Skip to main content

MacMahon Abstract Wearing the hero

Cary MacMahon

Wearing the Hero on your Sleeve: piecing together the materials of the Heraklean myth in late Roman Egypt

MacMahon surveys a corpus of woven images from late Roman Egypt (second–sixth century CE) depicting Herakles and his labours, and proposes a methodology for understanding their meanings within the society which created and wore them in life and in death. MacMahon argues that these textiles should be situated within a late-antique nexus of ideas where garments can be arguments about politics, religions, philosophies and magic.

The corpus comprises tapestry-woven medallions which formed elements of decorative schema on tunics, ranging from naturalistic to highly-stylised renderings of the hero. Examination of the textile-working technologies employed (e.g. raw materials, dyes, weaving pattern-books) and the sources for the images (e.g. coinage, mosaics) demonstrates that a variety of socio-economic groupings are implicated in consumption and manufacture of these textiles, and reveals another route by which a ubiquitous story was disseminated and re-appropriated.

Scholarship on the evolution of these textile representations of Herakles, from bucolic demi-god to exemplar of suffering Christian fortitude, and their proposed connection with funerary rites, will be assessed but this paper will caution against any narrow reading of these textiles as ornamental status symbols illustrating a mythology re-worked for funerary purposes, and instead suggest that they could be potent when worn in life as well as death. Focusing on images with the Nemean lion, and drawing on current academic debate around late antique Biblical textile images, non-funerary meanings which could be accorded to these textiles in late Roman Egypt are suggested, from decorative political statement to religious argument with apotropaic potential.

Finally, there will be discussion of modern excavation and collecting practices which may have privileged the preservation of the Herakles textile corpus, exploration of the motivations behind such practices, and suggestion of further work which could be undertaken in this area.