Help with … the LIMC

There’s often a disconnect between people who research myth and other classicists. In my experience, this gap relates to the ‘familiarity’ of myth: while most classicists think of myth as fairly simple and easy to remember, people who work on mythology see myth as disconnected, contradictory, and varied. Most importantly, many myths are non-literary. They exist only on artifacts. So how do you find the variants of a myth?

The usual answer is “check the LIMC.”

The LIMC (Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae) is a multi-volume international research project. The published volumes consist of a catalogue of all classical mythic characters known from iconography, accompanied by a scholarly commentary, bibliographical information for both the artifacts and (when possible) the most pertinent literary sources, and a vast collection of plates and line drawings.

The volumes themselves are organized alphabetically by mythological figure. So if you are looking for a particular deity, it is fairly easy to use: Artemis comes before Athena, Dionysus comes before Dioskouroi, and so on.

image of LIMC volumes

The spines of each volume makes the content quite clear (although I often find that I need several volumes at once). Each Roman numeral is divided into two parts (fascicles); the first is always the catalogue and commentary, while the second is always black-and-white plates. Not every item in the catalogue is illustrated, but an impressive number of them are.

The volumes contain clear cross-referencing, so it is easy to discover that ‘Castor’ is actually listed under Dioskouroi.

page from LIMC showing cross-references

Cross-referencing in action on the top left.


The contributors to the catalogue are international, and this is clearly visible from the entries: they are in French, German, Italian, and English.  (As you can see from the picture above, the entry on ‘Dioskouroi’ is in French.) If you don’t have all of your languages ready, be forewarned: you may not be able to fully use this research tool. On the other hand, the nature of catalogues is somewhat repetitive, as the iconography of all items is fully described. So if you’re a novice in one of these languages, don’t be shy — reading through an LIMC entry is a great way to learn important terms in your field.

Every entry follows the same pattern. There is an introductory essay (that’s what we have above), which can be long or short depending on how well we know the mythical figure(s) in question. The essay gives an outline of the myth(s) associated with the figure, with reference to ancient texts, and the major fields of interpretation. It concludes with the author’s name and a list of groundbreaking books and articles associated with the myth (for example, Cumont for Mithras). The references are meant to provide crucial background on the myth, rather than represent what the author of the catalogue believes to be correct, so some of the works represent ideas that are no longer in favor. Of course, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read them anyway.

Long entries have a table of contents following the essay. The numbers in the table correspond to LIMC numbers, which are standardized and begin with #1 for every mythic figure. So, for example, you could cite the image below as “LIMC Dioskouroi 1.”

LIMC entry showing table of contents

Although the catalogue has subdivisions (IIA, B, C, etc.), which allow you to see at a glance where the mytheme you’re looking for is located, these subdivisions aren’t used in citation. They can be useful in seeing the different stories that are told about each figure: each letter represents a visually different aspect of this character’s mythic adventures. Since the subsections have no impact on the catalogue numbers, it’s easy to see at a glance which aspects of a myth are most frequently represented.

Each image is described, including references to major catalogues and publications. Entries with stars are illustrated. Sometimes these illustrations are line drawings, like in the image above and in the image below.

LIMC entry with line drawing

But the stars also indicate that an image has a plate in the second half of the volume. Usually the line drawings are pretty close to the LIMC number that they depict, so if you don’t see your image on the same page or the next, you should try fascicle 2.

LIMC plates depictiong Dioskouroi

The plates are also organized alphabetically by character and then by LIMC number. You can see that this image contains Dioskouroi 167, which incidentally is also described in the preceding image.

For interpretations of these images, you’ll still need to consult the reference works that are cited in the catalogue entry. But if you’re looking at surface-level iconography questions, the LIMC has you covered.



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