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Eurynome of Phigalia and a shield in Olympia Museum

22/09/2014

The visitor of the “collection of bonzes” of the Olympia Museum has every reason to be impressed. Apart from the utilitarian objects of everyday life the exhibited weapons are particularly impressive with top example the surviving remains of archaic shields. Especially the exhibit with code B-4990 that depicts a monstrous female form that is described as a “gorgoneio”. The excellent book by Mrs. Georgia E. Chatzi (1) gives us the information that is an excellent sample of high metallurgical art that comes from a Magna Graecia workshop and is dated into the second half of the 6th century BC.

Shield from Olympia Museum. Source Wikimedia Commons

The triangles that decorate the perimeter of the shield are also displayed on fireplace decorations of the Mycenaean palaces and perhaps suggest the pride of the shield’s owner that probably traces his linage from an aristocratic clan of the «Heroic age». But the term «gorgoneion» may be an oversimplification with which Pausanias in his work «Description of Greece » might argue against as he describes the goddess Eurynome statue that in his time was related to Artemis. So he writes: «From Phigaleans I have heard that the wooden devotional image of the goddess is tethered with golden chains, and it has the form of a woman up to the buttocks. The remaining lower part of the body has the form of fish…».(2) He confesses though that he did not see it (3) because the shrine stayed closed all year except for one day that opens for purification rites.

According to the Suda Lexicon, Herodotus called the Arcadians «Proselinoi» testifying to their antiquity. It is therefore the natural that the populations of Arcadia preserved atavistic cults of pre-Olympian deities who had diminished or disappeared altogether in other Greek clans, like the worship of the primeval goddess Eurynome, who in the Geometric and Archaic Greece she was known as the «Queen of Animals» or «Mistress of Nature» and was later identified with Artemis.

But how is an «italiotic» 6th century BC shield connected with the Arcadia in general and with Phigalia in particular? During he 6th century BC the Greek colonies of Magna Graecia were in a phase of dynamic development. The conflicts of the Greeks with the native Sicanoi and also between them in relation with the power usurpation by dictators (tyrants) offered opportunities to ambitious adventurous men. The Arcadians, hard-pressed by their barren mountainous land were among the first who sought their fortune westwards. (4)

One hypothesis is that a Phigalean who carried this shield after made his fortune in Magna Grecia with the help of a goddess who had a strong element of water in her myth (Apollodorus, Library, 3, 12.6 Homer, Iliad, 6. 394), when he returned to he dedicated his shields as a votive offering to the Olympian Zeus. Another logical assumption is that in some conflict in Sicily, one mercenary army led someone Arcadian general was defeated and the victors sent his shield as a tribute to Olympia. A less convincing explanation is that a Phigalean who dedicated his shield after winning the hoplite race in the Olympic Games dedicated it. But we can hardly connect the shield with a sporting event that the written sources so far set it chronologicaly around the end of the 6th century BC.

Grafical reconstruction of a shield from the Athens Museum. (c) Stefanos Skarintzos

Grafical reconstruction of a shield from the Athens Museum. (c) Stefanos Skarintzos

It is also interesting the fact that an exhibit from the Archaeological Museum of Athens dated in the same period, the restoration of which depicts the «Queen of Animals». At that period despite his supremacy of Attica, Peisistratos died and his successors were relying on mercenaries to keep themselves in power. We can not exclude the possibility of this shield belonging to to some Arcadian mercenary. Stephanus of Byzantium writes: «…’Proselinoi’ the Arcadians and the female ‘proselinis’… «. Also according to the myth of the to some Eurynome is presented as the faithful jailer of Zeus, keeping the vanquished Titans in captivity. («Greek Epic Fragments» Leipzig 1877) Rather suitable emblem for a tyrant’s bodyguard.

Sources:

  1. “The Archaeological Museum of Olympia” OLKOS publications (Sponsored by the Latses Fountation) ISBN 97896089339-5-4   pp 152
  2. Παυσανίας «Ελλάδος Περιήγησις» VIII , 41,4
  3. Παυσανίας «Ελλάδος Περιήγησις» VIII, 41,6
  4. 4. Erich S. Gruen «Cultural Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean » Getty Publications
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