by John Holbo on June 14, 2008

In Plato’s Symposium, Alcibiades compares Socrates to ‘those busts of Silenus you’ll find in any shop in town’. You ‘split them down the middle’ and figures of gods are inside.

Obviously this is going to be something like a Russian nesting doll. Maybe exactly like one. I have seen a lot of Greek art and artifacts. I’ve seen, for example, drinking cups that are ugly Silenus on one side, beautiful Dionysus on the other. But I’ve never seen an ancient Greek Silenus nesting doll. Have you? What, exactly, were they like? Which gods were inside? Surely just Dionysus. If they were available in every shop, at least a few should have survived. Popular craft forms don’t usually just blink out of existence. They evolve down the centuries So where can I see one?



stuart 06.14.08 at 2:20 am

The second quote from this philosophers wikipedia article seems to have a bit more detail.


John Holbo 06.14.08 at 2:31 am

Thanks! If you had to crack them like a piggy bank, that would tend to (though not fully) explain why we don’t still see them around. I will have to check that out. I hope I don’t find that this is based entirely on speculation from one passage in “Symposium”.


John Emerson 06.14.08 at 2:50 am

Substantific marrow is what they had inside.


Jon H 06.14.08 at 5:42 am

“If you had to crack them like a piggy bank, that would tend to (though not fully) explain why we don’t still see them around.”

Maybe cheaper ones were made more like piñatas, with materials that wouldn’t last.

I guess the key is the method of use of the Silenus figure – was it destructively opened and disposed of? Smashed? Or like a Russian doll, was it made so you could restore it to the original configuration?

If it was the Greek equivalent of a Christmas cracker or piñata, then it would make sense for them to be rather scarce. The impulse of anyone who found an intact one might be to break it open, especially if sometimes they contained a figure made of valuable materials.


abb1 06.14.08 at 9:47 am

Expensive version of a fortune cookie.


Gene O'Grady 06.14.08 at 1:51 pm

Dover in his commentary on the Symposium says that it was perhaps a temporary fashion in late 5th century Athens. No examples survive and there are no other literary references outside of late sources that are derivative of the Symposium passage.


richard 06.14.08 at 1:52 pm

If it was the Greek equivalent of a Christmas cracker or piñata, then it would make sense for them to be rather scarce.

…and worst of all, if any survived they’d now be too valuable to open. Sure, you might be able to x-ray them, but the likelihood is that this hasn’t been done. Intriguing.


Gene O'Grady 06.14.08 at 2:05 pm

If they survived, and I’ll take Dover’s word that they don’t, there probably wouldn’t be a problem with opening them, given that they seem not to have been grave goods, because they’d be in pieces anyhow.


John Holbo 06.14.08 at 3:36 pm

Thanks for all the info. Belle and I had a good laugh over the idea of these busts as X-Mas Crackers because it would make Alcibiades speech so hilarious. “At first I thought this man was crude and coarse. Now I appreciate that Socrates is like an X-Mas cracker bursting with golden divinities. Like … a paper crown! And … a joke that isn’t funny!”


John Quiggin 06.15.08 at 5:00 am

A little off-topic, but I wondered if anyone had any thoughts on this statement by Jonathan Barnes from a recent LRB (paywalled), which I am utterly unqualified to assess “the Timaeus is a dismal commixture of pseudo-science and cod philosophy (and it is written in disgusting Greek).”


Benquo 06.15.08 at 2:09 pm

Plato probably agreed with Barnes. It’s significant that 1) Timaeus, not Socrates, narrates the cosmology in the Timaeus, and 2) that it’s described as a “likely story,” rather than certain truth.


Jon H 06.15.08 at 11:28 pm

“these busts as X-Mas Crackers”

Maybe they were like the first Transfomers: Dionysus In Disguise!


harold 06.16.08 at 5:30 am

Um, is this a trick question? Wasn’t it just a box, with a lid, hinged or no, rather than something that you have to crack to get open like a chocolate Easter egg with a toy ring in it?

On a recent trip to South China, we bought a hinged fish amulet in that opened to reveal a tiny figure of Kwan Yin, the goddess of mercy, perhaps a reference to the “mercy pools” in Buddhist temples at which fish are let go.

“Sweet are the uses of adversity, Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.” –Shakespeare

Cicero thought highly of paradox as a rhetorical device, and Renaissance poets, apparently took the hint.

“[The fool in literature is ] privileged to speak out, usually on behalf of a satirical view of actuality, against received opinion, convention, and social cliché, the Fool (in literature at least) was a rich source for paradoxical utter-
ance. From Socrates, who alleged that his only
knowledge was the limitation of his own knowledge,
via Saint Paul and the Pseudo-Dionysius to Nicholas of Cusa and Erasmus, docta ignorantia was attributed to the gifted fool. Alcibiades’ image from the Symposium, of Socrates as an ugly Silenus-box containing the sweetest perfume, was explicated by Erasmus in the Adagia, exploited in the Moriae encomium (Praise of Folly), adapted by Rabelais in the Preface to Gargantua, and referred to by a host of other paradoxists as a visual emblem of the functions of the formal paradox, evidently ugly but with a sweet truth within. Falstaff belongs in this company of wise fools, though he has none of the spirituality of Erasmus’ “Saint Socrates”; Lear’s fool is wisely ignorant, speaks in grammatical paradoxes and touches on many paradoxical topics (nothing, shadow, folly, codpiece, world-upside-down); Lear himself is
schooled to the piercing accuracy of moral and social judgment characteristic of the highest forms of Renaissance folly.” –“Literary Paradox” in Dictionary of the History of Ideas


john holbo 06.16.08 at 6:03 am

Harold, I’m not sure that the hinged box hypothesis is more likely than these others – though I grant it isn’t any less likely.


rea 06.16.08 at 1:23 pm

An ancient historical mystery solved! Alcibiades, right before the Sicilian Expedition, gets so drunk with his cronies that he can’t tell the difference between busts of Silenus and the hermai scattered around Athens. The result: Athens loses the war!


harold 06.16.08 at 1:55 pm

Well, I must have missed something because I never heard it described as anything but a regular box with a lid — whether sliding or hinged or whatever. Never as a bust. A box in the shape of a grotesque Silenus (like a netsuke or snuff box) isn’t hard to imagine.


Jon H 06.16.08 at 8:29 pm

harold wrote: “A box in the shape of a grotesque Silenus (like a netsuke or snuff box) isn’t hard to imagine.”

True, but then you’d probably expect some to have survived, or at least to have survived long enough to have been mentioned later on.

My theory that the outer figure was disposable or destroyed in the opening was intended to account for the lack of extant examples of these items. (Although, there’s still the problem of where the internal figures went, if they were better constructed or more valuable than the surrounding bust.)


harold 06.16.08 at 8:29 pm

I just looked at a website that has a translation of the text of the Symposium

This refers to Silenus “statuettes” and also a “Silenus casket.”

Don’t know ancient Greek, myself.


harold 06.17.08 at 1:17 am

Oops, too hasty. Tufts Link was a commentary not text, but still by current classical scholars.

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