Eleusis Amphora

This ancient pot depicts not one, but two myths: Perseus slaying Medusa and Odysseus blinding the cyclops.

Eleusis Amphora (Proto-Attic neck amphora), 675–650 B.C.E., terracotta, 142.3 cm high (Eleusis Archeological Museum)

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We’re in the sanctuary at Eleusis, and we’re looking at a gigantic pot that was found with the body of a 10-year-old boy in it.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:15] This is a really unusual amphora. We’re coming right off the Geometric Period, when vases were mostly decorated with repeated geometric patterns and bands. But here we have large figures, and the telling of two fabulous stories.

Dr. Zucker: [0:31] These are the largest figures ever found on a Greek pot. The frieze on the neck of the vase tells the story of Odysseus and Polyphemus, the one-eyed cyclops. Down at the bottom is the story of Perseus and Medusa. The style is before the Attic black-figure was regularized.

[0:50] That was a style that developed in the later Archaic Period, when you had dark silhouettes of figures against the light natural ground of the clay pot. But here, you see a lot of experimentation.

Dr. Harris: [1:02] We have figures in that black silhouette, but we also have figures in outline. We haven’t quite settled into the typical black-figure technique that we come to know.

[1:12] Both of the myths that we see here have to do with sight. At the top, we see a story that we know from Homer of Ulysses, who’s on his way home from the Trojan War.

Dr. Zucker: [1:24] Otherwise known as Odysseus.

Dr. Harris: [1:25] He’s come to an island occupied by giants with one eye, called the cyclops.

Dr. Zucker: [1:31] He brings his men into a cave, which he finds really well-provisioned.

Dr. Harris: [1:36] It turns out that the cave is occupied by a cyclops named Polyphemus.

Dr. Zucker: [1:41] Polyphemus comes back to the cave and rolls a huge boulder to close the door. Only then does he notice that he has guests.

Dr. Harris: [1:49] He proceeds to eat several of Ulysses’ men for dinner, and then several more the next morning for breakfast.

Dr. Zucker: [1:56] Odysseus offers the giant some of his wine, and the giant gets drunk. What Odysseus has done in the meantime is to take his staff and to sharpen it, and he heats it in the fire. He plunges that staff into the eye of the giant when he sleeps. That’s the moment that we see here. We can see Ulysses, who is in outline.

Dr. Harris: [2:18] When Polyphemus next goes to roll the boulder away from the mouth of the cave and let his sheep out, Odysseus and his men have strapped themselves to the underside of the sheep.

Dr. Zucker: [2:29] Of course, Polyphemus doesn’t want to let these men out of the cave. He feels with his hands — now blinded — each of the animals as it exits. But he feels their backs, not their stomachs where the men cling.

Dr. Harris: [2:40] Ulysses and his men make it out of Polyphemus’ cave. We have another great story on the body of the vase.

Dr. Zucker: [2:47] On the extreme left side, we see that now-headless body of the Gorgon, Medusa.

Dr. Harris: [2:52] She’s been beheaded by the hero Perseus. Now, the Gorgons are three mythical monsters so ugly that just the sight of them kills.

Dr. Zucker: [3:01] This is the result of a task that he’s been given by a king. Perseus knows he doesn’t stand a chance. Lucky for him, both the god Hermes and the goddess Athena take pity on him. The problem is that if he looks at her, he will turn into stone. What he does is, with Athena’s assistance, he looks into the reflection of his shield and cuts off her head in that way.

[3:25] What the pot is showing us is the now-headless body of Medusa. Next, we see her sisters. They’re all chasing Perseus. Before we get to the figure of Perseus, we can just make out a little bit of the arm and face of Athena…

Dr. Harris: [3:42] Who’s protecting Perseus.

Dr. Zucker: [3:44] Then we see the remains of Perseus on this vase. We only see the black legs running. Stylistically, it’s really interesting. We don’t ever see the entire story. When we’re looking, for instance, at Perseus, we can’t see Medusa on the far side of the vase.

[3:57] Probably the most interesting and the most unique aspect of this painted vase is the way in which the surviving Gorgon sisters are portrayed.

Dr. Harris: [4:05] They’re horrifying. They have snakes for hair, snakes emerging from their shoulders, teeth like spikes, giant staring eyes, and deformed faces.

Dr. Zucker: [4:17] More than that, they’re looking at us. We’re in danger of turning into stone as spectators.

Dr. Harris: [4:23] Anyone in the 7th century, when this pot was made, would have known these stories.

Dr. Zucker: [4:28] We can see one leg forward, showing that they’re running. They might be running over the sky or running over the ocean. You have a continuous curvilinear band. In fact, there’s curvilinear forms over this vase as a whole.

Dr. Harris: [4:39] Which differs from the angular geometric forms that we’ve seen in the Geometric Period.

Dr. Zucker: [4:44] The heads look almost as if they’re doubled cauldrons — that is, bronze cauldrons that have been, like a clam shell, laid one atop the other.

Dr. Harris: [4:53] Cauldrons were used as gifts, as votive offerings to the gods. They were found frequently in temples. There’s an association here of the cauldron with the idea of seeing the divine, of being awed by the sight of a god.

Dr. Zucker: [5:07] That issue of sight links the scene below with a myth on the neck of the vase. In the case of Polyphemus, we have that giant being blinded. Down below, we have the idea that sight can have an evil power that can turn you into stone. Sight and blinding are critical here in both stories. One can only hypothesize what the original intent of this vase was.

Dr. Harris: [5:31] We see the repetition of some design elements that the painter has used in between the animal forms, in between the figures, and even painted on the body of one of Ulysses’ men. Even as we move from a strict geometric style to one that’s more figurative, the artist is still using even the form of the body as a surface on which to paint a geometric pattern.

Dr. Zucker: [5:54] You see that interest in removing any real blank space that had been so much more dominant during the Geometric Period. Here, you have the allowance of some space between the figures, but whoever the artist is has carefully placed some Orientalizing motifs within those spaces.

[6:11] That Orientalizing is the style that comes after the Geometric that is influenced by art from the East. This pot would have been made on a wheel. You can see the marks of the tools that would have been used to shape it.

Dr. Harris: [6:25] We should imagine, though, this vase much more brightly colored. What we see now that looks like a pale brown was likely a deeper red. The Gorgons would have been much more frightening, I think, than we see them today.

Dr. Zucker: [6:37] Nevertheless, it’s really remarkable how much of this vase has survived.

[6:40] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Eleusis Amphora," in Smarthistory, March 13, 2016, accessed May 23, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/eleusis-amphora/.