Demetrios and Poseidon

This post is about fr. 5 [Gaede/Biraschi]. It is a passage preserved in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistai and deals with a painting, made by Cleanthes of Corinth, which was displayed in the temple of Artemis Alpheiosa in Elis. According to Strabo (Str. 8.3.12 [C343]), who happens to describe the same building, there were two paintings, one depicting the sack of Troy whereas the other represents the birth of Athena. In the passage from Athenaues only the second painting is mentioned:

οἶδα δὲ καὶ τὴν ἐν τῇ Πισάτιδι γραφὴν ἀνακειμένην ἐν τῷ τῆς Ἀλφειώσας Ἀρτέμιδος ἱερῷ (Κλεάνθους δ᾿ ἐστὶ τοῦ Κορινθίου) ἐν ᾗ Ποσειδῶν πεποίηται θύννον τῷ Διὶ προσφέρων ὠδίνοντι, ὡς ἱστορεῖ Δημήτριος ἐν ὀγδόῃ τοῦ Τρωϊκοῦ διακόσμου.
I also know about the Pisatian painting dedicated in the temple of Artemis Alpheiosa (it is made by Cleanthes of Corinth); On it, Poseidon is depicted how he offers Zeus, who is giving birth, a tunafish, as Demetrios of Scepsis states in the 8th book of his Trojan Catalogue. (Athen. 8.346c)

As described here the situation seems rather odd and does not make much sense, as it comes as one of the many strange anecdotes the protagonists of Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistai tell during their talks. The scene becomes much more meaningful when we look at representations of Poseidon we kept from Antiquity. For this we have to combine two additional elements.

First one of the traditional archaic way of presenting Poseidon should be mentioned. A red-figure vase (about 470 BCE) belonging currently to the Antiken Antikensammlung of the Depertment of Archaeology at the University of Würzburg illustrates perfectly the gesture under discussion here. The picture can also be found at the LIMC-Online (under Poseidon 146), with some further information:

inv. L502a © Martin-von-Wagner-Museum der Universität Würzburg, Photo: P. Neckermann. Permission for further reproduction should be asked from the Museum

inv. L502a © Martin-von-Wagner-Museum der Universität Würzburg, Photo: P. Neckermann. Permission for further reproduction should be asked from the Museum

The link between the two elements is provided by Felix Bulle in his entry on Poseidon in Roscher’s Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, (Leipzig 1897-1909, vol. 5, p. 2857). He alludes to Demetios’s description of the painting while quoting Enrico Brunn’s Geschichte der griechischen Künstler, Stuttgard 1889 (p. 5-6) where the origin of painting is discussed. In Pliny (HN 35, 15-16) this Cleanthes of Corinth is believed to by one of the inventors of linear drawing and therefore the evidence from Demetrios has some importance in this context.

Brunn’s Geschichte der griechischen Künstler can be found at http://www.archive.org/ either in the first edition from 1859 (p. 7) or in the second edition from 1889 (p. 5-6)

However the painting was sometimes perceived as a king of jock, precisely because of Demetrios’s remark about Poseidon gesture of offering Zeus a tunafish. Modern readers often saw something funny in the gesture and dated the painting to the Hellenistic period where playing with old themes, such as the birth of Athena, was frequent.

Bulle draws another conclusion. He rather believes that Demetrios mis- or overinterpreted what he saw. Poseidon may simply have been represented in such an archaic position with his distinctive feature and happens to be depicted next to Zeus. Demetrios then made the connection and saw the gesture, in a rather superficial interpretation, as a gesture of someone offering a present. This makes Demetrios a rather poor scholar, what reflects the opinion scholar’s had about Demetrios at the end of the 19th century.

We may draw another conclusion: the evidence shows how distant and different the ancient scholars and commentators are from our modern approach. On the one hand, they had access to much more evidence. The paining from Cleanthes, as most of the others, were still available and could be seen from first hand. The applies of course even more so to ancient texts! On the other, their interpretative tools were based on other criteria than ours and led to very different perceptions of the masterpieces. We should therefore be very careful when judging a scholarly contribution from Antiquity. This is in particular so for Demetrios of Scepsis whose work has only be preserved indirectly, again through the interpretations and appreciations of ancient authors.

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