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Gigantomachy in Ancient Greek Sculpture

David Penso


The gigantomachy, or the battle between the Olympian gods led by Zeus and the giants led by Alcyoneus,1 is a popular theme in Ancient Greek art including vase painting and sculpture. Several sculpture representations of the gigantomachy are found on various buildings. These representations on buildings include the northern frieze of the treasury of the Siphnians at Delphi, the west pediment from the temple of Apollo at Delphi, the east metopes of the Parthenon, and the Pergamon altar. Sculptures of various characters from mythology include famous characters such as Herakles, giants, various gods and goddesses and are posed in a variety of forms and compositions. The sculptures that represent the gigantomachy are placed upon buildings such as the Parthenon, vary in their form and composition as they relate to the contemporary mythology, and can be compared to other gigantomachies, that were used at other buildings.

Before understanding the composition of the sculpture that represents the gigantomachy, the actual events of the gigantomachy must be understood. The cause of the gigantomachy was the defeat of the titans by the gods, so the giants went to war against the gods for revenge. The gods, led by Zeus, had been freed from Cronus' belly, when Zeus killed him. (Cronus was their father.) A war against the titans ensued and the gods won after 10 years. The titans were confined to Tartarus, while their leader, Atlas, was forced to hold up the sky on the northwest coast of Africa, which today consists of Morocco and Western Sahara. A group of 24 giants were conceived from the blood of the primordial being, Ouronus, upon castration or Tartarus and from his wife Gaia or Mother Earth. The giants attacked the gods with rocks and fire-brands from the mountain peaks. The gods weren't able to do anything until "a sign, lion-skinned moral" and an herb of invulnerability had been found as Hera, Zeus' wife, had prophesied. Zeus ordered Selene, Helios and Eros to refrain from shinning for a while, as he had sought this herb. He found it and the gods began engaging in battle with the giants. After fierce fighting the giants were driven back and defeated. The battle scenes of the gods and Herakles fighting the giants and driving them back provided for great story telling in the mythology, and for the sculpture in various buildings including the Parthenon building in the Akropolis at Athens.

Such battle scenes of the giants fighting and being defeated by the gods and to Herakles are mainly depicted by the east metopes of the Parthenon. The theme of the gigantomachy on the 14 east metopes was first determined by A. Michaelis in his Der Parthenon. The metopes are scenes of statues as groups of figures in movement, which are separated by triglyphs. The groups of the figures in the metopes are 1.21 m. in height and carved in high relief.2 One of the metopes, East XI, depicts three figures, as did its counterpart of East IV. The three figures were first drawn by C. Praschniker of the first major study of the metopes in 1928, and he had first associated the central figure as Herakles. This central figure had been disputed as to its identity by later scholars. M.A. Tiverios in his "Observations on the East Metopes of the Parthenon," had stated, that it was Ares, for Aphrodite was near at the adjacent metope East XII and Herakles was moved to East XIII. However Ares had already been reconstructed in East III, where he was wearing a shield and "fighting with a sword[or a spear] held in a thrust position" and attacking a figure at his left.3 Herakles however deems to be the most likely candidate of the central figure, as a new reconstruction has shown the central figure to have a lion's head and a club, which clearly indicate it to be Herakles. The figure to the left is Eros, who is poised to fire an arrow at the figure to the right of Herakles with the right arm overlapping of the left arm. Such overlapping occurs in other metopes, as symmetry is created in the positioning of the figures. Triads of Herakles, Eros and a giant in East XI are corresponded to with Athena, Nike and a giant East IV and to the cella side aisle, "while East V-X, correspond to the cella interior" where only two figures are placed in each metope. Aphrodite further correlates in East XII to Ares in East III, as they are aligned with cella walls, while the outermost two metopes "one either end belong to the colonnade."4 The two outermost metopes on both sides also correlate to each other, as both scenes exhibit one god assisting another. In East I-II Hermes assists Dionysus and in East XIII-XIV Helios assists Hephaistos.

Metopes aren't the only means of depicting the gigantomachy, for the west pediment of the Old Athena Temple at the Acropolis uses the triangular shape in its portrayal. Only the old foundations of the Old Athena Temple are preserved between the Parthenon and the Erechtheion. The pediment is mainly lost, but four of its participants "are complete enough that we may be fairly confident of where they appeared in the composition." These figures are Athena, "who strides to the right," a wounded giant, " who has fallen backward," and two crawling giants, "who filled the narrow corners." However the central group of the pediment may be discerned from its tracings and from two horse protomes.5 The horses are less preserved than the the four-horse chariot of the east metopes on the Parthenon. The left-hand horse only has its upper part of the head, the neck, the shoulders, chest and most of the body. The right-hand horse is less preserved with only its lower neck, chest and the beginning of each foreleg remaining.6 The weight shift of the left-handed horse is on its left legs, as it is indicated by the right foreleg being "bent and relaxed slightly."7 The weight shift of the left-handed horse is reversed to the right, as the right leg bear the weight and the left leg is relaxed. Because the weight shift of the left-handed horse is on the left and the right-handed horse is on the right, these two horses are in the center of the pedimental composition. There are also two other horses found through tracings as would have occurred in the chariots. These two horses are attached "by means of a trace line running from the girth back to the vehicle where it passed through a loop suspended from the rail and was then probably attached to the floor or axle." Dowel holes in the two preserved horses also demonstrate, that they are part of a chariot. The chariot of horses were most likely to be seen in a frontal position as contemporary black-figure vase paintings show. The figures in the chariot appear to be Zeus and his son, Herakles. Zeus appeared in all "the large Gigantomachies(i.e., those with many participants.), and is therefore the only viable possibility. There is also a passenger in the chariot, for "Zeus is always shown driving his own team with someone next to him." The most likely candidate would be Herakles, as a fallen giant indicates. The giant is probably shot down, and although Athena is closer to the giant, Athena's opponents are more likely to be "crouching or an upright position and continues to defend himself." The hold in the right side of the giant is too small for a spear head, and "must be for the tip and shaft of an arrow." Although Apollo and Artemis were the principal archers of the gods, Herakles was responsible for killing "each giant with one of his arrows," so Herakles is the most probably figure with Zeus.8 The pediment of the Old Athena Temple is mainly unpreserved, although it clearly exhibits another portrayal of the gigantomachy.

Another portrayal of the gigantomachy in a pediment is on the western side of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Although only a few figures of the pediment survive, Euripides' Ion referred to the pediment as depicting the gigantomachy. The figures include a "fighting female, a nude male in prone position, a standing male wearing a robe and an animal skin, and relatively small fragments of two horses."9 The chorus of Ion lists several figures, but full reconstruction by the French excavators doesn't confirm the figures' presence. Athena is clearly depicted, as the fighting female figure, as she "wears a chiton(much of the painted decoration of the dress is still visible) and short himation." Beyond the himation a "fragment of a mass of stone" protrudes and is "usually identified as an aegis..." and confirms the figure as Athena. The second figure is a giant with "his torso... represented in three-quarter view while the extended right leg is in profile" and is kneeling on his left leg."10 The third figure is also in three-quarter view and wears a "pleated chiton of mid-calf length, and an animal skin...," and he has been determined to be either Apollo or Dionysus.11 There are only fragments of horses, which contrast to the pediment of the Old Athena temple, with its horses in frontal pose.

The largest, most complete and perhaps the best preserved gigantomachy sculpture is the frieze of the altar at Pergamum. The struggle between the gods and giants is uninterrupted on all four sides of the 120-meter-long frieze. To enable identification of the gods and giants, the names of the gods are chiseled at the cornice, while the giants' names are chiseled on the pedestal next to the names of the sculptors. Certain figures are entirely lost such as Herakles, Poseidon in introducing "the cycle of figures of the north frieze in the right corner," and parts of other figures, such as the head of Dionysus from the left corner of the south frieze.12 However the sculpture is generally preserved and has a much greater diversity of characters and other figures in the frieze. All of the Olympian gods are included, along with Herakles, other gods such as Helios, the sun god, Selene, the moon goddess, the sons and daughter of Ares, the sanguinary god of war. A south frieze strip shows the greatest diversity of animals including serpents, dogs, horses, including the flying steeds of Zeus, mules and lions.13 Giants are also shown in direct combat with gods or lying down, as there is a diversity of poses, for every figure is in a different pose on the frieze.

The gigantomachy is a common theme in sculpture and vase paintings. The sculptural representations are mainly unpreserved, although they are partly reconstructed, yet not restored, by scholars. The east metopes of the Parthenon are determined to be a gigantomachy representation with Herakles, Eros and a giant fighting in East Metope IX and Athena, Nike and a giant in East metope IV, as symmetry is used, as all the metopes correlate to each other and the rest of the building. The Old Temple Athena also has a representation of the gigantomachy, although it is mainly lost despite partial reconstruction. The Temple of Apollo at Delphi has another representation of the gigantomachy, which Euripides described in his Ion. Characters and action are hardly preserved, and often don't correlate to the Ion. The Pergamum altar is the best preserved of the gigantomachy sculptures and has the greatest diversity of figures, forms and poses. However there are other representations of the gigantomachy, as these are only several examples. Other sculptures of the gigantomachy are on the temple of Zeus Olympios at Akragas, the northern frieze of the Treasury of the Siphnians, the altar of Athena at Priene and vase paintings also represent scenes from this important episode in Greek mythology.

Works Cited

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths: Complete Edition. Penguin Books USA, Inc.: New York, NY. 1992.

Powell, Barry B. Classical Myth. Prentice-Hall, Inc.: Englewood Cliffs, NJ. 1995.

Schwab, Katherine A. "Parthenon East Metope XI: Herakles and the Gigantomachy" American Journal of Archeology, Vol. 100. No. 1. Jan' 96.

Michalis, A. Der Parthenon. Leipzig 1870-1871.

Moore, Mary B. "The Central Group in the Gigantomachy of the Old Athena Temple on the Acropolis." American Journal of Archeology. Vol. 99 No. 6. Dec' 95.

Perseus Project. Catalogue number: Delphi, Temple of Apollo, West.

Schmidt, E.M. The Great Altar of Pergamum, Leipzig. 1962.

End Notes

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