Monday, June 14, 2021

Spurned Women: The violent death of Orpheus

Orpheus is best known as a musician that could play so beautifully he charmed even the most violent animals.  As such he is portrayed in numerous mosaics, paintings, and on ceramics.  So I was surprised to see a red-figure calyx krater attributed to the Villa Giulia Painter and dated to 460-450 BCE depicting Orpheus being violently attacked by Thracian women, one with a spear and one with an axe. I realize taste in music is quite personal but this extreme response is so antithetical to all of those peaceful images I have seen of Orpheus surrounded by mesmerized animals that I had to research this event further.

According to a Late Antique summary of Aeschylus' lost play Bassarids, Orpheus, towards the end of his life, disdained the worship of all gods except the sun, whom he called Apollo. One early morning he went to the oracle of Dionysus at Mount Pangaion to salute his god at dawn, but, like Pentheus, was ripped to shreds by Thracian maenads for not honoring his previous patron (Dionysus). It has been speculated that the Orphic mystery cult regarded Orpheus as a parallel figure to or even an incarnation of Dionysus so his abandonment of Dionysus would have been viewed as the ultimate sacrilege. Pausanias writes that the river Helicon sank underground when the women that killed Orpheus tried to wash off their blood-stained hands in its waters. 

Other legends claim that Orpheus became a follower of Dionysus and spread his cult across the land and abstained from the love of women. In this version of the legend, it is said that Orpheus was torn to shreds by the women of Thrace for his inattention.

Ovid's account of the death of Orpheus in Metamorphoses Book X is quite similar:

"[Orpheus] had abstained from the love of women, either because things ended badly for him, or because he had sworn to do so. Yet, many felt a desire to be joined with the poet, and many grieved at rejection. Indeed, he was the first of the Thracian people to transfer his affection to young boys and enjoy their brief springtime, and early flowering this side of manhood."

Feeling spurned by Orpheus for taking only male lovers (eromenoi), the Ciconian women, followers of Dionysus, first threw sticks and stones at him as he played, but his music was so beautiful even the rocks and branches refused to hit him. Enraged, the women tore him to pieces during the frenzy of their Bacchic orgies.

His head and lyre, still singing mournful songs, floated down the River Hebrus into the sea, after which the winds and waves carried them to the island of Lesbos, at the city of Methymna. There, the inhabitants buried his head and a shrine was built in his honor near Antissa where his oracle prophesied, until it was silenced by Apollo. Orpheus' soul is said to have returned to the underworld, to the fields of the Blessed, where he was reunited at last with his beloved Eurydice.

As with many myths, scholars believe Orpheus may have actually existed. Only Aristotle, alone, thought he did not.  Most believed he lived several generations before Homer.  He is thought to have been a poet, augur, and astrologer who also earned a living as a musician and some say, a wizard.  Aristophanes, in his play "Frogs" refers to Orpheus as one of the oldest poets and characterizes him as a religious teacher.

When I read the part about Orpheus' eventual rejection of all gods except the sun which he called Apollo, I couldn't help but think about that old Star Trek episode "Bread and Circuses" where the Enterprise crew intercepts radio transmissions from a planet they are orbiting that refer to worship of the "sun".  As the episode progresses, the crew realizes some of the planet inhabitants are not worshipping the sun up in the sky but the Son. Perhaps this was the case with Orpheus - why else would he give the entity the name of an anthropomorphic deity? 

Attic Red-figure calyx krater attributed to the Villa Giulia Painter and dated to 460-450 BCE depicting Orpheus being violently attacked by Thracian women now in the collections of the Getty Villa, image courtesy of the museum.

Detail of Attic Red-figure calyx krater attributed to the Villa Giulia Painter and dated to 460-450 BCE depicting Orpheus being violently attacked by Thracian women now in the collections of the Getty Villa, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributors Dave and Margie Hill/Kleerup.

Attic Red-figure calyx krater attributed to the Villa Giulia Painter and dated to 460-450 BCE depicting Orpheus being violently attacked by Thracian women now in the collections of the Getty Villa, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributors Dave and Margie Hill/Kleerup.

The Death of Orpheus, detail from a silver kantharos, 420-410 BCE, part of the Vassil Bojkov collection, Sofia, Bulgaria, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Gorgonchica.

Attic red figure stamnos with lid depicting Thracian women killing Orpheus by the Dokimasia Painter, 480-470 BCE, at the Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig in Basel, Switzerlandm courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor ArchaiOptix.

Hydria fragment with the death of Orpheus, c. 460 BCE at the Martin von Wagner Museum in Würzburg, Germany courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Daderot.

Thracian Girl Carrying the Head of Orpheus on His Lyre (1865) by Gustave Moreau, now in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, France, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nymphs Finding the Head of Orpheus (1900) by John William Waterhouse (PD), now in a private collection, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Sunday, June 13, 2021

The Scythian Police Force of Athens in the 6th-4th centuries BCE

The Scythian archers, called taxotai, were a hypothesized police force of 6th-, 5th- and early 4th-century BCE Athens that is recorded in some Greek artworks and literature. The force is said to have consisted of 300 armed Scythians (a nomadic people living in the Eurasian Steppe) who were public slaves in Athens. They acted for a group of eleven elected Athenian magistrates who were responsible for arrests and executions and for some aspects of public order in the city including the Assembly and the Council. Their number is said to have swelled to 1,200 at some point, so they may have also been involved in wartime conflicts as well.

Scholars agree that a Scythian police force of some sort existed in Athens in the 5th century BCE and possibly as early as the 6th century BCE, although no one knows when it was first established or how long it lasted. Swiss archaeologist Balbina Bäbler points to 4th century BCE grave steles including the stele of Getes as well as buried Scythian arrowheads as evidence of their continued existence at that time but admits it is impossible to know whether these Scythians represent a continuation of the police force known earlier or whether Scythian families simply still lived in Athens.

Scholars are also unsure why Athenians would employ "barbarians" for such purposes, although they think it's possible that foreign slaves far from home would compose a more faithful police force than locals would. Scholars have found the Scythians' use of bows and arrows in a crowded city like Athens puzzling, too.  I suppose its is no less plausible than the use of pistols in large modern cities today, though.

As portrayed on Attic vase paintings, Scythian archers were distinguished by high pointed headdresses and wide trousers although they may have had no relationship to the Scythian police force. Scythians speaking broken Greek were comedic characters in Aristophanes' play Thesmophoriazusae, too, but again their connection to the police force is not clear. 

 Departure of the warrior in front of the home's women and his white-haired father. He is accompagnied by a Scythian archer. Side A from an Attic black-figure amphora from Vulci, 530-520 BCE now in the collections of the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich, Germany.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bibi Saint-Pol.

Hoplite putting his armor on, surrounded by two Scythian warriors, Side A of an Attic red-figure belly-amphora, From Vulci now in the collections of the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich, Germany.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bibi Saint-Pol.

Attic Black-Figure Psykter painted in the manner of the Lysippides painter, Attic, 530 BCE, now in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum.  Image courtesy of Bruce White Photography. Two chariots seen in a frontal view decorate this Athenian black-figure psykter or wine cooler. Each chariot carries a driver and a warrior whose heads are just visible over the edge of the chariot car. On one side Skythian archers, identified by their distinctive tall caps, hold the outside trace horses, and on the other side, fully armed warriors flank the chariot. The Greeks used psykters to chill the wine at a symposium or drinking party. Wine diluted with water was poured into the psykter, whose wide bulbous body was then floated inside a larger vessel filled with snow or cold water. Scholars believe that this is the earliest complete psykter to have survived from antiquity.

Archer drawing an arrow from his quiver as he turns to shoot at the enemy by Epiktetos, 520-500 BCE. Interior from an Attic red-figured plate. From Vulci now in the collections of the British Museum.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen.


Saturday, June 12, 2021

The ephebeia

Just as select Spartan youth endured the krypteia, a year long trial in the wilderness to prove their worthiness to become a Spartiate, Athenian young men also took part in a training regimen known as the ephebeia.  This "college" taught them the responsibilities of citizenship and trained them as soldiers.  After admission to the college, the ephebe took the oath of allegiance, recorded in histories by Pollux and Stobaeus, in the temple of Aglaurus, and was sent to Munichia or Acte to form one of the garrison there. 

At the end of the first year of training, the ephebi were reviewed, and, if their performance was satisfactory, were provided by the state with a spear and a shield, which, together with the chlamys (cloak) and petasos (broad-brimmed hat), made up their equipment. In their second year they were transferred to other garrisons in Attica, patrolled the frontiers, and on occasion took an active part in war. 

During these two years they were free from taxation, and were generally not allowed to appear in the law courts as plaintiffs or defendants. The ephebi took part in some of the most important Athenian festivals. Thus during the Eleusinian Mysteries they were sent to fetch the sacred objects from Eleusis and to escort the image of Iacchus on the sacred way. They also performed police duty at the meetings of the ecclesia.

After the end of the 4th century BCE, the institution underwent a radical change. Enrolment ceased to be obligatory, lasted only for a year, and the limit of age was dispensed with. Inscriptions attest a continually decreasing number of ephebi, and with the admission of foreigners the college lost its representative national character. Scholars have speculated this was mainly due to the weakening of the military spirit and the progress of intellectual culture. The military element was no longer all-important, and the ephebia became a sort of university for well-to-do young men of good family, whose social position has been compared with that of the Athenian "knights" of earlier times. The institution lasted till the end of the 3rd century CE.

Roman aristocratic families often sent their young men, between the ages of 16 - 20, to Greece to learn civic virtues. Several new officials were introduced, one of special importance being the director of the Diogeneion.  The Diogeneion was essentially a gymnasium originally built in honor of Diogenes, the last commander of the Macedonian garrison in Athens that departed the city in 229 BCE.  It is assumed he funded the construction of the building and scholars therefore conclude military training was conducted there.

Image: This Attic Red-Figure Stamnos at the Getty Villa (unfortunately not currently on view), produced between 470-460 BCE, appears to depict an ephebe (ephebus in Latin) who has completed at least his first year at the the ephebeia successfully as he is now equipped with two spears and wears the trademark petasos on his back.  He appears to be bidding farewell to an old white-haired man (his father or teacher) before leaving for his assigned garrison.

Friday, June 11, 2021

The Painters of Pompeii: Roman Frescoes from the National Archaeological Museum, Naples

The Painters of Pompeii: Roman Frescoes from the National Archaeological Museum, Naples will open June 26, 2021 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.  It will be on display until October 17, 2021. Tickets will be available on a timed entry basis with limited capacity to ensure adequate social distancing.  Although masks are encouraged, they are not required for fully vaccinated visitors.  Eighty artifacts and artworks from Pompeii and Herculaneum will be presented.

During the exhibition, the museum plans to host a series of lectures in the Noble Theater with several of the most renowned scholars in the field of Ancient Roman Art and History.  Topics include the rediscovery of Pompeii, Food & Wine in Pompeii, Roman Painting, and Powerful Elite Women in Imperial Rome.

The exhibit notice says its appearance at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art will be its only US presentation.

Image: Polyphemus hears of the arrival of Galatea (or Hercules and Omphale), ancient Roman fresco from a villa in Portici painted in the "Fourth Style" (45–79 CE) courtesy of the NAM Naples. 

Thursday, June 10, 2021

The secret of the rattling kantharos

One of just a handful of “rattling cups” that survive from the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, this elegant black-glazed wine cup from the second half of the 4th century BCE is dedicated to Kastor and Polydeukes (Castor and Pollux), the twin sons of Zeus known as the Dioscouri, who protected sailors, horseman, and chariot racers. Since each brother split his time between Mt. Olympus and Hades, they were often represented by stars, depicted here beneath the cup’s rim.  The cup's ritual purpose is further indicated by a wreath, garlands, and bucrania  bucrania (skulls of sacrificial bulls) decorating the cup’s body.

But, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the vessel is that lifting and swirling the cup as if drinking or making a libation (liquid offering) during a ceremony produces a rattling noise.  It was assumed the sound was made by loose pellets moving inside the rim but curators at the J. Paul Getty Museum were puzzled by the fact that sometimes they could hear two balls but at other times only one.  So, they wanted to learn more about its construction and conducted a series of radiographic studies to unravel its secrets. The radiographs revealed two small balls that roll along a channel in the vessel’s rim.

Curators speculated that one way the potter might have achieved the construction of the cup is by raising the upper edge of the cup and folding it over to create a hollow space. The clay would be stretched thin by this process, which would reduce the need for ventilation holes that typically prevent pressure from trapped air. As for why it sometimes sounded like there was one ball in the rim and sometimes two, the radiograph revealed that one of the balls was resting in a small niche where it remained caught until it was knocked loose by the other pellet.

So why make an expensive cup rattle in the first place?  Getty curators said it is possible the rattling was intended to trick an unknowing handler into thinking they had broken it—quite a mistake given the cup’s obvious cost! Although the Greeks definitely had a keen sense of humor, I think due to the cup's religious dedication and symbolism, the curators' second theory is far more likely. They point out that the fourth-century BCE poet, Eubulus, mentions a glossy, black “pebble-rattling” cup used as part of a libation ceremony that took place at the end of a meal before a symposium began, in which wine was offered to Zeus Soter (Zeus the Savior). Since ritual events in antiquity were often accompanied by the sound of rattles, cymbals, and tambourines, which were thought to have magical and protective properties, the rattling sound emanating from the cup could have served the same purpose, without the necessity of hiring a cluster of religious performers who would have disrupted a cozy atmosphere conducive to sharing candid thoughts.

Read more about it here: 

elegant black-glazed wine cup from the second half of the 4th century BCE is dedicated to Kastor and Polydeukes now in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum (Villa location) courtesy of the museum.