A sampling of comments on Pausanias: 1.18.1–9

2018.01.25 | By Gregory Nagy

I continue from where I left off in Classical Inquiries 2018.01.18. I focus here on an Athenian myth, as narrated by Pausanias at 1.18.2, about the baby Erikhthonios and the young daughters of Kekrops, king of Athens. These girls had been chosen by the goddess Athena to take good care of Erikhthonios—and not to open the box in which the baby was hidden. But two of the girls went ahead and opened the box—and they were instantly driven mad by what they saw. Then, in their madness, they killed themselves by leaping off the steepest part of the Acropolis. In the narrative of Pausanias, the holy mystery of what the girls really saw is left untold. In the narrative that we read in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 2.560–561, on the other hand, the secret is half-revealed: what you see from the poet’s wording, at the same time, is a baby and a snake. Some illustrators of this vision, as we see in the close-up picture on the cover here, press for a full revelation: the baby is really half human, half snake.

 

Erichthonius Released from His Basket (Erichtonius cistella laxata cernitur). Engraving by Antonio Tempesta; Plate 14 of a series of illustrations for Ovid’s Metamorphoses, published by Wilhelm Janson (Amsterdam, ca. 1606). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Fund (65.37.98).
Erichthonius Released from His Basket (Erichtonius cistella laxata cernitur). Engraving by Antonio Tempesta; Plate 14 of a series of illustrations for Ovid’s Metamorphoses, published by Wilhelm Janson (Amsterdam, ca. 1606). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Fund (65.37.98).

I will have more to say about this mystical vision when I get to my comment on the translation for Pausanias 1.18.2.

{1.18.2} translation by Jones 1918, modified by GN 2018.01.25:

Looming over the sanctuary [hieron] of the Dioskouroi is a sacred-precinct [temenos] of Aglauros. It was to Aglauros and her sisters, Herse and Pandrosos, that they say Athena gave Erikhthonios, whom she had hidden in a box [kibōtos], forbidding them to pry curiously into what was entrusted to their charge. Pandrosos, they say, obeyed, but the other two opened the box [kibōtos], and went mad [mainesthai] when they saw Erikhthonios, and they threw themselves down the steepest part of the Acropolis. Here it was that the Persians [Mēdoi] climbed [up the Acropolis] and killed the Athenians who thought that they understood the oracle[1] better than did Themistocles, and fortified the Acropolis with logs and stakes.[2]

{1.18.2} subject heading(s): Erikhthonios; Kekrops; daughters of Kekrops; Aglauros, Hersē, Pandrosos; kibōtos ‘box’; autokhthōn ‘autochthon, one whose self is linked to the Earth’; autochthony; Battle of Gods and Giants

The mystical vision experienced by the daughters of Kekrops, as narrated here at 1.18.2 by Pausanias, is relevant to the identity of Kekrops himself, their father, whose form is human from the waist up and serpentine from the waist down. To say it in Greek: Kekrops is diphuēs ‘double-natured’ (scholia for Aristophanes Wasps 438): he is half human, half snake. This biformity of Kekrops is shown clearly in some ancient visual representations. In the picture I show here, for example, we see Kekrops in attendance at the moment when Gaia/Gē the Earth Mother hands over to Athena the infant Erikhthonios:

 

Melian clay relief, about 460 BCE. Gaia offers Erichthonios to Athena. On the right, Kekrops. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Melian clay relief, about 460 BCE. Gaia offers Erichthonios to Athena. On the right, Kekrops. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

 

The half-human and half-snake identity of Kekrops here is a sign, I argue, of the shock experienced by the daughters of Kekrops in seeing an Earth-born baby that is likewise half-human and half-snake. The girls are looking at the true form of a true autokhthōn, an autochthon. The word means literally ‘one whose self is linked to the Earth’. Here is a ‘self’ who is literally born of the Earth, of the khthōn. But what about the girls themselves? What about their own selves? What about their own humanity? Having a father like Kekrops, should the girls not expect to be biform themselves? Perhaps, then, the realization that the Earth-born baby is biform leads to the girls’ self-realization, that they, too, must be biform. It is I think the suddenness of such a self-realization that drives them mad.

The biformity of an autochthon can also be a kind of bivalence. When we get to Pausanias 1.24.7, we will see that Erikhthonios himself can be visualized not only as half-snake but also as all-snake. Pausanias himself experiences such a visualization at 1.24.7 when he is describing the colossal gold-and-ivory statue of Athena Parthenos inside the Parthenon. Pausanias sees there, with his own eyes, the hero Erikhthonios standing next to the goddess, and the hero here is all-snake, seen in his fully serpentine glory. But in other contexts of Athenian myth, as I will note when I get to my comment on Pausanias 1.24.7, Erikhthonios can also be visualized as all-human, not only as all-snake. I should add that, in our own non-Greek way of thinking, our comfort level with the human form of this hero can lead to an accentuation of the human side even at the moment when the primal biformity of the baby Erikhthonios is first discovered. A relevant painting by Rubens captures beautifully an accentuation of the baby’s human side, despite the clear visual markers of his serpentine side:

 

Rubens,_Peter_Paul_-_Finding_of_Erichthonius_-_1632-1633
Finding of Erichthonius (1632/1633). Peter Paul Rubens (Dutch, 1577–1640). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

 

As for the ground-level human condition of being born half-human and half-snake, I think we see at work a normalization of this primal biformity in the myth about the Battle of Gods and Giants, where the gods are seen in their all-human form—though this form is of course far greater in proportion to our everyday human form— while the giants, once they start losing the battle, are visualized in the process of undergoing a metamorphosis: they are changing in form from all-humans to half-snakes and then to all-snakes. I epitomize here from my relevant formulation in HC 1§§131–132:

{1§131.} Once the earth-born giants start to lose their struggle against the sky-born gods of Olympus, their legs begin to turn into serpents. In surviving pictorial representations of the Gigantomachy, some of the struggling giants are shown still having human legs to stand on while others of the giants are already showing serpents where we expect to see legs, and I interpret this variation as a dynamic representation of their devolution—from the status of aspiring sky-dwellers back to the status of the earth-bound denizens they really are.

{1§132.} Once the Olympian gods start winning the battle, the giants find themselves having no leg to stand on. Their resistance collapses. The twin serpents we see extending from their lower bodies may now be allowed to follow the natural instincts of serpents and slip back, head first, into the hollows of the same mother Earth that had generated them in the first place.

 

Attic red-figure calyx krater: Giants repelled from Olympus by the Olympians. The panorama is based on a masterpiece of metalwork by Pheidias, situated inside the concave interior surface of the gigantic shield of Athena Parthenos in the Parthenon of Athens. Attributed to the Pronomos Painter, ca. 425–375 BCE. Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, 815.
Attic red-figure calyx krater: Giants repelled from Olympus by the Olympians. The panorama is based on a masterpiece of metalwork by Pheidias, situated inside the concave interior surface of the gigantic shield of Athena Parthenos in the Parthenon of Athens. Attributed to the Pronomos Painter, ca. 425–375 BCE. Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, 815.

 

Relief sculpture: Athena Parthenos defeats the giant Alkyoneus. From the Great Altar of Zeus, Pergamon. Marble, ca. 180 BCE. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Pergamonmuseum.
Relief sculpture: Athena Parthenos defeats the giant Alkyoneus. From the Great Altar of Zeus, Pergamon. Marble, ca. 180 BCE. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Pergamonmuseum.

 

Relief panels from square column bases: anguiped Giants battle with the Olympian gods. Marble, ca. CE 200. From a temple in the Severan Forum, Lepcis Magna (Libya). Tripoli, Jamhariya Museum, 225.
Relief panels from square column bases: anguiped Giants battle with the Olympian gods. Marble, ca. CE 200. From a temple in the Severan Forum, Lepcis Magna (Libya). Tripoli, Jamhariya Museum, 225.

 

Marble sarcophagus: Gigantomachy, with anguiped Giants. From Rome, Porte Pignattara, probably 2nd century BCE. Vatican, Museo Pio-Clementino, 549.
Marble sarcophagus: Gigantomachy, with anguiped Giants. From Rome, Porte Pignattara, probably 2nd century BCE. Vatican, Museo Pio-Clementino, 549.

 


Bibliography

See the dynamic Bibliography for APRIP.

 


Inventory of terms and names

See the dynamic Inventory of terms and names for APRIP.

 


Notes

[1] That the Athenians were to trust their “wooden walls,”that is, their ships.

[2] 480 BCE.



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