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  • Swallow This:A Pelike within Late Archaic Song and Visual Culture*
  • Deborah Steiner (bio)

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Fig 1.

Photo of one side of the leningrad pelike, Hermitage 615; ARV2 1594.48.

On a well-known pelike in Saint Petersburg associated with the Pioneer Group of vase painters and dated to c. 510–505 BCE,1 three figures point upwards to a swallow (Fig. 1). Coming from the mouth of the youth seated on the left are the words, “Look, a swallow” [IDÔ XELIDÔN]. The older bearded man responds, “Yes, by [End Page 41] Heracles” [NE TON HÊRAKLEA], while the boy to his side adds, “There it is [HAUTÊI]” In between the last two figures the phrase “It’s already spring” (EAR ÊDÊ) appears.

In recent decades, scholars have offered rich treatments of this pelike, citing it in discussions of the interface between oral and literate cultures, and in treatments of the nuanced relations between words and images on painted pottery. In François Lissarrague’s account, the ‘speaking’ figures offer an instance of a mimêsis that is at once visual and verbal,2 while Richard Neer notes that the vase confronts viewers with three different modes of signification: the painted image, the word, and the oiônos, a term that means simultaneously a bird/bird of prey, a bird of omen, and an omen drawn from a bird.3 In Neer’s subtle analysis, the vase also demonstrates how artists of the late sixth and early fifth centuries—the painters of the Pioneer Group in particular—liked to engage in visual ambiguity, creating riddling scenes that oscillate between different meanings, an effect that Neer styles poikilia.4 According to his reading, the pelike’s artist suggests the potential gap between the sign (the bird) and its referent (the advent of spring); for, as Neer nicely observes, while the swallow does, in a widely-attested belief from Homer and Hesiod on, herald the new season, a familiar Attic proverb warns, “One swallow does not a springtime make” (). If a solitary bird is not an indicator of spring, then at least one statement on the vase fails to correspond to the phenomenon to which it refers. Most recently, Henry Immerwahr has offered an innovatory discussion of the pelike, reading it as an illustration of a piece of love magic first attested in a fragment of Hipponax; following his focus on erotic relations, Immerwahr further calls attention to the cohesion between the swallow scene and the two wrestlers depicted on the vase’s other side (Fig. 2).5

The analysis of the pelike that I offer here develops the suggestions that mimêsis, sign making, poikilia, and ambiguity are very much the painter’s concerns—and this in ways that Lissarrague’s and Neer’s rich discussions have left still to be explored—while also accommodating these within the pederastic frame common to my and Immerwahr’s analyses. My larger aim, however, distinguishes this reading from existing accounts. So as more thoroughly to reconstruct a late sixth-century viewer’s response to its images, I contextualize the vase in two respects. First, I place its scenes and words within the larger, culturally determined systems of meaning surrounding them; both the gestures that these painted figures perform and the messages on the vase act much like formulae in epic song, as repositories of a significance that goes beyond their denotative meaning on this particular occasion and that encompasses both existing traditions informing acts of bird (and specifically swallow) identification and decipherment and the social practices typically associated with the individuals included in the scene.6 And second, I reinsert the object into its sympotic milieu, showing how it was designed both to play an [End Page 42] active part in the types of intra-elite verbal, social, and sexual competitions typical of the sympotic space, and to engage its audience by making them participate, as viewers, talkers, and singers, in its several representations.

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Fig 2.

Photo of wrestlers on the other side of the Leningrad pelike, Hermitage 615; ARV2 1594.48.

More narrowly, I make four...


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