction, in the form of the epic. The principal cognitive tool evolved by this mythical fiction, as a key to reality, was the category of human diversity, which was paralleled by the distinct characters of gods and heroes. The concept itself was a Homeric heritage [above, p. 63]. In their post-Homeric, Archaic phase most Greek myths were given the shape in which we still know them. From the scattered fragments of ancient folk tales and names dimly remembered the vast mythical fabric was created of the strife between gods and men in which multifarious life became mirrored and events understood as the effect of causes. Never before have the seriousness and reality of human situations been revealed so lucidly; have the crises of decision, the fatal interplay of human wills, and the force of circumstances been so impressively shown. Myth was the given theme of the epic. Under its impact, in Greek thought, the world became narratable even before it became knowable in terms of science. Clearly the grasp of reality in a myth differs from that which descriptive science offers. A myth is not a true statement of fact, nor a direct representation of a reality at hand: it rather constitutes the opposite, namely a transfer of experienced facts into a created fantasy. Yet as such it can be turned into a reasoned account of events, however fictitious; indeed, a guide to reality. In this realistic exploitation of the myth the Greeks went farther than anyone else.

When during the Archaic period the collection, and in a sense rationalization, of the myths became a primary intellectual concern in Greece, a large reservoir of singularly memorable plots and stories came into being. Naturally, in this process the literary arts took the lead. However, mythical themes appear in Greek pictorial arts at a very early time. This interest in a properly literary subject matter must by no means be taken for granted. It is rather distinctive of Greek art, and an obvious reflection of the overwhelming influence which myth exercised on Greek minds. One can well understand the challenge which the mythical narratives extended to the figurative arts under such circumstances. Even to us today these fables appear so charged with human meaning that the attempt to extricate from their often strange and not rarely brutal happenings their recondite messages still remains a worthwhile undertaking. Awareness of myth had indeed become a source of knowledge; myth was a form in which the conditions of human lives and actions could be made explicit. Already by the end of the century the latest, classic mode of these narratives began to appear as a possibility: the Greek drama.

A Critique of human personality was clearly implied with this development. The qualities of uniqueness and importance accrue to mythical actions precisely because they relate the deeds accomplished, or the mishaps suffered, by certain personages. In such a scheme of thought the gods, by dint of the very diversity of functions ascribed to them and the powers which [p. 143] they yield, presented the traits and limitations of definable characters. Zeus behaved differently from Apollo; Artemis differently from Aphrodite. The deities of Greek mythology became subject to the laws of mutual attraction and repulsion which we call love and hatred. As persons they explained themselves through their actions, because each acted 'characteristically'. In short, they became the enormously enlarged proto-images of human character-types, defined by personal temperaments, idiosyncrasies, and social involvements. Therefore on a more human level heroes could be interpreted by the same tokens. In Homer the noble and unforgiving character of Achilles resembles that of Apollo. The theme was given, but the interpretations always remained free.

Our principal point here must be that all these are essentially literary notions; and that in this sense most Greek art which incorporated them was and always remained a literary art. The result was inevitable, not only because so much Greek art actually represented myths or mythologized, that is personalized, religion, but also because with effects even more comprehensive, mythology had generally become a heuristic principle in Greek thought, by which to search out an ever-growing fund of insights into both nature and human conduct. At this stage one can say that the gods were both real as the wielders of forces, and fictional as human metaphors. Myth, of course, must be regarded as a form of literature even though it be handed down only by word of mouth, not in writing; yet most Greek myths were actually committed to writing during the sixth century, if not before. The Greek world simply was a world founded on literature, intellectually, because myth, which is a literary form of narrative, had come to mould the common modes of knowledge. As a matter of course, artists shared these universal interests and experiences, like everyone else. But as a consequence an entire new dimension of meaning and connotations accrued to the visual images of art, beyond that primary symbolism which all images convey by themselves as representations of reality. The power of the artist to bind the ineffable and abstract in concrete and visible forms was thus enormously extended. While the art which grew from these notions was literary, it rarely was literal, in the sense of furnishing illustrations to given texts. It contributed freely in its own concrete ways to the common stock of experience, memories, and insights. [1] [p. 144]

1. For general information, see H. L. Lorimer, Homer and the Monuments [London, 1950]; also above p. 442, Note 1.

[Brendel, Otto F. Etruscan Art. New York: Penquin Books. 1978.]



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