Tag Archives: Mycenea

19: Ancient Olympics, Part 2

Alright team, fall in! It’s coach Lucas Livingston here and it’s time for part two of the Ancient Olympics on the Ancient Art Podcast. Last time we found out about the historical and mythological foundation of the ancient Olympics. We heard a bit about the Twelve Labors of Hercules and the tragic family line of Pelops and Hippodameia, also called the House of Atreus. And we wrapped up with a teaser about funerary celebrations going hand-in-hand with athletic games.

This time we’ll continue to explore the idea of a tragic untimely demise as a good reason to hold an athletic contest. We’ll take a close look at some very early Greek artwork dated to about the time of the foundation of the Olympic games, which may suggest chariot racing. And then we’ll try to get a grip — so to speak — on the whole idea of nudity in the ancient games. So, stand up, put on your beer hats, and paint your faces, because it’s game on!

Funeral games are a big deal in Ancient Greek stories and history. Many of the foundation myths of the more famous Greek Games are centered around honoring someone’s tragic death. The Pythian Games at Delphi are said to have begun to pay honor to the nymph Daphne, who was transformed into a laurel tree to escape the amorous clutches of the god Apollo. This famous story has been captured by a lot of artists and authors throughout the centuries. Most notable perhaps are the passage from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection of tales involving various physical transformations, and this magnificent marble masterpiece by baroque sculptor Bernini in Rome. And since Daphne transformed into a laurel tree, that’s why victors at the Pythian Games were crowned with a wreath of laurel. The ancient games at Nemea were held in honor of the death of the infant boy Opheltes, who was bitten by a snake while lying in a bed of celery. Hence, victors of the Nemean Games were crowned with a wreath of wild celery. And the Isthmian Games were established as funeral games for another infant boy Melikertes, also called Palaimon, who died clutched in his mother’s arms as she threw herself from a high cliff into the unforgiving sea to escape her wrathful husband driven mad by the gods. The boy’s body was brought ashore by dolphins to a pine grove at Isthmia sacred to the god Poseidon, hence a crown of pine for those victors. You see where we’re going here? These four games, the Olympian, the Pythian, the Nemean, and the Isthmian, are called the crown games, because the victors were all awarded with crowns instead of money. We also have the money games, which are found throughout the entire Greek world. Sometimes just local and sometimes huge and rivaling the scale of the crown games, like the Grand Panathenaia at Athens.

Funeral games feature prominently in literature too. Towards the end of the Iliad in book 23 we see Achilles organizing funeral games to honor the heroic death and memory of his young side-kick Patroklos. The Iliad is a fascinating archaeological artifact. Though the date of its composition is hotly debated, it’s generally considered to be in the 8th century BC plus or minus a century. For generations it was passed down not through manuscripts, but by oral tradition — by memorization and recitation for performance. It crystallized some time in the 7th or 6th century BC into the form that has come down to us today. The poem looks back to the mythological heroes of the Mycenaean Bronze Age civilization from about 1600 to 1100 BC, but it shows clear and obvious examples of the Iron Age culture contemporary to that Homer fellow (if he ever even existed, but I digress). The value of the Iliad to Greek athletics lies in the thorough description of the different events at the funeral games of Patroklos. Two events that receive a lot of attention in the Iliad are the chariot race and footrace. Here’s a great translation by Stephen Miller, author of Ancient Greek Athletics, although I paraphrase in part to keep a PG rating:

“Ajax was in front, but Odysseus was running so close behind that his feet were hitting Ajax’s tracks before the dust could settle back into them, and his breath was hitting the back of Ajax’s neck. All the Achaians were cheering his effort to win, shouting for him to pour it on. But when they were in the stretch, Odysseus said a silent prayer to the gray-eyed Athena, ‘Hear me, Goddess; be kind to me, and come with extra strength for my feet.’ So he prayed, and Pallas Athena heard him, and lightened his limbs, feet, and arms too. As they were making their final spring for the prize, Ajax slipped and fell (Athena tripped him) where dung was scattered on the ground from bellowing oxen, and he got the stuff in his mouth and up his nose. So Odysseus took away the mixing bowl, because he finished first, and the ox went to Ajax, He stood with his hands on the horns of the ox, spitting out dung, and said to the Argives, ‘Oh [crap]! That goddess tripped me, that goddess who has always stood by Odysseus and cared for him like a mother.'” (Stephen Miller, Ancient Greek Athletics, Yale University Press, 2004, page 30)

The popularity of these athletic events can also be seen in the artwork contemporary to the composition of the Homeric epics and the foundation of the Olympics, like on this Geometric Period pyxis at the Art Institute of Chicago from about 760-735 BC, with a team of four neatly assembled horses decorating the lid. We can imagine the chariot that was attached to this four-horse quadriga, or in Greek tethrippon. And also on this giant Geometric Period krater or mixing bowl at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from about 750-735 BC. On it you can see a body lying in state with mourners assembled all around, and in the lower register alternating depictions of charioteers and soldiers race along. Note that this vessel comes nearly 400 years after the Bronze Age period, but the figures on foot carry the trademark Bronze Age style figure-eight shields from centuries earlier. So, just as rhapsodes singing the Iliad and Odyssey are looking back to the mythic heroes of Mycenae, so too are the artists of this time as they decorate the Geometric style vases.

Charioteers and runners continued to be the favored athletic subjects of Greek vase painting through the Classical and Hellenistic periods. Athletic events at the Greek games can be broken up into two basic categories: the gymnikos agon and hippikos agon.

Agon basically means a game, contest, or athletic event. It’s the Greek word from which we get “agony.” Agony in its most basic sense is the strife, struggle, and sacrifice endured in pursuit of victory. Gymnikos means “nude,” so the gymnikos agon are the “nude games,” whereas the hippokos agon refer to the “horse games,” which include a few different mounted and horse-drawn races. Considering the popularity of chariot races, though, it’s ironic that they didn’t become an official part of the Olympics until 680 BC, a good century after the supposed foundation of the Olympics and after the incorporation of nearly all the nude events.

So, what’s the deal with all the nudity? Nudity in ancient Greek athletics is perhaps the most quintessentially Greek aspect to the games. It’s the equalizer of men. Competing in the nude, no one could argue that the latest Adidas nanotechnology swim suite gave anyone a leg up on the competition. Nudity preserved the essential democratic nature of Greek athletics. It also prevented preference or prejudice based on social class. All discriminating demarcations are stripped from the competitors, who must rely on their skill and strength alone. We’re all the same when stripped down to our bareness romping in the dirt, oil, and sweat. We’re all Greek citizens.

Nobody knows for sure when or how the idea of competing in the nude came about. Various ancient sources provide us with amusing accounts of loincloths falling off mid-race, only to learn that nudity supposedly provided a possible competitive edge. One common association of the nude athlete is with the ancient mythic hero. You might remember back in episode 6 on the Classical white-ground lekythos — the oil jar — we learned that the nude figure here presents an interesting duality of the youthful nude athlete and the epic hero. We also saw this more recently in episode 16 on the Metropolitan Kouros. Perhaps this noble association was also aspired to by athletes in the nude on the field at ancient Olympia. And it makes extra sense to have the nude epic hero depicted on the lekythos, because that’s one sort of jar that athletes in the gymnasium would have used to dispense oil. There are a few different interpretations for the use of oil in Greek athletics. Rubbing olive oil into your skin before a competition would give your body a lovely glistening sheen. We can attest to this from WWF ca. 1985. There could also be some sort of ritual libation significance to rubbing oil over one’s body. What might make the most sense, though, is the cleansing purpose of oil after the match. After accumulating all the sweat, dirt, sand, blood, and other filth of a match, you’d run a strigil down your limbs and the oil acted like a nice lubricant, so the grime had a harder time sticking to you. We looked a little more closely back in episode 6 at this example of a strigil from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

That’s about all the time we have for this episode. Tune in next time for part 3 on the Ancient Olympics as we tour the variety of athletic events, both the nude games and the horse races. Questions, comments, suggestions? You can email me at info@ancientartpodcast.org. Or visit the website and click on “feedback” at the top of the page. While you’re there, please take a minute to fill out the survey to help me get a better sense of who’s listening. iTunes reviews help get the podcast noticed, so please consider sharing the love. You can also add your comments next to each episode at ancientartpodcast.org. Thanks for tuning in and see you next time on the Ancient Art Podcast.

©2009 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org


Metropolitan Kouros

16: Metropolitan Kouros

Metropolitan Kouros

Hey people. Welcome back. I’m excited to announce that we’re undergoing a little re-branding here. We’re dropping the SCARABsolutions and now it’s the Ancient Art Podcast. The website scarabsolutions.com will continue to work, but now you can also visit us at ancientartpodcast.org and you can reach me with your comments, questions, and suggestions at info@ancientartpodcast.org.

Last time in episode 15 we set the stage for the origin of free-standing, monumental sculpture in Ancient Greece. We revisited the Greek Orientalizing Period with its Near Eastern influences in vase painting technique and subject matter, and we discussed the strong Greek presence in Egypt during the Egyptian Saite Dynasty of 664 to 525 BC. In this new cultural melting pot of Egypt, archaeological evidence points to an Egyptian influence on the sacred art and ritual practice of Ancient Greece. Greeks are visiting Egyptian temples, gazing in awe at the centuries-old monumental sacred structures while giving gifts to Egyptian gods of bronze Egyptian votive statuary with inscribed with Greek prayers. And Greek votive statuary starts to bear a resemblance to common Egyptian types like this figurine of a seated woman nursing a child, which may have been influenced by the popular figure type of Isis nursing the child Horus.

Diminutive votive figurines are one thing, but the big development that we’re interested in here is the advent of monumental, free-standing Greek sculpture some time in the 7th century BC. That’s right … “some time.” We don’t know exactly when the Greeks began creating sculpture, but we do know that, after the collapse of the Bronze Age Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations, there was a long period of time when the most elaborate figural works produced by the Greeks were small figurines and relief carvings of stone, terracotta, and bronze. The advent of monumental sculpture in the 7th century was a huge development, and by “monumental” I mean big and made of something durable, like stone or metal. And what’s really remarkable is the style of the earliest known Greek sculptures. Here we have one of the earliest and most intact Greek statues of the kouros type. “Kouros” is simply the Greek word for “boy.” This kouros, carved from a single block of marble, is dated to about 590-580 BC. It’s at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and it’s unofficial name in the scholarly arena is … wait for it … the Metropolitan Kouros. Sheer genius. He’s large as life, about 6′ 4″ or 1.946 m tall—I guess larger than life for most Ancient Greeks—but look at the pose. All early kouroi appear in a nearly identical pose. Broad straight shoulders, arms straight down at his sides, strong frontal stare, tall vertical posture, and his left leg stepping forward a bit. Remind you of anything? How about the figure of Ra-Horakhty that we looked at last time in episode 14? The Greek kouros is borrowed directly and heavily from the popular Egyptian standing male, the statue type that has a widespread prominent presence throughout Egypt, from miniature religious votives to colossal tomb and temple sentinels. The Greek mercenaries, merchants, artisans, and travelers to Egypt, which we talked about last time, had regular opportunity to be in contact with the long tradition of Egyptian statuary, which no doubt encouraged similar artistic development back home.

As I said earlier, he’s carved out of a single block of stone, and he retains a sort of blocky shape. Following the Egyptian technique for executing a stone carving, the sculptor took a large rectangular block of stone, drew the figure’s front, back, left, and right sides onto their respective sides of the block, and went to work, gradually removing stone from all four sides, working his way inward until the sides met, producing a free-standing figure in the round. It’s an efficient technique, but typical of early Greek kouroi, each side retains a sort of flattened planar effect. He’s somewhat in between being completely rounded and being a four-sided figure.

Another thing that the kouros and Egyptian statuary had in common, but it’s often overlooked on both accounts, is color. That’s right, as with so many examples of ancient art, which now appear in the crisp, pristine, unadulterated purity of a more noble and stoic age, the kouros was originally highly painted in a variety of colors meant to mimic real life—flesh tones, dark hair, brown eyes, full dark eyebrows, a cute little red necktie like the good boy scout he is. A lot of work has been done to reconstruct the original color on ancient statuary and architecture, but that’s a topic for a later episode. If you want to get a head start, though, check out a couple websites: The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture from Antiquity to the Present, an exhibition that was at the Getty Villa in California from March to June of 2008, and also Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity that was at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum a little earlier in the year. Just Google them or click on the links in the Additional Resources section at ancientartpodcast.org.

Putting aside the broad similarities between Egyptian statuary and Archaic Greek kouroi, one subtle similarity I like to note is the quirky Mona Lisa smile, also called the “Archaic smile.” Because why would you want to spend all this time and money on a frowning statue? But you’ll notice a few differences between the Egyptian statue type and the Greek kouros. For starters, there are some formal differences. In addition to replacing the Egyptian wig with those lovely, cascading, curly Greek locks, the kouros figure is clearly in the nude. For the most part, Egyptian statuary of this standing type were somewhat clothed. At least a kilt, please! Sure, there are some nude examples from Egypt, but those are rare and generally not plastered all over the place. So, why is the kouros represented in the nude? Here’s another prime example of the Greeks adopting a foreign concept and immediately adapting it to suit their own needs. The nudity of the kouros is directly related to its function. The Greeks didn’t have the ancient tradition of mighty Pharaoh to venerate in all of his three-story glory, but two other functions of statuary from Egypt could easily be adapted to Greece—that is, as monumental temple dedications and as grave markers … tombstones. Greece already had a long tradition of honoring the dead with elaborate ceramic memorials. Many of the colossal vessels of the Geometric Period were crafted to be set up as grave markers in the Dipylon Cemetery of the Athenian ceramics district, the Kerameikos. These monumental vessels weren’t functional on a practical level. They even had holes drilled into the bottom to prevent collecting water. Wealthy Athenian families during the 7th century BC erected lavish displays of conspicuous wealth in honor of their deceased family members, so much so that the famous Athenian statesman Solon actually passed legislation restricting the expense on private funerals. So, but with the advent of sculpture in Greece, it’s not unreasonable to understand a fashionable movement towards decorating graves with this trendy new art form.

As grave markers, the kouros type generally decorated the graves of fallen youths. Young men lost before their prime. Maybe heroic youths fallen on the battlefield, or so the symbolism suggests. The nude form of the kouros casts the fallen youth in the light of the heroic warrior. Heroic warriors like Achilles, Odysseus, and Hercules are generally depicted fighting in the nude. Yes, of course, Greek warriors of history fought heavily armored, complete with breastplate, greaves, helmet, and shield, but in myth the hero would fight in the nude. So here the individual commemorated by the kouros is elevated to heroic status. But there’s a second idea at work here. The nude form of the kouros might also remind us of a youth participating in athletics, which the Greeks did indeed do in the nude. So, here we have a fallen youth commemorated as the proud athlete participating in perhaps what his family believes he ought to have been doing back home in the safety of the Athenian gymnasium, rather than marching to far off lands only to die on the battlefield. It’s an interesting tug in two directions, a dual interpretation, which … hey, maybe I’m just making this up, but the hero and the athlete are two of the most popular subjects for the human male form throughout the history of Greek sculpture.

If you want to read a meticulous examination of the Metropolitan Kouros, check out the authoritative article by Gisela M. A. Richter and Irma A. Richter “The Archaic ‘Apollo’ in the Metropolitan Museum” published in the Metropolitan Museum Studies, volume 5, number 1 from August 1934. Like fine scotch, some articles keep well with age. Notice “Apollo” in that article title. That’s because back in the early part of the 20th century, kouroi were generally referred to as “Apollo figures,” a term which has since been dismissed.

So, with the kouros, Ancient Greece begins its spectacular journey exploring the possibilities of sculpture, opening the floodgates for a revolution that would define the artistic heritage of Western Civilization. And that, friends, is a story for another day.

©2008 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

6: A Classical Lekythos

Hello and welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. In our last episode on the Art Institute of Chicago’s Corinthian pyxis, we saw how the early Archaic Greeks of the Orientalizing Period incorporate stylistic elements and ideas from their Near Eastern neighbors and also from their own Bronze Age ancestors. We looked at the emergence of monumental Greek temple architecture with its unprecedented massively impressive pedimental sculpture. And ultimately we came to understand how the Greeks paid homage to their Mycenaean Bronze Age ancestors by employing scenes of ferocious beasts and fiendish monsters on these early temple pediments. They did this as a means of confronting the viewer, engaging with them and conditioning their psyche for approaching the divine, just as the Mycenaeans did half a millennium earlier at the entrance to the great city of Mycenae. And on a far more diminutive, personal scale, we see this same confrontational conditioning effect employed on the funerary vessels of this early Archaic period in Ancient Greece as a sort of memento mori, a reminder of our ultimate fate.

In this episode, I want us to take a look at a significantly later example of Greek pottery and vase painting, also at the Art Institute of Chicago. This is an Attic white-ground ware lekythos from around 450-440 BC attributed to the Achilles Painter. OK … what does all that mean? Well, you’ll often come across the term “Attic” on gallery labels. That’s got nothing to do with where you keep your Christmas lights. Attic means it’s from Attica, which is the region of Greece that surrounds Athens. Aha! … Moving along now. “White-ground ware!?” See, you got yer black figure vase painting and yer red figure vase painting … and then you got your white-ground ware, because the figures are on a white background and “ware” is just the fancy word for ceramics … you know, like dinner ware. And finally a lekythos is a specific type of Ancient Greek pottery vessel usually in a tall slender vase-like shape with a tight spout and a handle, but you come across small more squat versions too. The lekythos was specifically use as a decanter for oil, mostly olive oil for Ancient Greek athletes. Now, the Greeks lived in a time before the invention of soap. Filthy buggers!? Not really. See, olive oil is an exceptionally good cleaning agent (not to mention a common ingredient in some exotic old-fashioned soaps). After a long day of rolling around with your classmates naked in the sand at the gymnasium, Greek athletes would rub olive oil on their lean, tight flesh. They’d then take a small curved metal tool called a strigil and scrape it along their skin, removing the oil and all the grime, sweat, and guck. Don’t believe me? Next time you take off a day-old BAND-AID® and it leaves behind that yucky glue residue, rub a little olive oil over it for a few seconds and presto! — ancient goo-begone. [This does not necessarily constitute an endorsement, neither expressed nor implied, of the aforementioned products BAND-AID® brand bandages and Goo Begone or any similar or related products on the part of the author or his affiliates; use at your own risk; do not attempt this at home; yadda yadda, etc etc.]

Before we dive headlong into the subject matter of this lekythos, I want to explain why the painted surface is not nearly in as good condition as most of the black and red figure vases you’ll spot at the Art Institute. You see, in the white-ground technique, the white background was painted onto the surface of the vessel after it had been fired and then the figures were painted on top of that. All the decoration of black or red figure vases was applied before the firing process as slip (not actually paint) and then fired, so baking the decoration onto the surface so it ain’t goin’ nowhere. Paint applied to the surface after firing, however, isn’t as durable and it’s prone to flaking over the eons.

The scene decorating this lekythos depicts a gray-haired elderly man with a long red cloak leaning on a cane. He looks forward into the eyes of a youthful mostly-nude male figure with a shield strapped to his back and holding a spear. The fact that the youth is nude indicates his function as a warrior. (And the shield and spear kinda help us draw that conclusion too.) Warriors in Ancient Greece, of course, didn’t march out onto the battlefield in the nude, not unless they had a few too many at the feast the night before. No, they were fully armored with a sturdy breastplate, greaves on the legs, and a helmet. Excavations in the latter part of the 20th century at Midea near Mycenae actually unearthed a magnificent Bronze Age Mycenaean cuirass or a breastplate from the 15th century BC, the time of the great heroic warriors whose legacy inspired the later epics, now in the Archaeological Museum of Nauplion in Greece. Check out the website — scarabsolutions.com — for a link to an image and description of the armor and the excavations at Midea. There’s also an interesting article in the March/April 2007 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review called “Historic Homer: Did It Happen?” which talks about this breastplate and other Mycenaean-period historical accuracies in the Iliad and Odyssey.

Despite the obvious use of armor, however, Greek artists imagined their mythological heroes were in fact nude. Throughout Ancient Greek vase painting we encounter the nude warrior, be it Hercules, Achilles, Hector, or any other heroic mythic warrior. Many a Greek male was fond of casting himself in the light of the mythic warrior, particularly upon death through the use of the nude male kouros statue as a headstone. The kouros is the earliest form of freestanding monumental Greek sculpture in the round, which finds its origin around the time of the Orientalizing Period, which we covered last time when looked at the pyxis. Perhaps a similar sort of desired effect is being attempted here — to cast the deceased in the light of the heroic warriors of yore. Remember, just about all the Ancient Greek vases you encounter in museum collections were actually grave goods. One might be inclined to interpret this scene depicted here as a father figure bidding farewell to the youth; their final goodbye before the youth marches off to battle. Perhaps the last time they will ever see each other … alive, at least. Neither figure has an expression of overwhelming emotion. They both bear a sober countenance, not betraying their torn spirits within.

Think about the difference in the way I’m describing the subject matter of this vase painting compared to the Corinthian pyxis from a century earlier. We’re trying to get inside the heads of the figures represented on the lekythos; we’re looking at a scene from some dreamt-up story. There’s definitely some sort of context here, in contrast to the decoration on the pyxis, where the creatures are outside of any context, any narrative or story. This is a big change taking place in late 6th, early 5th century Greek vase painting – a movement away from representations of ferocious confrontational beasts towards narrative scenes. Sure, representations of the Homeric epics go way back, but the narrative becomes firmly entrenched only in the mid to late Archaic Period, pushing aside the decorative flower patterns and the prominence of confrontational beasts common to the Orientalizing Period.

Beyond the heroic mythologized warrior, the nude in Ancient Greece also fires another neuron. I’m talking about the Greek athlete. Unlike the imaginary mythical nude hero, Greek athletes did in fact compete in the nude. Easy there tiger. The representation of this youth in the nude might draw us in two different directions. While all geared up, the youth is clearly preparing to head off for battle, but this solemn goodbye reminds us of the other activity of Greek youths — athletics, which perhaps the old man wishes the youth would sooner be doing before heading off to battle. And don’t forget the vessel on which this scene is depicted — a lekythos — a jar for an athlete’s oil bath. So what’s going on here? Why is the artist conjuring up a scene that might tug us in two directions? Well, just as with the Corinthian pyxis that we looked at before, this lekythos is also a funerary vessel, a grave good. So, to take our train of imaginative thought one step further, perhaps we have a scene here reflecting an actual occurrence or some imagined, mythologized, heroicized occurrence of a youth slain in battle, the loss of innocence, no more will he enjoy sport at the gymnasium with his fellow companions. So, he’s buried with a lekythos to recapture the activities of youth and he’s portrayed here as a heroic warrior worthy of all honor. Just as with the pyxis, here too we have a memento mori.

We see a big change taking place in the Archaic period as Athens emerges as the new cultural superpower, soon eclipsing Corinth. Perhaps the most significant stamp that Athenians place on the Greek world is their interest in the human condition, in morality, justice, pride, and suffering. And this shows up in their vase painting not so much in the stories that they tell, but more so in the way that they tell their stories. The artist could have chose to memorialize the deceased as a fallen warrior among other glorious dead or in the moment of a heroic death on the battle field. Or he could have represented some other mythical hero like Hercules, Achilles, or Perseus, casting the deceased in a brighter light. Instead we see a different sort of narrative aesthetic evolving in Attic vase painting. Well, by this Late Classical period it’s pretty much well evolved. Instead of showing the height of physical action, instead we’re presented with a subdued anticlimactic moment of pause, the quiet before the storm. It’s up to the mind of the viewer, up to us, to complete the narrative in our minds. Granted, this narrative technique relies on a sort of familiarity with the story. In this case, we may not necessarily be familiar with the story, but different clues like the nude form of the youth, his armament, and his classical contaposto (that’s the stance he’s taking, like a statue of some hero) — these clues lead us to the conclusion that he’s a warrior and the old man seems to be engaging with him. The rest is our own speculation, but it’s an educated and informed speculation.

We encounter a lot of similar examples in Archaic and Classical Attic vase painting where a moment just before the height of the climax is represented, rather that showing all the gory details, and the artist relies on the viewer’s familiarity with the narrative to connect the dots and lead up to the climax in his or her mind. Here’s a fairly early and exemplary illustration, The Suicide of Ajax, an Attic black-figure amphora from around 540 BC by the very well known artist Exekias, now in the Château-Musée de Boulogne-sur-Mer (er … pardon my French). Ajax fought alongside Achilles in the Trojan War. In later myths and tragedies, he’s often elevated practically to the same status as Achilles. Alas, he’s probably most familiar to our contemporary audience as the big goober with the war hammer in the 2004 Hollywood production Troy, where Achilles is played by Brad Pitt. The Iliad just tells a fraction of the story of the siege of Troy. A lot happens between the Iliad and the Odyssey, where the latter recounts Odysseus’s journey back home from the 10 year-long siege. Apparently there were also other epics that told the stories of other warriors involved in the Trojan War beyond Achilles and Odysseus, sadly now lost – well … till somebody discovers a Greco-Roman mummy stuffed with papyrus fragments of some lost epic. … It’s not impossible.

But somewhere between the events of the Iliad and Odyssey, the unthinkable happens – Achilles is killed by Orlando Bloom … I mean, Paris. The armament of Achilles is to be rewarded to the most feared Greek soldier. It comes down to Odysseus and Ajax. They get into a big debate and the arms are finally awarded to Odysseus. There’re different accounts of what happens next, but one popular version says Ajax is completely distraught and goes into a mad rage, killing his Greek comrades left and right … or so he thought. Athena intervened and disguised the flocks as his fellow Greeks, so Ajax ended up only slaying the flocks. Completely embarrassed and distraught a second time for the harm he could have done, Ajax takes the sword of Hector (awarded to him after a stalemate battle against Hector), wanders off from the camp, and kills himself by burying the sword tip-up in the sand and impaling himself on it. So, here we see Ajax planting the sword, neatly packing down the earth around it. His shield leans lazily at the edge of the frame, his helmet and spears carefully placed atop. Incidentally, the spear was his weapon of choice, not the war hammer. And now we know what’s coming next. … Bleeehh! See, Exekias is relying on our familiarity with the story to bring us to the height the climax and all the gory bits without having to show the gory bits. It’s more engaging, less off-putting, and invites us to consider the Ajax’s state of mind. To ponder his pathos, the powerful Greek term for suffering and the human condition. And as if that’s not enough, Exekias also sneaks in a foreboding omen. Decorating the shield of Ajax is the fiendish Gorgon Medusa with snakes for hair, said to have been so hideously ugly that her gaze would turn you to stone. And above that is a glaring feline, similar devices to the ones we saw on the Corinthian pyxis. While it’s perfectly legitimate to have these devices decorating your shield (wouldn’t be a pretty sight to have that racing towards you on the battlefield), they also function in the context of the painting as ill omens of the impending tragic conclusion.

My goodness … how about that.

Thanks for listening. Don’t forget to hop on over to the website scarabsoltions.com for better quality images, links to external resources, and the extensive bibliography on Ancient art. I’m also adding transcripts for each episode, in case you’d prefer to read rather than listen to the podcast. That’ll also make it a lot easier if you want to revisit something you heard on the podcast, but can’t remember exactly where it was mentioned. Simply enter some keywords in the search box at scarabsolutions.com. And in case you haven’t noticed, you can leave your feedback for each individual episode at the website, if you have something nice to say or a particular axe to grind. You can also email me at scarabsolutions@mac.com. And while you’re at it, if you like the podcast, I invite you to go on over to iTunes and post a review. It’s gettin’ a little lonely out here. Take care and see ya soon on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2007 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

5: A Corinthian Pyxis

Welcome back to the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast. This episode is coming out a little later than I had wanted on account of a cold that I’ve been getting over. But I’m pretty much decongested now and more or less back to normal.

In this episode, I want us to take a look at a cute little pyxis from Corinth. A pyxis is a specific type of Greek vessel used to store cosmetics, jewelry, or other trinkets. They come in a variety of different shapes—squat basket-like, cylindrical jars, box-like, and spherical, as we have here, along with a separate lid and handles. This pyxis at the Art Institute of Chicago is dated to about 580-570 BC, towards the end of the Greek Orientalizing Period, late 8th to mid 6th centuries BC. The Orientalizing Period is a time when the Greeks renew contact and trade with the different civilizations of the Mediterranean and the Ancient Near East after a long period of isolation during the Greek Dark Age and Geometric Period. This is a fascinating time of rediscovery, invention, and assimilation.

Albeit not the most politically correct term, the “Orientalizing Period” has nonetheless stuck. The term refers to the tremendous cultural and artistic impact that the renewed contact with Ancient Near Eastern cultures had on the blossoming civilization of Greece. One particularly successful center for the flourishing of culture and commerce during the Orientalizing Period was the city of Corinth located on the narrow isthmus connecting the Peloponnesus with mainland Greece. Due to its strategic location with ports accessing both the Aegean and Adriatic, Corinth became a rather lucrative port of trade for Syrian, Phoenician, and other Near Eastern merchants. Corinthians saw the influx of exotic metal ware and ivory trinkets, pottery designs, and elaborate textile patterns. Some scholars even think that Near Eastern artisans and craftsmen may have made their way over to Greece to ply their skills. The Greeks themselves began to travel more extensively to foreign lands, including great forays up and down the Nile of Egypt beginning in the mid 7th century. And all this exposure to foreign artistic motifs and conventions, long-standing monumental architecture of ancient civilizations, new stories, cultures, myths, and legends had a tremendous impact on the visual arts of Ancient Greece.

The artisans and consumers of Corinth had a particular appeal for the Near Eastern aesthetic, or at least their spin on what was seen as quote-unquote “Oriental.” While Athens continues to linger in the traditional Geometric vase painting design of the previous century, Corinth quickly pushes this aside in favor of new Oriental designs, like exotic chimeras and sphinxes, ferocious wild beasts and prey, and flowering rosettes and palmettes. The stark contrast of the darkly silhouetted Geometric figure against a background of meandering patterns, gives way to gentler curves and elaborate outlines of the figure’s contour with a smoother, flowing brush. Color also begins to make an appearance in Corinthian Orientalizing vase painting. You can clearly see the use of red, black, and white on the Art Institute pyxis. This pyxis also seems to display a sense of horror vaccui of the earlier Geometric Period. Every possible blank space on the background is strategically filled with some sort of rosette or linear pattern so as not to leave any large portion of undecorated surface.

What’s immediately most striking about this pyxis is, of course, the central decorative scene. In the very center we have a composite monster with the torso and legs of a lion, wings of an eagle, and head of a human female, known in Greeks mythology as the sphinx. This pyxis is attributed to the so-called “Ampersand Painter” because the shape of the sphinx’s tail is that of an ampersand (you know, the “and” symbol). This ampersand-shaped tail is the signature mark of this particular painter or workshop and it can be seen on other works in other museum also attributed to the Ampersand Painted. The earliest account of the sphinx in Greek myth comes from Hesiod’s Theogony, one of the earliest works of Greek literature, composed sometime in the late 8th to early 7th century BC. Hesiod briefly mentions the sphinx among his litany of the origins of all the myriads of hybrid monsters and creatures conjured up in Greek minds or imported by the Greeks from neighboring cultures and myths. Now, it’s hard to argue that the sphinx is a purely Greek invention when you’re faced with all the similar composite creatures of Near Eastern tradition that first started to make their way over to Greece around the time when Hesiod puts pen to paper, creatures like the lammasu, shedu, manticore, griffin, and chimera. But certainly the oriental influence contributes to the new forms of expression and experimentation, with both a profound interest in the ancient civilizations of the Near East and a new interest among the Greeks in their own ancient ancestry.

It’s around this time when the Greeks begin to look more closely at the remains of their own Bronze Age Mycenaean ancestors. At the same time when the great Homeric Epics of the Iliad and Odyssey were being recited, as the Greeks were weaving tales of the heroic warriors Achilles, Menelaus, and Agamemnon, so too were they looking out over the standing ruins of ancient Mycenae, the palace of King Agamemnon. There’s even evidence that the Dark Age and Archaic Greeks excavated Mycenaean tholos tombs, digging down to their entrances with their monumental Cyclopean masonry to establish shrines and offer votives at the tombs of these heroic warriors.

So where are we going with all of this? Well, the central sphinx is conventionally seen as some sort of Near Eastern or Oriental influence. Ok, I’ll buy that. Flanking the sphinx you’ve got a couple feline creatures usually interpreted as lions or leopards. Felines, particularly lions, are very prevalent throughout Ancient Near Eastern art in architectural relief from the walls of ancient Babylon and Persepolis to the smaller decorative arts. But I argue a very different and distinctly indigenous influence taking place here. See how the two lions have their bodies turned inward toward the central sphinx, but their faces gaze outward with giant, blank, piercing eyes fixed upon you, ferocious beasts of prey staring you down. I mentioned how the Greeks of this day and age were interested in exploring and rediscovering their own heroic and mythic past of the Bronze Age Mycenaean Civilization and that the ruins of Ancient Mycenae, the so-called palace of King Agamemnon were readily visible and available to the early Archaic Greeks. The most visually powerful and notable architectural remains at Mycenae is the well-known Lion’s Gate. Here we are confronted by two colossal lions, their muscular bodies rearing up on a central platform. Their faces are now lost and the dowel holes suggest that they were carved separately. The way the dowel holes are positioned and the form of what’s remaining lead most scholars to believe that the faces were likely turned to gaze outward, staring down at the lowly people passing underneath the monumental gateway. Throughout Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures and even well beyond into the Middle Ages of Europe, lions are a common emblem of kingship. The effect of this in-your-face confrontation by these gargantuan beasts conditions the viewers approaching the gate. The Lion’s Gate conveys this message of “Beware! Know that the king within is as mighty as a lion.”

The Lion’s Gate was in plain sight of the Greeks. In the day when monumental art, sculpture, and architecture reemerge from a long period of dormancy, it’s not surprising that they’d look back to their country’s former glory while also incorporating ideas and motifs from exotic civilizations abroad. In the mid 7th century BC the Greeks began creating their first monumental temples in stone. Perhaps the earliest known stone temple in Greece is that of Apollo at Corinth with a date somewhere between 670 and 630 BC. And in a couple generations, the Greeks settled on the sort of temples we think of when we think of Greek temples, with the surrounding columns called a peristyle, the pitched roof, and triangular pediment, all that sculpture above the east and west sides. The earliest known Greek temple of this style is the one to Artemis on the island of Corfu, just off the western coast of Greece. Built around 580 BC, right around the time when the Art Institute’s pyxis was created, the temple of Artemis displayed a magnificent pediment with a sculptural motif that should be pretty familiar to us by now. Seen from their sides, two great cats poise with their muscular bodies ready to pounce. Their faces are turned outward, just as in the Lion’s Gate, gazing at the tiny worshippers below as they make their approach to the house of the maiden huntress Artemis. In the center of the pediment between the lions stands the Gorgon Medusa, a fiendish creature with snakes for hair, said to be so ugly that her gaze would transform you to stone. This presentation of otherworldly ferocity and might is certainly something to give you goose-bumps, if you were an Ancient Greek not used to seeing such incredible displays nor desensitized by modern horror flicks.

And moving along to our darling little pyxis, the Ampersand Painter seems to have jumped on the bandwagon of Orientalism and Mycenaean revivalism (and that’s not a real term. As far as I know, I just made it up.) But why use this confrontational lion motif that might otherwise be more appropriate for temples and royal palaces? I don’t think the message here is “Beware the cosmetics housed within!” No, more likely it’s just meant to give us a little moment to pause … a jarring experience (ugh … pardon the pun). Remember, what we’re looking at here, as with most Ancient Greek ceramics throughout museum collections, is a grave good, something buried with the recently departed. This vessel exists because someone has died. While a pyxis for the living might be plain or decorated with little flowers and prancing deer, this vessel for the dead has a confrontational gaze inducing a moment to pause and reflect. A memento mori. A reminder of our own mortality.

On that cheerful note …

Thanks for listening. And don’t forget to swing by the website, scarabsolutions.com for additional resources, an extensive bibliography on ancient art and civilization, photos, and links to great external resources. And most recently, I’ve added a link that’ll let you subscribe to the podcast in MP4 format, so you can play it with images on just about any digital media player. Check out the website for more details. Take care, stay warm, and see you next time on the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

©2007 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org

3: A Donkey-headed Rhyton

Hello and welcome back to the SCARABSolutions Ancient Art Podcast.

In the previous two episodes, we’ve been having a lot of fun in Ancient Egypt. In this episode, we’re going to jump forward a little bit and hop the pond on over to Greece. I want us to look at what’s probably my favorite piece in the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection of Ancient Greek ceramics. The Art Institute has a few very beautiful and entertaining objects in its Ancient Greek collection, but this one really takes the cake.

Nestled in a vitrine among all the grandiose High Classical red-figure amphoras, kraters, kylixes, and stamnoi, we find a cute little rhyton, a drinking cup. OK, here … let’s do it right. *Ahem* This is a mid 5th Century BC Attic red-figure rhyton in the shape of a donkey’s head attributed to the very prolific late Archaic, early Classical Athenian vase painter named Douris.

To start things off here in our examination of this rhyton, let’s first check out its interesting manufacturing technique. It exemplifies three primary methods for crafting ceramics in Classical Greece. The neck and rim of the cup was thrown on a potters wheel, the body of the vessel (which corresponds to the head and snout of the donkey) … this part was fashioned in a mold, and the ears and handle were shaped by hand. It’s certainly not unique in this way, but it’s nonetheless pretty interesting to see all three techniques used on one vessel.

We could of course go into much further detail on its manufacture, specifically the firing process of black and red-figure Greek ceramics, but let’s save that whole spiel for a later podcast.

The rhyton is a common type of drinking cup in the shape of an animal’s head. This vessel shape stretches far back to the Bronze Age Civilizations of Ancient Greece, the Minoans and Mycenaeans, the time of the heroic mythic warriors of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and even to earlier periods in the civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Rhyta (that’s the plural) from different regions come in a variety of shapes and sizes and aren’t necessarily restricted to being in the shape of just the heads of an animals. They could be the whole front of the animal, the entire animal itself, or even just parts like a horn.

Rhyta were also commonly used in rituals for libation offerings. Now, these rhyta regularly have a small hole in the mouth of the animal’s head through which the libation offering pours out on to the offering table or whatever it was meant to pour out over.

This style of rhyton that we have here is fairly common to Archaic and Classical Greece — just the head and neck — and in this case here, there’s no hole in the mouth, so its function is clearly meant to hold a beverage instead of letting it pour through. And by “beverage,” of course, I mean wine.

Wine in Ancient Greece, however, was a little different from wine nowadays. The Greeks, believe it or not, actually watered down their wine. Not to do so was considered barbaric, literally, as in how the barbarians drank their wine (mostly Northern Europeans). And interestingly enough, the word barbarian derives from how the Greeks perceived certain foreign languages to sound. When foreign people spoke, all the Greeks heard was “bar-bar-bar-bar-bar.” Sounds pretty silly and made up, but it’s the truth.

Now, back to the rhyton. The one we have here is made out of ceramic. Earthenware, specifically terra cotta. It was most likely crafted with the intent of being buried in someone’s grave, where it’s said to have been found — similar to all the other ceramics in the Art Institute’s Ancient Greek collection (not all from the same grave, of course). Rhyta were used in daily life, but by and large the rhyta crafted for use by the living were made of precious metals, like bronze, silver, and gold. The rhyton was not the drinking cup of your average bloke. These vessels were reserved pretty much for the aristocracy of Greek society, be it Classical or earlier. These are the goblets used in the heroic feasts by great warriors on the eve of battle. The dinnerware of Achilles, Agamemnon, Menelaeus, and Odysseus at the siege of Troy.

Of course, that story was late Bronze Age, early Iron Age. Fifth century BC Athenian aristocracy didn’t regularly engage much in heroic warrior feasts. Instead, wealthy Athenian good-ole-boys would get together at dinner parties and drinking engagements to socialize, talk politics and money, and on special occasions maybe say something intelligent.

The types of animals rendered in the shape of the rhyton are also significant. You frequently comes across a rhyton in the shape of a goat, ram, bull, deer, or horse, and in this example here, a donkey. It’s not coincidence that these are the same kinds of animals used as sacrificial victims in Greek religion. See, while engaging in their modern drinking parties, the Classical Athenian aristocracy was symbolically participating in those heroic warrior feasts of yore. On the eve of battle with the great warriors gathered around, a priest offers up a sacrifice to Zeus and whatever other gods were listening, slicing the throat and spilling the warm blood of the goat, ram, etc. Whereas here, the Athenian, leisurely sprawled on his couch, pours the bright red liquid from the throat of the animal and down the hatch. And the thanks is offered up to a different god. Dionysus, the god of wine.

Decorating the neck of the vessel (cute, huh … the pottery term “neck” actually corresponds here with the literal neck of the donkey) … decorating the neck of the vessel, we see a couple figures — the half-goat half-man satyr (followers of Dionysus) with his bushy beard, pointy ears, long bristly tail, and penchant for not wearing pants (because pants would just get in the way of the satyr’s other penchant), in hot pursuit of a maenad, female followers of Dionysus that would run off into the woods at night in wild Dionysiac reveries, and in packs chase down live deer and with their bare hands, rip them apart limb from limb, and consume the hot raw flesh and blood. The Greeks actually had a word for that. It’s called sparagmos.

The Classical Greek drinking party was nothing nearly as violent, or religious for that matter, but they had a word for that too. The symposium. Now, when we think of a symposium, we picture a bunch of professors getting together, reading some less-than-exhilarating papers, and then having a little wine and cheese. The Greeks skipped the papers … went straight to the wine … and cheese was optional. The Greek word symposion with an “ON” (from which we get the Latin symposium with a “UM”) literally means “drinking together.

You’re probably thinking I’m off my rocker, at least those of you who’ve heard of Plato’s Symposium where Socrates and a bunch of his friends get together one evening and each in turn makes a grand speech on “what is love” and extolling its virtues. But if you look back towards the beginning of the text, you’ll see a very different side to their refined symposium.

And I quote, section 176A&B from a translation by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff (Hackett Publishing Company, etc etc):

When dinner was over, they poured a libation to the god, sang a hymn, and—in short—followed the whole ritual. Then they turned their attention to drinking. At that point Pausanias addressed the group:

“Well, gentlemen, how can we arrange to drink less tonight? To be honest, I still have a terrible hangover from yesterday, and I could really use a break. I daresay most of you could, too, since you were also part of the celebration. So let’s try not to overdo it.”

Aristophanes replied: “Good idea, Pausanias. We’ve got to make a plan for going easy on the drink tonight. I was over my head last night myself, like the others.”

So, we see, even Socrates’s philosophical brood was not impervious to the temptation of drink.

Getting back to the shape of the donkey-headed rhyton, just how do you set it down? Many other rhyta, especially the ritual libation rhyta and the ones from Near Eastern and Eastern European civilizations, have a flat bottom, so they could be set down right-side up, but the only way to set down this example is on its side or upside-down! So, if you want to set it down, you have to polish off your drink first! The shape of this rhyton, therefore, actually encourages drinking! What a perfect cup for a symposium. And just how does one drink from it? If you drink from it the same way you normally drink from a mug, with the handle to the side, the donkey’s ear would get in the way and you might just dribble on yourself. You’re best bet is probably to hold the handle underneath so the donkey face is right-side-up. And then as you’re kicking back your head, tipping the rhyton up to polish off your wine, suddenly you’ve got the face of an ass!

This idea of transformation through drink was not lost on the Ancient Greeks. Wine was regularly attributed with various therapeutic, medicinal, or even malignant properties. And in some examples, we even come across wine being equated with a sort of magic potion capable of transforming the drinker in various ways. The characters in Plato’s Laws briefly discuss the qualities in wine that transform one to be braver, bolder, more conceited, and looser with the tongue. Another relatively common expression of transformation through wine in Greek art can be seen on a large number of kylixes, another kind of drinking vessel more so in the shape of a bowl rather than a cup.

A brief side-track first. The kylix was also frequently used in Greek symposia, and not just for drinking. The Greeks actually had drinking games. One particular favorite was called kottabos and here’s a kylix that even came with instructions. This mid 5th century Attic red-figure kylix at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts shows a reclining youth in the act of playing kottabos. As I mentioned earlier, Greek wine was a little different from the wine that we have today. Not only was it watered down, but it also had far more sediment, so you’d likely have some dregs leftover in the bottom of your cup. The idea in kottabos was to twirl your kylix around, flinging out the sediment, to see who could come closest to the target in the middle of the room, whether the target be a jug or some poor flute girl.

Now back to the idea of how the kylix was commonly used to express the idea of transformation through drink. The typical kylix is decorated on both the inside, with a lovely picture for the drinker, and on the outside with pictures to be seen by all of his friends as he holds the bowl high to his lips. On the outside decoration of the kylix, you often come across two large glaring eyes penetrating the onlooker, as we see here in another example from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The drinker grasps the kylix by the two handles and holds it up to his face as he takes a drink, thereupon donning a monstrous mask, a face like the Gorgon Medusa, who’s said to have been so fiendishly ugly with snakes for hair, that her gaze would turn you to stone.

We might also remember that interesting chapter from Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus’s comrades are transformed into pigs by the witch Circe through a magic potion and a touch of a wand.

As Richmond Lattimore translates …

And at once she opened the shining doors and came out and invited them in, and all in their innocence entered. Only Eurylochos waited outside, for he suspected theachery. She brought them inside and seated them on chairs and benches, and mixed them a potion with barley and cheese and pale honey added to Pramnian wine, but put into the mixture malignant drugs to make them forgetful of their own country. When she had given them this and they had drunk it down, next thing she struck them with her wand and drove them into her pig pens and they took on the look of pigs with the heads and voices and bristles of pigs, but the minds within them stayed as had been before.

And here’s another great kylix from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts showing Circe in the act of drugging Odysseus’s friends and transforming them into pigs. The shape of the vessel that Circe uses for her potion helps the message along in that it resembles the kylix on which this scene is painted. With each casual glance, then, as the wine gradually disappears, the drinker from this kylix constantly reminds himself that he too may share the fate of Odysseus’s men, becoming, well, … a sloppy drunken animal if he doesn’t watch his liquor!

Alright, thanks for listening. Be sure to check out the website scarabsolutions.com for slightly better resolution images used in the podcast. I’ve also updated the bibliography to include some resources on Ancient Greece.

And as always, feel free to leave you comments on the website or at the iTunes Store. Just launch iTunes, click on the iTunes Store, and in the search box type however much you care to of “SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcast.”

Take care and see ya next time!

©2006 Lucas Livingston, ancientartpodcast.org