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Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The power of the ugly?

Throughout history and in various cultures ugly beings have often been thought protective. Think of the gargoyles on churches, or even Bes of ancient Egypt. We have two objects we have in the Egypt Centre traditionally called 'grotesques', indeed an old label on one of the items actually says 'grotesque'.  While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I don't think that they could really be considered ugly. They may not represent standard youthful beauty but a furrowed head and flat nose cannot be considered 'grotesque'. But why the Graeco-Roman fascination with these images?

The one above is GR104 which was donated to us by the British Museum in the 1970s. The forehead is furrowed and the nose flat. The eyes appear to be closed. The arms are possibly drawn up under the chin suggesting a squatting figure.

This one is EC1290. You can see it has a furrowed brow.

There are parts of moulded terracotta figurines. Very often museums only have the heads. We are not sure if ours are from Greece or Egypt as they are known throughout the Hellenistic world. Egyptian manufacturing sites include Alexandria and Memphis. Egyptian examples tend to be solid and hand-made and ones made in Greece are hollow and mould-made, though this is not a hard and fast rule. It seems that GR1-04 is thus more likely to have been made in Greece and EC1290 in Egypt. 

Objects such as these begin in the Ptolemaic Period though continued with Roman control. The visual arts of the Period show a fascination with people exhibiting physical deformities (Muratov 2012, 56 with references) and non-'standard' forms, and these are rightly or wrongly categorized as one group.  They are found in temples and tombs, though some are also found on domestic sites. They are usually depictions of males and have exaggerated features, sometimes of deformities. 

Petrie suggested that these may be foreigners though this idea has been discounted (Ashton 2003). It has been suggested that they are influenced by theatrical masks of the period. There use is unclear though it seems that at lease some were votives.

 It has long been suggested that such images were considered apotropaic in the ancient world (e.g. Harrison 1903; Wace 1903/4 but also see Muratov 2012, 59 footnote 19 for other references). This has also been suggested for brazier fragments with heads of satyrs, which seem to be related through connection with theatre masks (the Egypt Centre has two examples of these EC1301 and EC1302). This would explain why many are phallic (considered apotropaic) and produced in large quantities, and also why they are placed in temples and tombs. It may be that such heads in Egypt are in the tradition of apotropaic figures such as Bes and satyrs. Or of course, it may be that they represent famous actors of the time who would be depicted with exaggerated, caricatured masks.

Further reading

Ashton, S-A. 2003. Foreigners at Memphis? Petrie's Racial Types. In Tait, J. (ed.) 'Never Had the Like Occurred': Egypt's View of Its Past, London: UCL Press.187-196..

Dunand, F. 1990. Catalogue des terres cuites Gréco-Romanines d'Egypte. Paris: Ministere de la culture, de la communication et des grands travaux, Reunion des musees nationaux.

Harrison, J.E. 1903. The Ker as Gorgon, Prolegoma to the Study of Greek Religion.

Muratov, M. 2012. “The world’s a stage….”: Some observations on Four Hellenistic Terracotta Figurines of Popular Entertainers. The International Journal of Humanities and Social Science 2.9, 55-65.

Török, L. 1995. Hellenistic and Roman Terracottas from Egypt, especially pp 143-168 for ‘Genre, theatre and grotesquerie’

Wace, A.J.B. (1903/1904). Grotesques and the Evil Eye. The Annual of the British School at Athens, 10, pp. 103-114.

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