Abstract: Seeing Monsters in Early Greek Sanctuaries

In this paper I explore the vision of monsters as a quintessential component of religious experience in Early Greece. My focus is on the so-called orientalizing cauldrons, vessels equipped with oriental or orientalizing attachments in the form of human-headed birds and griffin or lion protomes. These objects have traditionally been viewed as allomorphs of the revered and symbolically charged tripod-cauldrons. In this paper, which summarizes the results of a forthcoming book, I argue that responses to these objects involved ambivalence, resistance, and outright rejection. They were perceived as monsters or provided models for conceptualizing physical and moral dimensions of early Greek teratology. Scholarship has traditionally labeled them as dedications but this interpretation would only account for only a small percentage of the excavated materials in sanctuaries such as Olympia, Delphi, and Acropolis of Athens.


The visual apparatus of orientalizing cauldrons introduced radically new technologies of visual engagement.  Hitherto the orientalizing innovation has been understood in terms of the wholesale importation or adaptation of objects, techniques, iconographies from the Near East. This study proposes instead that change was ushered in by a radical shift in ways of seeing and interacting with what today we call “art.”  The new technologies of visual engagement (new ways of seeing and being seen) I explore in this study reshaped the cognitive and aesthetic apparatus of viewing subjects.  I argue that the griffin cauldrons were devised to establish an aesthetic of rare and extraordinary experiences within the experiential realm of early Greek sanctuaries. This aesthetic was premised on active visual engagement as performance motivated and sustained by the materiality of these objects. In this respect, their existence in sanctuary space supplanted the performative role of the traditional tripod-cauldrons.

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