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CJ-ONLINE  September 2009

CJ-ONLINE September 2009

Subject:

CJ Online 2009.09.06 LANGDON, Art and Identity in Dark Age Greece

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Art and Identity in Dark Age Greece, 1100–700 BCE. By SUSAN LANGDON.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xviii + 388. Cloth,
$90.00. ISBN 978–0–521–51321–0.

Order this text for $83.26 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit
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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at
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CJ Online 2009.09.06

Susan Langdon (L.) divides her study into seven sections: an introduction,
five chapters and an epilogue. The book contains an extensive bibliography
and a useful index, but endnotes make switching between the text and the
notes cumbersome.

In the introduction L. clearly defines the scope of her study, which is not
just another survey of Geometric art; rather, “the goal of this
discussion is to bring into focus the interplay of style, content,
function, and the sources from which artistic themes were constructed”
(p. 16). Furthermore, she limits her discussion as a means of identifying
the function “of visual representation in constructing a gendered society
in the Early Iron Age” (p. 16). Social change in Iron Age Greece, as
evidenced by its art, “…consciously or unconsciously maneuvered through
stages of maturation” for both males and females (p. 293). This is most
prevalent in the rituals associated with maturation, marriage and the
establishment of the oikos. L. does not limit her discussion to the art but
also draws upon the Homeric and Hesiodic corpora.

L. begins each chapter with one work of art that exemplifies her point.
Chapter 1 defines the premises and methods used in the subsequent chapters
to identify the gender rituals depicted in art. The focal point here is the
abduction-by-ship scene on the London louterion (BM 18999.2-19.1), which
demonstrates the connection between the nuptial ritual and abduction. This
vase illustrates “three iconographic elements” in Geometric abduction
scenes: the male grasps the woman’s wrist; “the man’s foot-on-board,
head-turned-back body stance;” and a contrast between the man’s active
and the woman’s passive role.

In Chapter 2 L. examines the maturation rites preparing boys for adulthood.
Her focal points are finds from Tiryns, primarily two head-enveloping clay
gorgon masks and a decorated terracotta shield that depicts a Greek warrior
slaying an Amazon. In the section “Trial by Amazon” L. examines the
combat scene in terms of the rituals associated with the maturation of a
youth. After discussing several mythic heroes who fought Amazons, she
concludes, “Amazons … are fearsome enough for heroes to build their
reputation on” (p. 69). While there have been attempts to identify the
shield-figure with various mythic heroes, “the name of the Amazon-slaying
hero on the Tiryns shield remains a question” (p. 80). The hero is a
generic figure who does not depict any particular individual. On the
reverse is a representation of a centaur, carrying a branch and surrounded
by deer; L. identifies him as Cheiron, the civilizing centaur who raised
and taught several heroes. The two scenes should thus be linked to the
maturation rituals for boys. The gorgon masks found with the shield were
also used in the maturation ritual, perhaps to terrorize the boys:
“Terror and humiliation are standard aspects of maturity rites, and masks
are particularly associated with aggression” (p. 74). In support of her
conclusion, L. draws upon other artifacts that appear linked to maturation
rites.

In Chapter 3 L. examines the “virtuous maiden” as a social type,
considering burial practices and the depiction of women in Geometric art.
Beginning in the Protogeometric period and continuing throughout the Iron
Age, a set of “gender-specific grave-goods” are found, mostly with
female burials. These offerings consist of terracotta dolls, models of
boots and chests, spiral hair ornaments and other pottery types that also
may be linked to maidens. L. concludes that the boots and chests are both
related to nuptial iconography. During the early Iron Age the richest
graves were those of adult women; but after the Middle Geometric period the
richest graves are of maidens. “Such evidence suggests special treatment
for the girl or young woman who (we assume) did not live to be married, but
received symbolic equipment to mark and complete her status” (p. 140).
Starting in the Late Geometric period artists move away from the world of
funerals and “gendered mourning” into the realm of festival and dancing
scenes. Females become more voluptuous and now have long hair, wear belts
(a common image of fertility), carry branches or wreaths and dance in a
group of maidens or a mixed gender group; they are often shown near snakes
(another symbol of fertility) and often in the countryside. The maidens are
grouped together, with the emphasis of the scene on the community of young
girls, not the individual; this is in contrast to the abduction scene,
where the emphasis is on the single maiden. Therefore, “the iconographic
attributes of the dancer and the abductee—hair, belt, branch, flower,
wreath, snake; beauty, vulnerability, desirability—demonstrate her
fertility and her willing participation in the protocols of bridal
preparation” (p. 173).

In Chapter 4 L. continues her examination of the maiden in art, in
particular in “narrative situations, invariably involving abduction”
(p. 17). A kantharos in Copenhagen (NM 727) depicting “man-eating lions,
Dipylon warriors, acrobatic male and female dancers, musicians, swordsmen,
and boxers,” united by the concept of a contest, leads into the world of
abduction and marriage. On the far left of one scene is a couple who are
linked by the image of conquest; he clasps both her hands, while she holds
a branch, as do the female dancers on the far right. She has been separated
from the other dancers. This scene introduces a new image: abduction from
the dance. Therefore, “if beauty and dance are the essence of the maiden,
then abduction is the defining image of the bride” (p. 201). The image on
the Copenhagen kantharos is not unique, and there are several other
representations of similar scenes on vases, seal impressions and gold
bands. Objects depicting abduction scenes were used in rituals in which
theyviewed by both men and women, and L. argues that abduction scenes
capture the tension created by the shift in relationship and loyalty of the
maiden.

In Chapter 5 the maiden and the youth are relocated “from the realm of
myth into the ‘reality’ of the Iron Age oikos” (p. 17). An Attic
stand in the Munich Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek (8936) is decorated
with a series of scenes; the central one depicts two men facing each other,
jointly holding a staff; behind each of them is a woman. The female on the
left grasps the arm of the man, wears a belt and holds a branch, symbols of
a maiden. The one on the right is smaller and does not wear a belt. Three
other scenes portray a hunter with his prey, two warriors dueling over the
fallen body of a third, and a duel between an armed warrior and an
unshielded “Siamese twin.” L. argues that the Munich stand was produced
for a specific event, most likely the celebration of a nuptial agreement or
wedding. The imagery portrays a man’s life as a series of events leading
to marriage. L. believes that much Late Geometric art represents the
domestication of the male. Hunting scenes no longer depict the lion-hunt;
the prey becomes foxes, deer or rabbits. Geometric themes now focus on
“domesticated violence”: ritualized contests that include dueling,
boxing, dancing, running and musical performances. In conclusion, “the
Munich stand provides a significant juxtaposition with the London abduction
krater” (p. 291). The art developed a new iconography depicting marriage
as a union with a dependent, passive maiden as a new social type.

In the Epilogue L. pulls together the themes discussed and notes that
viewing material culture through a social lens provides important insights
into art, society and religion. In Geometric society, boys were raised in
accordance with a heroic model, while the representation of maidens reveals
the importance of marriage. Therefore, “the emphasis in this study has
been on the utility of Geometric art for ordering and unifying communities
while recognizing that social boundaries were very much in flux” (p.
296).

As a whole, this work is well argued and documented; if there is any
criticism, it is that L. may at times overstretch the boundaries of her
discussion, bringing in artifacts that only tendentiously apply to her
discussion. She is aware of this, however, and early on defends her work:
“It is better to risk overstating the case than to leave the impression
that such readings apply only to a few select objects” (p. 18). This
study will become a standard reference for any future investigation of the
Geometric period.

PHILLIP V. STANLEY
San Francisco State University


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