You’re doing THINGS (?!) to my vocabulary Richard Armitage! (or the ancient Greeks had headcanon too!)

I knew I wanted to post a piece about a particular vase painting today, but I was struggling a bit with exactly how to introduce it.  While I was reading a bit of background, I had an epiphany (nope…that is a pre-Armitage word in my arsenal).  The recent addition to my personal lexicon is HEADCANON.  Having never really participated in fandom activities prior to tumbling head first into Armitageworld in 2012, I had never heard the term, which an UrbanDictionary entry defines as,

Used by followers of various media of entertainment, such as television shows, movies, books, etc. to note a particular belief which has not been used in the universe of whatever program or story they follow, but seems to make sense to that particular individual, and as such is adopted as a sort of “personal canon”. Headcanon may be upgraded to canon if it is incorporated into the program or story’s universe.

The realm of fan fiction is heavily populated with this concept as fic writers expand on or reinterpret chaRActers and stories.  But headcanon are not confined to authors.  Whether we define them as such or not, virtually every fan has his or her own personal and chaRActer/story related Richard Armitage headcanon – with so much information in the realm of supposition, it’s almost impossible not to.

I'm a little afraid to contemplate the headcanons this pic inspired!  ;)

I’m a little afraid to contemplate the headcanons this pic inspired! 😉

The concept of headcanons is a relatively recent one, and is largely confined to fan based activities.  In fact, a search of dictionary.com will bring one to exactly zero definitions of the term in mainstream lexicons.  Imagine my surprise when it jumped out as perfectly applicable to a piece of ancient Greek pottery!

"Vatican 344" by Exekias Source

“Vatican 344” by Exekias
Source

The vase above is considered by many to be the masterpiece work of the potter/vase painter Exekias.  It was made in Athens around 530BC in a style known as Black Figure, which refers to a method of decorating and firing the vessel so that areas painted with slip appear black while the unslipped portions retain the characteristic orange-red color of the local clay.

Detail of Vatican 344

Detail of Vatican 344

While the style of the period and the limitations of the Black Figure technique result in typically “Archaic” looking figures, evident in the heavily stylized indications of musculature and the characteristically rendered eyes, there is no question that Exekias was an artist at the pinnacle of his craft here.  I have always marvelled at the incredible intricacy of the garments the figures wear.  In this technique, each and every bit of detail is added by incising lines into the black areas after firing.  Looking carefully at the cloaks, you can see just how skilled the artist was.

This vase is certainly exceptional in terms of artistry, but the subject of the scene is also very interesting.  On the surface, we have two male figures, dressed in military garb, their armor and weapons close by.  We don’t have to guess at who they are since Exekias was in the habit of labeling his figures.  On the left, still wearing his helmet, is Achilles.  Across the table from him is Ajax.  Achilles and Ajax were the greatest of the Greek heroes who fought in the legendary Trojan War.  Interestingly though, Exekias didn’t show them in the midst of what they did best – fighting.   Instead, he chose to depict these two outstanding Greek warriors…playing a board game?!  There is no question as to what they are doing…again, the artist has captioned the “action” for us as each player calls out the number he’s thrown – Achilles rolled a four, Ajax a three.

Scenes associated with the Trojan War are extremely common in Greek art, and although Homer’s Iliad is the most well known source of Trojan War lore, it actually only covers a very small portion of the whole story arc.  There are a whole slew of other bits and pieces of the Trojan Cycle that survive in fragments from a variety of different sources.  Here’s the catch though – this particular episode is not to be found in any of the extant stories that discuss the Trojan War, yet it became extremely popular as an art motif in the wake of Exekias (there are over 150 known vases decorated with this scene in the 50 years following Exekias’ career).  John Boardman, a heavy hitter in the world of Greek vase painting, suggested that perhaps Exekias was pulling a vignette from local “bardic traditions”  that had never become part of the mainstream story.   In the absence of any strong evidence pointing in another direction, I’d argue that it’s equally possible that an artist like Exekias was tapping into his own imagination…developing a headcanon for what might have gone on in the considerable downtime that the Greek heroes would have had during the ten year siege of Troy.  What was I saying about things changing and staying the same?

I was looking around for an Armitage related image to weave in here, and it turns out that there are not very many filmed scenes of chaRActers playing games, but look at this great piece of original fan art by Natascha illustrating another fan’s prompt:

Thorin and Dwalin arm wrestling....FANtastic headcanon!! Source:

Thorin and Dwalin arm wrestling….FANtastic headcanon!!
Source

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8 comments on “You’re doing THINGS (?!) to my vocabulary Richard Armitage! (or the ancient Greeks had headcanon too!)

  1. jazzbaby1 says:

    Lol…love the fan art!

  2. Joanna says:

    I bet that Dwalin let him win 😉

  3. guylty says:

    Headcanon – LOL. Yes, the influence of our online activities on our vocabulary is frightening! Two years ago I thought that AU was an obscure American university, shipping referred to the transportation of goods via postal service, and headcanon was a particular type of choral sung by two male voices. Well, we learn. And are vindicated by examples like the one you have shown us here. Good to know that the ancients were just as mad as ourselves. There is hope yet!

  4. Servetus says:

    This is interesting. First, the explanation of the pottery style — it’s really a gorgeous piece. Second, I always found the debates over the matter of the “fixing” of the text of Iliad fascinating (Milman Parry, etc., I’m sure I’m way behind on that question.) This seems to fit in that question as well, and so I’m curious about how, if it’s a “local bardic tradition,” how 150 surviving pieces of pottery come to have the motif. Are they all from the same place? How would people from elsewhere know of the tradition? (Am I missing smthing here? Should I be asking a different question?)

    • obscura says:

      I don’t know for certain, but my educated guess would be that the overwhelming majority of the vases that Boardman is referring to were Either painted in the polis of Athens or in another place that was emulating Attic pottery…a school in which Exekias was extremely well known.

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