Monumentalising the monstrous
: the attraction and repulsion of monsters in Archaic Greek art

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This dissertation revisits the monumental appropriation (chiefly in temple decoration and funerary sculpture) of monstrous images in Archaic Greece (750–480 BC). Such appropriation was heralded by what I call the ‘monster revolution’ (750–650 BC), which encompassed the proliferation of hybrid creatures and a new network of object-viewer relationships in Archaic Greek art. Attending to certain formal features which are transculturally understood as monstrous and which appear in Archaic Greek art (e.g. corporeal hybridity, frontality, monumentality or exaggerated facial traits and expressions), I contend that monstrous images affected the beholder in particular ways. Cognitive dissonance is the term I use to describe the double and contradictory effect on viewers. On the one hand, the term refers to a push, a sense of peril, respect and repulsion; on the other hand, it is also a pull, for monsters produced attraction, too. The tension between these simultaneous and conflicting affective and cognitive feelings afforded by Archaic monsters has more to do with drawing the beholder in and inviting them to engage phenomenologically with them than solely with inspiring terror. Images of monsters function in more complex ways than the ‘apotropaic’ purpose so often attributed to them by modern classical archaeological scholarship. I suggest monsters are themselves ‘good to think with’ for exploring the complex dialectic of looking and viewer reception in the Archaic Greek world.

This project mobilises the monstrous from different, traditionally antagonistic theoretical approaches and across disciplinary boundaries. The thesis brings together classical archaeology, classics and art history, in addition to neuropsychology, ethology, anthropology and the broader field of monster studies. Monster studies emerged in the mid-1990s and acknowledge, above all, that monsters are always culturally mediated, meaning they should be analysed within the specific cultural context from which they emerge. My dissertation emphasises the biological bases monstrous features may have, as well as the cognitive and experiential affordances of the material objects on which monsters occur and their particular cultural and historical contexts. Drawing on these theoretical frameworks, I locate monstrous traits that are universally ‘catchy’ to the human mind and culturally specific to early Greece in the material and visual culture from the Archaic to the beginning of the Classical period (ca. 750–480 BC).

The discussion is arranged thematically, in three sections. After a general introduction explaining the argument and scholarly backdrop of the thesis, Part I addresses the prehistory of the monstrous to contextualise what I call the ‘monster revolution’ and its aftermath. As I discuss in Chapter 1, monsters underwent a transformation, from markers of centralised religious or political powers in the Late Bronze Age towards a more prominent role in the initiation rituals performed by the emergent but fragmented elite societies of the Early Iron Age. Chapter 2 focuses on the monster revolution that emerged in Greek visual culture from 750 to 650 BC. That period, I demonstrate, was marked not only by the spread of monstrous images across the Mediterranean and the advent of new object-viewer relationships, but also by the beginning of the monumentalisation and institutionalisation of monstrous iconography in Archaic Greece. Fundamental to these changes are the affordances of Archaic monsters, including their repulsive thrust and attractive visual appeal, which are rooted in their frontality, hybridity, extraordinary size and overly terrifying appearance.

Part II considers Archaic monsters as ritual artefacts and shapers of sacred experience. Focusing on key polis institutions (in particular, rites of passage at Greek sanctuaries), Chapter 3 argues that monsters helped subjects to achieve a new identity or state by providing a near-death experience that was often enhanced with other sensorial mechanisms. Chapter 4 contends that the presence of monsters on seventh- and sixth-century temple roofs and free-standing columns responds to a particular new type of context: they served to attract and shock viewers, producing a cognitive dissonance prior to the encounter of visitors with the sacred.

Part III examines representations of monsters in Late Archaic and Early Classical funerary monuments from Athens and Lycia. Examining monsters on Archaic Attic grave stelai, Chapter 5 proposes that the monster’s capacity to confound perception elicited from the beholder a form of attraction towards the grave monument designed to keep the memory of the deceased alive. In Chapter 6, I expand the scope of monsters to Lycian funerary culture, which provides interesting examples of monumentalised monsters performing activities (e.g. abductions) not previously seen in Archaic monumental art. The chapter demonstrates that monstrous abductions and rapes played a significant role in the social construction and perpetuation of the memory of the deceased. A final postscript concludes with the aftermath of the monster revolution in Classical Greece when the function and form of monsters underwent a profound change – one that significantly impacted the subsequent trajectory of Western visual culture.
Date of Award1 Oct 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorMichael Squire (Supervisor), Jeremy Tanner (Supervisor) & Ellen Adams (Supervisor)

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