‘Homeric’ Art in Ancient Greece: the case of Polyphemos


Dr Amy C Smith, University of Reading

27 June 2005


Greek artists like Homer drew their material from a large body of multicultural tales. The ogre Polyphemos, the man-eating Cyclops, star of book 9 of Homer's Odyssey, for example, emerged from Near Eastern folklore. Greek artists—visual and literary alike—were not mere illustrators or copyists of the tales that they had heard. So, when we see ancient images of tales we know from Homer, we can't assume that they are illustrations of - or even necessarily inspired by—Homer's ‘writings’: But that's just the simple story. Literary and visual culture do create legends and help society to modify its legends: we need look no farther than Hollywood's Greek and Roman heroes to realize that. In this paper I will discuss how and why visual artists may have made their choices—stylistic, iconographic, or other. Insofar as this relates to Homer the question isn't so much why didn't the artists follow his version—they didn't need to—but how and why did they, it at all? In so doing I will mediate between two strands in the study of Greek art, represented by Luca Giuliani and Jocelyn Penny Small. In a rather theoretical vein, Giuliani has begun to draw our attention to the truth that before the 17th century and the intellectualisation of art history—the point at which learned men customarily attached stories they had read to the pictures they found—images were important in their own right. Simply put, visual artists had their own creative moments, often in ignorance or even defiance of literary works. This legacy takes us at least back to ancient Greece. Yet Small rightly notes that ‘Artists depend on an amalgam of textual and pictorial traditions.’ This underlies my thesis, which is that the short-term reception of ‘Homer's’ Polyphemos accepts Homer's characterization as just one of many cultural evocations of a story of hero versus ogre that indivisibly entwines folktale with myth. I will call our ogre Polyphemos throughout my paper, to distinguish him from the larger group of Cyclopes who don't necessarily belong to the same tradition, let alone sub-plot. This is because Homer calls him Polyphemos, 'though all but one of our artists don't. In fact it is interesting that few of these artists—most from the Archaic period (8th through 6th centuries BC), whose art was rife with labels of depicted characters—labelled Polyphemos or any of the other characters. It is not merely that Polyphemos was famous enough or easy enough to distinguish: this didn't stop them from labelling the fountain, for example, on the François vase, in Florence (fig. 1).

I focus on the short-term reception of things 'Homeric', until ca. 400BC, for two reasons. First, to draw your attention to the fact that the art of this period, if it is taken to respond to literary and or other cultural impulses —as it should be—is indeed a matter of reception. Scholars tend to have a remarkably synchronic view of Greek antiquity, especially its art. But we study the reception of Shakespeare in the 4 centuries after he lived, so just as fruitfully, we can and should study the reception of Homerica in the several centuries after the time when ‘Homer’ might have lived and worked. Second, the period covered by these vases, ca. 600-400BC, is an unprecedented and unrivalled period in figural decoration of ceramic vases. These figures came in large part from myth, and this period thus provides us with an amazing range of relatively small, cheap, and well preserved ancient sources for myth and other aspects of Greek antiquity.

After some comments on the vase images alluding to the Cyclops episode, I will present a close study of the relatively few images depicting the actual blinding of Polyphemos. The scarcity and variety in representations of this scene are in themselves interesting statements on the reception of the Polyphemos adventure in visual culture. A close comparative study of these representations is revealing in other ways.

Odysseus clinging to Ram

copyright: Ure Museum; http://uredb.reading.ac.uk/cgi-bin/ure/uredb.cgi?rec=50.4.25


Susan Woodford, in her survey of Images of Myths in Classical Antiquity, perpetuates the unsubstantiated claim that the blinding of Polyphemos—as shown on the neck of the so-called ‘Eleusis amphora’, a proto-Attic amphora from ca. 670 BC (fig. 2)—was popular in ancient art. She even goes so far as to say that the actual blinding is the subplot of the Polyphemos episdode that is most commonly shown in ancient art because it represents the exciting climax of the story. But the scene of Odysseus and his men escaping from the cave, clinging to the underbellies of Polyphemos’ sheep (e.g. fig. 3), is far more popular in vase painting.

The blinding episode is the point at which, according to Homer, Odysseus and his companions took action to escape from their doom: Cyclops had trapped them in his cave and lunched on a few of their number. So Odysseus takes a sharp, wooden stake, cut from a massive club discovered in the cave, and, along with four of his men, plunges it into the eye of the drunken, sleeping giant. If one eliminates Roman art from the equation, there are, to my knowledge, only 16 pieces of art, which range in media—from reliefs to vase paintings—from Classical antiquity. I include here the five examples (one third of the sample) that are probably Etruscan, because these vases are contemporary with my chosen period and are products of a culture that readily amalgamated Greek art, and even employed Greek artists. If I eliminate the three bronze reliefs and alabaster urn, because of my functional focus on vase paintings, then we are left with 12 vase images of the blinding of Polyphemos (see table). While this is a fine number for a case study it is a remarkably small number given the 50 or more images of Polyphemos' sheep from the same period, and a small number in relation to the tens of thousands of vase paintings that show other mythical scenes.

These examples range through the 7th century, the latter half of the 6th century, and one at the end of the 5th century, no later than 420 BC. Whatever the date of the Odyssey, assuming it is before the 7th century BC, none of our visual images predate it. There is, of course, some possibility that a transcription, consolidation, and/or interpolation of the Odyssey could have postdated some of them. With regard to function: of the four main ('though overlapping) functions of such ceramic vessels in antiquity—dining, weddings, cult, and funerary commemoration—it seems only the first and last might apply to Polyphemos. A dining element may be inferred in the case of the open shapes—a Laconian cup (fig. 4) and an Attic skyphos—and several of the closed shapes—amphorai, kraters, a hydria and an oinochoe. If not for its unappetising element—the allusion to cannibalism—the Polyphemos episode, as indeed most of Odysseus’ advent-ures, would of course suit dining, as the main theme of much of the Odyssey, and certainly the Polyphemos story, is hospitality. This is not necessarily ignored in the art, yet only emphasized on the Laconian cup (fig. 4), which frankly shows the giant with human legs in hand, in mid feast, and Odysseus offering him wine in a kantharos. Yet at least half of the others (as noted in the chart) allude to Polyphemos’ feast that preceded and facilitated the blinding.

The dining context would account for all of our vase paintings of Polyphemos’ blinding, with the notable exception of a Corinthian alabastron. Alabastra, generally perfumed oil jars, seem to have been created and replicated with Orientalizing images. The allusion to a Trojan War hero is thus appropriate, and the stronger allusion to a traveling hero suits the exotic perfume, that may have traveled afar in the Corinthian alabastron, as well as the burial to which it may have been consigned. Some of the kraters and amphorai may have been eventually used in burials, but the Eleusis amphora, which housed a child burial, is the only certain funerary usage of this image. Here it is combined with an even more abstracted scene of Perseus and the Gorgons (fig. 2): the two scenes allude similarly to the travel associated with death and to a heroic victory over near certain death. The funerary message of Odysseus' victory over death at the hands of Polyphemos is manifest, at least, in the popularity of the escape scene on lekythoi—which were used as grave offerings—and the common use of Polyphemos figurines in the arts of South Italy, e.g. figurines, from a few centuries later. I should briefly clarify this idea of victory over death: from the perspective of those burying the dead with such images, this is a hope that the burial is not an end, but the end of a small episode or even a new beginning. Odysseus' victories over Kirke and the Sirens also took on the same importance as symbols of 'victory over death', and were likewise popular in funerary art of Etruria and South Italy.

I have broken down important elements of the Polyphemos episode in the table, so that my remaining discussion will review the highlights of this analysis. First, there is the appearance of this Cyclops. Polyphemos was, of course, not quite like our smithy Cyclopes. As did Homer, the Greek artists consistently regard Polyphemos as a giant, somewhat larger than Odysseus, at least. And the artists working in Etruria follow this vision with the exception of Aristonothes, the artist who signed this remarkable krater in Rome (fig. 5). The main visual effect of this man on man-sized ogre confrontation is that Odysseus and his colleagues approach Polyphemos with a much more comfortable—and probably effective—underarm grasp of the weapon than is customary. Polyphemos is always bearded, which must at least suggest a combination of maturity and outdoor living.

How many eyes did Polyphemos start with? Scholars report that Hesiod (in Theogony 144-45) was the first to note that each Cyclops had a single eye in the middle of his forehead. While Homer tacitly followed this convention (with his use of the singular in 9.383 and elsewhere) as Robert Mondi has pointed out, he rather avoids the philological problem of inconsistency across the literary tradition by being inexplicit. Just as the number of eyes was variable in the literary tradition, so it was in the visual tradition. Pierre Courbin, in his preliminary publication of a proto-Argive fragment (fig. 6), enthusiastically followed an ancient explanation, from a certain Philoxenus, that Polyphemos, born two-eyed (like the other Cyclopes) had lost an eye in an accident, previous to his encounter with Odysseus, but this sort of explanation forces consistency on a evolving process, and indeed an art form that need not be so constrained. In fact, the number of Polyphemos' eyes doesn't affect Homer's story, nor that of his successors, nor should it affect our reading of his or any other artworks. It was a problem only insofar as each artist had to negotiate how best to present the eyes in his chosen format. The true one-eyed Cyclops is indeed rare in scenes of the Polyphemos episode. A Pseudo-Chalcidian black-figure amphora from Vulci (fig. 7) circa 520, shows the blinding of a surely monoculist giant, as the eye, largened perhaps by the stake, pushes into the profile of the forehead; the same effect is witnessed on the Villa Giulia's Caeretan Hydria.

Do we ever see a Polyphemos with two eyes? It is most common for the artists to infer that Polyphemos, seen in profile view (either with a frontal or profile eye), indeed had two eyes, as on the proto-Argive krater fragment (fig. 6). But the two eyes, side by side, are rarely revealed, because—up 'til the later 5th century—faces were not shown in 3/4 view. Artists would not have shown Polyphemos facing head on (in a manner that is said to be apotropaic meaning 'warding off evil'). Undoubtedly this is because the stake and its target would have been difficult to render effectively. Our Lucanian artist, the so-called Cyclops Painter, named after a krater in the British Museum (fig. 8), takes full advantage of his artistic abilities—through an excellent frontal headed Cyclops on his 3/4-view reclining body—without having to show the stake in eye. This scene is not so much synoptic as inclusive: we do not see the actual blinding, but the anticipatory moment. While Odysseus directs his men to prepare the stake, other men (at left) fetch firewood to prepare to burn the eye. And the giant, drunken (as indicated by the cup and ladle) and collapsed (as specified by Homer), looms in the foreground, as the focal point, so that we—the viewers—recall the blinding of his third eye, without having to be shown the act. Commentators may be correct that the production of this vase closely followed the precedence and popularity of Euripides’ Cyclops, a satyr play (note the satyrs running towards Cyclops from the right) yet this Polyphemos' three eyes are an important and identifying detail, otherwise unknown in Euripides or any other literary version: Euripides explicitly notes the single eye on line 21 of the Cyclops. Three eyes are also inferred in each of two representations of the profile Polyphemos, circa 500 BC. This Attic black-figure oinochoe (fig. 9) depicts the sleeping giant whose visible closed profile eye infers the presence of a similar eye on the left side of his face, yet the weapon is aimed at his forehead, presumably the locus of a third eye. A contemporary black-figure painter in the same workshop—that of the so-called Theseus Painter—opted for a similar reference to a third eye, 'though he placed that one on the giant's body.

This brings up the manner in which Odysseus and his men attacked Polyphemos. First, they got him drunk. Then they attached him with the pointed instrument. They always targeted the eye, but once there is the inference—replicated by Euripides—that they burned the eye. Again, this is shown on the Attic version in Paris (fig. 9) as well as a now lost amphora, once in Berlin. And it is inferred, as I have noted, on the Lucanian krater that shows the fetching of the firewood (fig. 8). I wouldn't argue that Euripides, in his Cyclops (line 632), followed this or any other representation, but in light of this vase—which dates to circa 500 BC—Euripides can no longer be given the credit with being the earliest source of this burning detail.

On two examples—the two vases now in Paris—the targeted eye is not specifically shown. On the black-figure oinochoe I have just mentioned (fig. 9), the weapon is aimed at the centre of the giant's forehead, the presumed location of the third eye that isn't, however, shown. Presumably this detail of the third eye—or at least a targeted eye that is different from the normative pair of eyes in the middle of the face—would have seemed familiar to the audience, so that the painter opted for inference rather than explicitness. On the earlier Laconian cup in Paris (fig. 4), however, while the stake is at the level of the giant's 'normal' eye, it seems to slide past his profile, and to terminate on the right side of Polyphemos' face, perhaps in the (not visible but inferred) right eye. Yet a small pair of incised lines on the bridge of the nose might be meant to suggest the presence of a third/targeted eye, between the 'normative' eyes.

What about the weapon? In most images it is best described as a stake, thicker and longer than a spear. The weapon on the proto-Argive fragment (fig. 6) is undoubtedly the thinnest, while the last one, on the Lucanian krater (fig. 8: it starts as a tree trunk) is the thickest. The angle at which they inserted the stake does not seem significant to me from a storytelling perspective, but is truly a compositional matter for the visual artist. It is interesting to note, however, that the downward thrust specified by Homer, is known on only one vase, the Pseudo-Chalcidian amphora in London (fig. 7). This effect is enabled through the artist's bending the angle of the stake towards the giant, so that the stake isn’t straight. It might seem at first that this artist cheated, yet the use of a bent stake would be a clever, if simple, means of enabling torsion when they ‘drill’ the stake into the eye. The preferred position for the stake, horizontal and above the head, as shown on the Corinthian alabastron in New York, is simply necessitated by two important facts: first, more than two Greeks are thought to have held the stake (to summon enough power), and could not effectively do so unless they held it horizontally; second, the Greeks are shorter than the giant, and could not have hoped to reach his eye unless they held the stake above their heads. An interesting inversion, on the Attic oinochoe in Paris, (fig. 9) is the upward thrust of the stake held from below (a downward thrust would be hard to effect in light of the greater height of the giant). This is because here only two coordinated Greeks hold the stake. It works for this composition: here, as elsewhere, the details of how many men actually held the stake, or indeed how many eyes Polyphemos

Greek (and Etruscan) vases (compared to Homer's Odyssey and Euripides' Cyclops) depicting the blinding of Polyphemos


18 D Williams, ‘The beginnings of the so-called ‘Pontic’ Group & other Italian black-figure fabrics,’ AEI MNESTOS. Miscellanea di Studi per Mauro Cristofani. Prospettiva Suppl. 2 (2004) 7, ns. 35-36.

had, seem to have been less important to the artist than the relatively new element of the burning of the eye.

Finally, what of the giant's response. In almost half of the scenes, only one of them Etruscan, the giant seems to hold the stake, as if to help the Greeks to insert it. But surely it is just his response to try to remove it, 'though in one example, the Proto-Argive krater fragment (fig. 6), he seems to be reaching for the wound. Here, as in all of the examples except the London examples, the giant is seated. Reclining or leaning back on rocks shows either effects of drunkenness and/or sleep, as specified by Homer, or that the wound has caused him to slump. It is perhaps the single most important element that might elicit a sympathetic response from the viewer, or at least lend some plausibility to the image.

To summarize, the variations in details in the visual representations of the blinding of Polyphemos in Greek vase painting indeed suggest a varied, 'though limited interest in this subject, on a very individualised basis. The variations cannot be explained by the fact that artists came from different parts of Greece, nor is a significant difference between Etruscan and Greek versions, except that the only true one-eyed giants are Etruscan (figs. 5 & 7). Were the Etruscans overly influenced by Euripides or did they have other mythic sources, some of which may be unknown to us? On the other hand, the pseudo-Chalcidian image (fig. 7) -highly individualizing because it shows only one Greek - in other ways seems closer to its Attic counterparts than to other Etruscan examples. This is not surprising: although the fabric of pseudo-Chalcidian has been located on a scientific basis in the Etruscan sphere, perhaps as far south as the Bay of Naples, scholars have long acknowledged that it is hard to pin down because of its stylistic and compositional similarities to the Attic black-figure style which it imitated.

Greek vase painters - at least in the case of Polyphemos -created their images ad hoc in response to: first, the space allowed in the chosen decorative field of the vessel; second, to the supposed or presumed function of the vessel; and third, to variations in the story as it might have evolved in the oral and/or literary tradition, that would have made the image suitably recognisable to their audiences. In no case is it clear that one artist copied another or that two artists followed a specific precedent, either in visual or literary arts. Yet the Lucanian krater - thanks to its inclusion of satyrs - seems to refer specifically to Euripides’ Cyclops or to another lost satyr play focusing on Polyphemos. The state of our knowledge of literary sources, let alone the oral tradition, of this tale, are too scant, however, to warrant speculation on which variations were promulgated by which authors. But the visual images attest to the liveliness and variability of the visual artists who remained relatively unconstrained in their artistic choices.

List of images:

1. Attic volute krater, ‘François Vase’, ca. 560 BC. Florence Archaeological Museum 4209: http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Arts/Francois.htm

2. Protoattic ‘Eleusis Amphora’, ca. 570 BC. Eleusis Archaeological Museum: http://www.utexas.edu/courses/cc302k/Greece/Greece_images/9903260002.jpg & http://www.culture.gr/2/21/211/21103m/e211cm02.html

3. Campanian lamp, ca. 100BC, showing Odysseus clinging to one of Polyphemos’ rams. Ure Museum (Reading) 50.4.25: http://lkws1.rdg.ac.uk/cgi-bin/ure/uredb.cgi?rec=50.4.25 (scroll down for images).

4. Laconian cup, ca. 550 BC. Paris, Cabinet des Médailles 190: http://www.educnet.education.fr/musagora/manuel/corriges/sq5/corperip.htm (2nd image: scroll down).

5. Etruscan krater signed by Aristonothos, ca. 630 BC. Rome, Conservatori 172: http://www.kzu.ch/fach/as/gallerie/myth/odysseus/od_pages/od_19.htm
6. Fragment of a Proto-Argive krater, ca. 650BC. Argos Archaeological Museum C149: http://www.holycross.edu/departments/classics/jhamilton/mythology/heroes...

7. Pseudo-Chalcidian amphora from Vulci, ca. 520 BC. London, British Museum 1866.8-5.3: http://www.holycross.edu/departments/classics/jhamilton/mythology/heroes...

8. Lucanian krater, ca. 420 BC, attributed to the Cyclops Painter. London, British Museum 1947.7-14.18: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/image?lookup=Perseus:image:1990.14....

9. Attic oinochoe, ca. 500 BC, attributed to the Painter of Theseus. Paris, Louvre F342: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/image?lookup=Perseus:image:1992.06....