LectureHop: Odysseus’ Bow and Other “Stuff” from the World of Homer

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Bwog gets strung along.

Bwog gets strung along.

Last night in Hamilton 602, German archaeologist Sigrid Vierck charmed Homer enthusiasts and Lit Hum students alike. “Who is that boy in the movies? Indiana Jones…? I think I’m more like Lara Croft because I’m a woman.”  Vierck may not be the next Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, but her lecture on Homeric objects had more treasures for an Odyssey fanatic than Indy could find in a forgotten Mayan temple. Bwog’s top student of Homer fedora enthusiast, Dara Solina, was on hand to cover all the archaeological action.

Vierck began her tour through the many objects of Homer’s world by dramatically inviting listeners to imagine an elaborate scene of feasting in Nestor’s palace.  She then introduced us to various rooms in the maze of halls and chambers that make up Nestor’s ridiculously elaborate house. (Seriously though, what else would we expect from Nestor?)  Eventually we arrived at a room called the Megaron, the place “where everything happens.” One of the most important events that might have occurred in the Megaron was a performance from a blind singer/poet captivating his audience from a pedestal under a circular portal in the roof.  Her smiles throughout the description made it clear that she wanted to be right there with the ancient Greeks listening to Homer’s story, and her almost child-like enthusiasm was pretty infectious.

Next, we looked at a Cycladic idol followed by a statue of Odysseus with his wild hair and beard, wearing a funny-looking hat called a pilos. Then we saw several different portrayals of Odysseus with his bow and imagined what they would look like if the marble were still covered with the artist’s original layer of paint. Interestingly, in each piece depicting Odysseus, his right thigh was exposed. For those who couldn’t even take the time to Sparknote the reading, that’s the location of Odysseus’ identifying scar. While these sculptures captured a lot of Odysseus’ masculinity and overall studly toughness, by far the most visually striking image from the lecture was a photo of an enormous multi-form sculpture taken from a cave in Tiberius’ villa. The piece showed Odysseus and his men ambushing a gargantuan Polyphemos, and it perfectly captured the fantastical scene’s sinister drama.

The star of Vierck’s show was Odysseus’ famous bow, which had been lying on a table throughout the earlier parts of the lecture, tantalizingly wrapped in protective plastic.  Vierck invited a student to unwrap it and there were many “oohs” and “ahhs” as it was lifted up and shown to the whole room. The murmurs from the audience showed that they were really captivated by this large and rather intimidating object.  However, while certainly impressive-looking, the bow was not the real deal. Vierck informed us that it was in fact a 200 year-old replica from Asia designed to look like the one belonging to Odysseus.  Still, it was interesting to learn about the different features of the bow such as its inverted notches and surprising flexibility once heated and tallowed.  The wood was springy and light, and it would be easy to imagine Odysseus’ muscular arm stretching its curved form, poised to shoot. At one point, Vierck invited some brave students to try bending the bow.  She didn’t forget to give them one important bit of advice – “Don’t break it!”

Other highlights from the series of objects included a golden gorytos, or a special quiver for bow and arrows, and several amphikypellon, which are drinking vessels frequently referenced in both The Iliad and the Odyssey.  One of my personal favorite objects was the labrys which is a double axe with a tiny circular opening, or “eye”, at the base. The labrys was a highly ceremonial object most often used by priests and other high-standing members of society. The fact that Odysseus just had twelve such objects just lying around for the contest of the suitors confirms what we all already knew – Odysseus is the man! Finally, Vierck also showed us many depictions of archers in art and architecture including photos of pieces from the Hittite and Scythian cultures.  These were actually taken by Vierck herself on her travels, and they mostly showed hunting scenes with a surprisingly modern aesthetic.

Vierck closed by answering a few questions from students, and was asked at one point to talk a bit about her own work as an archaeologist. One particularly interesting story demonstrated the connections that existed between ancient civilizations and the unbelievable conclusions that archaeological evidence can lead us to. Vierck talked about the discovery of peppercorn containers in Germany that had been stamped with an artisan’s seal, and went on to discuss how she eventually found containers bearing the same seal in India.  “We do not only look at big statues,” she said, “we look at what is in the earth. This is the archaeological way to look – we look for traces.” Clearly, traces of Homer can be found everywhere, from literature to cinema to art, but Vierck proved that sometimes the most exciting traces are the ones you can actually hold and touch.  And last night you didn’t have to be Indiana Jones or Lara Croft to find them!

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  1. Nancy Workman

    Great report on a really captivating event! Kudos to Vierck for making the Odyssey come alive. One small correction to the article: "She would eventually discover peppercorns bearing the same seal hundreds of miles away in India"--1) That would have been incredible! Two-thousand-year-old peppercorns, each individually marked with a seal! However, what was found were pottery containers marked with the same seal. 2) India "hundreds of miles" from Germany? I guess you could say it's about "40 hundred" miles away (as the crow flies) but most would probably say "thousands of miles". . . .

  2. Nancy Workman

    Yikes--I thought my comment was going to be anonymous. But thanks, (anonymous) guys! And thanks to my fellow Slavist Margo Rosen, Core Lecturer extraordinaire, for finding Prof. Vierck and convincing her to come all the way from Luneburg, with bow in tow.

  3. Nancy Workman

    To Bwog readers in general: Don't believe the hype!

    To "I was in your lit hum class," "I was also in your lit hum class," and especially "NancyLoverCatsCatsCats," your checks are in the mail. See you at the personality-cult rally, time and place TBA!

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