Scenes painted on ancient Greek pottery provide glimpses into the world of the gods, goddesses, and heroes--but they also depict images of daily life. How are these stories connected? How does an understanding of the world of mythology reflect the beliefs, values, and social constructs of Greek society? Join the student curators of the exhibition Life & Legend: Storytelling and Greek Pottery on an audio tour and consider representations of war, gender, revelry, and mythical creatures. The tour begins in the 2nd-floor Focus Gallery and extends into other areas of the ancient art gallery.
This audio pathway, and the exhibition to which it relates, was developed by a group of 14 first year students in an IU class taught in the Spring semester of 2023. This class is the result of an exciting partnership between the ASURE (Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research Experience) Program, the Eskenazi Museum of Art, and the Department of Art History.
Krater with Dionysos and Amazons
This large mixing bowl became the centerpiece ofLife and Legend because it could fit into all four of the exhibition’s themes: war, gender, revelry, and mythical creatures. It depicts two action-filled scenes. On one side, a legendary group of women warriors, called Amazons, battle winged mythical creatures known as griffins, which have the heads of birds and the bodies of lions. On the opposite side, a raucous procession of satyrs and maenads dance around the seated god of wine and fertility, Dionysus. Satyrs are goat-footed male hybrids and maenads, known for their wild behavior, take fully human form.
It is interesting that, because these were mythological scenes, the female figures were portrayed with more power and self-determination than women in representations of daily life. In scenes of everyday life, women were usually depicted as modest, feminine, and subservient, as befits Greek mothers, wives, and daughters.
Another point of interest is the energy with which the scenes were painted—almost every space available on the pot was covered with active figures. The subject matter that was chosen lent itself to this interest in activity. At this time, which was towards the end of the period in which painted pottery was made, exotic mythological scenes may have provided a sense of escapism. The images of revelry seem to parody images of war; and the battle scenes take on a theatrical flair.
Lekythos with Man Chasing Woman
In the scene depicted on this vessel, a man reaches toward a woman, who ﬂees from his grasp. As he touches her shoulder, she pulls away. Pursuit scenes like this one are numerous in Greek vase painting and almost always tell the story of a god or hero chasing a female, who might be a human or a divinity.
The precise identification of the figures in this scene is unclear, but the details of the painting provide some clues. Since the man is not bearded, we can rule out the elder gods, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. Of the younger gods, Apollo is the most likely candidate, as he is often represented nude and with long, flowing hair. If the male figure is Apollo, he might be chasing Daphne, a beautiful nymph who was rescued from the god’s amorous pursuit by being transformed into a laurel tree. Another possible identification is the Greek hero, Perseus, who rescues his future wife Andromeda from the advances of her uncle, Phineus. A more likely possibility, however, is the mortal king, Peleus, chasing Thetis. Thetis was a beautiful sea nymph who resisted the advances of her pursuer by changing her shape into fire, water, a lioness, and a snake. Peleus eventually captured her, and their subsequent marriage set the stage for the Trojan War. Their son, who was prophesied to be greater than his father, was Achilles, the greatest of Greek warriors and the central hero of the Trojan War.
In many of these myths, the end is understood to justify the means, and the actions of the gods, which would be considered repellent by modern standards, often resulted in the birth of important characters in the mythological and literary realm. When thinking about Greek myths today we often have to set aside modern judgement and consider what these stories tell us about ancient Greek beliefs, customs, and values.
Pyxis with Head of Medusa
This round box (or pyxis) features the head of a mythical creature named Medusa on the lid. Medusa was one of three monstrous sisters, known as the Gorgons. They had living, hissing snakes for hair and were so frightening in appearance that they could turn those who looked at them into stone. Medusa was the only gorgon who was mortal and, who, therefore, could be killed. This challenging task was given to the hero Perseus, who was only able to succeed with the help of Athena and Hermes. Winged sandals, a cap of invisibility, and the clever precaution of only looking at the monster through the reflection in his shield enabled Perseus to decapitate Medusa. Without looking at Medusa’s head—since even in death it retained its “stone-turning” ability--he used it to rescue his mother. He then gave Medusa’s head to Athena, who placed it on her breastplate.
Medusa’s head became a popular protective symbol. It was placed on household objects to ward off negative energy and the “evil eye.” This box, which was used to store jewelry and cosmetics, was adorned with Medusa’s head to keep its contents safe. It may also have served as a precaution against excessive vanity, the vice that was responsible for the Gorgon’s downfall.
It is interesting to note that by the time that the box was made, Medusa had become more beautiful—but she still had hair full of snakes.
Krater with Achilles killing Penthesilea
The death of Penthesilea at the hands of Achilles is one of the most famous myths from the Aethiopis, alostepic poem. The myth was preserved by other poets and represented on Greek vessels such as this one. It captures the conflict between war and love.
Penthesilea was the queen of the Amazons, a mythological kingdom of warrior women. She was fierce in battle and was also known for her wisdom and skill. During the Trojan War, the Amazons fought on the side of the Trojans. Achilles, whose mother was divine, was not only an extremely skilled soldier, but was considered a hero, blessed by Zeus and was acknowledged as being the “best of Greeks.”
Well-matched, Achilles and Penthesilea had respect for each other’s prowess and yet they were fated to fight to the death. Some versions of the story say that Penthesilea first killed Achilles and Zeus brought him back to life. The most popular version is depicted on this vase. It captures the moment that Achilles kills Penthesilea, plunging his spear into her breast as she stares directly into his eyes At this very moment, Achilles falls in love with her. The story underscores the importance of duty: Achilles’ responsibility to his comrades and cause were more important than his personal feelings.
Amphora with Dionysos and Hunters
Dionysos is one of the most familiar gods in Greek mythology. He is the divinity who presides over wine, ecstasy, and fertility. His domain also stretches to that of the natural world, agriculture. and winemaking. Although Dionysos inspires irrational states that take his followers outside the regulated behaviors of society, he is never represented as drunk or frenzied himself. He represents the wilder side of human nature, but also models a sense of balance.
The scenes that decorate the two sides of this vessel are very similar, but not identical. The bearded god wears an ivy wreath and holds a drinking horn and is surrounded by a group of hunters, identifiable by their spears and dogs No specific myth is depicted; rather, the subject matter is the natural harmony that occurs in sacred gatherings. The hunters receive the benevolent protection of the divinity as they prepare to embark (or return from) their hunt. Unlike the depictions of ecstatic celebrations that appear on other Dionysian vessels, the two groups on this pot are presented in a restrained and dignified manner. It is possible the same group of hunters is depicted at two separate times, and that they are experiencing some kind of transformation.
This subject matter is also characteristic of the painter of the vase, who is known as the Amasis Painter. His style is distinctive, and more than 140 vessels have been attributed to his hand. Since eleven of these works are signed with the name of the potter ‘Amasis,’ the painter is identified as the ‘Amasis Painter.’ He depicted many scenes from daily life, as well as Dionysos. This depiction of a Dionysian gathering of hunters is an interesting example of the combination of two of the artist’s favored subjects.
Lekythos with Siren and Mourners
The central figure on this flask is a Siren. Modern viewers may hear the word ‘siren’ and picture a mermaid—as on the Starbucks logo--but in Greek mythology, Sirens had the head of a woman and the body of a bird of prey. These mythical creatures were known for their beautiful songs, which were irresistible to anyone who heard them. In early stories, including the famous Odyssey by Homer, the Sirens lured unwitting sailors to their deaths. The Sirens’ songs were thought to include promises of hidden knowledge, including information about the afterlife, and possibly a glimpse of the Underworld itself. For these reasons, the image of the Siren came to be associated with death and funerary customs.
In a funerary context, Sirens were not depicted as violent creatures. Rather, their beautiful, otherworldly music was employed to assist the souls of the deceased on their journey to the underworld. On this oil flask, the Siren sits on top of a grave marker, accompanying herself on a lyre. Two men in the company of their hunting dogs flank the tomb, mourning the deceased. The representation of the Siren on this vessel is a good example of how the ancient perceptionof mythical creatures varied depending on the context in which they appeared. This flask was made to carry the oils that were used during funerary rituals, and it presents a comforting image, not a frightening one.
Dinos and Stand with the Abduction of Europa
This round mixing bowl, which was used for mixing and serving wine, sits on a tall stand. It is decorated with a beautiful marine procession that that runs around the body of the vessel. Participants include Eros (who is the god of love), an elegantly dressed woman seated on the back of a Bull, and a group of women riding sea animals. It is a loose representation of the story of the abduction of the Phoenician princess, Europa, by Zeus, who transformed himself into a Bull and carried her through the sea to the island of Crete. One of Zeus and Europa’s children was Minos, who became a legendary king of Crete.
This depiction of the story is even more idealized than is typical; it is presented as a cheerful marriage procession. However, even in more standard representations, Greek artists did not present the harsh realities of mythological abduction stories. The violent and non-consensual aspects of the myth, which centers on the kidnapping of a young woman, are disturbing. Seen today, the simplistic, romanticized version of the myth presented here seems to further reinforce harmful and misogynistic points of view.
Troubling though stories like this are, it is nevertheless important to recognize that these myths were meant to explain different aspects of the Greek world. In the case of Europa, the story explains how Crete was settled. Such stories were not meant to be taken literally, nor do they condone violent behavior as socially acceptable. Nevertheless, attitudes towards women in ancient Greece were more restrictive than they are in contemporary American society. Women were excluded from many aspects of Greek life, such as athletics, and were frequently not given a voice in who they married. Stories represented on Greek pottery provide some insights into ancient attitudes toward women, and comparisons between the ancient and modern worlds are important, but also complicated.
Psykter with Battle of the Gods and Giants
A psykter is a bulbous vessel that floated in a large basin of water to keep wine cool. This psykter has been reconstructed from a number of separate pieces. Although large sections are missing, there is enough to determine that the scene depicted on the vessel is the fight between the Gods and Giants, which is also called the Gigantomachy. This major mythological battle began when the giants, primordial beings of great strength, attacked the gods and goddesses of Olympus.
On one side a female warrior carrying a shield and wielding a spear advances, pressing back her enemy. This is the Greek goddess Athena. She can be identified by her aegis, which is a breastplate of scales with the head of the fearsome Medusa in the middle. Athena is fighting Enceladus, the giant of Mount Etna, who is holding a shield with a bull-head motif. On the other side of the psykter, Poseidon lifts a large boulder, preparing to throw it onto the giant Polybotes. Polybotes is holding a spear in one hand and a shield with a five-leaf clover motif in the other. The story continues by noting that when Poseidon threw the boulder, it fell into the sea on top of Polybotes and became an island.
Carefully chosen moments of action join with other visual clues, such as Athena’s aegis, to help viewers identify the story. The motifs that decorate the shields on both sides of the vase may also aid viewers in understanding the story to a greater extent. Often, shield motifs were used to identify specific regions within Greece, and different designs originated from different areas. They might be giving clues to the characters in the story or to the patrons who commissioned the vessel. It is sometimes difficult to discern exactly what the shield motifs mean—but their detailed presentation and wide variety are intriguing.
IU class ARTH–A200: Storytelling in Ancient Greek Art (Spring semester, 2023)
IU class ARTH–A200: Storytelling in Ancient Greek Art (Spring semester, 2023)
Students: Adam Baron, Essay Biniam, Sophie Bruhn, Riley Byron, Emily “Remy” Caufield, Allison Fredenberg, Naomi Grossman, Madelyn Haley, Grace Harmon, Sophia Hayes, Caitlyn Kulczycki, Sanjana Penmathsa, Joel Robertson, Lauren Rohn
Instructors: Julie Van Voorhis (Professor, Art History Department) and Juliet Graver Istrabadi (Curator of Ancient Art, Eskenazi Museum of Art)