The stories told in myths from archaic Greece are rich in description, and full of information that may tell us what societies from the period were like. A lot of our knowledge about the importance placed on myth in these societies is derived from the physical evidence, which we can still see today. A great deal of this evidence is found in pottery, due to its unusually durable properties, in particular, painted ceramics may show greater detail.
From the period of about 1200B. C. till about 800B. C. ommunities were becoming increasingly stable, due to the settlement of farmers for arable farming in preference to the nomadic farming methods previously used. These newly forming communities meant institutions such as society, religion and politics became more and more commonplace. In these areas of escalating social complexity, iconography was an important medium for the imparting of stories, myths and history, all tied together.
Painted pottery began displaying figures as well as geometric shapes, from the early to middle geometric periods – about 900B. C. to 760B. C. – obviously with regional variations. These figures, both humans and animals, were at first not represented naturalistically, but rather as more complex geometric shapes. They first appeared on large vessels, such as amphorae or kraters. Some of the earliest examples were found in an Athenian cemetery, and are thought to have acted as grave markers, rather than as a container for the dead. Military themes are commonly seen on these kinds of pottery, as there was a widespread interest in heroes and their world.
These violence based images, often depicting mythical heroes shows how myth was important to individual characters in archaic society, as there seems to have been an attempt to directly trace family history and name particular heroes, such as men who fought at Troy, as ancestors of the family who painted, or commissioned the pot. These patrons of the pots may have imagined a glorious death would ensure arrival at the underworld filled with heroes.
The first scenes that are certainly based on myth occur early in the 7th century B. C. They are from the protocorinthian style and depict well-known mythical scenes including the suicide of Ajax, the rape of Helen, battles with centaurs, and the episode with Bellerophon and the chimera. There are many possible reasons for the appearance of myths in pictorial format. Pictures were becoming useful as a medium for storytelling, and there is an argument that an increased awareness of the Mycenaean past and its heroic stories led to a trend of illustrating these stories through painted pottery.
There may also have been many other, possibly even more common, artistic forms, such as woodcarving, but due to the perishable nature of such works, we cannot investigate these areas. On one wine jug, the neck depicts a scene with a shipwreck, and a single figure standing on the top of the up-turned ship, with his comrades swimming among the fish. 1 This is an incredibly close parallel to the story in book12 of Homer’s Odyssey, when Odysseus is the sole survivor of a hurricane at sea. On some other vessels, pairs of warriors are depicted, not just fighting together, but actually physically joined.
This seems to derive from a story of Homer, in which there is Siamese twins, Aktorione and Molione, who were killed by Nestor before the Trojan War. Both these kind of motifs indicate to us that myth was extremely important in archaic society. On a social object, such as a wine jug, the pictures depicted will be seen by many people and so, it is safe to assume that only themes of importance to members of the society would be chosen as appropriate for painting. A krater from around 735B. C. depicts a fully manned ship, and a man and woman apparently about to get onboard.
The man is holding the woman’s wrist, so it seems it may be a forced abduction. This means there may be several mythical possibilities. It may be showing Paris seizing Helen and taking her to Troy, Jason taking Medea, or Theseus leading Ariadne from Crete. The latter seems most probable, as the woman is holding a garland or wreath or some kind, which may well be the magical “Circle of light” with which Ariadne lit up the labyrinth at Knossos. This again shows the importance of myth in archaic society, as the detail shown in the picture almost certainly originates from some myth or fantasy.
The most commonly represented myth in archaic pottery is probably the Polyphemos myth from book nine of the Odyssey. This is the story about the Cyclops, huge creatures with only one eye who lived in caves. On Odysseus’s journey he and his crew arrive on the island on which Polyphemos lives. In an attempt to become friendly with the Cyclops, Odysseus brings him some wine, but instead of accepting it graciously, he eats two of Odysseus’s men and traps the rest of the men in his cave with a boulder to block the entrance.
He then eats two more men for breakfast and goes out on his shepherding duties. While he is gone, Odysseus takes a large staff and sharpens it to a point, and conceals it under sheep dung. After Polyphemos eats another two men for his dinner, Odysseus gives him lots of wine. Polyphemos asks the name of the man who is being so kind to him, and Odysseus tells him his name is Nobody. When he falls asleep, Odysseus and his companions thrust the stake into his eye after heating it the point in the fire.
This makes Polyphemos shout for help, but when help arrives outside the cave he shouts “Nobody is attacking me” so the other Cyclops assume he is mad, and leave him alone. Polyphemos then comes up with the plan to catch the men by rolling the boulder aside, and sitting in the cave’s entrance. The men manage to get past him by holding on to the bottom of the sheep, and so escape safely. They also steal the sheep, to get revenge. Parts of this myth are represented on many pieces of painted pottery, and it is easy to understand why.
It is the triumph of human over this terrible creature that would have appealed to so many Greeks of the time. Stories such as those told by Homer are likely to be the result of a long tradition of oral poetry, so would have been recited at social events such as symposiums. The inclusion of wine and drunkenness in this particular story would have made it even more appealing for performance at a symposium. For the same reason, the representation of such scenes on pottery is commonplace.
The painters who decorated vessels, such as wine jugs, used for institutional drinking purposes were often inclined to illustrate such popular stories through their own means. A good example of this is seen on the Polyphemos amphora from a cemetery in Eleusis. This vessel is shown below, first in detail, then in full. 23 Its themes are concerned with the loss of senses, as its body shows scenes thought to represent Medusa and her sisters. There is a headless figure and a man running away from two monstrous looking figures.
It is thought the man is Perseus, after beheading Medusa, running away from her sisters, with Athena standing between to protect him. It is thought that this scene was chosen over the typical beheading of Medusa, or the flee of Perseus holding the head, so that Medusa could be shown defeated, but also so that some kind of idea could be obtained about what she was like in life, by the portrayal of her sisters, described by Hesiod as “great fear”. The beheading of Medusa follows the theme of loss of all senses. The neck however, shows a large seated figure with a wine cup in his hand, and four men driving a stake into his eye.
This represents Polyphemos, as so many other pieces of painted pottery also do, being blinded by Odysseus and his companions. Again, the theme of loss of sense is important. This particular amphora was found with the body of a boy who was about age ten, and was the only painted piece in the cemetery. All other juvenile burials were found with unpainted pieces that indicate there was something special about this boy. It could be that this boy was blind, or had lost one of his senses. This would mean that myth was used to represent reality and human life through fantastical creations.
This sort of use of myth shows how important it was in archaic society, as nothing could be more important than real life, whether through real reference, or reference to distant analogies. The first known representation of Polyphemos on painted pottery occurs on a krater. These were the vessels used to mix wine with water at a symposium, and so were often the centre of social attention, and hence the most important. The fact that myths are often shown on such important pieces of pottery indicates how important myth was in archaic society, as it was often deliberately the focus of social interactions.
This krater was painted by Aristonothos, which we know from the fact that he signed it. It is one of the first signatures in Greek art, and shows that writing was becoming increasingly widespread. The picture shown is of Odysseus and his four comrades driving the pointed stake into the eye of Polyphemos. There is also a pile of cheese, on which Polyphemos is lying, which makes it almost certain that Aristonothos had heard, or even read, the word of Homer, as the interior of the cave is described as having “baskets laden with cheeses”.
This picture is shown below. 4 Another theme from this myth commonly represented on painted pottery is that of the escape of Odysseus and his men through the use of Polyphemos’s sheep, by clinging to their bellies, or covering themselves in sheepskin. This deception of the unknown, the mythical beast, shows the triumph of human, and hero, over all the odds, making it an important theme in a society that may have been just beginning to understand the magical Mycenaean past, and develop their own myths and stories.
As well as the extremely important myths from Odysseus, there are many representations of the stories of the Iliad. 5 One Corinthian aryballoi depicts an armed warrior and charioteer riding in a chariot from left to right. The name Patroklos is written in the space next to the warrior. He is a key character in the Iliad, as well as another text called the Kypria, which describes the early part and the antecedents to the Trojan War. The Iliad probably inspired this ceramic, as it is too coincidental to be a work of imagination.
In the Iliad, 16. 218 Patroklos takes Achilles’ armour his charioteer Automedon, and the one mortal and two immortal horses. The only discrepancy between this story and the painting is that the painting only shows two horses, but this is a minor fault, and it is still more than likely that the picture was a direct illustration from the Iliad. Another piece of painted pottery that gives us an indication of the importance of myth in archaic society is a large plate found in Rhodes from the end of the 7th century B. C. , shown below. 6
The picture on this piece is of two warriors duelling over the fallen body of a third. The characters are named as Menelaos, Hektor, and the fallen man as Euphorbos. The myth this originates from is again from the Iliad, 17. 59. The Trojans Euphorbos and Hektor kill Patroklos, in his hour of triumph. Menelaos then kills Euphorbos in revenge, and though Homer does not describe an encounter between Menelaos and Hektor, the artist of this piece presumably wants to show Menelaos as a brave, strong warrior, about to defeat Hektor as well.
The body of Euphorbos lies distinctly closer to Menelaos than Hektor, indicating the former as the future champion. This is in a way, an exaggeration of the myth, which shows that to the painter, and patron, of this piece, mythological and heroic acts are extremely important. The sheer number of mythical scenes and characters depicted on pieces of painted pottery is a good enough indication of the importance of myth in archaic society. The use of these ceramics in institutionally, and socially, based events; such as symposiums is another suggestion of the fact that myth was a central issue in society at the time.
The attention paid to detail, and the correlation between such pictures, and famous myths, such as those of the Homeric poems, make it difficult to deny the value placed on myth by both artists and patrons. To own a piece of pottery decorated with a heroic figure seems to have been some kind of status symbol, perhaps suggesting heroic family traits. All these factors, when discussed, show that myth was possibly one of the most important and commonplace traditions in archaic society.