Snake charmer? One of the least well-endowed satyrs 
    in the show (right).
Snake charmer? One of the least well-endowed satyrs in the show (right).
Courtesy of the MFAH

Odd Couplings

Don't invite a centaur to your wedding. They're worse guests than your cousin's alcoholic biker of a third husband. When the ancient Greek half-man, half-horse creatures were invited to the wedding of Perithoos and Hippodameia, they got bombed and attacked all the women in the wedding party. An all-out brawl ensued, and the bridegroom and Theseus, who was one of the guests, entered the fray and slew the offending centaurs. The battle became a popular subject of Greek art.

Centaurs, satyrs, sphinxes, the Minotaur, gorgons and the like are part of the ancient Greek panoply of half-human, half-animal constructs that embody a host of physical and psychological attributes. "The Centaur's Smile: The Human Animal in Early Greek Art" presents human- animal artwork from ancient Greece, as well as its Near Eastern antecedents.

The show is a stroll back through the stories of Greek mythology, and there are elaborate mytho-genealogical explanations for many of the part-human, part-animal hybrids. Suffice to say, the Greeks were pretty freaky. (And that's before you even get into the whole pederasty thing.) In addition to being a big highly dysfunctional family, Greek mythological figures copulated in mind-boggling combinations, with gods, mortals, animals and, for example, clouds, all hooking up. And you thought those people on Jerry Springer were weird.


"The Centaur's Smile: The Human Animal in Early Greek Art"

Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet

Through May 16; 713-639-7300

The bull-headed, man-bodied Minotaur resulted from another improbable union between human and animal. Pasiphaë was the wife of Minos, the king of Crete, and apparently had a thing for the Cretan Bull. So she attracted the bull by concealing herself inside a hollow wooden cow constructed by the artisan Daedalus. The offspring of this charming little tryst was the Minotaur. And the Minotaur is a far scarier being than the centaur. He has the body of a man but the head of a bull, implying brutishness and unreasoning. Why the offspring of the Pasiphaë and the bull should be so much more freakish and horrifying than the offspring of Kentaurous and the mares has surely inspired numerous dissertations.

The MFAH show includes a variety of objects, the majority of them vases. Greek vase painters depicted human-animal creations and their stories on all kinds of everyday vessels. Imagine your wine glasses, Tupperware and pitchers all decorated with familiar cartoons. While today the ancient Greek images are the object of study and speculation, the stories would have been immediately recognizable at the time.

The Greeks had a broad range of purpose-specific vessels. Among them are amphorae for oil, water and wine storage; kraters for mixing water and wine; lekythos, or oil jugs; and kylikes, two-handled wine cups with wide shallow bowls. The vessels were painted with slip, a fine, watery clay, rather than a glaze. A complex series of firings oxidizes and deoxidizes the slip, turning it black. White and red slip was used to accent the vessels, and later, red-figured vases were created by using the slip to outline the figures, letting the natural color of the clay show through.

One black-figure amphora (circa 520-510 BC) included in "The Centaur's Smile" depicts a scene from a famous tale of centaur intemperance. It shows the hospitable and fairly decorous centaur Pholos wearing a tunic on his human torso and hosting the visiting Herakles. In the story, after Pholos serves him dinner, Herakles spies a vessel of wine and asks for a glass. Pholos refuses, warning him that the smell will draw wild boozehound centaurs to the cave. Herakles ignores him and opens the wine, and bands of crazed centaurs attack. In the ensuing battle, Herakles accidentally kills his host with one of his poisoned arrows. Kindness is not generally rewarded in the ancient-Greek scheme of things.

Centaurs are often erratic and threatening, but they can speak and reason. After all, they bear the head and torso of man. Cheiron, a centaur unrelated to the spawn of Kentauros, is a friend and adviser of men who schooled and raised Achilles, the Trojan War hero. In the MFAH exhibit, a lekythos from circa 510-500 BC depicts king Peleus presenting the young Achilles to Cheiron. Another piece in the show, a red-figured krater (circa 440-430 BC), shows Cheiron tenderly leading his nymph bride, Chariklo.

Most of us are familiar with the Minotaur and his labyrinth. (The maze was designed by Daedalus, the handy guy who helped out the Minotaur's mom with her cow outfit.) The show includes a black-figure amphora, circa 545-535 BC, which depicts the Minotaur kneeling just before he's slain by the sword of Theseus.

The satyrs, with their tails and long pointy ears, are out in force in this exhibition. They appear on vases, dancing, playing the pipes and avidly pursuing wine. Far more innocuous and comic than the centaurs, they have a tendency to whine. They're also quite randy, often appearing with hyperbolic, porn-star erections. But their numerous attempts to score with the lovely maenads are always frustrated, and they fare better with the animal kingdom. Their hairiness, animal-like facial features and exaggerated phalluses make them the antithesis of the Greek masculine ideal, which eschewed facial hair and prized short, straight noses and short, slender…well, you get the picture.

One of the standout sculptural objects in the show is a chunky little cast-bronze statuette of a satyr (530-520 BC) squatting down on his cloven hooves. It's a wonderfully comic piece that, appropriately, probably decorated a vessel intended to contain wine.

As much as Western civilization romanticizes the Greeks and lauds their intellectual developments, the benefits of their much-touted democracy were limited to a select male few who were, by and large, slave-owning misogynists. The janiform kantharos (470-460 BC) on view in the exhibition is an amazing object: a wine vessel that incorporates two heads with three-dimensional facial features. One side depicts the head of a satyr, and the other the head of an African. The neck of the two-handled jug is patterned, and each figure sports a protruding beard. Women are another subject for these utilitarian vessels, which were used at all-male drinking parties. But white Greek males were never depicted. One theory holds that this was because of their assumed superiority over women, non-Greek barbarians and human-animal hybrids -- all viewed with equal disdain.

Flawed but fascinating, the creative and bizarrely fanciful ancient Greeks continue to have a hold on contemporary Western culture. Viewing the show is akin to rooting through their psychological and cultural dresser drawer -- you may find some weird shit, but it'll all be interesting.


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