Pictorial representations of monkeys and simianesque creatures in Greek art
"Primates are visually disturbing to many--at least I thought so when I was young. Their physical and behavioral similarities with humans were uncomfortable and jarring to my developing mind. As an adult, however, I have become fascinated by these "disturbing" qualities and how they facilitate human interactions with, reactions to, and beliefs about the animal. While visiting the St. Louis Zoo, for example, I watched children display an array of emotions--laughter, fear, excitement, and confusion--when viewing chimpanzees. They noticed especially the similarities between "us" and "them:" their hands, which have five fingers; their gesticulations; and to some extent their eyes, which are intense and emotive. Adults notice these parallels as well, but in less innocent ways: for instance, there is a silverback gorilla named Shabani, located at the Higashiyama Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Nagoya, Japan, that draws crowds of women who find his buff physique, piercing eyes with visible sclera, and gentle manner towards his young both handsome and alluring. In other words, women are attracted to him because he vaguely resembles a muscular, fatherly, human man. Despite the parallels between our species, which we understand is the result of evolution, we are still conscious of the differences between us, as humans, and them, as animals. This is because we live in an era that gives us unlimited access to information of all kinds. Simians, in particular, we study in school, can research on the internet, or visit nearly any species at a local zoo. What about an ancient person, however, who perhaps only knew about primates through imported art and travelers' tales? Would they have known the difference? If so, to what extent? Though simians are not native to Greece or the Mediterranean, they are frequently represented in Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Phoenician, Cypriot, and Anatolian art, while the Greeks occasionally depicted monkeys. The Greek renditions, in particular, encompass a broad range of media: vase painting, relief, portable sculpture (terracotta, bronze, stone, ivory, gold, silver, bone, amber, lapis lazuli, glass), pithemorphic aryballoi, seals, fibulae, mosaic, gems, and jewelry. Greek monkeys crouch or squat, touch their mouths or heads, embrace their young, eat and drink, and perform various human activities (e.g. ride horses, play music, dance, make bread, wear clothing, and hold manmade objects) and lewd actions (e.g. masturbation, "flipping the bird," and copulation). Such images are likely inspired by the art of Egypt and Mesopotamia, where simians were imported, sanctified, worshipped, illustrated, and kept as pets for thousands of years prior to their appearance in the visual materials of Greece. For this dissertation, I analyzed two-dimensional, or pictorial, representations of monkeys in Greek art. Every example exhibits two distinct similarities: first, they are consistently marginalized, or rendered as a peripheral character, within larger narratives. This occurs in one of two ways: with respect to their 1) physical location, or placement on the object (e.g. on/near frieze lines, between borders or frames, among ornamentation, or beneath handles) or 2) bodily form (e.g. most are nude, hairy, and ugly); this latter category includes lewd or lowly postures and gestures (e.g. genital rubbing, pointing, dancing, crouching, and tight-rope walking). The second similarity these creatures share is iconographic inconsistency: their physical bodies, postures, gestures, sizes, and levels of detail differ within each image; no two are alike. Since all pictorial representations of Greek monkeys are marginalized and iconographically inconsistent, I have included all the ones I discovered in this survey. Three-dimensional objects, like sculpture, are often too fragmentary to label with certainty and thus were not considered. One of the clearest examples of locational marginalization occurs on the MacMillan aryballos (Cat. 3.4): a lion-spouted vessel, only 6.8 centimeters high, that was used for the storage and the application of salves and ointments, likely by athletes in the gymnasium. The body features scenes of processing warriors, horsemen, and animals. Between the legs of one of the cavalrymen crouches a small monkey, who waves its fist as the rider passes by. As a diminutive element on a small vase, the monkey is nearly imperceptible to the naked eye, which is a strong indication that the maker deliberately chose to include it among the humans, horses, and other animals. Conversely, physically marginalized monkeys are rendered in larger, more noticeable ways. A clear example is featured on a red-figure olpe, now in the Louvre (Cat. 4.3): a thin, nude, emaciated simian reaches for a young, beautiful boy's apple; the boy physically turns away from the creature, either out of disgust or to protect his snack. Previous scholars, like Greenlaw (2011) and McDermott (1938), have surveyed simian art in the Mediterranean but none of their publications attempt to explain the method of representation and/or meaning of monkeys in Greek art. In general, such images are dismissed as humorous interpolations or ornamental filler, like the birds and small animals that appear on many Geometric, Proto-Attic and Corinthian, and Archaic vessels. Though seemingly insignificant within larger narrative contexts, I believe these marginalized creatures hold meaning. In addition to monkeys, a series of simianesque creatures, or humanoid figures with monkey-like characteristics, are also marginalized in larger narratives. Puzzlingly, only a few occur prior to the representation of monkeys in the experimental Protoperiods; most appear in Archaic and Classical art. Scholars often identify them as human, satyr, or monster; they are rarely associated with simians even though they share distinct similarities with the animal, like face shape, posture, and gesture. Additionally, as with the monkey motifs, scholars rarely attempt to explain their locational and physical marginalization, and corpora on Greek simian imagery do not make note of them because they do not represent the animal for certain. This dissertation surveys pictorial representations of monkeys and simianesque creatures in Geometric, Archaic, and Classical art in an attempt to explain the creature's presence as a secondary, marginal element in larger narratives; the Bronze Age and Hellenistic Period are explored as bookends to this phenomenon. It seems evident that the use of simians in Greek art is deliberate and significant based on the following: Greek authors' disdainful acknowledgement of the similarities between humans and simians, the locational and physical marginalization of these creatures in art, and the clear disconnect between these motifs and the Eastern sources that inspired them. In an attempt to explain the presence of these marginalized and iconographically inconsistent monkeys in Greek art, I developed the following questions, which I will work to answer over the course of this dissertation. 1) Are the visual and textual representations of monkeys disconnected, or is there a unified view? Textual descriptions of simians are often derisive and judgmental, but are these sentiments evident in Greek art as well? 2) The Greeks' monkey and simianesque motifs were obviously influenced by imported Eastern and Egyptian art, which had been flooding westward since the Bronze Age. Were the meanings and functions of these foreign simian motifs, which often had religious undertones, imported as well? If so, how long did these influences last? 3) How are these creatures represented when part of decorative systems, or larger narratives, in pictorial Greek art? What are the uniformities and inconsistences? 4) There is evidence of taxonomic tension in Greek texts regarding the classification of simians, i.e. they are simultaneously human and animal. Does this tension suggest other, preexisting models by which to understand these motifs? If so, which ones relate most to simians and why?"--Chapter 1, Introduction.
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