In a dazzling plenty of container styles the classical Greeks told their story, and the contrarian story that emerges from this exhibition is that women, far from being the reduced invisibles of the Attic polis, played a profoundly influential role that reverberates in our own society.
The idea of kylixes and kraters and amphorae and the many other types of containers with their exacting names as symbolic of women is at first trite, but on reflection the idea seems perfect and inevitable. Perfection, of course, was always on the ancient Greek mind. The containment of everything for which a civilization strives and the conveyance of that striving through time suggests a small part of why so many variations of containment and so many painstaking names was so important to the Greeks.
In this light, Alexander of Macedon`s momentous decision to convey Greek ideals to the rest of the world seems a natural outcome. We live in that Alexandrian world, the very world fundamentalist terrorists revile, and the stature of women has very much to do with what they fear and revile.
The manufacture of vessels was Athens` chief industry. Vessels were the computers and cars of their time. Much of the best art and thinking of which Greece was capable appears on those vessels, at first the black-figure vessels and then the more pervasive red-figure vessels.
Amphorae, because of their tapered feet, were ideal for shipping grains and fluids in the rounded holds of galleys. They could be lashed together so as not to break themselves to pieces as the ship rolled. To this day we are learning more about the Greeks from amphorae recovered from ocean wrecks.
But how was it that this society became so obsessed with containing precious materials in the most beautiful and elegant way possible? How was it that the Greeks sought to tell their story on these vessels? Could it be related to an idea of woman as the repository of sacred, secret knowledge? We see female rites on these vessels that we don`t understand, and we`re not sure they were widely understood in their own time. And could this be at the root of oppression of women in today`s anti-Western fundamentalists? Could a Greek notion of the divine destiny and work of women, which was spread throughout what we now call the Hellenic World, a world that encompassed the Middle East, have been perverted over time into fear of women, even hatred? Why would any society go to great lengths to oppress and keep ignorant fully one half of its humanity?
I don`t have answers. I`m not a scholar. But I have visited the Worshiping Women exhibition three times and I keep thinking of the Hindu concept of the zero and how the Arabs realized its potential, giving us modern mathematics in its applied and pure forms. The Arabs had studied and translated Greek geometry and other mathematical disciplines. They saw the potential of the zero to carry mathematics forward. But why should these musings occur to me after visiting this amazing show of Greek vessels and their portrayal of women in Greek society? I think it`s because the zero, in one of its myriad incarnations, is a vessel and also a conveyance. I think the Arabs understood they were as indebted to the Greeks as they were to the Hindus. Moreover, the Arabs themselves, because of their fascination with alchemy and transformative science, were no mean makers of vessels themselves. And they too inscribed their story on these vessels, employing the incomparable calligraphy for which they are justly celebrated. I think, at least at an intuitive if not conscious level, the sensed a connection between the sophisticated Greek idea of vessels not only as conveyors of goods but ideas and the zero which they had recently carried out of India.
I doubt, even if I were scholarly, I could prove this thesis, but I think it might be worth the musing.
Among the many tragedies civilization suffers at the hands of fundamentalists of every stripe is the rejection of all that has been accomplished under their own banners. The Muslim fundamentalists yammer about the restoration of a caliphate, and their know-nothing counterparts in the West yammer about the horror of such an idea, and yet neither recognize that it was under Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs that the Arabs, Turks and Persians translated Greek achievements to the West, deployed the zero to the uses of high mathematics and brought astronomy out of astrology. Few if any of these progressive caliphates would have tolerated the ignorant notions of today`s Muslim fanatics. Indeed the great caliphate at Cordoba was brought down by just such violent dunces.
The very stories conveyed to us on the vessels at the Onassis Cultural Center and in The Metropolitan Museum`s equally marvelous collection of Attic urns were rescued from obscurity by the Arabs. That is why they`re familiar to us.
I`ve strayed from my amateur efforts to connect Greek vessels, worship of women and mathematics, but if one ponders the role of Islamic civilization in developing modern math one can`t help but wonder why Hellenic ideas about women, which have shaped our own, should be so fearfully rejected. It`s one thing, of course, for women to worship, quite another for them to be worshipped as deities. It would be easy to say Islam`s iconoclastic rejection of idolatry "Muslims often think of Christianity with its pantheon of saints as idolatrous "is the cause of this anxiety about women, but I think the fear may have another, less philosophical and more psychological source. The oppression of women is an old and disgraceful story, and the Christian church fathers played as evil a role in it as today`s Taliban. The rise of mariology to some extent redressed this wrong, but women in Western society still suffer the toxins of this churchly poisoning. So we have no moral room in the West to tsk-tsk too noisily about the status of women in Islamic countries.
Greek thought about containment and conveyance is profoundly feminine in shape and genius. Together they are the genius of the Greek household. When wed to the Arab epiphany of the zero, which is in shape and principle feminine, a dynamic continually pulsating between containment on the one hand and infinity on the other and an unremittingly anti-dogmatic force is unleashed upon the world, and it is perhaps this force that terrifies fundamentalists who despise the mysteries that engaged the Greeks and the the Arabs. To drink pure wine was barbaric to the Greeks, and they were assiduous about how they mixed wine with water. The Arabs, proscribed from using alcohol, sophisticated the idea of the vessel as alembic, and in their alembics they sought to transmute baser metals into gold and, by extrapolation, base human instincts into noble ones.
The Taliban and their ilk, cast in this light, are not warriors, certainly not holy warriors, but rather cowards, because real heroism goes hand in hand with intellectual and creative excellence, something the Greeks understood and embodied in their athletics.
Our prevailing notion of heroism is male and intrusive, but true heroism is willing and eager to engage the most dangerous ideas. Indeed it rejects the idea as a danger, knowing that nothing can be prevailed over that is not engaged. What remains unengaged remains a source of fear. If the Arabs, who restored to us the gifts of the Greeks, had thought otherwise we`d still be thinking of stars as sparklers in a confining dome.