Figures of Speech: Men and Maidens in Ancient Greece / Edition 2

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Over the past two hundred years, thousands of ancient Greek vases have been unearthed. Yet these artifacts remain a challenge: what did the images depicted on these vases actually mean to ancient Greek viewers? In this long-awaited book, Gloria Ferrari uses Athenian vases, literary evidence, and other works of art from the Archaic and Classical periods (520-400 B.C.) to investigate what these items can tell us about the ancient Greeks—specifically, their notions of gender.

Ferrari begins by developing a theoretical perspective on visual representation, arguing that artistic images give us access to how their subjects were imagined rather than to the way they really were. For instance, Ferrari's examinations of the many representations of women working wool reveal that these images constitute powerful metaphors—metaphors, she argues, which both reflect and construct Greek conceptions of the ideal woman and her ideal behavior.

From this perspective, Ferrari studies a number of icons representing blameless femininity and ideal masculinity to reevaluate the rites of passage by which girls are made ready for marriage and boys become men. Representations of the nude male body in Archaic statues known as kouroi, for example, symbolize manhood itself and shed new light on the much-discussed institution of paiderastia. And, in Ferrari's hands, imagery equating maidens with arable land and buried treasure provides a fresh view of Greek ideas of matrimony.

Innovative, thought-provoking, and insightful throughout, Figures of Speech is a powerful demonstration of how the study of visual images as well as texts can reshape our understanding of ancient Greek culture.

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Editorial Reviews


“[Ferrari] directs readers’ attention to the imagery of women’s prenuptial, marital, and domestic activities, to the representation of manliness and physical beauty as positive concepts, the meaning of the discrepancy between clothed females and nude males, and to the definition of gender roles . . . Her ambitious, subtle argument relies on her close analysis of artistic figuration, complemented by contemporary texts.”

Bryn Mawr Classical Review - Alastair J. L. Blanshard
“Ferrari [presents] a detailed and serious study of the science of communication as applied to the visual representation of the masculine and feminine.  In doing so, she makes a valuable contribution not only to gender studies, but also to art history as well. . . . Ferrari’s book is perhaps the most explicit and comprehensive utilization of language theory to art analysis.  She offers a refreshing re-ordering of the scholarly agenda way from connoisseurship towards a sociological understanding of art. . . . Emblematic of the failure to recognize the richness of domestic imagery is the scholarly treatment of the ‘spinning woman’ motif on Greek vases. . . . Ferrari demonstrates the unrecognized richness of the imagery and its component elements (footed chest, wool basket, spindle, mantle, etc.).  Anchoring each element within its respective nest of associations, allusions, and connotations, she shows the way in which the images play with the central constituent elements of the feminine.”
Journal of the History of Sexuality - Laura K. McClure
“Ferrari has given us an ambitious, compelling book that will challenge its readers to rethink some of the prevailing contemporary views of gender and sexuality in ancient Greece.”
“[Ferrari] directs readers’ attention to the imagery of women’s prenuptial, marital, and domestic activities, to the representation of manliness and physical beauty as positive concepts, the meaning of the discrepancy between clothed females and nude males, and to the definition of gender roles . . . Her ambitious, subtle argument relies on her close analysis of artistic figuration, complemented by contemporary texts.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226244365
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2002
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 360
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Gloria Ferrari is a professor of classical archaeology and art at Harvard University. She is the author, most recently, of Materiali del Museo Archeologico di Tarquinia XI: I vasi attici a figure rosse del periodo arcaico and of numerous articles on Greek and Roman art and culture.

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Figures of Speech: Men and Maidens in Ancient Greece

By Gloria Ferrari

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2002 Gloria Ferrari
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226244369

CHAPTER 1 - The Thread of Ariadne

First let us distinguish between sentences and words. A sentence I will call every complete sign in a language game, its constituent signs are words.
Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books
Hector's words to Andromache upon his departure to fight Achilles are the earliest extant mention of a way of life that bound the women of the Greeks to the house, tethered to their looms and work baskets:

Go then to your chamber and tend your own realm, the loom and the distaff, and see that your handmaids perform their tasks; for war is the concern of men, of all men but most of all mine, of all born in Ilios. (Homer Iliad 6.490-93)
The formula rings again in Telemachus's reply to his mother, who had complained that the singer's lay about the bitter homecomings of the Achaeans had stirred her sorrow:

Go then to your chamber and tend your own realm, the loom and the distaff, and see that your handmaids perform their tasks; for speech is the concern of men, of all men but most of all mine, for mine is the power in the house. (Homer Odyssey 1.356-59)
Denied the right to speakand fight, the women of myth are represented doing their best at the only skill they are taught and allowed to practice. Penelope's inalienable right to weave becomes the tool of her resistance against the men who are closing in on her and on the rest of her husband's property. Spinning and weaving in their chambers is the form of the rebellion of the daughters of King Minyas, who refuse to celebrate the rites of Dionysus. Textiles become a girl's voice in the case of Philomela, who managed to tell the story of her rape by weaving it into a tapestry. The woven fabrics are a woman's weapon of choice--the robe soaked in centaur's blood with which Deianira tries to win back her faithless husband, the beautiful poisoned dress with which Medea murders her rival, the web in which Clytemnestra traps Agamemnon before she kills him, an "evil wealth of cloth."

Spinning and weaving--the distaff and the loom--are an essential feature of the ancient Greek representation of femininity, one that far exceeds utilitarian connotations of domesticity. While it is plausible that, in practice, wool-working was a homely task, the pictures of females carding, twisting yarn, and spinning on the painted vases of the Late Archaic and Classical periods display an unexpected trait of the wool-worker: glamour. Invariably young and comely, in fancy dress and adorned with jewelry, the spinner receives men who bring her gifts and counts Eros as her servant and companion. More explicitly than literary texts, these images show that wool-work imparts important connotations to the definition of a certain kind of femininity, but the nature of these connotations and of this kind of femininity is at present unclear and controversial. The problem of the spinner is taken up in this first chapter as a case study through which I examine methodological issues in the interpretation of the images of Greek painted vases.

The Hetaira and the Housewife

The issues of who a spinning female may be and what her image means surfaced sixty years ago as a minor scholarly controversy. Debate centered on scenes such as the one represented on an alabastron of the 470s b.c. (figs. 3, 4): a young man holds out a pouch to a veiled female who sits spinning. She is invariably described as a "woman" rather than a "girl," which glosses over the fact that her appearance offers no indication of her age or marital status. The vignette conforms to an iconographic scheme labeled "courtship scene," in which a man hovers around or brings a gift to a younger male or to a female of undetermined age. In the particular version of this theme that appears on the alabastron, the gift is a small pouch. While Beazley held firmly that the "woman" must be a respectable matron, Rodenwaldt argued that she is a high-priced courtesan, one of the megalomisthoi hetairai affecting the manner of the respectable woman. The key to Rodenwaldt's reading was precisely the bag the man holds, which was identified as a money purse. The subject, then, must be love for money; the woman (or the adolescent male or boy with whom she is interchangeable) is not what she seems. This is how Rodenwaldt's article of 1932 brought into existence the "spinning hetaira," who has cast her shadow since over every nameless spinster on the vases.

Carried now to its logical extreme, Rodenwaldt's hypothesis has produced results that test the limits of an informed viewer's credulity. A prim figure enthroned and spinning (fig. 5) is labeled the madam of a brothel. A scene of men and boys approaching, bag in hand, a female wrapped like a mummy and holding a mirror can be described as "a hetaira seated in the porch of what is surely a brothel." (fig. 6) A sense of the grotesque makes a fugitive appearance in Keuls's remark on this vase: "Is the whole family on an excursion to the neighborhood whorehouse? Surely not, not even in Classical Athens." But spinning and textile activity have become synonymous with prostitution in a certain vein of writings on the vases, leading to the idea that brothels doubled as textile factories: "[T]hat spinning and the production of small textiles went on in the brothels of Athens seems eminently likely." Indeed, the presence of a large number of loom-weights in the deposits of its third phase is the chief piece of evidence for the current identification of Bau Z, a building excavated in the Athenian Ceramicus as inn, textile workshop, and brothel, all at once. It is important to note that this view represents a significant twist of the Rodenwaldt hypothesis, one that turns the high-rank courtesan into a prostitute, the hetaira into the porne. This effectively undermines the construct of the "spinning hetaira." For, if wool-work has any function in these representations of amorous encounter, it is to give the illusion of virtue, thus placing the women worlds apart from the creatures who sat naked in the brothels of Athens and could be had for two obols.

As is well known and as Davidson and Kurke most recently pointed out, there exists a divide in Greek thought between the porne and the hetaira. Briefly, the former is goods for sale: one pays cash in an exchange that is impersonal and finite. But a man's engagement with a courtesan is a personal one over time, and the exchange of goods for services takes the form of gift-giving. Xenophon provides a notorious portrait of such a courtesan in his Memorabilia (3.11), which relates Socrates' visit to Theodote. Loveliness personified, she is a woman who will consort with whomever "persuades" her to do so, her mother at her side, both exquisitely dressed in their well-appointed house among their servants. Socrates leaves no doubt as to her meretricious nature when he says that her body is an engulfing hunting net, animated by a soul that knows how to please men and have men please her (3.11.10). But the question of her source of income is a delicate subject. Eventually it transpires that she depends upon the generosity of her friends for gifts that, of course, are reciprocated in an exchange based on goodwill and gratitude, in a word, on kharis. Indeed, the very sight of her is a gift that calls for favors in return. In this picture, the image of coins, or a coin purse, would be either inappropriate or highly charged. To quote Davidson: "The hetaira goes to great lengths to avoid having herself and the relationship with men made explicit. Otherwise she would not be a hetaira." The same may be said of the scenes of "spinning hetairai." If these females are hetairai, the bags of money in the men's hand have the effect of shattering the pretense of gentility that the act of spinning, the elaborate clothes and jewels, and the courtly gestures create, by making the sordid nature of the transaction painfully clear. And if they are prostitutes, why the travesty? But are there moneybags in these pictures?

Attempts to refute the prevailing interpretation have tackled the alleged proof of the argument, the infamous bag, by proposing that it holds not coins but the favorite game of children and like-minded adults: astragaloi or knucklebones. Inevitably, this leads into a discussion of the taxonomy of bags in vase painting. My point of departure was the study by Roland Hampe on a Thessalian stele of the Early Classical period. On it Hampe saw two girls finishing up a game of knucklebones. One displays her last, winning throw, holding the pieces she has won in her left; the other shows the losing side of her knucklebone and, in her left hand, the empty pouch. The identification of such pouches on vases is not easy, since depictions of the game itself are rare and, as knucklebones varied in size and material, so too did the size and aspect of the satchels in which they were carried. With Hampe, one can identify as knucklebone bags those that have an opening on the side; these correspond to models of such objects, some of which have the flap lifted to reveal four astragaloi inside.

On the plain satchels that appear in the scenes of courtship, Hampe remained uncommitted. On the basis of the shape of the bags alone, it is impossible to decide whether they are money purses. In a few cases, the admirer holds one of the pieces contained in the bag out to his beloved, but it is far from clear that the object is a coin. Indeed, a lekythos in Athens shows clearly an object with two ends that can be held in the middle. But there are other scenes in which these plain, small, rounded bags appear, and the way they are employed in these different situations gives strong indications that they are not likely to hold coins. With few possible exceptions of doubtful interpretation, the bags do not appear in the scenes, admittedly few, of commercial transactions, and they are all but absent from the explicit and sometimes brutal depictions of lovemaking that are frequent on vases of this period. On the other hand, plain satchels as well as satchels with the side opening occur in "music lesson" scenes, either hanging on the wall or offered as prizes;27in "school scenes," where they hang on the wall together with writing tablets and other trinkets; 28 and in "palaestra scenes," where they keep company on the wall with aryballos, sponge, and strigil for the bath. Together with sandals and sashes, the bags hang on the wall in scenes of "women in the house," which are thought to represent the women's quarters or gunaikonitis, discussed below. In all these cases, an identification of the object as a money purse is improbable, to say the least, and as a matter of fact in such settings the bags are normally called bags of knucklebones without further ado.

The context of the courtship scenes is no less revealing. In pictures that include more than one couple or several suitors for one girl- or boy-love, the little bag is but one of several possible gifts an admirer may bring to the beloved. For instance, on an alabastron in the Cabinet des Medailles, in the same iconographic scheme as the scene on the Pan Painter's alabastron (figs. 3, 4), a young man offers a patterned sash instead of a bag to the female seated at her wool basket and holding a garland in her hands. The painted inscription next to her calls her he numphe kale, "the fair bride" 32. The range of tokens of love consists of flowers, pet animals for the boys-- such as a hare or a cockerel, or rarely, an exotic cat--simple lyres, and garlands. It is of the essence that these gifts be pretty things that have little or no value, that they should fall under the category of treats rather than payments. That is the sense of Aristophanes' satire of the mercenary eromenos, one who accepts presents such as horses and hunting dogs that are technically not payments but are substantial enough to being seen as compensation. In romantic pursuits, where a bag of money would be out of place, astragaloi make a perfect gift, because they are charged with erotic connotations. In a much quoted line, Anacreon calls them the passion and battle of Eros, a cliche, as one suspects from the phrase attributed to Polycrates of Samos and the Spartan Lysander, that one seduces men by means of oaths, and boys, with knucklebones. Pausanias allows us to recover the connotations of these objects in his description of statues of the Graces in their sanctuary in Elis, one of whom held a rose, the second an astragalos, and the third a dainty branch of myrtle. The rose and the myrtle, says Pausanias, are connected to Aphrodite, but the astragalos refers to youth and kharis:

The astragalos of youths and maidens, whose grace is unblemished by the touch of old age, the astragalos is their toy. (Description of Greece 6.24.7)
Finally, there are cases in which the knucklebones are out of the bags. On a cup by Makron (fig. 7), the crucial pair is at the center, where the erastes, the lover, holds a handful of small astragaloi to his beloved, with the same gesture of the cupped hand as a girl depicted on a vase fragment from the Athenian Acropolis, or the knucklebones-player on a Classical stele. On a hydria by the Kleophrades Painter, the man offers his sweetheart a single large astragalos.

This explanation of the bag as an innocent gift restores the respectability of the spinner. Let us now return to the alternatives posed by the question either the hetaira or the housewife. Both sides of the debate read the spinner as a figure drawn from life and depicted with the features of the housewife, although the one saw it as a counterfeit, the other as the real thing. Like folk etymologies, the divergent answers given --"she is being offered money" on the one hand; "he brings home the bacon," on the other --are based on the interpreter's common sense. Beazley's remark, however, that prostitutes may well have done spinning in real life but would not be represented doing so, puts some distance between fact and picture and points us in the right direction. What makes the figure of the spinner problematic is the context in which she frequently finds herself, that of the amorous encounter. Erotic connotations are hard to reconcile with notions of duties and chores and with the ancient as well as the modern conception of the housewife. While in real life, no doubt, many husbands felt passionately about their wives, could a wife be viewed as the object of passion? Not to judge from what may be gathered from literary accounts of the way men thought about categories of love objects:

We have hetairai for pleasure, concubines for the day-to-day care of our body, and wives in order to procreate lawfully and to have a trusted guardian of the household. ([Demosthenes] 59.122)
This notorious statement in the Demosthenic speech against Neaera is a clear expression, however overstated, of a way of thinking that viewed pleasure in marriage as a rare and dangerous thing. Love as erotic play involves certain categories of females--maidens and hetairai--but excludes the wife, who is kept for the work of procreation. The question then becomes, while in real life some wives may have received gifts and done spinning, would they be represented doing so? Neither the prostitute nor the wife, it seems, is a likely candidate for the enigmatic spinner. The problem will now be tackled by redefining the terms of the question, widening the inquiry, and employing a different set of interpretive assumptions.

Ways and Means

The first step must be to make distinctions: between reality and representation and between the representation of reality and that of fiction. The analyses of the courtship scenes considered so far, including mine, have relied on the current classification of the vase paintings into mythological and nonmythological scenes. The former are read following the text of a story that has survived in written form; the latter are labeled "genre scenes" and read as "everyday life" in reference to the material and social reality of fifth-century b.c. Athens, as it can be recovered from written sources.44Let us look at the way this distinction is made in some specific instances. A cup by the Triptolemos Painter depicts a feast (fig. 8): men reclining on couches, drinking, and making music. This scene is read as a staple of contemporary Athenian life, the symposium of men. In its essential features, it corresponds to hundreds of other representations on Attic vases of the same period. The very repetitiveness of the imagery seems to furnish some guarantee of its realism. But on a rhyton by the same painter (fig. 9) one sees a very similar cast of characters--men reclining and drinking with musical instruments--who are identified by inscriptions as the mythical kings of early Athens. A Classical bell krater by the Dinos Painter presents an analogous case. The picture shows a young warrior, nude except for a short mantle, helmet, sword, and shield, pouring a libation at a primitive-looking altar. He is assisted by a girl, who holds the oinochoe, while a bearded man looks on, leaning on a walking stick. Further to the right is a young couple holding or shaking hands. Before the inscriptions were read, the scene had been taken as an "everyday" departure scene. But the men turn out to be the eponymous heroes of three Attic tribes--Pandion, Acamas, and Oineus. Beazley recognized eponymous heroes in another picture that had been labeled "ephebes and courtesans" because it depicts men in cordial exchange with women.

Even interpretations that discount the realism of the image maintain the distinction of myth versus nonmyth, with the effect that the representations that are taken to be nonmythical are seen as lacking a specific content. In the fine analysis of the representation of the dead hero by Schnapp and Lissarrague, for instance, the unlabeled representations of the transport of the corpse are taken to be anonymous and generic. Only the labeled ones are taken to be representations that have their referent in the epic past--pictures of Ajax carrying the corpse of Achilles. One last example: on one cup by the Calliope Painter the tondo shows a youth holding a lyre and a woman offering him a garland; they are, the inscriptions say, the legendary poet Musaeus and the Muse Clio. On the exterior are young men with lyres and women, again identified by inscriptions as Muses, Musaeus, and Apollo. Another cup by the same painter has very similar imagery: in the tondo, the youth with lyre sits, the woman stands with oinochoe and phiale; on the exterior, young men, one with a lyre, and women, two with oinochoe and phiale. On this second cup the figures are not labeled and therefore lend themselves to be interpreted as characters from daily life.

It is common knowledge that what determines the classification of a scene as genre is not the presence of figural elements that can be recognized as nonmythological but the absence of elements that identify it as myth or fiction to our eyes. Identification depends upon inscriptions labeling the personages or features that the modern interpreter is able to recognize as fictional. While a sphinx triggers disbelief in the truth-value of the picture, the sexy spinner does not. There is, in fact, no credible way to distinguish between myth and nonmyth in the depictions on the vases. Indeed, the fact that the two may be represented in manners that are so alike as to generate confusion has not escaped the notice of scholars. The coincidence is explained, when an explanation is given, either way: by postulating that the painter has "dressed up" representations of everyday activities by the addition of inscriptions and attributes, or that he has "elevated" daily life to a superior realm. In this way, the picture on a Classical pyxis (fig. 2), where Helen is depicted at her wool basket, together with her sister Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, and Danae engaged in the toilet, is explained as a domestic scene to which the names of Argive heroines have been added. The reverse case is assumed by the current interpretation of the figures on a Meidian pyxis showing females in an outdoor setting (rocks, vegetation) at their toilet, with erotes. The picture follows the same iconography as the toilet of Aphrodite, represented, for instance, on a lekanis lid in Mainz (figs. 40, 41). The correspondence is acknowledged without qualms: "Many of these scenes are practically indistinguishable from those that show Aphrodite and her retinue: only inscriptions can differentiate the goddess and her attendants from the anonymous women who may, provisionally at least, be assumed mortal." The depiction of allegedly ordinary women in gardens surrounded by erotes is explained as an adaptation of the representation of Aphrodite to real wives: "[T]he gardens are Aphrodite's meadows of love, into which the women of Athens, in idealized form, have been allowed to enter." The remarkable assumption underlying this view is that, where the imagery is concerned, it makes no difference whether the representation articulates a discourse about the imaginary and the divine or about the here and now.

This failure to acknowledge the significance of our inability to distinguish between representations of the real and the imaginary on the vases has far-reaching consequences. Consider, for instance, the picture of women reclining nude and drinking at a symposium on a psykter of about 510 b.c. (fig. 10). Their names are inscribed, and the words "I toss this wine for you, Leagros," in Doric dialect (tin tande latasso, Leagre), issue from Smikra's mouth. She plays kottabos, a postprandial game men played at symposia, which consisted of tossing the lees of the wine at a target on a stand. This scene now is taken as an illustration of factual matters in two ways. First, the fact that the figures speak Doric and play kottabos is explained by noting that the game was reportedly invented in Sicily, where Doric was spoken. Second, the scene is interpreted as the illustration of an actual event, an occasion in which women were present at the banquet not on the menu as entertainment, for a change, but as participants. Because written sources make it clear that in Greece reputable women did not take part in symposia, and certainly not naked--like men--it is assumed that these are hetairai holding their own symposium. This line of reasoning is taken further: in order to allow themselves the luxury of a symposium, these must be rich hetairai or prostitutes. This picture then takes us some way toward the reappraisal of the condition of prostitutes in the ancient world.

The possibility should be allowed--and in principle everyone will agree--that pictures represent fiction, things that are thought not to exist but may be imagined. In fiction, things may be represented as they are not, even as the contrary of what they are thought to be; impossible things may be shown but not without a sense and a purpose, that is, not outside a given discourse. If it is imaginary, the representation of the women at the banquet will not tally with what we are told really went on in ancient Greece; it should correspond, however, to what was represented or imagined in ancient Greece. The scene reproduces the iconography of the symposium in all details--the rich cushions, the game of kottabos, the single-sex cast of guests entitled to recline, their partial or total nudity--in all details but one: women instead of men. And there is something decisively manly about the dress and physique of these women. Against the set of conventions to which it belongs, the picture stands out as a perversion, of the contrary-to-fact sort, of the representation of the symposium, and the perversion consists of women having taken the place of men. In the literary texts, the same conceit is found in various sources, primarily in comedy, such as Lysistrata, and pseudoethnography, in which both real and imaginary barbarian females (the Etruscan women, for instance, and the Amazons) usurp masculine roles. In philosophical and historical writings as well as in comedy, that kind of excess is characteristic as well of the Spartan females, who behaved like men in a number of ways, from displaying their bodies to managing property. Spartan women, of course, spoke a Doric dialect, Laconian. The Athenian picture showing manly Dorian women obviously is one more instance of the parody of Spartans. The discourse to which it belongs addresses the prerogatives of gender through that well-known paradox: women in charge. In this case at least, whether the scene is understood to depict real events or to offer a parody of the fabulous Spartans makes a substantive difference as to its meaning and value as a historical source.

Let us consider as a second example the picture on a Classical column krater. A woman sits on a chair within an architectural frame established by a column and holds out her hands to accept the gifts brought by the four men who stand before her: jewels in a chest, a dress, a phiale, a mirror. The men wear mantles and two have walking sticks, as in the "everyday" courtship scenes. The scene has all the earmarks of pictures that are now understood as representations of courtesans and their clients. That an honest woman should find herself among men who offer her gifts is unthinkable in Athens of the fifth century b.c. But this picture can be connected to a text. It was seen from the moment the vase came to light that the scene matches closely the description of the courtship of Penelope. The Syracuse krater, because it is a representation of Penelope, by unspoken general consent never enters discussions of the image of the hetaira receiving clients, yet there are obvious shared features between the two. Should we believe that an "everyday" iconographic scheme has been dressed up to yield a depiction of myth such that the image of the hetaira has been projected upon Penelope? Or, as in the case of the "idealized" toilet scenes, do we think that the image of Penelope is the paradigm of the hetaira? The current definition of genre leads into a quandary that admits no facile solution. For this reason, I reject the premise that the image of the woman working wool belongs, to begin with, to the context of everyday life in fifth-century Athens and that it migrates from there into epic or myth. For all we know, in the eyes of the vase painters and their customers, the glamorous spinner was as real as Atlantis.

In either case--whether a representation of fiction or of reality--the image is a representation. Its task is to depict not what exists but what is conceivable, the notions according to which reality takes shape in a given society. For this reason, the range of the imagery is not unbounded. As Berard and others have observed, for all the variety that the repertoire of the painted vases offers, there is much that is never represented:

Here we touch on one of the enigmas of this world of representations. In describing and analyzing this highly structured system of extremely rich and complex imagery, the lacunae, the gaps, and absences are even harder to explain than the isolated images themselves. Are those deliberate choices and rejections, censures, taboos, religious prohibitions, an order of values different from our own?
The silences speak to the ways in which the pictures are both produced and controlled by the discursive practices dictated by the culture no less than other forms of expression. It is beside the point, therefore, to speculate whether in actuality courtesans worked wool or wives received gifts, because the fact that they did, if it were true, would not explain why they are represented doing so. The question to ask is what purposes it served to represent a woman (or a girl) as both laborer and object of desire. To ask why and how something may be represented takes us onto the terrain of the social reality of conventions and institutions rather than that of perception as objective apprehension of the world. We confront questions concerning the audience to whom the picture was directed, fixed rules of usage that insured the image would be read correctly, the particular discourses within which the picture circulated, and the norms and authorities regulating those discourses.

The idea that an image "resembles" or is "inspired by" and eventually depends upon what the painter actually saw is deeply ingrained in studies of visual representations and in studies of Greek vase paintings in particular. But to speak of conventions, rules, and norms establishing what may be shown and where and when an image may come into being and be viewed implies that the image is an artificial creation whose relationship to actual reality is indirect and immensely complex. In chapter 3, I attempt to explain one of the mechanisms by which images are constructed. Here I state my position in general terms, taking my start from Nelson Goodman:

Realistic representation . . . depends not upon imitation or illusion or information but upon inculcation. Almost any picture may represent almost anything; that is, given picture and object there is usually a system of representation, a plan of correlation, under which the picture represents the object. How correct the picture is under that system depends upon how accurate is the information about the object that is obtained by reading the picture according to that system. But how literal or realistic the picture is depends upon how standard the system is. If representation is a matter of choice and correctness a matter of information, realism is a matter of habit.
I have introduced italics in this passage of Languages of Art in order to highlight the conditions under which images convey meaning and the nature of our predicament as interpreters of an alien culture. The imagery is a system that forms part of the broader network of representations, visual and otherwise, by means of which the ideas and values of the ancient community were conveyed and that relied upon sets of conventions that were standard for that community. We, of course, have no direct access to the system because it is not standard for us. We are, in other words, denied the direct, intuitive understanding of the pictures that has been so lightly assumed. Understanding the imagery as a system of communication also allows for the investigation of its meaning through semiotic analysis and through the principles of structural linguistics upon which semiotics relies. Like the signs of language, visual signs may be thought of as subject to two forms of organization: the "utterance" or picture--the syntagmatic chain in which several signs are combined in a particular message; and paradigmatic association, present in the mind of the members of the community of viewers, where a sign is connected to the ones that may be substituted for it. It becomes then conceivable that, given an image whose sense is obscure, one may reconstruct its associations and recover its meaning by tracing it through the pictures in which it occurs.

Any attempt to put these principles into practice will bring back the realization that one's own structure of knowledge is inescapable, working against one's will to impose extraneous patterns on the evidence. The very first step, choosing which image to investigate, is a decision made on the basis of the researcher's experience and of the realities that inform his interest, marking a point of forced entry into the system, an aperture that affords only a partial and distorted perspective. What should be traced? The figure of the "spinner" may appear to stand out naturally as a well-defined, self-contained unit of meaning, but only if one does not look at the pictures. The difficulties begin when one must decide which elements of the many combinations involving females and wool are necessary and sufficient to produce a certain meaning, which elements may be changed or suppressed with little consequence, and which determine a perversion or inversion of that meaning. Does it matter where she is located, whether she stands or sits, and whether she wears a headscarf? Does the act of spinning by itself provide the common denominator on which meaning rests, and does it have a meaning different from holding a distaff, with no spindle given, or having a wool basket by the side? How can we isolate visual signs? The analogy with language suggests a metaphor for our condition, if a picture may represent a text in an unknown language, with few clues as to word division and syntax but deceptively familiar in its script and disposition on the writing surface.

Several proposals informed by semiotic theory have been made for the definition of the meaningful "unit" under these conditions, most notably by Morgan and Berard. Morgan defined the irreducible elements of the picture as the equivalent of a morpheme in language, which cannot be broken down further without loss of meaning. In the depiction of the eye, for instance, one may not dispense with the inscription of the eyeball in the outline because that would result in a circle, no longer recognizable as part of the eye. The figures, then, would be composed of such "minimal formal units," each having in itself a certain meaning, and the sense of an image would be the result of the association of units. The problem with this proposal is that an interpreter who stands outside the culture that produced the pictures has no way of knowing how far the dismemberment of the figure can be taken before its elements are no longer identifiable for what they are--unless "natural symbols," which the modern viewer would interpret much the way the ancient viewer would have, are taken as the basis for the representations. But if we scrutinize the assumption that the minimal formal units are ultimately meaningful intrinsically, outside of discourse, as natural symbols, it becomes doubtful as well that there is anything to be gained by breaking down the image into component parts.

Berard's proposal also relies on the concept of the "minimal formal units" but as attributes in the conventional sense--man, club, lion skin for Heracles, for example--or as anatomical features such as beards or horns. These units are granted only "reference" function. Signification occurs only when they are combined to yield a complex figure, a "minimal syntagm," whose meaning becomes clear when that figure is viewed in the context of all of the imagery. It is difficult to accept the notion of an image (the minimal formal unit) that has a referent and yet has no meaning, as well as the idea that such a purely denotative level of expression was accessible either to the artist or to past and present viewers. But the notion of the minimal syntagm as a unit of signification is important because it establishes the level at which interpretation is carried out. This level is not that of morphemes or signs, which belong to the formal structure of the system as it may be abstractly thought of, but that of discourse, which belongs to the fabric of society.

My understanding of the notion of "level" relies on Benveniste's essay on linguistic analysis. Benveniste distinguishes the level of the sounds, the phonemes, which do not signify, from that of the word, or sign, which has meaning. He also distinguishes the level of the word from that of the sentence:

The sentence is realized in words, but the words are not simply segments of it. A sentence constitutes a whole which is not reducible to the sum of its parts; the meaning inherent in this whole is distributed over the ensemble of the constituents.
The sentence, which is the final integrative level of language, is a unit not of language but of discourse:

[W]ith the sentence we leave the domain of language as a system of signs and enter into another universe, that of language as an instrument of communication, whose expression is discourse.
Benveniste further develops this definition of the sentence, or syntagm, as the point at which signs enter the network of communication:

The sentence is a unit insofar as it is a segment of discourse and not as it could be distinctive with respect to other units of the same level-- which it is not as we have seen. But it is a complete unit that conveys both meaning and reference; meaning because it is informed by signification, and reference because it refers to a given situation. Those who communicate have precisely this in common: a certain situational reference, in the absence of which communication as such does not operate, "meaning" being intelligible but "reference" remaining unknown.
To take the syntagm as the unit of meaning means that analysis must take place at the level of discourse. That involves postulating a situation, specific and concrete, where communication takes place; a context, or what the sentence is about; and a discourse to which it is relevant. While in theory there is no limit to the number of possible combinations of images, in fact not all possible combinations occur. The conditions for their existence are dictated by the occasions that social life makes available and the discourses that are allowed to take place, both of which are limited. In these terms, the context against which an image on the painted vases becomes intelligible is not that of the totality of the imagery itself. It is broader, because in the field of reference many forms of communication besides the visual intersect. The image of a satyr-player, for instance, belongs in the same area as drama and ritual, together with poetry and myth. At the same time, the range of a given syntagm within the imagery of the painted vases themselves is restricted, because the image belongs to certain contexts and not to others. The figure of the satyr easily recognized by the combination of male body and horse's ears and tail, belongs to the realm of Dionysus-- whether myths of Dionysus or plays for the Dionysia. But the image does not have free range in the Dionysiac context: it does not figure, for instance, in the Theban saga of Pentheus. The satyr, Hedreen has proposed, belongs to a Naxian cycle of myths of Dionysus that is connected to the Athenian festival of the Oschophoria. The image, that is, is tied to specific contexts that, in turn, feed into particular discourses. The task of the interpreter, therefore, is to trace the image, or "minimal syntagm," through its possible contexts, connecting it with comparable expressions in other media, and to expose the discourse to which it belongs. The problem remains, once a meaningful figure is thus defined as a unit of discourse, of how to go about identifying it--precisely how many elements are required in each case to anchor a figure to a context. The make-up of an image cannot be determined before tracing that image through a number of scenes. But one will not know which scenes to choose unless one has a pretty good idea at the outset either of the features of his minimal syntagm or of the contexts in which it is likely to occur. The satyr can be immediately recognized as a construction of features--however much rooted in "reality" each feature might be. No such point of departure is available for the spinner.

Meaningful Figures

The decision of where to begin is crucial because it will determine the "cut" of the project. Of necessity, this is also an arbitrary decision, dictated, at best, by informed common sense born of familiarity with the material. Here the selection of the corpus of images through which to explore the questions posed by the spinning woman was made on an explicitly pragmatic basis: as many as possible of the Athenian vases made between 500 and 400 b.c. were collected that show any indication of wool-working activity. In principle, no phase of the textile process was excluded, from sheep-shearing to dyeing to the making of a garment.


Excerpted from Figures of Speech: Men and Maidens in Ancient Greece by Gloria Ferrari Copyright © 2002 by Gloria Ferrari. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1. The Thread of Ariadne
2. The Spinners
3. Figures of Speech
4. The Manly Aphrodite
5. Perikalles Agalma
6. The Body Politic
7. Fugitive Nudes
8. Between Men
Appendix 1
Appendix 2
Index of Monuments
Index of Ancient Sources
General Index
Index of Authors

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