On Hephaestus’s Pandora: “Hesiod never her calls her the first woman—or even a woman, period.”

“Indeed, what is regarded asthe first example of the ekphrasis of an artistic object in Western literature, the shield of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, is a description of an object that did not and could not physically exist…

Thetis, Achilles’ goddess mother, approaches Hephaestus for new armor
made by the divine craftsman himself. Upon entering Hephaestus’
workshop, Thetis sees him putting handles on a set of twenty automated
tripods on wheels, mechanical servants able to move back and forth to the
Olympian feasts. These automatons give the audience a foretaste
of an even more dramatic set of the god’s creations. As Hephaestus puts
away his work and leaves his forge to speak with Thetis, he is assisted by attendants made of gold who are like living young women in appearance (zo\e\isi nee\nisin eioikuiai). Unlike the tripods, however, the poet says these automatons possess intelligence (noos), sense (phrenes), voice (aude\),
vigor (sthenos), and have been taught skills (erga) by the gods (417–20).
The passage is curious. The only roughly similar instance in Homer is
the gold and silver dogs Hephaestus made to guard the palace of king
Alcinous in Odyssey 7.91, but these are not described as animate…

At the request of Thetis, Hephaestus sets about making Achilles’
new armor. Although he does make a corselet, helmet, and greaves, these
are tersely mentioned in only a few lines at the very end of Book 18. The
principal focus of the poet’s descriptive energy is on the shield, and the
context of the description is not a static appreciation of the completed
work but rather the dynamic process of the god fabricating it. The emphasis
is on the making, yet it is not even so much the making of the shield per se
as it is the god’s creation of the images ornamenting it.24 First mentioned
is Hephaestus’ depiction of the earth, sea, and heavenly bodies (483–89).
Then follow the three dominant scenes: a city at peace (490–508), a city
at war (509–40), and a bucolic harvest scene (541–605). Lastly, two lines
specify that the river Ocean is depicted around the outermost rim of the
shield (606–7). Starting with the city at peace, the description becomes
immediately and intensely detailed, presenting the motivations of individuals
and the sequential action of the stories that would be difficult if
not impossible to convey by solely visual means. In the city at peace,

we know that two men involved in a dispute are arguing over restitution
for someone one of them accidentally killed and that the aggrieved
party refuses compensation. We know that they take turns laying their
cases out before a council of elders and that two talents lying before the
elders are to go to the one among them who gives the best counsel. In
the city at war, an army marches out from the city, takes up its ambush
and attacks. Yet the action is not described as a series of vignettes but as
a continuous moving narrative, as if the shield were running some sort
of movie in animated metal. Hephaestus even depicts the divinities Ares,
Athena, Hate, Confusion, and Death as present in the scene.

The description in these major scenes is not limited to the visual.
In the city at peace, the poet describes the song of a marriage procession
passing by in the scene, the bystanders speaking up in the manslaughter
dispute, the speakers taking turns, and in the harvest scene, singing,
whistling, and the music of the lyre. In one striking image in the harvest
sequence, the absence of sound is described: the king stands behind his
workers in silence—a condition paradoxically easy to describe in words
but difficult to do in mute images. The cast-metal images on the shield
recapitulate the metallic maidens. The images are presented as vigorous
and moving; they can sense, reason, and argue. Like the maidens, they
are endowed with speech. They know the crafts of peace and war. In the
ambush scene, the soldiers “battle like living mortals” (ὡμίλευν δ’ ὥς τε
ζωοὶ βροτοὶ ἠδ’ ἐμάχοντο, 18.539) similar to the way the “golden maidens
scuttered about their master like living women” (ῥώοντο ἄνακτι / χρύσειαι,
ζωῇσι νεήνισιν εἰοικυῖαι, 18.417–18).26 The use of the simile here underscores
both the lifelikeness of these images and their nature as representations.
Both the figures themselves and their poetic descriptions make them both
real and representational at the same time…

Homer’s description is embedded in Hephaestus’
action of laying out the metals and placing the sculpted scenes, while at
the same time Hephaestus’ work of creating images in the visual realm
parallels Homer’s in the verbal realm. This adds further depth to one
aspect of the poem that has been long recognized: the scenes on the
shield are emblematic of the story of the Iliad itself, so that the shield is
a multilayered image of the poem, created by and embedded within the

Although the god’s skill makes the figures so
realistic they (seem to?) move and speak, and although the poet aims at
vivid realism, the audience is deliberately reminded that these are but
images, representations in metal.32 In the next example, however, we shall
examine an image that actually becomes alive: Hesiod’s Pandora.
Though not often singled out as an example of ekphrasis of art, the
creation of “woman” in the poems of Hesiod, Theogony 570–615 and
Works and Days 60–109, where she is given the name Pandora, echoes
themes and language seen in Homer.33 Like Achilles’ shield, Pandora is
made by Hephaestus, but from clay instead of his usual medium, metal
(Theog. 571; WD 60–61, 70). The god, in effect, makes an archaic terracotta
statue in a form “like that of a modest maiden” (παρθένῳ αἰδοίῃ
ἴκελον, Theog. 572; ἐίσκειν / παρθενικῆς καλὸν εἶδος, WD 63; παρθένῳ αἰδοίῃ
ἴκελον, WD 71).34 In Works and Days, the gods then bring the statue to
life specifically by giving it powers that Homer says were given to Hephaestus’
metallic maids: voice (aude\) and vigor or strength (sthenos, WD
61–62, 77–79; cf. Il. 18.417–20). Just as the maids “were taught their skills
by the gods” (ἀθανάτων δὲ θεῶν ἄπο ἔργα ἴσασιν, Il. 18.420), so “Athena
teaches her skills” to Pandora (Ἀθήνην / ἔργα διδασκῆσαι, WD 63–64).
Goddesses bedeck her with glittering raiment, jewels, and flowers.35 Works
and Days then goes on to detail at length the gods’ gifts of Pandora’s
interior character: craftiness, deceit, shamelessness, and irresistible allure.

…Faraone rightly notes that Hesiod never her calls her the first woman—or
even a woman, period. He merely states that her shape, vigor, and voice
are like that of a mortal woman and that all women descend from her
(Theog. 590)…

In one sense, Hesiod appears to exalt verbal representation, since his
words can describe Pandora’s true nature and belie her deceptive visual
appeal. But if this is true, then Hesiod’s words are also exposed as weak
and unavailing, for Pandora’s—and hence all women’s—attractions are
insuperable. Aphrodite herself instilled cruel longing within Pandora (WD
65), and no amount of words can prevent men from desiring women.
Moreover, Pandora’s appeal is purely visual. When she is led out in
public for the first time, both gods and men are awestruck as soon as
they lay eyes on her.To emphasize the visual dynamic, Hesiod equates
seeing Pandora with springing Zeus’ trap: θαῦμα δ’ ἔχ’ ἀθανάτους τε θεοὺς
θνητούς τ’ ἀνθρώπους, / ὡς εἶδον δόλον αἰπύν, ἀμήχανον ἀνθρώποισιν· (“The
immortal gods and mortal men were struck with amazement (thauma)
at this marvel, as soon as they saw this utter snare which men are helpless
against,” Theog. 588–89). Though given speech, she does not speak
in either of Hesiod’s poems. Given that speech is elsewhere a particular
quality of the living, that Pandora has this quality but does not use it
makes her even more of a contradiction and raises further questions as
to what kind of being she is.

…As Hephaestus’ metallicmaids demonstrate, there is no clear line between an image of life and life
itself. What keeps an image in human form, endowed with power, ability,
and speech, from being alive? At the same time, the images portrayed in
these passages are not only looked at, they also look back. Seeing and
being seen are active processes here. The scenes in Homer reach out to
the audience of listeners/readers/viewers and engage them emotionally
and viscerally. Pandora exerts her irresistible power simply by being seen.

…By the nature of his description, Homer invites comparison between the
visual image of the shield and the words he uses to describe it, which
communicate knowledge that the images cannot. Yet both images and
words are the poet’s creations, so that the result is a complex mirroring
not only of the visual and verbal representation of the shield but also of
the making of the shield and the making of the poem itself. In Hesiod,
the powerful reality of the vision of Pandora is actually the counterpart
to the words which describe her character; rather than compete with
one another, both the visual and verbal are necessary to describe her
completely. Artists and poets both create images, and one form of imagemaking
can, or perhaps inherently does, reflect the other. Visuality and
narratology are two sides of the same coin.”

-James A. Francis, “Metal Maidens, Achilles’ Shield, and Pandora: The Beginnings of ‘Ekphrasis.’


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