Materiality and Aesthetics in Archaic and Classical Greek Poetry

Citation with persistent identifier: Lather, Amy. “Materiality and Aesthetics in Archaic and Classical Greek Poetry.” CHS Research Bulletin 8 (2020).

In its interest in aesthetic experience as a form of interaction between humans and things, my study contributes to the growing body of work in the humanities devoted to uncovering the ways in which humans make sense of things, and conversely, how things make sense of us: how they make us who we are as individuals, societies, and epochs. As my title suggests, my approach intertwines two strands of thought by considering how matter impinges on human thought and activity as well as how human cognitive processes develop and evolve from their interactions with things. In this sense, the analyses I develop are informed both by new materialist criticism and 4E (embodied, enactive, extended, and/or embodied) theories of cognition.

The label “new materialisms” encompasses a heterogeneous body of scholarship whose common aim is to interrogate ontological distinctions: between human and nonhuman, living and nonliving, things and bodies, and the like. Above all, what new materialist scholarship has to offer classics is a sustained attention to the capacity for material things to exert agency over human actors. And given the profound effects attributed to poikilia in literary sources, this is a fertile concept to reconsider within the framework of the new materialisms.

In a similar vein, 4E approaches to cognition question the belief that cognitive processes are wholly “brainbound” and instead seek to illuminate the ways in which mental processes involve the body as well as the external world. Literary and material representations of poikilia offer rich case studies for testing the boundaries of cognition. As I explore throughout my book, the phenomena characterized by poikilia implicate the human body in a variety of ways, both in the fashioning of such artifacts and in the experience of them.

In sum, the central question of my book is what archaic and classical portrayals of poikilia can divulge about the relationship(s) between human minds, bodies, and material things. Each chapter of this study focuses on a particular domain in which poikilia is prominent, proceeding from the most concrete to the more abstract: chapters one and two are devoted to textiles and metal, respectively, chapter three considers humanlike or lifelike artifacts, chapter four turns to music and language, and chapters five and six explore poikilia’s connection to ruses and deceptive plots.

During my time at the Center for Hellenic Studies, I focused on chapters five and six, since these chapters are closely linked. Chapter five concentrated on the association of poikilia with the peculiar kind of cunning intelligence denoted by the Greek term mētis. This is a faculty exploited by Hermes, Odysseus, and Prometheus, and archaic literature preserves lengthy, detailed accounts of how each thinks through and with things. More precisely, I propose that Hermes, Odysseus, and Prometheus exercise their mētis in forms of extended cognition. Drawing on Andy Clark’s 2008 account of extended cognition as well as Lambros Malafouris’ 2013 theory of material engagement, I focus here on how each of these figures consistently succeeds in re-purposing materials to fulfill specific needs. For by imagining new ways to use well-known materials, each character illustrates how their mētis finds form in the phenomenal world and, in fact, could not exist without such material supports.

Each of the figures examined in this chapter use unlikely materials that happen to be at hand to suit specific purposes: Prometheus steals fire in a fennel stalk (Hesiod Theogony 565–570) and uses animal fat to conceal the bones he offers to Zeus as a sacrifice (Hesiod Theogony 535–557); in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes Hermes fashions a tortoise into a lyre (38-55) and twigs into sandals (79–86) (among other inventions); Odysseus crafts his marriage bed and chamber around a living tree (Odyssey 23.184–204) and even creates his own sailing vessel (Odyssey 5.241–261). The mētis of each character manifests itself as an ability to cannily identify, exploit, and manipulate different material affordances, and this ability is in turn central to the acts of deception carried out by all of these figures. Given the centrality of material things and embodied processes to their plots, descriptions of these trickster figures’ ruses thus expose an issue that is at the heart of this study: the difficulty of determining where the mind ends and the world begins.

While mētis is predominantly a masculine domain, in chapter 6 I turn to several of the most infamous ruses carried out by women in archaic and classical Greek literature: Hera’s seduction of Zeus in Iliad 14, Aphrodite’s seduction of Anchises in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, Clytemnestra’s trap for Agamemnon as depicted in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, and Medea’s destruction of Glaucē and Creon in Euripides’ Medea. Here too, as in the previous chapter, we find that material artifacts play pivotal roles in the enactment of each ruse, but this chapter illuminates the ways in which feminine guile is distinctive. For rather than fashioning props that are, effectively, extensions of their own wily cunning (as I argue is the case with the characters in chapter 5), the women in this chapter rely on the capacity for already-existing objects to exert agency. And the common element linking these episodes is poikilia, which plays a starring role in each woman’s deception.

While the kestos himas that Hera procures from Aphrodite in Iliad 14.215–221 is explicitly said to be imbued with overwhelming seductive powers, the other artifacts addressed here are no less powerful and efficacious. The scintillating appeal of poikilia––whether in the kestos himas, Aphrodite’s adornment for Anchises, the fabric with which Clytemnestra ensnares Agamemnon, or the poisoned robe Medea sends to Glaucē––exhibits a vitality and agency that sets in motion each woman’s plot.

My fellowship at the CHS allowed me to complete these final two chapters of my book, chapters which conclude my study in their focus on one of poikilia’s most significant manifestations: in the realm of deception and cunning. The last chapter also circles back to my first chapter’s focus on women and textiles, wherein I propose that the poikilia of textiles represents a distinctively feminine mode of thought and embodiment. In chapter six, we see this idea play out to devastating effect in the cases of Clytemnestra and Medea in particular, who marshal elaborately-decorated textiles as agents in their murderous plots.

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