Friday, April 3, 2009

The Working Stiff in Art: Ancient Greece.

There are those cultures where workers are scarce to non-existent in their art. Ancient Greece was one of them. On those rare occasions when Greek art shows people at work, it is usually on a vase painting. The red and black figure vases that we see in solemn display in museums around the world were once the tableware and centerpieces of symposia, those competitive parties of conversation, drinking, and sex that were absolutely nothing like a modern symposium.
Ancient Greece was an aristocratic warrior culture. Labor, even skilled labor, was a grim necessity of life, and despised as such. That a man had to depend on a trade or a business for a living was a misfortune, not an honor. The only activities considered fit for free men were war, sports (a subset of war; Greek athletics have their origin in military training), and politics. The market was for slaves and women (even in the sexist ancient world, Greece stands out).
Slavery was a fact of life in the ancient world, but ancient Greece (as well as ancient Rome) was unusually dependent upon it. Most slaves in the ancient world began as the vanquished in war. In ancient times, the victor had absolute power and rights over the vanquished. Whole cities could be, and were, sold into slavery. Kidnapping was also a steady source of slaves. Captives who did not fetch a ransom were sold on the slave market. Apparently in Greece as in most of the rest of the ancient world, slavery was about status and not about race or nationality. Most of the huge slave population of ancient Greece was Greek.
In most of the ancient world, slaves were farm workers, miners, quarry workers, household servants, and bedroom toys. Greece went a step further incorporating slavery into skilled labor and manufacturing, even banking.
As we might expect, slaves are largely invisible in Greek art. We get a rare glimpse of slaves in Greek tombstones where a faithful slave will be shown with deceased. A slave girl waits upon her seated mistress in the grave stele of a woman named Hegeso.


Free workers and craftsmen are even more scarce in Greek art. As mentioned above, when they appear at all is is on vessels for parties where they were probably intended to be the butt of fun. So far as I know, there are no gods who preside over agricultural labor, but plenty who preside over agricultural products beginning with Demeter.

Skilled craftsmen did have their god, Hephaistos. Since the Greeks allegorized just about everything, the skilled laborer appears in allegorized form as the god Hephaistos.

Here is Hephaistos with the goddess Thetis presenting the new armor he made for Achilles in a 5th century BC red figure ceramic painting.

It is telling of what kind of esteem the Greeks had for skilled labor that Hephaistos was the only one of the gods to be described as ugly and lame. His skill is a source of wonder and renown, but the man who possesses it is despised because he works with his hands (at something other than war). Amazingly, he was the (much cuckolded) husband of the goddess Aphrodite. The goddess of love was married to a skilled steady provider, but just couldn't keep her eye off the handsome glamorous god of war, Ares.
It was Hephaistos' axe that caused Athena's birth. Hephaistos struck Zeus in the head with his axe, splitting it open, and out popped fully grown and armed Athena. For this reason, Hephaistos was specially revered in Athens with his own temple in the Agora.

Hephaistos (with crutch) appears seated with Athena on the Parthenon frieze.

Below are some views of the Temple of Hephaistos in the Agora in Athens.






The temple once contained a famous cult image of the god leaning on his crutch by the sculptor Alkamenes.

4 comments:

Leonardo Ricardo said...

Thank you...I too was dazzled by Ares...it happened in Athens but somehow the only relic is left in my mind...I´d forgotten. Thanks again.

David G. said...

I love the pictures of the Temple.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

We really haven't moved so long from Ancient Greece, have we?

JCF said...

Xena's iconic weapon, the chakram, was either created by Hephaestus, or was made of a metal superior even to the god's.

And Xena eventually killed Hephaestus (when he joined with most of the other Greek gods, in attempting to kill Xena's daughter, Eve).

I know y'all probably don't care---but as the sole apostle of the Chapel of Xena, it is important to me to pass on the kerygma, wherever I can! ;-)