Sunday, February 18, 2018


Athena's Little Owl
After weeks I return to this topic, lest it grow stale.
First, the word that small dictionaries define simply as "owl" proves to be quite different from what I imagined its history might be, and I can't go more deeply into its history right now than just to make that much clear.  I hadn't known more about owls than about the etymology of their name.  I'll come back to "glaux" later if I can.

(1) Even in Greek, even in Attic Greek, it is not the standard word for 'owl'.  The basic word for that  kind of a bird is onomatopoeic and like its call that hearers have heard as something like kookoo  or the Latin ulula (whether or not strictly considered it derives from the verb ululare).  Only about the time that the Iliad reaches its final form, especially in Attic Greek, it seems, does it seem to stand alone for Athena's little owl: in vase-painting and in a classical type of statue, known in copies, she holds it and, by the way, as I learned it is that little owl (koukouvaya in spoken modern Greek) that fits in a human hand and that all over Europe is the common type and size, not the big barn owl that rural Americans are familiar with.  Albrecht Dürer's exquisite watercolor dated 1506 as well as the justly famous Late Protocorinthian perfume bottle in the Louvre, ca. 635-625 BC, are just the right size, not more that three inches long.  The French diminutive, chouette, is usually preferred in the critical literature.  In earlier ancient Greek authors glaukos means the pale, gray-bluegreen, of the sea surface or for eyes, especially in Homer, where Athena is specifically called glaukopis (just as Hera is cow-eyed).   The adjectival forms, as glaukos -e -on, occur earlier commonly than the noun. The big dictionary Greek dictionary, Liddell, Scott, and Jones, spells all this out carefully.  The fullest account in a single-volume work that I have is, Partridge, Origins, 1958, s.vv. words like glass, ff. and, in the "elements" section at the back, glauco-, since of course, one of the Hellenistic doctors will have coined glaucoma (Pliny has it in Latin, but doubtless got it from his sources; (made-up scientific terms are not actually part of the 'natural' history of the word as such).  The OUP family of dictionaries, of course, are also useful and the ever-loving Webster's Collegiate.  One just had to learn not to think that one got the answer just by looking in one place.
(2) It was from one of my favorite reference books, H. J. Rose's Handbook of Greek Mythology (still in print, but the original HB editions have larger print and wider margins), with which I had started, a habit since I first 'took' Mythology more than half a century ago, that I first found Rose's noting Homer addressing her as glaukopis, which 20th century translators render as 'bright-faced', though the older ones (think Alexander Pope or Lang, Leaf, and Myers) translate as green (or gray)-eyed.  I think you can imagine both at once.  Now, as an alternate name for Athena, glaukopis seems to me perfect, but in giving new names to residences, in those towns that still prefer naming addresses, it is customary not to choose names that some neighbors find difficult or awkward.  Of course, the Latin name Minerva, gets used on houses first, though she was Etruscan and not the same goddess; if a poet called her fair-faced it was taken from Greek literature (a jolly sentimental mixup in German, which Mary Midgley incorporated in her memoir, is German Romantic dressed in antique garb, more or less, so her title The Owl of Minerva is simply charming, and is solid evidence for the continued prevalence of Latin in English education.  I found that I'd bought it when it came out but hadn't got around to reading it).  You begin to see how one can get distracted in this sort of "research".
(3) Perhaps the best single volume on Athens Oxbow Monograph 67 (1997),  a very rare treasure, 40 independent specialist articles from a conference on Athens, all of them interesting and worth having, which I just had to have for its Proto-Attic and above all for its article on the KX Painter on Samos.  Seeing that I am interested in the history of the kylix cup and in the namepiece of the Samos Painter which was found there. ..  But the volume has rewarded my interest in a number of other areas, too.  Of course, it is in the nature of Attic Potters and Painters, who traded so widely and influenced other potteries, who matter so much for their development of glaze-paint, who illustrate Greek literature richly and incessantly, so that I think we could not half understand either the literature or the daily life without the vase-painting, that scholars like John Boardman and Erika Simon (to name only the two to whom it is dedicated) could so generously dedicate their lives to it without, even so, come near to exhausting it.  One article, from a hand devoted to an utterly careless late black-figure group of vases, the Painter of the Half-Palmettes, left us a slew of rapidly produced vases many with, as he shows, a sanctuary of Athena and her local cult.  François Lissarrgue, op. cit., pp. 125, ff, fig. 25, London B 359, showing her chouette on a little column behind the goddess's large profile bust to l.  That bust, also, dates it: not earlier than the kore statue from the Acropolis signed by a sculptor named Antenor: the end of Late Archaic.  The rest of the vases are consistent with this one (in fact, most of them could come from stock produced to be sold at a single festival (though one wouldn't want to put that in print).  Now, who would look at this kind of painted ware if some picture-gallery dealer had it for sale?  No one.  It is evidence; it is history of popular religion.  And, by the way, it's the kind if vase-painting that never (at least I can't imagine it) gets faked.
Anyhow, I had to finish this.