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Boys, Herms, and the Symposiast’s Gaze

Jorge J. Bravo III

In choosing to paint scenes of youths in the company of a herm--the distinctive statue featuring a bearded male head set on a rectangular shaft with an erect phallus carved on the front--the painters of Athenian sympotic pottery ostensibly portray a scene of daily life.  As I will argue in my paper, however, many artists demonstrably construct these scenes for viewing through an erotic lens, drawing on the fact that the two key iconographic elements of the stone herm, the bearded male head and the erect phallus, recall the iconography of the living erastes, the older male lover in traditional Greek pederasty. Representing herms in the company of young males thus allows the artists to play on the iconographic schemes of pederastic courtship, as when, for instance, a boy faces a herm and reaches toward it with the "up and down" arm gestures that the erastes commonly uses to court his beloved.  Such playfulness on the part of the painters of sympotic vases can be seen as a response to the playful context of the symposium itself, as Lissarague has shown (1990).

In a key essay published in Natalie Kampen’s Sexuality in Ancient Art (1996), Françoise Frontisi-Ducroux explored the important semiotic role of the gaze in the representation of erotic scenes in vase painting. In scenes involving frontal figures, moreover, she shows how the figures on the vase enter into a relationship with the viewer.  Applying her observations to the scenes with herms and boys, I argue that the gaze is similarly meaningful, and, given the presence of frontal figures, also implicates the gaze of the symposiast.

The fact that the erotic interplay in the scenes takes place between a living eromenos (the boy) and inanimate erastes (herm) is also significant, I argue, for it consciously represents the inverse of another interplay of person and object: the adult male symposiast who views and handles the sympotic vase.  In the latter relationship, the roles are reversed, for now the erastes is alive, and the vase, with its painted eromenos, is the object of the erotic gaze.  In light of this allusive power, the herm serves as one of a series of painted signs through which Greek artists show an awareness of their power, by means of the objects they create, to manipulate eros in the eyes of the beholder.

Session/Panel Title:

Sexuality in Ancient Art

Session/Paper Number

55.1

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