The force of tradition in early Greek poetry and painting Event as iCalendar

(Classics and Ancient History, School of Humanities)

13 March 2018

4 - 5pm

Venue: Lecture theatre 220, Humanities Building (206-220)

Contact info: Anne Mackay

Contact email:

Anne Mackay | University of Auckland

In early Greek society, tradition set the parameters of the world view within which cultural identity was constructed. Homeric epic, for instance, reflects an oral-poetic tradition in which the narrative was conveyed as much by the form as by the content of the poetry. As is well documented in oral-traditional theory, traditional bards drew upon a massive repertoire of formulaic phrases, set-piece situations and story patterns, which over time had acquired laminations of extra-contextual associations that vastly enriched the listeners’ reception process and response to the story as it unfolded. 

The initial objective will be to demonstrate that the black-figure vase-painting of archaic Athens was as much governed by its painting tradition as early epic was by its oral-poetic tradition: the painters were equipped with a repertoire of figure-forms, iconographic motifs and scene-types, each of which had increasingly developed associative significations over and above the overt content of the scene. 

Thereafter, the focus will shift to the tension between constraining tradition and the creative urge, examining how new ideas were visually expressed within the traditional horizon of viewer-expectations. Close analysis of some scenes that seem to challenge traditional patterns will reveal that they are largely built up out of pre-existing elements, each bringing its own traditional associations, and that the originality of the painter consisted in drawing upon those associations innovatively to evoke an exceptionally rich viewing response.

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