Personification Concepts And Contents

In most general terms, "personification" has been defined as an abstract or impersonal concept which is endowed with characteristics normally attributed to human or divine beings, such as physical life and movement, mental and emotional activities (feeling and thinking) and male or female physical appearance.9 It has been argued that, as soon as a figure has been represented in the visual arts, he or she can be recognized as a personification.10 But painters are perhaps more likely to have depicted personifications after poets had already described them as such.

The scope of what is imagined as personified by the Greeks in the Archaic period is significantly wide. As far as the gender of personifications is concerned, it seems remarkable that the majority of personified figures is female and, moreover, associated with predominantly positive, often political or civic connotations (Dike, Eirene, Eunomia, Harmonia and Homonoia &c.).11 This striking phenomenon has usually been explained linguistically through the feminine gender of the abstract qualities which tend to be personified. This is certainly a relevant point. More recent scholarship, however, has drawn attention to the dynamics of a male-dominated society in which extremes of good and evil tend to be represented in a female shape. Perhaps the great number of female personifications occurring in cult and iconography are a reflection of positive male attitudes towards females. At least, personifications are depicted as beautiful young women of marriagable age, potential objects of desire, as for example, the Charites.12 Possibly it is to be seen within the same context that among the few male personified abstracts we find erotic personifications, Eros, Himeros and Pothos, who appear as handsome youths in a smaller scale in iconography, particularly in the Classical period.13 The male personifications most often depicted in epic and visual arts are, however, the brothers Hypnos and Thanatos.14 Both appear in Homeric and Hesiodic epic, and Thanatos is featured even as a dramatis persona in Euripides' Alkestis. I will argue later in which ways these two deities influenced the creation of the male love-god. Personifications of neuter nouns such as KpaToq or y^paq also appear rarely in iconography. When they do, they are personified as males. A good case in example is probably Kratos in Prometheus Bound.1

Some other attempts at classification have been made. It is important that erotic personifications, according to their diverse nature and origins, belong to divergent categories. Personifications encompass natural phenomena including the Earth, Heaven, the Ocean, the Winds, the Sun and so on. They coexist as persons and phenomena. It is Hesiod and later the Presocratic philosophers who attribute a personal flavor not only to these natural manifestations, but also to invisible concepts which are considered as primeval and elemental (such as Eros).16 Some of them may even have a civic implication, such as Eris, Neikos, Philia or Themis, Peitho and Harmonia as we have seen earlier. Also these personifications are usually imagined as lasting and persisting. Another group describes the reality of individual human experience and includes those which affect human beings physically, as e.g. Hypnos and Thanatos, or mentally and psychologically (Deimos, Phobos, Peitho, Eros, Himeros, Pothos, Ate &c.).17 They were not considered as persistent, but temporally bound to the situation when they become effective. The Charites may be considered as being of a different nature since they too were established very early as cult goddesses in Greece. As their name suggests, they personify the idea of beauty and charm. Considering the implications (and the gender) of the term x^P1-?, it is not surprising that they were imagined as beautiful young women at a very early stage. A different category arises from the tendency to personify functions, gifts, or effects which can be imagined as caused or engendered by established Olympian deities. The personified gods are then related to them as children or attendants, thus Dike is Zeus' daughter, Deimos and Phobos are Ares' sons, Eros and Himeros are Aphrodite's companions.

Often it cannot be decided to what degree these personifications are in fact imagined as personally individualized and as concrete human beings or deities. Attempts to classify personifications according to their degree of individuality are not really satisfactory. T. Webster, for example, distinguishes in descending order between "deification", "strong personification", "weak personification" and "technical terms". "Deification", for example, marks the highest degree of personification. The Charites are a good example of this since they were venerated as goddesses in the Archaic period. Hypnos and Thanatos, as presented in the Iliad, fit his definition of a "strong personification" (when the "human qualities are clearly seen"). One type of what he calls a "weak personification" is interesting: emotions imagined as victors, captors, holders, or destroyers are counted among them. T. Webster suggests that this use was originally personal and that this sort of metaphor probably died out by the 5th century BC.18 In the particular case of Eros, however, there is abundant evidence that this very metaphor was further developed by the poets and contributed to the love-god's personality.19

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