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The Ancient Greek Hero – Hour 7 – Tombs and Chariots

The sign of the hero in visual and verbal art.

English: Chariot rounding the turning post. Bl...

Chariot rounding the turning post.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This hour was a little different as we are looked at images as well as reading text. The images were in the main vase paintings. There were quite a few texts to read but many of them were short and served to emphasise the ritual of athletics including chariot racing. The complex form of chariot racing included in funeral games was referred to by the ancient Greeks as the event of “apobates” or “apobati” meaning “he who gets off”. In this sort of chariot race the athlete in full armour jumped off the chariot and hit the ground running.

In his introduction to this hour Gregory Nagy tells us that it is here we will start to see the relevance of Myth and history to the present.

Key word

sēma (plural sēmata), – meaning ‘sign, signal, symbol; tomb, tomb of a hero’. Using hero here is in the ancient Greek sense of someone who is worshipped after death. A representation of the tomb of a hero is also called a sēma. An important word that derives from this noun sēma is the verb sēmainein ‘meaning to depict, indicate by way of a sēma’.

Modern words that derive from sēma include semantic and semiotic.

Achilles and Patroklos live and die the same way.  Once they are dead the living remember them the same way, as cult heroes. That remembrance is indicated by the word sēma, which is the ultimate sign of the hero.

The sign of the hero at a chariot race.

The word sēma appears in two particular verses from a passage where Nestor gives instructions to Antilokhos.  He is detailing the driving skills required for a charioteer to make a left turn around a landmark which is meant to be used as a turning point in the course of a chariot race that is being planned as the culminating athletic event of the Funeral Games for Patroklos. In the words of Nestor, this landmark is either a sēma ‘tomb’ of an unnamed hero of the distant past (XXIII 331) or it was once upon a time a turning point, a nussa (332), used for chariot races that must have taken place in such a distant past. This sēma or ‘tomb’ is to be understood as the tomb of Patroklos, which he will share with Achilles. To understand this is to understand the sēma or ‘sign’ given by the hero Nestor:

 Text A

|326 I [= Nestor] will tell you [= Antilokhos] a sign [sēma], a very clear one, which will not get lost in your thinking. |327 Standing over there is a stump of deadwood, a good reach above ground level. |328 It had been either an oak or a pine. And it hasn’t rotted away from the rains. |329 There are two white rocks propped against either side of it. |330 There it is, standing at a point where two roadways meet, and it has a smooth track on both sides of it for driving a chariot. |331 It is either the tomb [sēma] of some mortal who died a long time ago |332 or was a turning point [nussa] in the times of earlier men. |333 Now swift-footed radiant Achilles has set it up as a turning point [terma plural]. |334 Get as close to it as you can when you drive your chariot horses toward it, |335 and keep leaning toward one side as you stand on the platform of your well-built chariot, |336 leaning to the left as you drive your horses. Your right-side horse |337 you must goad, calling out to it, and give that horse some slack as you hold its reins, |338 while you make your left-side horse get as close as possible [to the turning point], |339 so that the hub will seem to be almost grazing the post |340 – the hub of your well-made chariot wheel. But be careful not to touch the stone [of the turning point], |341 or else you will get your horses hurt badly and break your chariot in pieces. |342 That would make other people happy, but for you it would be a shame, |343 yes it would. So, near and dear [philos] as you are to me, you must be sound in your thinking and be careful.(Iliad XXIII 326-343)

We know from evidence that the tomb of a cult hero could be used as a turning point of a chariot race. The heroes spirit was capable of “spooking” the horses. In the passage there seems to be two interpretations of the landmark. It is either a hero’s tomb  or a turning point. The tomb of the unnamed hero becomes the same landmark as the turning point of a chariot race from the distant past. That is because the unnamed hero from the distant past becomes a named hero from the immediate present of the Iliad. That hero is Patroklos who the race is intended to honour.

The ambivalent wording of Nestor qualifies as an ainos. There are three qualifications that the ainos requires of its listeners. Antilokhos proves by way of his epic actions that he fits all three qualifications.

The sign in the visual arts

“Painting is silent poetry, but poetry is talking pictures. ” (Simonides as mediated by Plutarch)

The images we looked at were originally produced as paintings on vases (the one exception was a bronze plaque featuring in relief a scene that is parallel to a scene painted in one of the vase paintings). The copies are line drawings of the original images. They each qualified as a sēma in the sense of a ‘sign’.

Selected examples of signs in the visual arts

One particular figure qualifies as a sēma in a double sense, both as a ‘tomb’ and as a special ‘sign’ in its own right. Gregory Nagy said a lot about the image A1 and B1. Tiy can read all about it in his paper “An Apobatic Moment for Achilles as Athlete at the Festival of the Panathenaia” on the Center for Hellenic Studies site.

Image A1

This hydria (type of vase) was produced in Athens at some point during the last few decades of the sixth century BCE and is now housed in the museum of the university in Münster.

Münster Hydria (Photo Credit : Center for Hellenic Studies)

All we can see of the chariot in this picture  is a trace of a wheel.  Another missing part is the head of the figure  running on the left. It is a male figure, as we can see from his coloring. In Black Figure painting, male skin is ordinarily painted black, while female skin is painted white. On the right edge of the picture, the missing parts are the head and most of the body of a female figure that is standing in the way of the speeding horses. We can see a trace of one of her hands, painted white, near the snout of the horse that is farthest away.

The horses driven are making a left turn around a tomb, which is pictured as a shining white egg-shaped mass rising out of the earth.  The positions of the horses correspond to Nestor’s words of advice but there are four rather than two horses. The tomb is being guarded a lion. The tomb corresponds to what archaeologists describe as a tumulus covered with white stucco and also to the turning point for a chariot race. Levitating over the tumulus in the center of this picture is the miniature figure of a fully armed warrior, this is called a homunculus.

The figure who is running at ground zero here is Achilles and the homunculus is Petroklos. Above the tumulus and to the right of the homunculus is are five letters ΦΣΥΧΕ telling us who the hero is : these letters spell out the word psūkhē or’spirit’.

Image B1

Hydria: Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 63.473; painting on the body of the vase; Stähler no. 15.

Boston Hydria (Photo Credit : Center for Hellenic Studies)

Here too in we see a tomb in the form of a shining white tumulus .  Whereas the tomb in Image A1 was being guarded by a fierce lion, the guardian of the tomb in Image B1 is a snake. There is again a homunculus hovering over the tomb. The homunculus  is wearing a full set of armor. This figure is endowed with a pair of wings and is identified by lettering painted on the picture of the tomb ΠΑΤΡΟΚΛΩ. These letters spell out Patroklō, the name Patroklos (in the dative case: so, ‘for Patroklos’).

The naked corpse of Hector is being dragged behind the speeding chariot. We know it is Hector because the letters painted over the corpse spell out ΕΚΤΡΩΡ, that is Hektōr (the superfluous Ρ in the sequence is simply a mistake in the spelling of the name).

In the second of the two passages where Achilles is pictured in the act of dragging the corpse of Hector behind his speeding chariot, we are told that he drives this chariot three times around the tomb of Patroklos, and the word referring to the tomb here is sēma. The god Apollo uses his healing power to keep on preserving the corpse of Hector. The other gods are feeling pity for Hector, and a proposal is made that Hermes the divine messenger should hide Hector’s body. All the gods are in favor except for Hērā, Athena, and Poseidon,  their opposition leads to further deliberation in a council of the gods. They decide to send the goddess Iris, messenger of the Olympians, on a double mission: first she goes off to summon Thetis, who Zeus asks to persuade her son to return the corpse of Hector to Priam; then Iris goes to Priam to give him a divine plan designed to make it possible for him to persuade Achilles to return the corpse of his son.

Iris can be seen here in Image B1 at the moment she descends before her feet have touched the ground. She beseeches Achilles that the dragging of the corpse of Hector must stop. It is a gesture of lament:she is shown raising her arms, indicating the need for pity.

Image A2

Hydria: Münster, Wilhelms-Universität, 565; painting on the shoulder of the vase.

Here is a council of the gods, attending are Zeus and Hermes at center; the chief of the gods is shown wielding his thunderbolt, while the messenger of the gods holds his heraldic staff or kerykeion. Further to the right of Hermes is the goddess Athena, armed with shield and aegis. We can’t see who is on the right of Athena because of a break in the painting. On the left is Dionysus, wearing a garland of ivy and holding a grapevine. Between Dionysus and Zeus is a goddess making a gesture: one hand is uplifted, while she holds a rod with the other hand. Mr Nagy maintains that this is the goddess Iris holding  a kerykeion corresponding to the one held by Hermes.

In Image A1 we don’t see Hector’s corpse. The council of the gods in A2 is better understood if we connect it with the corresponding picture of the speeding chariot team in Image B1 . Vase paintings of such scenes from Greek myths are selective in what they include and exclude.

Image B2

Hydria: Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 63.473; painting on the shoulder of the vase.

Here in we see the figure of a chariot driver wearing the generic full-length white gown of a charioteer and driving a four-horse chariot at full speed, while a figure in full armor is running toward the center of the picture, brandishing his spear. Racing after the chariot we see another speeding four-horse chariot, and this one is driven by the goddess Athena; meanwhile, another figure in full armor is running toward the center of the picture, and he too is brandishing a spear. This is  Hēraklēs, as for the fully armed running figure on our right, he is the hero Kyknos, son of the god Arēs. The story of the mortal combat in chariot fighting between Hēraklēs and Kyknos is recounted in the Hesiodic Shield of Herakles, where we see that both Hēraklēs and Kyknos leap to the ground from their chariots and then run at full speed toward each other,

The drivers are keeping their speeding chariots close to the running combatants. Though it seems at first as if Kyknos is running in the opposite direction of his chariot team, this optical effect is deceptive, since the charioteer of Kyknos is making a left turn here, starting to circle back along the curvature of the vase.  At the center of the picture  is a figure who seems to be intervening at the point where the two running warriors will come to blows; on the basis of other paintings we may infer that the figure in the center here is the god Zeus. While this intervention is taking place in the picture painted on the shoulder of the Boston Hydria, Image B2, the figure of Iris is intervening at the center of the action in the corresponding picture painted below on the body of this same vase, Image B1.

The importance of the pictures

We looked at many more pictures depicting tombs and chariots. I won’t repeat them all here. They told a consistent story about the furious retaliation of Achilles in response to the killing of Patroklos by Hector. The story is comparable with the corresponding story about the retaliation as told in the Iliad. What is most similar about these two stories is the ultimate outcome: the fury of Achilles will be assuaged, and he will ultimately show pity. But there are significant differences in detail.

When Achilles is dragging the corpse of Hector in the Iliad, he is driving his own chariot. In the pictures we have seen, by contrast, Achilles leaps out of his speeding chariot and then runs alongside it while his charioteer drives on, continuing to drag the corpse.

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  1. […] The Ancient Greek Hero – Hour 7 – Tombs and Chariots (louisecharente.wordpress.com) […]

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