Beauty is in the eye of the … beheld

Ceci est un article sur les épithètes homériques ou non. Il commence en anglais et finit en français, en quelque sorte.

  • 2004-07-09

Updated version following up a comment. Scroll down!

Open the Iliad and you find that the Greeks referred to their goddess Hera as βοῶπις (bo-ôpis), i.e. cow-eyed. A 19th century scholar must have translated this as “ox-eyed” – the term is still around – but I frankly doubt he was on-target.

Homer and his contemporaries weren’t poking fun at Hera at all: it was considered high praise if you could be sayed to have eyes as beautiful as a cow’s. Nor was she the only one adorned with an epithet (“epitheton ornans” is the scholarly term) that extols her graces by comparing her eyes to those of an animal. Athena, whose beauty was either that of deep wisdom or formidable bellicosity, comes with the epithet γλαυκῶπις (glauk-ôpis), meaning owl-eyed. The owl, Athena’s animal, being a predator after all, this makes a lot of sense. (There are some divergent voices saying that the etymology might be wrong and the translation ought to read “sparkle-eyed”; but those two versions of her epithet wouldn’t really be incompatible.)

I was reminded of this while browsing the photos of fellow WordPress user speakbold, and in particular this one. Can we find a use for “giraffe-eyed”, maybe to express that remarkable serenity we see in the attitude of this animal (who, after all, lives in a zoo, for goddess’s sake)? Or should it rather be giraffe-lipped?

Update: Kareen, in her comment written in French, points out that the goddess Aphrodite, or Venus, also goes by the epithet “callipyge” or “kallipygos” (both versions exist in English, the first one in French and the second one in German), meaning “she who has beautiful buttocks”.

Kareen is right, of course, but as she observes herself, this name is used for a particular type of representation of the goddess in sculpture. The bynames that have been lavished on the characters of Greek mythology acutally fall into several distinct categories: Homeric epithets used in poetic praise, like those I mentioned in the original post; bynames referring to a particular “aspect” or “manifestation” of a deity used in religious worship; and epithets that were introduced much later, to designate a particular way to represent the character in artistic creation. And I am not even counting the epithets referring to place names, which can arise in a number of distinct contexts as well.

To give an example, there would be no cult associated with Hera bo-ôpis, nor does this epithet refer to a particular way to depict this goddess. It is just a poetic way to praise her. On the other hand, Athena Nike refers to the cult of Athena as a goddess of victory (and not, for example, of wisdom, which would be practiced in a different temple).

To return to the nice-assed Aphrodite: The term came up with this Roman copy of a lost Hellenistic sculpture, and also refers to the numerous copies and re-interpretations of the theme. The concept seems to go back to a Hellenistic story of two girls comparing the respective shapelyness of their posteriors: the story has nothing to do with the goddess at all, was just titillating literature of questionable quality.

Here is another photo of the original, and we learn that the head isn’t even Roman at all but the work of a 18th-century, er, restorer. Baroque imitations can be found, e.g. in the park of Versailles or, somewhat less elegant, in the courtyard of Karlsruhe castle in Germany.

French arts seem to have been inspired by the idea of Venus callipyge. Take this passage from Rimbaud:

O renouveau d’amour, aurore triomphale
Où, courbant à leurs pieds les Dieux et les Héros,
Kallipyge la blanche et le petit Éros
Effleureront, couverts de la neige des roses,
Les femmes et les fleurs sous leurs beaux pieds écloses !

from: Arthur Rimbaud, Soleil et chair

(I have heard of rose-fingered dawn, yet rose-footed dawn in the shape of Venus callipyge and Eros setting their feet on budding flowers and women, while heroes and gods respectfully bow invokes a rather more extravagant image.)

Thanks to Kareen, still, we can add the lyrics of “Venus Callipyge” by Georges Brassens to the collection, the main idea of which you’ll easily guess. A detailled, interesting analysis (in French as well, sorry) of it is here, but the database was down when this post was being written. Let’s hope it comes back up soon.

2 comment(s) for 'Beauty is in the eye of the … beheld'

  1. (Comment, 2004-07-06 11:51 )
    #1 — Kareen

    Je pense aussi à l’épithète qui permet de dire : aux belles
    fesses… je ne sais plus, je crois que c’est callipyge
    et que c’est pour Aphrodite. Il y a des Venus callipyges
    en sculpture, et peut-être des Apollon.

  2. (Comment, 2004-07-09 19:49 )

    Hey, I’m flattered that you wrote about one of my pictures, and I feel that a “thank you” is in order. Lovely site design, by the way. :)