|Athens Lyceum Mural|
Two weeks ago I gave a
speech in the great hall of the National and Capodistrian University of Athens,
a spectacular neoclassical building. I used the occasion to explore a question
which has bugged me since my first visit to Greece, when I was nineteen—why, on
the famous mural in the porch, was Aristotle
painted waving a knife at a goose? In no other picture of his Lyceum, for
example the mural of similar date by Gustav Adolph Spangenberg, in the
University of Halle, is a goose part of the narrative.
|No Goose on Halle Uni Mural|
Geese were certainly
important in ancient Greece. They were farmed, domesticated as pets, and
associated with heroines and she-gods: Penelope, Aphrodite, Athena,
Kore/Persephone, Artemis/Hecate, Nemesis and later Isis. They are involved in
another ancient mystery tale, the Goose Plot in Greek comedy. Two vases show an
otherwise unknown play or plays in which a goose figured prominently—one alive
(in Boston), one dead (in New York).
|Goose Plot in Greek Comedy-Live Goose by Basket|
One possibility is that the mural designer, Carl Rahl, knew how important medicine was to Aristotle’s philosophy. Aristotle’s
father Nicomachus had been a doctor, and doctors and medical analogies abound in all his works. Goose
fat and other goose products were ubiquitous in ancient Greek medical
preparations, and mentioned often in the texts of Hippocrates. Rahl
will have been aware that Medicine was one of the original four faculties of
Yet geese, unusually
intelligent birds, do have weird connections with ancient philosophy.
Aristotle’s Cypriot disciple Clearchus (who also happens to feature on the
mural) wrote a book about sexual pathology called Erotica. It mentioned a goose
who was infatuated with a boy (fr. 27). Aristotle’s friend Theophrastus’ On
Eros also mentions a goose infatuated with a beautiful boy called Amphilochus.
But sadly I don’t think the mural suggests that Aristotle, angry with his
followers for their obsession with goose-human relationships, killed a goose in
More promising is what
Pliny Senior writes about such love affairs. A beautiful youth from a town in
north-western Peloponnese attracted a goose's passion, as did a young woman
named Glauke who was harpist to King Ptolemy.
Pliny remarks, ‘one might almost be tempted to
think that these creatures have an appreciation of wisdom (sapientia): for it is said, that one of them was the constant
companion of the philosopher, Lacydes, and would never leave him, either in
public or when at the bath, by night or by day.’
|Lacydes' Goose Reads Nicomachean Ethics|
Another version of the
story, by Aelian, adds that Lacydes was a philosopher
of the Peripatetic school—that is, an Aristotelian. The sapient goose was devoted
to its keeper: when Lacydes went for a walk, it went too; when he sat down, it
would remain still and would not leave him for a moment. And when it died
Lacydes gave it an expensive funeral as if it were a family member.
|Aristotle is on the mural's right-hand end|
But I suspect that the true
explanation is that Carl Rahl believed that Aristotle had dissected a goose. In
the History of Animals, a goose
appears in Aristotle’s discussion of male reproductive anatomy in animals which
have blood. Because he says here that
the goose’s reproductive organ is difficult to see except straight after
copulation, most scholars infer that a goose was one of the numerous different
organisms he dissected. This seems even more likely since in Generation of Animals he claims that no
bird has a penis. He has discovered it in the goose by careful laboratory observation.
|Jan Weenix, 'Dead Goose' (1700)|
goose, however, is just one in a list which includes fish, snakes, ring-doves,
partridges, lizards, turtles, tortoises, dolphins, elephants, hedgehogs, and
pigs. Theoretically, at least, we could have had any of these portrayed on the
mural. And this is where Rahl's tastes came in. I
think he chose a goose from that list because, like all European painters then,
he had been trained in the Dutch ‘Still Life’ tradition and liked painting the
feathered wings of dead game birds. It is a shame, though. A hedgehog, pig, or
elephant would have made the mural far more fun.
|Carl Rahl, Designer of the Mural|
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