Hermes and Cybele are deities. Love and Retribution and Victory and Soul, Harpies and Angels and Griffins and Gorgons are felt but not seen, actual but not born and logically not mortal, supernatural but not gods. Experienced but indescribable, they are the creatures of language. Language can even give a name to the state of non-existence of any things, utter non-differentiation, namelessness: Chaos. It is the one noun that Greek art never could image, though I have never seen Oneiros (Dream) embodied, either. Things are prior to mixture. Darkness implies Light. Chaos is prior to both; for a Greek thinker, there had to be a noun for that.
Eros was known as a compelling presence and as a principle before being imaged, just a noun for a verb, erao. Cybele, especially if (not necessarily with the same name) continuous with the goddess of Hacilar and Çatal Hüyük, with her lion or leopard, was first and always a deity, a goddess (the “female principle” belongs to modern thought, not quite what was meant by das Ewig-Weibliche, either). When a goddess like Aphrodite is spoken of as a goddess of love, Eros as engendered by her, and serving as her agent, is shown in anthropoid form, as she is, as her son. No form for Eros is suggested in Hesiod’s Theogony. Eventually, Eros comes very close, thanks to art, to being a deity in his own right, but he has no festival date in calendars, so far as I know; he remains essentially a daimon, supernatural rather than a god. So do “Sleep and his brother Death”, which are supernatural abstractions of ineluctable human experience.
First, the Greeks did not invent the personification of the invisible or abstract. The fire-breathing sharrapu, which look rather like griffins, appear early in the 2nd millennium BCE, on Babylonian cylinder seals (those above are Middle Assyrian, 13th c. BCE); early Byzantine seraphim (asomatoi par excellence in Byzantine nomenclature) still have fiery-red wings. And the Egyptian soul birds, which have much the same parts as Greek harpies, have human heads. The Greeks, once trading recommenced in the seventh century BCE, were avid to adopt, and to adapt, the composite winged figures that they saw from the coast of Syria and what is today Lebanon. These are true monsters (contrary to nature), rather than simply anthropoid heads on lions, as on the Great Sphinx, or animal heads on anthropoid bodies, as on Horus. They will figure in stories, not necessarily the same as in their homelands, as the Chimaera does confronting Bellerophon on Pegasus, usually winged as the Chimaera is. Leaving aside Pegasus, we realize that chimaera, griffin, and soul bird are embodiments but not quite personifications, which, like the personae in the theater (the masks with megaphone mouthpieces, from personare), are embodiments that play roles, that have, in a word, personality. Eros acts in a number of roles and personalities.
Yet the Greeks (and the Romans, who absorbed these underlying assumptions) were never unaware that Hermes made invisible by Athena so that he could pass unobserved, and provided with wings on his hat and sometimes on his boots, or even on his bare heels, very seldom on his head (and then late), or Charon ferrying the dead with a winged hat (it is the Etruscan death god that has wings on his back), were deities (Charon perhaps better called a divinity), not personifications of concepts or forces. And, unlike the “genii” (our word, not theirs) who water a Tree of Life in an Assyrian throne room, the Greek personifications, like the Greek gods, act like human beings, only without human consequences. Eros and Psyche are destined to unite, but they don’t have babies. They are so touchingly like us, so vulnerable in their behavior—but they are not vulnerable, at least not literally. Greek made words personal, because Greeks took words seriously. Why must Eros mate with Psyche, and why must Psyche make a hard choice? Remember that Psyche is only part of what Germanic languages mean by Soul, and vice versa.
Not all personified abstractions were always winged, but they usually were. On Euphronios’ calyx krater and on a cup with the same subject, Hypnos and Thanatos, labeled, bearded warriors with full-size wings, carry the pitifully young Sarpedon, dead, off the battlefield. No longer bearded or in armor, they do the same on several Athenian white-ground funerary lekythoi of the Classical period. Even in the intensely rational and philosophical Athens of the Periclean period, Nike, who in Athens of course attends Athena, is usually winged, though Nemesis in the cult statue by one of Phidias’ disciples, Agorakritos of Paros, c. 430 BCE, is not. But Nemesis is almost two things, the personification of Nemesis, so that she can assume Victory’s wings in Rome, and an Anatolian goddess of Smyrna, even doubled in cult, as real a goddess as Cybele or Artemis.
Now, Hypnos and Thanatos and Pothos and Himeros never had such personal roles as Eros had. They never leaned in their mother’s lap, as he did. In the Late Classical period Hypnos as a dreamy boy appeared as a winged youth. In late Hellenistic art, Thanatos as a languid and melancholy youth, appears leaning on the extinguished life-torch. Through it all, Eros takes many forms, most naturally as an adolescent (the age of urgency) but also as a mischievous child and eventually, quite late, as an infant (the age of pure instinct?). Then, too, we see winged infants ornamentally standing for all sorts of things. We call them erotes, but they are not really explicitly clones of infant Eros. They take their meaning from context. In Dionysiac decorative art, they embody all the aspects of intoxication. On the corners of a sarcophagus, they close their eyes in the context of the death of the flesh, or they weep and lean on snuffed torches, bemoaning the loss of carnal life and desire. Even that does not make them infant Thanatoi. They are just infantile embodiments of feelings. In fact, I cannot think of a certified Thanatos represented younger than as an adolescent.
It is no wonder, therefore, that I am not disposed to accept the identification, from the Age of Romanticism, of the winged babies with lanterns and garlands and torches as Thanatos, one of the questions that we shall want to investigate. Note, too, that except for the Assyrian guardians of the Tree of Life, I have assiduously avoided calling the winged figures genii. That word is too generic, nearly meaningless to moderns. So, indeed, is “personification” too generic. We are not dealing here with Tychai or Dikaiosyne or Rivers but rather with the actualities of personal psychology.
*******SOME NOTES ON PARTICULAR EXAMPLES
The Marlik beaker may date before or after 1,000 BCE, and it shows, at least a millennium later than Gudea’s steatite beaker. It exhibits, in a rich combination of winged, griffin-headed (but these are still felines), heavy-shouldered, snake-twisted, and eagle-taloned, a monster, a unisex predator of mountain goats, in one of the cultural crossroads of western Asia, whose literature is unknown to us, whose iconography and style mix Mesopotamia with Iran. Material at two removes from this metalwork was encountered by Greeks in North Syria, where also they met much of what Assyria had inherited from Old Babylon and Sumer in the art of the Aramaeans (on whom, we recall, the Assyrians descended like a wolf on the fold—but only after centuries of trade). When we see solid-bodied figures armed with four wings, when we see earrings with several dangles, and dozens of other things, they betoken the cultural continuities of Mesopotamia and Syria. But the placid seeming Assyrian genii are perfectly benign, and in them we do see wings that mean that they are spiritual, bodiless, and like the stylized tree that they water and guard, not natural. In this respect, they are like the sirens and sphinxes guarding Greek tombs.
When we turn to Greek art, in the Early Archaic we see the borrowed winged creatures that, like the lions, are used primarily for sheer delight or for their decorative values (and endlessly recombining borrowed parts), then gradually suggesting figural form for the characters of myth and folklore. Even in the full-fledged Archaic of the sixth century BCE, although the style is still unlike Classical and Hellenistic styles, the speaking gestures and pleasure in the story for its own sake are present in full force. As we know, though in less detail than we’d like, this also is the time when empirical thinking developed, not to mention monetization. From now on, winged figures in Greek art, then in Roman art, will be those that are abstracted from human thought and experience, known but bodiless, as described above.
Eros, with the most anecdotal content, has more attributes and may already be infantile in terracotta figurines of c. 300 BCE. Pothos, lest we forget him, is not winged, so far as I know. For Hypnos, there are also Late Classical Apulian red-figure vases, different in style but with him on the head of Ariadne as on the Early Classical lekythos in Taranto (see Theoi.com for these, especially the vase in Boston). The Ephesos Thanatos, as one of my graduate students concluded after close study, is Ionian work and though sadly damaged even more beautiful than the Hermes who follows Alcestis. Only his realistic sword and the power of his fully adequate wings allude to his implacable character.
Psyche, fragile and feminine, is given butterfly wings—a stroke of genius.