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

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