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Saturday, March 6, 2021

Animals in Ancient Art: Zoomorphic Askoi

 In her book, Animals in Roman Life and Art, the late professor Jocelyn Toynbee explains that the appearance of animals in Greco-Roman art, especially funeral art, are not allusions to a particular occupation or favorite food item but symbolize the existence of idyllic peace and plenty in paradise, either existing within the home or in the anticipated afterlife.  The Greek word for paradise derived from the eastern term "paradeisos" was first used by Xenophon to describe the extensive parks of the Persian kings that were planted with luxuriant flora and stocked with a variety of wild creatures.

This symbolism extends back as the Chalcolithic period.  Scholars have noted a marked preference for askoi of zoomorphic forms on Cyprus suggesting that, at least there, askoi had a cultic and ritual use.  They point to the vessel's ancient name reflecting an object made of animal leather as proof of further assocation with animals, enough so that the term is now primarily used to signify a terracotta imitation of such a closed vessel with a handle or cylindrical spout that is partially or totally zoomorphic in form and used for dispensation of liquids, often oil for lamps. 

Early types often fell into the classifications bag-shaped,  bird-shaped, fish-shaped, or aberrant forms with horns or other zoomorphic aspects such as a bird-shaped askos with an animal head. Those shaped like an animal skin bag gradually acquired protomes of various animal heads during the Early Iron Age. These vessels evolved still further to animal-shaped askoi which were modeled on the wheel as hollow figurines then handle and spout added.

On Cyprus the mammals depicted most often included bulls, horses and goats.  Some deer shaped vessels have also been found as well as plastically-rendered riders. A Cypriot askos in the shape of a reclining lion, now in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is thought to be unique. 

It is thought that initial askoi shapes on Cyprus were influenced by trade relations with Crete and Mycenaean Greece. But, by the 9th century CE, Greeks in the Aegean developed a taste for exotic goods and Cypriot goods with new forms developed there were reintroduced to the Greeks.  These forms were further adapted by the Greeks and exported to other trading partners including the Etruscans and Romans. The original purpose of askoi was also adapted for other activities other than cultic or funereal and with this development the animals depicted became more whimsical, especially if the askoi were used at symposia where uniquely shaped vessels could be subtly employed as "conversation starters."

Terracotta askos in the form of a weasel, 4th century B.C.E., Greek, South Italian, Campanian at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Terracotta vase in the form of a lobster claw, ca. 460 B.C.E., Attributed to the Class of Seven Lobster-Claws at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Because so many aspects of Greek life depended on the sea, a vase in the shape of a lobster claw is not surprising. It is, however, exceptional and may be a variant of the askos—a bag-shaped oil container provided with a vertical mouth and strap handle. The Dionysiac iconography of the lobster claw suggests that it was a novelty item used at symposia (drinking parties).

Terracotta vase in the form of a lobster claw, ca. 460 B.C.E., Attributed to the Class of Seven Lobster-Claws at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Because so many aspects of Greek life depended on the sea, a vase in the shape of a lobster claw is not surprising. It is, however, exceptional and may be a variant of the askos—a bag-shaped oil container provided with a vertical mouth and strap handle. The Dionysiac iconography of the lobster claw suggests that it was a novelty item used at symposia (drinking parties).

Terracotta askos in the form of a duck, late 5th century B.C.E., Greek, Attic, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Terracotta askos (flask with a spout and handle over the top) in the form of a duck, 4th century B.C.E., at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Zoomorphic askoi and unguentari in the shape of a stag from Tomb 83 Trebba Valley, 300-275 BCE from the Archaeological Museum of Ferrara, Italy courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko

Askos in the form of a bull, Greek, South Italian, Apulian, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Askos in the form of a dog, Greek, 2nd - 1st century CE, , courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Cyprus, geometric age, Kourou Group I, askos with equine protome, from tomb 2138 of the necropolis of the pond, 770-750 BCE courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko

Cypriot; Askos in the form of a fish, 1200-1175 BCE, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Cypriot Askos in the form of a lion, 1200-1050 BCE, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Zoomorphic Askos with geometric configuration, from Rhodes, Archaic Age, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko

Hellenistic Askos in the shape of a ram, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko

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