Pages

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: http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/we-shook-an-ancient-ceramic-and-lived-to-tell-the-tale/ 

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.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Triton and the fate of Misenus

This morning while browsing artifacts in the collections of the Getty Villa, I came across this exquisite gilded silver sculpture of a Triton forming the handle of an oinochoe.  As I described in a post a couple of years ago, the original sea god, Triton, was the son of Poseidon and Amphitrite according to Hesiod's Theogony. Triton is usually represented as a merman, with the upper body of a human and the tailed lower body of a fish. At some time during the Greek and Roman era, Tritons became a generic term for mermen in art and literature. A female version (tritoness) was eventually introduced as well.

Triton was said to dwell with his parents in  a golden palace claimed to be located at Aegae on the island of Euboea in a passage from book 5 of Homer's Iliad. It describes how  Poseidon "lashed his long-maned horses and drove to Aegae, where he had his famous palace" after having destroyed Odysseus' raft with a storm. Later in Book 13 of the Iliad, Poseidon "took three strides, and with the fourth he reached his goal—Aegae, where is his glittering golden palace, imperishable, in the depths of the sea."

Only in later times was Triton associated with possessing a conch shell, which he blew like a trumpet to calm or raise the waves. He was "trumpeter and bugler" to Oceanus and Poseidon. Its sound was so cacophonous that when loudly blown, it was said to put the giants to flight, who imagined it to be the roar of a dark wild beast.

in Virgil's epic poem the Aeneid, Misenus, a brother-in-arms of Hector and, after Hector's death, Aeneas' trumpeter, challenged the gods to a musical contest on a conch shell. He, like Marsyas, was punished for his hubris when he was drowned by Triton.  Aeneas was told by the Cumaean Sibyl at that time that Misenus's body had to be buried before he could enter the Underworld and detailed the necessary funeral rites required that were later adopted by the Romans. Cape Misenum, the headland that marks the northwestern limit of the Gulf of Naples as well as the Bay of Pozzuoli in southern Italy and supposedly named for Misenus,  was important to the Romans since it was a natural shelter for passage into the inner harbor of Portus Julius, the home port for the Roman western imperial fleet.


Image: Gilded silver oinochoe handle depicting Triton from Macedonia or Illyria, 100-1 BCE, at the Getty Villa in Gallery 111, Pacific Palisades, California. Now detached from the vessel of which it was once part, Triton’s scaly lower body serves as the functional part of the handle, and the acanthus leaves from which the torso rises would have hidden the join at the rim. Triton's torso would have projected as a decorative element above the mouth, and gilding elaborates much of its surface. The figure probably held a trident in its left hand, a frequent attribute of sea beings. Such an elaborate pouring vessel would have been part of an ornate set of serving and drinking vessels used at banquets or symposia.

Monday, June 7, 2021

A Brief History of Ships' Eyes

 (condensed from the Master's thesis of Troy Joseph Nowak, Texas A&M University, 2006, "Archaeological Evidence for Ship Eyes: An Analysis of Their Form and Function 

(https://nautarch.tamu.edu/pdf-files/Nowak-MA2006.pdf#:~:text=bows%20of%20ancient%20Greek%20ships%20between%20the%205th,guided%20the%20ship%20and%20helped%20to%20avoid%20hazards.)

Between the Bronze Age and the 3rd century BCE, all types of watercraft used in the Mediterranean from small boats to large galleys were commonly adorned with eyes on their bows.  In Greece, the earliest clear depiction of a ship with eyes is a Late Helladic clay ship model decorated with circular eyes discovered at Phylakopi, Melos. However, ship representations with eyes do not reappear in the archaeological record again until the Geometric Period.  Excavations in the Dipylon cemetery at Athens have yielded an impressive collection of Late Geometric I [c. 760 to 735 BCE] ceramics decorated with ships. Eyes adorn the bows of these galleys and typically take the form of 8- or 16-point stars enclosed in circles, although other related types are known. Slightly later examples dating to Late Geometric II [c. 735-710 BCE] show a greater variety of abstract forms used to indicate the presence of eyes. 

During the 7th and 6th centuries BCE, many representations of Greek galleys fail to include eyes on the upperworks of their bows. Instead, the eyes on these vessels are typically placed in association with the forefoot, which now takes on a stylized zoomorphic form that often resembles the head of a boar. The development of naval tactics involving the ramming and the subsequent disabling of enemy ships may coincide with introduction of eyes set in relation to the forefeet of warship bows.

Representations of ancient Greek warships dated to the 6th century BCE show that they were commonly decorated with two pairs of eyes. One was set low on the bow to impart a zoomorphic form to the embolos that has been identified for the late 6th and early 5th centuries BCE as the head of a boar. Another was set on the upperworks of the bow as those during the Late Geometric Period but the eyes become more realistically depicted with a slight almond shape and a clearly delineated pupil. 

By the 4th and 3rd century BCE, more elongated, dolphin-shaped eyes were introduced and eyes on Punic vessels move to between the waterline and upper wale.

The form of the ship eye remains elongated until the 2nd century BCE when it appears to take on a more Roman appearance, both elongated, and naturalistic as well as, round, almond-shaped, and wadjet-eye-shaped. Moreover, ship eyes were no longer exclusively set in the upperworks of galleys.

I couldn't help but wonder if the wadjet-shaped eye was adopted because of trading relations with Egypt.  The wadjet was closely associated in ancient Egyptian religion with the Eye of Ra, a powerful protective deity. Like the wadjet, the eyes of a ship were thought to be apotropaic in nature and scholars have likened their use to decorations depicting the gorgoneion on armor, weapons and architecture.  Although the identification of which specific deity possessing the eyes may vary based on context, the eye motif seems to primarily, and almost universally, denote the presence of a protective supernatural consciousness that aids its user by keeping watch for invisible threats. Nowak examines human envy in literary sources as one of those primary invisible threats.

Archaic warship bows including those resembling a boar as illustrated by Troy Joseph Nowak

Bow of a 3rd century BCE warship with an elongated eye set on its upperworks and an ovoid eye near its embolos as illustrated by Troy Joseph Nowak.


Sunday, June 6, 2021

The Eyes have it! "Eye cups" of the 6th century BCE

Just as the eyes painted on ancient ships are thought to have possessed the ability to guide them, help them avoid hazards, and even serve an apotropaic purpose to counter human frailties such as envy, eyes adorning drinking cups (kylikes) in the second half of the sixth century BCE, especially in Athens and Chalkis, were also thought to have served an apotropaic function. Some eyes were “female”, i.e. almond-shaped and without tear-ducts, as well as male, and a stylized nose was often placed centrally between the eyes. Many of the vessels also frequently bear Dionysiac imagery.

Eye-cups were painted by various painters, mostly in the black-figure style, but later also in the red-figure style. Some vessels were  bilingually painted with black-figure interior scenes and red-figure exterior scenes. Scholars have attributed this bilingual type and its specific decoration into Attic vase painting to Exekias who was active in Athens between 545 and 530 BCE.  Exekias is regarded by art historians as an artistic visionary whose masterful use of incision and psychologically sensitive compositions mark him as one of the greatest of all Attic vase painters.

The find spots of Exekias' works reveals information about the market in which Exekias positioned himself. Exekias not only enjoyed a thriving market in Athens, with fragments of his works found in the sacred sanctuary of the Acropolis, but many of his extant vases were also exported to Etruria, Italy, found at sites such as Vulci and Orvieto, where they were buried in Etruscan tombs.  

Dionysus cup, Attic black-figure kylix by Exekias, ca. 530 BCE with interior depiction of Dionysus in a ship sailing among dolphins, made in Athens but found in Vulci (Etruria) now in the collections of the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich, Germany, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Matthias Kabel. One of Exekias' most famous works, the cup is embellished with warriors fighting over a fallen man, a popular depiction on black-figured ceramics. between the eyes.   The interior shows a depiction of the god Dionysus against a background of coral-red slip, which coats the entire picture space. Exekias depicts Dionysus' initial journey to Athens by ship. Pirates had seized the ship and were planning, perhaps, to sell Dionysus into slavery. Instead, the god caused vines to grow from the mast, frightening the pirates so much that they jumped overboard and were changed into dolphins, here seen swimming around the ship. 

Dionysus cup, Attic black-figure kylix by Exekias, ca. 530 BCE with interior depiction of Dionysus in a ship sailing among dolphins, made in Athens but found in Vulci (Etruria) now in the collections of the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich, Germany, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Matthias Kabel. One of Exekias' most famous works, the cup is embellished with warriors fighting over a fallen man, a popular depiction on black-figured ceramics. between the eyes.   The interior shows a depiction of the god Dionysus against a background of coral-red slip, which coats the entire picture space. Exekias depicts Dionysus' initial journey to Athens by ship. Pirates had seized the ship and were planning, perhaps, to sell Dionysus into slavery. Instead, the god caused vines to grow from the mast, frightening the pirates so much that they jumped overboard and were changed into dolphins, here seen swimming around the ship. 

Closeup from an Attic black-figured eye cup ca 520 BCE from Vulci depicting Aeneas carrying Anchises, with Ascanius in background (legs) signed by Nikosthenes, now in the collections of The Louvre Museum in Paris, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bibi Saint-Pol.

Eye kylix with lions and panthers biting a fawn, signed by Nikothenes, Attic, 530-520 BCE at the Archaeological Museum of Florence courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko.


Attic Bilingual Eye Cup, possibly by Pheidippos, Attic Greek, about 510 BCE, terracotta, now in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum (Villa), image courtesy of the museum.  The cup is broken and restored, executed in both red and black figure techniques Interior: The interior decoration is mostly missing. Preserved in the tondo, in black-figure, are the two feet and lower hem of a running figure, perhaps Dionysus, carrying a grapevine. Exterior: The exterior is executed in red-figure technique. Side A shows, between the eyes, a helmeted hoplitodromos with a shield decorated with a raven device. Side B shows a crouching, helmeted hoplite between two eyes with a shield decorated with a horse device . Around the handles are large closed palmettes. Added red is used for the inner circles of the irises and the pupils of the eyes.


  

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Mystery religions as a response to concepts of a bleak afterlife

Yesterday I posted about incense and the types of incense required for each Olympian god or hero as specified in the Orphic hymns.  

"Faced with the thought of a bleak existence in the Underworld, some individuals in the ancient Mediterranean sought to improve their lot while they were alive. Virtuous behavior might not be sufficient, and one way to obtain a happier afterlife was thought to be through initiation into mystery cults associated with Orpheus and Dionysos. Self-styled preachers offered followers transformative experiences that mainstream practice could not provide. Their rites were shrouded in secrecy and remain little understood today" - J. Paul Getty Museum

Initiates were sometimes buried with thin sheets of gold, termed Orphic tablets by modern scholars, inscribed with guidance for their journey into the Underworld much like the Book of the Dead for ancient Egyptians, although much shorter. The text might reference landmarks along the journey, such as a spring, a cypress tree, or the Lake of Memory.

Average Greeks did not view the afterlife as an eternal paradise, except for a select few, heroes related to the Olympian gods, but rather a bleak existence characterized primarily by the absence of life's pleasures.  The idea of moral judgment and an expectation of the good rewarded and evil punished did not arise until the early 5th century BCE.  

"Drawing on abstract speculation as much as popular belief, Plato (about 428–347 BCE) described separate destinations for the good and the bad, as well as cycles of penance and reincarnation. But for determining what the majority of ancient Greeks thought about the afterlife, his most revealing assertion may be that individuals dismiss the stories told about what goes on in Hades—until they face death themselves." - J. Paul Getty Museum

The comic playwright Aristophanes provided more color, describing wrongdoers lying in mud and dung, while initiates dance in myrtle groves (Frogs, 405 BCE).

The mystery cults, however, offered practices designed to achieve a more favorable sojourn after death. 

"In contrast to public festivals and sacrifices, which were typically organized at a communal or civic level, the rituals of mystery cults were performed privately for individuals or small groups. Self-styled priests offered followers transformative experiences that mainstream practice could not provide and that marked the initiate as special." 

"Armed with this privileged information as to where to go in the Underworld and what to say, the deceased could feel secure in the face of death. Although the tablets like this have been found across a wide area—in Sicily and southern Italy, northern Greece, the Peloponnese, and Crete—they are exceedingly rare. Their owners were a select few, who subscribed to beliefs that would have appeared esoteric and eclectic to their contemporaries." - J. Paul Getty Museum

I find it interesting that, although the Romans adopted much of Greek mythology and philosophy, their view of the afterlife was significantly different. They believed in the immortality of the soul but believed that when one died, one was met by Mercury, the messenger god and son of Jupiter and taken to the river Styx, that flowed nine times around the underworld. There they paid the ferryman, Charon, a fee to cross the river where they were met and judged by Minos, Aenaeus, and Rhadymanthas.

"However, the ancient Romans did not believe in eternal damnation. Therefore, after one was judged he was sent either to the Fields of Elysium, if one was a warrior or other type of hero, or to the Plain of Asphodel, if one was an ordinary citizen. However, if one was judged to have committed a crime against society, one would have been sent to Tartarus to be tortured by the Furies until such time as one's debt to society was deemed to have been paid in full. At that time, one was released. " - All About History: https://www.allabouthistory.org/ancient-romans-faq.htm

This example of an Orphic tablet, now in the collections of the Getty Villa, takes the form of a dialogue between the dead initiate and a spring in the Underworld:
(Initiate): I am parched with thirst and perishing!
(Spring): Then come drink of me, the Ever-Flowing Spring. On the right there is a bright cypress. Who are you? Where are you from?
(Initiate): I am the son of Earth and Starry Heaven. But my race is heavenly.
(Translation by Roy Kotansky (2017)). Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Mixing Vessel with Odysseus Summoning the Shades from the Underworld (detail), South Italian, made in Lucania, 390–380 BC; found in Pisticci, Italy, terracotta. Red-figure calyx krater attributed to the Dolon Painter. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, 422. Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Closeup of Mixing Vessel with Odysseus Summoning the Shades from the Underworld (detail), South Italian, made in Lucania, 390–380 BC; found in Pisticci, Italy, terracotta. Red-figure calyx krater attributed to the Dolon Painter. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, 422. Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Storage Jar with Athena, Herakles, and Kerberos (detail), Greek, made in Athens, 530–510 BC; found in Vulci, Italy, terracotta. Bilingual amphora attributed to the Andokides Painter. Musée du Louvre, Départment des Antiquités grecques, étrusques et romaines, Paris, F204. Image © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photo: Hervé Lewandowski. Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Fragment of a Funerary Relief with Underworld Figures, Greek, made in South Italy (Taras), 325–300 BC, limestone. State Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek Munich, GL 494. Photograph by Renate Kühling. Image courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Seated Musician thought to represent Orpheus, Greek, made in South Italy (Taras), 330–300 BCE, terracotta with traces of pigment, that I photographed at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California.

 

Friday, June 4, 2021

The Orphic hymns and incense use in the ancient Mediterranean World

The word incense comes from Latin incendere meaning 'to burn'.  In ancient times incense was burnt to counteract or obscure malodorous products of human habitation, but was widely perceived to also deter malevolent demons and appease the gods with its pleasant aroma. Resin balls were found in many prehistoric Egyptian tombs in El Mahasna, giving evidence for the prominence of incense and related compounds in Egyptian antiquity. One of the oldest extant incense burners originates from the 5th dynasty of Egypt dating back to the 25th century BCE.  The Babylonians also used incense while offering prayers to divining oracles and it is thought Incense spread from there to Greece and Rome. 

Incense burners, commonly known in ancient Greece as thymiateria, could take a wide variety of forms, ranging from simple earthenware pots to elaborate carved, moulded or cast items made from clay or bronze.  They were used in sacred rituals in sanctuaries and temples, during religious processions, funerals, symposiums and weddings.

The ritual use of thymiateria has been attested to in many archaeological sites including Olbia where a rich deposit of thymiateria has been found in the sanctuary of Aphrodite. These thymiateria were molded into a bust of the goddess but she is depicted as a modest matron and not nude as was typical for the goddess of love.  The inclusion of Erotes is thought to provide an emphasis on her motherhood.  They also distinguish the worshipped deity as Aphrodite and not Demeter, Hera or the Mother of the Gods as has been the case at other temple sites.

A Roman bronze thymiaterion in the form of a comic actor from the 1st century CE I have seen at the Getty Villa must have been used at dinner parties as I'm not familiar with any religious significance it may have.  They also have a terracotta lamp/incense burner  with an eagle with spread wings on it. I wonder if it was used for some military ritual? 

"Although aroma was an essential part of thymiateria culture, only the Orphic Hymns cast light on the use of particular incenses (in pure form or in compound) for each god or hero," observes Maryna Rusiaieva in her paper "On Ancient Greek Thymiateria and Their Purpose." 

For example, according to the Orphic Hymns, mánna is the recommended incense used to worship Artemis and Asclepius.  It is obtained by evaporating the sap of the manna ash, extracted by making small cuts in the bark. Athena, on the other hand, prefers incense crafted from aromatic herbs.  Dionysus, however, expects storax (sometimes marketed as styrax), a rare fragrant gum resin obtained from the Asian liquidambar tree.  If you're planning a sea voyage, an offering of myrhh should be used to appeal to Poseidon.

The Orphic Hymns are a collection of eighty-seven hymns to the Olympian gods attributed to Orpheus, but the actual authorship is unclear. The date of composition of the hymns is also disputed.  Scholars have dated the hymns to a period ranging from the 6th century BCE to the 4th century CE, although there is no evidence of any Christian influence in the poems.

You can learn much more about the Orphic Hymns here:

https://www.hellenicgods.org/projectstatement

The site provides the original Greek text and an English translation.

Silver Censer shaped like a bird, Byzantine, that I photographed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

Stand in the Shape of an Ibex that probably held an incense burner, Iran 1000-800 BCE, Bronze, that I photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

Frieze depicting two female temple attendants kneeling before an incense burner Roman 1st century CE Terracotta and slip that I photographed at the Art Institute of Chicago

Feline-Handled Bronze Incense Burner, Parthian, 100 CE, at the Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, Ohio, image courtesy of the museum and Wikimedia Commons.

Incense Burner in the Form of a Female Head, probably representing Demeter, Greek, 3rd century BCE, found in Canosa, Italy, courtesy of the Walters Art Museum.

Moldmade lampstand/incense-burner consisting of a hollow body fixed on a circular spreading base and surmounted by a bowl. Upper part with two applied lamps, one on each side. On front center is an eagle in high relief with spreading wings, clawed feet resting on a platform, head turned to left; feathers carefully rendered, Roman, late 2nd century CE, now in the collections of the Getty Villa. Image courtesy of the museum.

Incense Burner (Thymiaterion) shaped as a Comic Actor Seated on an Altar Roman 1-50 CE Bronze and Silver at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California

Moldmade terracotta lampstand/incense-burner from Central Anatolia, Roman, 1st century CE at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California.  Image courtesy of the museum. 

Bronze southern Etruscan thymiaterion, 500 BCE, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko.


Bronze thymiaterion (incense burner) in the form of a woman, late 6th–early 5th century BCE, Etruscan, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  The calyx-shaped receptacle on the woman's head was probably originally surmounted by a shaft. Utensils incorporating human figures as supports or handles were as popular in Etruria as in Greece. This incense burner is exceptional, not only for the rendering of the woman, who is both statuesque and decorative, but also for the manner in which every part emphasizes her three-dimensionality.


Terracotta group of women seated around a well head, 2nd half of 4th century BCE, Greek, Tarentine, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  Incense burners (Greek thymiateria) were important cult implements throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. This South Italian terracotta example of the second half of the 4th century B.C.E. is exceptionally complex and rare: five women crowned with flowers are shown around a wellhead. The iconography reflects a local cult, probably that of Demeter and Kore who were widely worshipped in Southern Italy and Sicily at the time.

Vessel stand for offerings including incense with ibex support, ca. 2600–2350 BCE, Sumerian, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Temple rituals during the Early Dynastic period included making offerings of food, drink, and probably incense to the gods. This stand, made using the lost-wax technique, with four rings supported by a magnificent ibex, would have supported lamps or bowls holding offerings or incense and may have been used in temple or in banquet rituals.

Incense burner, southwest Arabia, ca. mid-1st millennium BCE, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, image courtesy of the museum.  The importance of incense in the religion of southwestern Arabia is reflected in this object; the ibex and snakes are powerful apotropaic symbols representing virility and fertility, and were frequently associated with local gods. The disk-and-crescent symbol, likewise, probably represents the moon god, the chief god of their pantheon.

Bronze censer (thymiaterion), made in Paros, 460-450 BCE. Archaeological Museum of Delphi, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Dennis Jarvis.


 

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Heracles (Hercules) and the Lernaean Hydra

The Lernaean Hydra or Hydra of Lerna more often known simply as the Hydra, is a serpentine water monster in Greek and Roman mythology. Its lair was the lake of Lerna in the Argolid. Lerna was reputed to be an entrance to the Underworld, and archaeology has established it as a sacred site older than Mycenaean Argos. In the canonical Hydra myth, the monster is killed by Heracles (Hercules) as the second of his Twelve Labors.

The oldest extant Hydra narrative appears in Hesiod's Theogony, while the oldest images of the monster are found on a pair of bronze fibulae dating to c. 700 BCE. In both these sources, the main motifs of the Hydra myth are already present: a multi-headed serpent that is slain by Heracles and Iolaus. While these fibulae portray a six-headed Hydra, its number of heads was first fixed in writing by Alcaeus (c. 600 BCE), who gave it nine heads. Simonides, writing a century later, increased the number to fifty, while Euripides, Virgil, and others did not give an exact figure.

Like the initial number of heads, the monster's capacity to regenerate lost heads varies with time and author. The first mention of this ability of the Hydra occurs with Euripides, where the monster grew back a pair of heads for each one severed by Heracles. In the Euthydemus of Plato, Socrates likens Euthydemus and his brother Dionysidorus to a Hydra of a sophistical nature who grows two arguments for every one refuted. Palaephatus, Ovid, and Diodorus Siculus concur with Euripides, while Servius has the Hydra grow back three heads each time. Depictions of the monster dating to c. 500 BCE show it with a double tail as well as multiple heads, suggesting the same regenerative ability at work, but no literary accounts include this feature.  The Hydra had many parallels in ancient Near Eastern religions. In particular, Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian mythology celebrated the deeds of the war and hunting god Ninurta that included slaying a a seven-headed serpent.

Several versions of Heracles struggle with the hydra existed.  In one, Heracles, seeing the creature merely grew more heads when he decapitated it, asked his nephew Iolaus for help. His nephew then came upon the idea (possibly inspired by Athena) of using a firebrand to scorch the neck stumps after each decapitation.  In an alternate version, Heracles dipped his sword in the Hydra's blood and used its own venom to burn subsequent stumps and prevent their regrowth.

The victorious Heracles then dipped his arrows in the Hydra's poisonous blood and used them to kill the Stymphalian Birds, the giant Geryon, and, unfortunately, the centaur Nessus. Nessus' tainted blood was applied to the Tunic of Nessus, by which the centaur had his posthumous revenge against Heracles. Both Strabo and Pausanias report that the stench of the river Anigrus in Elis, making all the fish of the river inedible, was reputed to be due to the Hydra's poison, washed from the arrows Heracles used on the centaur.

Hercules slaying the Hydra, Roman copy of 4th century BCE original by Lysippos, restored by Algardi, that I photographed at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

Relief of Hercules slaying the Hydra, end of 3rd century CE, from the Roman Villa of Chiragan, Musée des Antiques de Toulouse, courtesy of Carole Raddato. (CC BY)

Detail of Relief of Hercules slaying the Hydra, end of 3rd century CE, from the Roman Villa of Chiragan, Musée des Antiques de Toulouse, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Caroline Léna Becker.

Relief depicting Heracles battling the Hydra at the base of the facade of Colleoni Chapel, by Giovanni Antonio Amadeo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko.

Sarcophagus Relief Depicting Labors of Hercules (Heracles), 3rd-4th century C.E., marble, Roman, Honolulu Academy of Arts, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Haa900.

Etruscan black-figure hydria depicting Herakles and Iolaos fighting the Lernean Hydra (c. 346 BCE) from Caere now on display at the Getty Villa courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Wolfgang Sauber

Fragment of a red-figure vase depicting Heracles battling the Hydra with Athena offering support, 375-340 BCE, on exhibit at the Fitchburg Art Museum, Fitchburg, Massachusetts, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Daderot.

Archaic-styled Heracles, Iolaus and the Lernaean Hydra. Side A of an Attic black-figured amphora, 560–555 BCE, now in the collections of The Louvre, Paris, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bibi Saint-Pol.

Corinthian Aryballos, Greek, 6th century BCE, from Corinth, Terracotta, now on view at the Getty Villa, Gallery 104, courtesy of the museum. On this intricately detailed Corinthian black-figure aryballos (oil-flask), Herakles battles the Lernean Hydra, a many-headed, serpent-like monster. Required to destroy the fierce creature as the second of the Twelve Labors assigned to him by King Eurystheus, the hero grasps one of the snaky heads while stabbing the monster with his sword. One of the Hydra’s heads is about to bite Herakles’ shoulder, and a crab, sent to help the Hydra, approaches the hero’s ankle from behind. The goddess Athena stands behind him, offering her support. Both Herakles and Athena are identified by inscriptions written in retrograde, or right to left, in the distinctive Doric alphabet of Corinth. Likewise, inscriptions on the other side of the vase identify Iolaos, Herakles’ nephew and faithful companion, and Iphikles (written as Wiphikledas), Herakles’ twin brother. One figure holds the Hydra, while the other (under the handle of the vase) is shown as a charioteer, head turned back to face the action while keeping the four-horse chariot ready to carry off the victorious hero. An unidentified female head facing left decorates the handle itself

1843 reproduction of Heracles and Iolaus battling the Hydra from a red-figure vase by Eduard Gerhard courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Angyalfia.

Renaissance-era plaque depicting Heracles battling the Hydra, 16th century CE, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko

Athena supports Heracles who is attacked by the crab and the Lenaean Hydra. White-ground Attic lekythos, ca. 500–475 BCE now in the collections of The Louvre, Paris courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bibi Saint-Pol.

Mosaic from Roman Spain, 26 CE, depicting Heracles battling the Hydra courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Luis Garcia.

Hercules and the Hydra, 1785 etching by Raphael West, in the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, courtesy of the museum.

Fragmented vase with applique depicting Hercules battling the Hydra, discovered at Saint-Colombe, 2nd - 3rd century CE, now in the collections of the Gallo-Roman Museum of Fourvière in Lyon, France courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Eunostos