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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Temple of Zeus at Olympia, Stymphalian Birds





Heracles’ 6th labor was to drive away the birds that lived in the thickly wooded shores of the Stymphalian Lake in northeastern Arcadia.  He made a lot of noise with a bronze noisemaker, and as the birds took flight, he shot them down with his arrows.  Or, in another version, he simply let them migrate to another spot.  The myth appears on Attic black-figure vases from the end of the sixth century, where Heracles is shown shooting the birds with his arrows, pelting them with his slingshot, or striking them with his club.





When the labors of Heracles were represented on one of the metopes of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (c. 460 BC) a different, post-climactic “narrative moment” was chosen.  The birds have already been killed or driven away.  What we see is Heracles handing over several dead birds (which are missing from the metope) to Athena, who sits barefoot on a rock.  Why Athena?  She appears four times as his assistant on the metopes, and according to one tradition it was she who gave him the bronze noisemaker.  He has returned to her to show her that her bird-scarer did the trick.  A strong demand was placed upon the viewer of this metope, who had to infer all the actions leading up to the moment chosen for direct representation.  And this choice of narrative moment invited the viewer to contemplate consequences and emotional effects.  “His mood is calm, hers gentle,” says Pedley (Greek Art and Archaeology [2002] 217).  Her turning posture suggests that Heracles has surprised her from behind; she had been looking in the other direction, none too concerned for his welfare in this labor, one of his easiest.  The whole composition is notable for the demands it places upon the viewer.  Contrast the black-figure vase paintings, which depict the climactic moment: they are visually stunning, but they do not evoke the hero’s easy relationship with the goddess.

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