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Monsters, Fear, and the Uncanny in the Preclassical Mediterranean

Nassos Papalexandrou, University of Texas at Austin
Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellow, November 1, 2015 – December 31, 2015

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Hammered griffin protome from the sanctuary of Hera at Samos, shortly after 700 BCE, originally mounted on a bronze cauldron, Vathy Museum, Samos. © Hellenic Republic, Ministry of Culture and Sports, General Directorate of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage / Ephorate of Antiquities of Samos and Ikaria

The Orientalizing phenomenon of c. 700 – 600 BCE manifested itself in a vast area of the preclassical Mediterranean stretching from the Levant to Iberia. Its profound impact on material and visual cultures in Mediterranean regions has been amply documented in the rich archaeological record of artifacts, iconographies, and styles originating in the Near East or inspired by its traditions.

My project explores the variegated modes of response to the novelty of Orientalizing, giving special attention to the role of sumptuous artifacts in the creation of new techniques of seeing. My focus is on the so-called Orientalizing cauldrons that were the artifacts par excellence of the new era. These costly and technically intricate bronze vessels from the late eighth century BCE onward were decorated with griffin and lion protomes and human-headed birds, or sirens, in various combinations. In Anatolia and what is now Italy, these objects were exclusive to princes and kings, who used them in status-constructing rituals such as banquets and deposited them in fabulously lavish tombs. In Greece, by contrast, large numbers of griffin cauldrons have been documented in the great sanctuaries, most notably at Samos, Olympia, and Delphi. In these sacred spaces they would certainly have been treated as divine possessions, which probably fulfilled multiple functions. The contribution of their unprecedented figurative ebullience to the otherworldly ambience of the sanctuaries cannot be emphasized enough. The cauldrons enshrined a new aesthetic of rare sensory experiences that redefined the psychological dimensions of contact with the gods. But what was it that these powerful objects radiated outward to their viewers, whether human or divine?

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Graphic reconstruction of a bronze cauldron from Olympia equipped with three griffin protomes, three lion protomes, and two human-headed bird attachments, first quarter of the seventh century BCE, Olympia Museum Br 4224. After Hans-Volkmar Herrmann, Die Kessel der Orientalisierenden Zeit, 1:  Kesselattaschen und Reliefuntersätze, Olympische Forschungen, vol. 6 (Berlin, 1966), plate 4

The most radical innovation introduced by the Orientalizing cauldrons was the affective lifelikeness of their monstrous attachments. For example, griffin protomes forcefully propelled themselves outward and scanned their environment with laser-sharp eyes. Their aggression and visual acuity necessitated new strategies of engagement and response from their viewers. What happens when new media require new perceptual modes? What is at stake when viewers are unprepared to process new stimuli or when their existing modes of response are short-circuited or break down?

When introduced into centuries-old societies whose cultures had never been highly visual, the cauldrons must have caused shock similar to that experienced by spectators of the first film projections in the last decade of the nineteenth century. During my residency at CASVA, I delved into recent theoretical understandings of audiences’ responses to early film to gain insights regarding the complex emotions generated by the cauldrons and their monsters. Both media challenged viewers to confront and negotiate the seemingly threatening illusionism of their visual rhetoric: the aggressive thrust of griffin protomes into the actual space of the beholder is qualitatively akin to the assaulting motion of a train that threatens to violate the spectator’s physical space. In the latter case, the powerful effect of the moving image is predicated on what film critic Tom Gunning has dubbed “the aesthetic of attraction”: the moving image assaulted the senses of unprepared spectators who surrendered to fear and surprise even as they realized the artificiality of the new medium and became conscious of their role as engaged viewers.

I argue that the aesthetic of attraction of early film allows insights into the formal, sensory, and affective properties of griffin cauldrons. The modern designation of griffin protomes as apotropaic devices has occluded attention to their electrifying effect and to their programmatically designed ability to enchant and captivate the mind and the senses. However apotropaic the monster cauldrons may have been, they directly addressed their viewers’ emotions as well as their intellects. Vacillating between fear and sensory attraction to the cauldrons, viewers would have gradually become conscious of their “seeing” as visual scrutiny disclosing the numerous material, technical, and formal qualities of the cauldrons and their attachments. Fear, that is, morphed into curiosity and scopic delight generated by the viewer’s aesthetic discovery of the frightful object. Exclusive to the elites of both Italy and Greece, these novel modes of sensory interaction with affective objects were constitutive of a new visuality as well as of new narratives, subjectivities, and social distinctions.

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