You are here

The Cognitive Life of the Kestos Himas

Amy Lather

Wake Forest University

In book 14 of the Iliad, Hera procures a mysterious object from Aphrodite that is termed a κεστὸς ἱμάς, literally “a decorated strap” (215). This, Aphrodite promises, contains “love, desire, and allurement, which steals over the minds even of the wise” (14.217-18). The extraordinary power attributed to the kestos himas is manifested in Hera’s subsequent seduction of Zeus, but its allurement reverberates well beyond the confines of the Iliad as the nature and function of this item have long exercised scholars both ancient and modern. In this paper, I examine the rich history of the kestos himas and demonstrate that this object radically changes depending on the hermeneutic lens with which it is viewed. This variation constitutes the cognitive life of the kestos himas by revealing the distinctive ways in which this object has proven good to think with in a variety of disciplines. In this way, the reception of the kestos himas illustrates the extent to which artifacts, including textual ones, are not static and inert, but products of the human mind.

In its focus on the shifting ontology of a material object within ancient and modern scholarship, this paper joins the growing body of work focused on the role of materials and materiality in human life (e.g. Mueller 2016, Goldhill 2014, Malafouris 2013, Porter 2010, Bennett 2010, Renfrew and Zubrow 1994). Moreover, this paper’s interest in the intellectual history of an object complements the recent development in reception studies that explores modern scholarly and philosophical approaches to ancient sources (Lifschitz and Squire 2017, Martindale, Evangelista, and Prettejohn 2017).

The first section demonstrates that from the philological perspective of the Homeric scholiasts, the kestos himas exists purely as a textual object composed of unusual terminology and syntax that reflects the idiosyncratic, complex nature of the object itself. This interpretation of the kestos himas thus affirms a faith in the accurate correlation between words and the things they describe. For the scholiasts, in short, material things depend upon language for their significance.  

However, the philological method does not explain how “love, desire, and allurement” could be embedded in the object as Aristonicus envisions in saying that it is “decorated” with these features (ἐμπεποικιλμένης τῆς φιλότητος καὶ ἱμέρου καὶ ὀαριστύος, Erbse III.608). This is the question addressed by the allegorists, who, as Plutarch attests, attempted to find “deeper meanings” (ὑπονοίαις) in objects like this one (De Aud. 19E-F). As the term ὑπονοία suggests, this line of interpretation understands the materiality of the kestos himas as a superficial device for illustrating concepts and abstract forces: as an allegorical figure, the kestos himas variously becomes a representation of spring (Heraclitus), the purification of air (cited by Plutarch at De Aud. 19F), and of passion’s binding and detrimental qualities (Porphyry).

The next major shift in the kestos himas’ reception occurs in the twentieth century. Concomitant with the burgeoning of archaeology as a discipline, commentators increasingly sought to contextualize the kestos himas within the material culture of the Mediterranean world by comparing its description with love charms from the ancient Near East (e.g. Bonner 1949, Brenk 1977, Faraone 1990). Through such comparanda, the metaphysical as well as the material dimensions of the kestos himas come into greater focus as the kestos himas is transformed into evidence for significant Near Eastern influence on Greek love magic and marriage rituals.

A synoptic investigation into the kestos himas’ exegesis thus reveals how ancient objects may become loci for intellectual history, both reflecting and reinforcing contemporary hermeneutic models. Simultaneously, however, the kestos himas continues to elude precise identification (and indeed, precise translation) because it is both emphatically material as well as mental–“stealing over the mind” even as it remains inert and (apparently) lifeless on Hera’s body as well as within the Homeric text.

Session/Panel Title

Homer and Reception

Session/Paper Number

82.3

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy