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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 
CAMWS and the Classical Journal:

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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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