Greeks, Non-Greeks, and the Imagery of Ritual

I am spending this term at the CHS researching a book provisionally titled The Representation of the Exotic in Athenian Ritual Imagery. Since my reasons for pairing these two topics – ritual and the exotic – are probably not immediately clear, I will use this first post to explain what led me to formulate my project in this way and what I’m trying to accomplish with it.

A major focus of my research is the vase painting of Archaic and Classical Athens. These periods left behind thousands of clay vessels decorated with subjects that range from heroic legends to festival imagery to dirty jokes, and these scenes are an unparalleled source of information about ways in which the Athenians imagined and understood the world. One recurring theme in the imagery is curiosity about the cultures with which the Greeks came into contact – the vases show us horsemen dressed like Thracians, archers dressed like Scythians, mythological kings dressed like Persians, and so on. I became interested in these scenes while working on my first book, a chapter of which focused on a strange group of vases that show banquets attended by men whose clothing seems to combine both Athenian and Near Eastern elements. Attempting to understand these scenes forced me to confront some limitations in the ways in which I was thinking about Athenian approaches to the foreign; this, in turn, led me rethink some current scholarly approaches to the subject. We have become accustomed to emphasizing the “otherness” of non-Greeks in the images – that is, we focus on the ways in which the images articulate a definition of the ideal Athenian by holding up the foreigner (whether a Scythian, a Persian, or an Ethiopian) as an example of what the Athenian is not. This has been a productive way of looking at the imagery, but there are some aspects that it does not explain very well.

For one thing, it isn’t very helpful when we are trying to understand the distinctions the painters drew between various groups of non-Greeks. Images of Andromeda’s exposure, for example, show the princess dressed in Persian garb and surrounded by African attendants, a pattern that is not well explained by the observation that Ethiopians and Persians were both viewed as “others.” Another difficulty with the current emphasis on the otherness of non-Greeks is that it downplays the enthusiasm with which the Athenians seem to have embraced many aspects of foreign cultures as their own.[1] Non-Greeks were “others,” certainly, but that is not all that they were.

These are some of the problems that led me to my current project, and I chose to investigate scenes of ritual for a few reasons.[2] First, ritual images that include foreign people, clothing, or objects are a diverse group – they include processions, animal sacrifices, mythical human sacrifices, Dionysian rites, and scenes associated with the Athenian festival of the Anthesteria, to name a few. At the same time, the corpus is fairly well defined, so I am hoping that it will offer a focused view onto some of the uses to which Athenian artists put the foreign.

My second reason for focusing on these scenes has to do with some important features of Greek ritual itself. The Greeks understood many of their religious rituals to have roots in remote antiquity, and some rituals seem to have involved practices that were believed to imitate ancestral customs.[3] The Athenians had many ways of imagining the remote past, but we know that at least sometimes they envisioned it as a time when everyone lived in the manner of “barbarians” (see Thucydides 1.6). The Greek past, in other words, was imagined to look a lot like the non-Greek present, and this connection may account for some exotic features in the ritual images. This is one avenue I plan to pursue in my research at the Center, although I don’t expect to arrive at a single explanation that fits every image I examine.

In general, I have two major goals for this project. First, I want to achieve a more nuanced understanding of Athenian artists’ approaches to representing the foreign. Second, I want to develop a fuller picture of the ways in which the Athenian experience of the foreign was mediated through ritual (or ideas about ritual). In future posts, I will discuss specific case studies in which I try to address some of the issues I’ve raised here. Since I arrived at the Center, I have been looking at vase paintings that show the Thracian king Lykourgos murdering his son Dryas. I think that these scenes may be drawing upon the conventional imagery of sacrifice to make some claims about Dionysian worship in Thrace, and I will talk about that in my next post.

[1] This point was nicely demonstrated by Margaret Miller in Athens and Persia in the Fifth Century BC (Cambridge 1997); it is also discussed in Erich Gruen’s Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (Princeton 2011).

[2] I am using the definition of ritual outlined in Stanley Tambiah’s Culture, Thought, and Social Action (Cambridge, Mass. 1985).

[3] Some examples are discussed in H. S. Versnel’s Inconsistencies in Greek and Roman Religion 2 (Leiden 1994).