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Skopas' statue of Pothos. National Archaeological Museum, Naples (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.
Skopas' Pothos; the lyre is a modern addition, the head - with the features of Alexander - is an ancient restoration (Archaeological Museum of Naples)
Pothos is the Greek word for 'longing', a divine power (daimon).

In Greek myth, Pothos and his brothers Eros ('love') and Himeros ('desire') were the sons of Zephyr, the westerly wind. However, according to the Athenian philosopher Plato (427-348), Himeros and Pothos were the sons of Eros (Cratylus 420a). Whatever their precise family connections, Himeros represented the desire towards something that was within human reach, and Pothos was the longing towards an unattainable goal. Since the object of this longing could only be reached in a better, more perfect world, it comes as no surprise that Pothos was associated with death. For example, the word is also used to describe the Delphinium flowers that were placed on tombs (Theophrastus, Plants 6.8.3).

According to the Greek author Pausanias (second century CE), Plato's contemporary Skopas made statues of Eros, Himeros and Pothos that were exhibited in the sanctuary of Aphrodite in Megara (Guide to Greece 1.43.6). A copy of the statue of Pothos is currently at Rome.

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Delphinium. Photo Jan Pieter van de Giessen.
Pothos/Delphinium (Photo Jan Pieter van de Giessen)

Aristobulus, one of the biographers of Alexander the Great, seems to have introduced the Pothos-motif in the histories of the Macedonian conqueror of the Achaemenid empire. He and all ancient historians after him believed that Alexander's inner drive was a kind of longing to see foreign countries. One of the attractions of the word was that an author who used it, could leave Alexander's reckless behavior during battles and sieges and his outrageous drinking habits unexplained. Like his legendary ancestor Achilles, the famous hero from Homer's Iliad, Alexander the Great had chosen to be famous and die young.

It is possible that the official portraits of Alexander were influenced by the Pothos of Skopas. If so, the idea to link the king with a longing for knowledge was contemporary with his conquests. 

The idea of "longing", can also used by found in the works of the Greek neoplatonic philosophers like Plotinus (205-270). These authors use pothos to describe our passion for beauty, our thirst for knowledge, and our longing for everything that is good and real. In their philosophy, our mind and soul are, so to speak, lower manifestations of the first principle; we have been "cast down" and locked up into matter, which is the lowest manifestation of the first principle. This being our condition, we want to go back, "up" in the cosmic hierarchy, to gain knowledge and experience beauty - in other words, to live in a higher reality.

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