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The Iconography of Greek Cult in the Archaic and Classical Periods

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Robin Hägg

A Scene of Funerary Cult from Argos

Robin Hägg

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  • 1 Ρ Courbin, “Un fragment de cratère protoargien”, BCH 79 (1955) 1-49; J.-F. Bommelaer, “Nouveaux do (...)

1The French excavations at Argos, which started in the 1950’s, revealed the existence of yet another independent regional style of Orientalizing pottery. It was baptized the “Proto-Argive” style on the pattern of Proto-Attic, with which it seems to have been approximately contemporary (i.e., flourishing during the main part of the 7th century).1

  • 2 Courbin 1955 (supra n. 1); for the Eleusis amphora see G.E. Mylonas, Ό πρωτοαττικὸς ἀμφορεὺς της Έ (...)
  • 3 Bommelaer (supra n. 1).

2There is, however, no comparison between the two styles regarding productivity and variation, at least to judge from the very few Proto-Argive specimens known so far. The most remarkable piece from Argos is a large fragment of a krater with, curiously enough, the same motif as on the famous Proto-Attic amphora from Eleusis: the blinding of Polyphemos.2 The remaining vases,3 perhaps a dozen altogether, lack figure scenes, with the exception of a few fragmentary specimens and one single, well-preserved krater; the latter will be the topic of this paper.

  • 4 Bommelaer (supra n. 1), 229-246.
  • 5 J.-F. Bommelaer & Y. Grandjean, “Argos. I: Secteur δ, A; Place de Kypséli”, BCH 95 (1971) 736-745; (...)

3This krater, with the excavation number C. 26611 (Figs. 1-2), was found in 1970 in the south quarter of Argos, the so-called secteur δ of the French excavations.4 The tomb, no. 319, consisted of a small, ovoid pithos, in which was found the skeleton of an adult; the krater had been used as a lid to close the mouth of the pithos. The excavator, Jean-François Bommelaer, published several reports in BCH during the following years, 1971-72, treating both the entire excavated area5 and, in particular, the Proto-Argive pottery found in several tombs here.

Fig. 1. Argos. Proto-Argive krater C. 26611 from grave 319. Side A. Courtesy J.-F. Bommelaerand École française d’Athènes (neg. no. 63403).

Fig. 2. Argos. Proto-Argive krater C. 26611 from grave 319. Side B. CourtesyJ.-F. Bommelaerand École française d’Athènes (neg. no. 63404).

  • 6 Bommelaer (supra n. 1), 240-244.

4The shape and decoration of the krater are clearly developed from the typical Argive Late Geometric kraters of the late 8th century. One should note the high lip, the high ring-base and the stirrup handles. The decorative scheme conforms to that of LG kraters, although some Orientalizing elements have been introduced.6 The closely set wavy lines in a kind of “Flimmer-Stil”, executed with the help of a multiple brush, occur already in the latest Geometric phase. In the centre of the main decorated field, i.e., in the handle-zone, on side A is a figure-scene (Figs. 1 and 3) with a standing female holding a small pot against the side of a big, standing pot. The scene is framed by vertical cables. A trait typical of 7th century vase-painting, but not of the preceding Geometric, is that the other side of the vase, side Β (Fig. 2), has a different, less elaborate design. There is no figure scene in the centre of this side, but an abstract motif, possibly of vegetal or floral derivation. I have not been able to find good parallels or possible prototypes for it; it might have a symbolical meaning, possibly connected with the figure scene of the other side. In the central scene of side A, the female figure is standing on the lower of two horizontal lines, the upper one being interrupted at this place; her head does not quite reach to the upper delimiting line. She is bending slightly to the right, towards the standing big pot. She is wearing a long chequer-patterned dress with reserved white squares. The feet are small, seen in a narrow field delimited by elements hanging down from the hem of the dress (tassels?). The waist seems to have been slim, but here and above it some detail has got lost due to the breaking of the pot. It looks, however, as if the upper body was covered by an overfold of the dress. The arms are drawn as single, thick lines, one (the left?) outstretched and slightly bent over the standing pot, the other (the right?) strongly bent at the elbow and holding a smaller pot of elongated, slender form. The neck and face are done in outline technique, probably with a prominent nose. The hair, in solid paint, is smooth on top of the head and hanging down in braids at the back, forming the triangle well-known from Daedalic representations. It is possible that a diadem is intended. I am not sure whether the ear was drawn or not.

Fig. 3. Argos. Proto-Argive krater C. 26611, detail of Side A. Courtesy J.-F. Bommelaer and École française d’Athènes (neg. no. 41188).

5To the right of the woman is a tall, standing pot of slender shape. It looks very much like an amphora with two handles at the narrow neck and a comparatively wide mouth. Its pointed lower end goes through the upper horizontal ground line and rests on the second one. In the field, there are two dot rosettes flanking the lower part of the amphora and, in front of the face of the figure, a four-sided blob with two crossing, incised lines. This is reminiscent of the rosettes used as filling ornaments in much later, Corinthian, vase-painting.

  • 7 R. Tölle, Frübgriechische Reigentänze, Waldsassen 1964, esp. Pis. 5-6, 12, 18, 23-24.
  • 8 Bommelaer (supra η. 1), 245.
  • 9 Bommelaer (supra η. 1), 245, n. 37; D. C. Kurtz and J. Boardman, Greek burial customs, London 1971 (...)

6The female figure has its clear ancestors in Late Geometric vase-painting; however, whereas the women on those vases occur normally in rows, dancing or walking in a procession,7 this scene is an innovation: a single woman involved in a specific activity. Bommelaer identified the big pot as an amphora, the small one as an oinochoe.8 Since the amphora has such a narrow neck, one could not, in his opinion, have drawn a liquid from it; perhaps the woman is rather pouring a liquid into it, and we are reminded in a footnote of the Attic Geometric funerary kraters with the bottom pierced,9 generally thought to be meant to receive libations and funnel them into the tomb underneath. He ends his brief discussion of this problem stating (p. 245): “Il n’est donc pas impossible d’envisager l’hypothèse d’une libation que la destination même du cratère inviterait à considérer comme funéraire.” It should be possible to go beyond this extremely cautious position and suggest a slightly different interpretation.

  • 10 Bommelaer (supra η. 1), 245; P. Courbin, La céramique géométrique de l’Argolide, Paris 1966, Pis. (...)
  • 11 Examples in Courbin (supra n. 10), Pls. 43 and 100. Other specimens, unpublished, on display in th (...)
  • 12 See, e.g., illustrations in Bommelaer (supra n. 1), Figs. 1-2 (ovoid), and R. Hägg, Die Gräber der (...)

7Without exaggerating the degree of realism intended or achieved by the vase painter, I think we can say a few things about the two pots depicted. The bigger one is clearly meant to be an amphora and, as Bommelaer points out, its appearance conforms fairly well to that of Late Geometric and early 7th century Argive amphorae.10 Also the depiction of its pointed end piercing the ground line seems to mean, as Bommelaer implies, that it is a funerary vase placed on top of a grave as a monument. No example of this custom, so well known from Attica, has been attested in the Argolid; this need not worry us too much, howver, since such an arrangement has a very slight chance of survival — the Dipylon cemetery was a lucky exception in more than one respect. It should also be stressed that Argive Geometric has produced quite a number of pots of Dipylon monumentality which might well have been used as grave markers.11 It should, however, be stressed that the pot depicted cannot be a pithos, because of the general shape and the existence of handles — pithoi of the early 7th century were ovoid or cylindrical and lacked handles.12

8Seeing the degree of exactness in the depiction of the amphora, one may doubt that the smaller vase is correctly identified by Bommelaer as an oinochoe. With its slender shape and pointed bottom it would conform much better to a kind of alabastron, aryballos or possibly lekythos. Since it seems to have a handle, to judge from the small reserved spot (not commented upon by Bommelaer), perhaps an ovoid or piriform aryballos of Protocorinthian type might be the closest correlate to the picture. This, then, is a vase for oil, not for wine. To me, there is no indication that the small vase is being used for pouring into the amphora. If this is a libation, the liquid is poured onto the side of the amphora; consequently, if the liquid is oil, the action depicted may be that of anointing the amphora, i.e., the grave monument. I cannot, however, understand the position of the other hand, which is held above the amphora. Maybe it is a symbolic gesture with a meaning beyond our possibility of understanding, maybe the lady is simply manipulating the lid of the amphora, as Bommelaer suggested.

  • 13 Kurtz and Boardman (supra n. 9), 145-146.
  • 14 R. Garland, The Greek way of death, Ithaca & New York 1985: although the word ‘anointing’ does not (...)
  • 15 K. Friis Johansen, The Attic grave-reliefs of the Classical period. An essay in interpretation, Co (...)
  • 16 On the Late Geometric graves in the Kerameikos cemetery, the monumental vases occurred together wi (...)

9The custom of anointing the grave monument, usually a stele, is well known from our literary sources. This was part of the rites performed regularly after the burial, perhaps on the third day (ta trita, unless Kurtz and Boardman13 are right in assuming that ta trita was the ceremony directly connected with the burial itself), later on the ninth day, ta enata, and at the annual commemorative celebrations, ta eniausia. We have some descriptions of such ceremonies in tragedy, for instance in Aeschylus’ Choephoroi (84-164), in Sophocles’ Electra (284) and in Euripides’ Iphigenia Taurica (159-166). The offerings to the dead are choai, pourings of milk, honey, wine, oil and water, even the blood of sacrificial animals; there are also the enagismata, food offerings, which were usually burnt, but obviously also eaten by those present. A relevant, although late, description of the enagismata is given by Lucian in his work de Mercede Conductis (28): “They pour unguent over the stele, set a wreath on it, and then they themselves enjoy the food and drink which has been prepared.” The anointing of the stele is, as in this case, mentioned only in passing both by the ancient authors and by the writers of modern handbooks14, and I have not found any thorough discussion of this as a phenomenon in its own right. Modern authors seem to assume that the stele is treated as a representative of the dead, or as the dead himself, and that this is the reason why the stele is washed, anointed and wound with fillets. For instance, Friis Johansen15 derives the treatment, even worship, of the stele, from “the conception that the dead is personally present in the tombstone, that it is the resort of his soul, its hedos, as the cult image is that of the god.” In our case we have an amphora as a grave marker, not a stele, which is being anointed.16 Could it be that even a monument of this kind could be considered a personification of the dead and that it could be made the object of the same treatment? Or is it only the stone marker, originally a kind of menhir with its primitive symbolism, that was capable of such representation? Although I hesitate to present such a wild idea, I feel that this interpretation cannot be rejected a priori, but should be scrutinized carefully in the light of our knowledge of early Greek ideas and concepts.

  • 17 D. C. Kurtz, Athenian white lekythoi. Patterns and painters, Oxford 1975, passim.
  • 18 Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, 545 (1896.41): Kurtz (supra n. 17), 214 with PL 36.2.
  • 19 London, British Museum, D 65: Kurtz (supra n. 17), 202 with PL 18.3.
  • 20 Paris, Musée du Louvre, CA537: Kurtz (supra n. 17), 223 with PL 50.1.
  • 21 Madrid, Museo Arqueologico Nacional, 19 497: Kurtz (supra n. 17), 202-203 with PL 19.1.

10Finally, I wish to draw attention to some later depictions that may be thought to represent the same rite of anointing a grave marker. In the many pictures on Athenian white lekythoi of the 5th century, there are of course innumerable instances of lekythoi standing in rows on the steps of a grave monument;17 they certainly hint at the use of oil in the funerary cult, either for libations or for the anointing of the stele, or both. In some cases, however, a small oil vase, usually an alabastron, is brought to the monument or held against the stele in a way reminiscent of our Argive scene. The first example is on a lekythos in Oxford, painted by the Achilles Painter;18 the woman bringing the alabastron holds a vase probably to be called plemochoe in her other hand. The second is on a vase in London;19 here the alabastron is hold closer to the upper edge of the stele. A similar position of the alabastron is shown on a lekythos in Paris.20 The final example is less certain. The woman to the left on a lekythos in Madrid21 holds something in her hand very close to the upper edge of the stele. This has been interpreted as “perhaps a rolled ribbon”, while the woman to the right holds what is definitely a ribbon, which she will tie around the stele. I suggest this may be another alabastron being used for the anointing of the monument. However, it should be noted that in none of all these cases is there an attempt to depict the oil coming out of the vase.

11Does this mean that, as in many other cases, the artist has chosen to depict the ritual not at its climax, but in the moment immediately preceding the main action?

Notes

1 Ρ Courbin, “Un fragment de cratère protoargien”, BCH 79 (1955) 1-49; J.-F. Bommelaer, “Nouveaux documents de céramique protoargienne”, BCH 96 (1972) 229-251; R. M. Cook, Greek painted pottery, London 19722, 92-93.

2 Courbin 1955 (supra n. 1); for the Eleusis amphora see G.E. Mylonas, Ό πρωτοαττικὸς ἀμφορεὺς της Έλευσῖνος, Athens 1957.

3 Bommelaer (supra n. 1).

4 Bommelaer (supra n. 1), 229-246.

5 J.-F. Bommelaer & Y. Grandjean, “Argos. I: Secteur δ, A; Place de Kypséli”, BCH 95 (1971) 736-745; J.-F. Bommelaer, “Recherches dans le Quartier Sud d’Argos”, BCH 96 (1972) 155-228.

6 Bommelaer (supra n. 1), 240-244.

7 R. Tölle, Frübgriechische Reigentänze, Waldsassen 1964, esp. Pis. 5-6, 12, 18, 23-24.

8 Bommelaer (supra η. 1), 245.

9 Bommelaer (supra η. 1), 245, n. 37; D. C. Kurtz and J. Boardman, Greek burial customs, London 1971, 57-58 (with alternative explanation).

10 Bommelaer (supra η. 1), 245; P. Courbin, La céramique géométrique de l’Argolide, Paris 1966, Pis. 5-6.

11 Examples in Courbin (supra n. 10), Pls. 43 and 100. Other specimens, unpublished, on display in the Argos Museum.

12 See, e.g., illustrations in Bommelaer (supra n. 1), Figs. 1-2 (ovoid), and R. Hägg, Die Gräber der Argolis in submykenischer, protogeometrischer und geometrischer Zeit 1: Lage und Form der Gräber (Boreas, 7:1), Uppsala 1974, 145, Abb. 40-41 (cylindrical).

13 Kurtz and Boardman (supra n. 9), 145-146.

14 R. Garland, The Greek way of death, Ithaca & New York 1985: although the word ‘anointing’ does not occur in the general index, its importance is mentioned in passing: “There can be little doubt that although the wreathing, be-ribboning and anointing of the stêlê formed a major part in the rites, the tomb feast…” (p. 110); “In the eyes of an Athenian, a stêlê was much more than a monument erected to preserve the memory of the dead. Oiled, perfumed, decorated, crowned and fed, it was a focus of devotion and an object of adoration” (p. 119).
Grave stelai were sometimes washed with water, see Plut., Aristides 21 (the grave markers from the battle of Plataea); cf. W Burkert, Homo Necans. The anthropology of ancient Greek sacrificial ritual and myth, Berkeley 1983, 56-58. I thank Joe Day for these references.

15 K. Friis Johansen, The Attic grave-reliefs of the Classical period. An essay in interpretation, Copenhagen 1951, 69.

16 On the Late Geometric graves in the Kerameikos cemetery, the monumental vases occurred together with stelai, not as the sole grave markers.

17 D. C. Kurtz, Athenian white lekythoi. Patterns and painters, Oxford 1975, passim.

18 Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, 545 (1896.41): Kurtz (supra n. 17), 214 with PL 36.2.

19 London, British Museum, D 65: Kurtz (supra n. 17), 202 with PL 18.3.

20 Paris, Musée du Louvre, CA537: Kurtz (supra n. 17), 223 with PL 50.1.

21 Madrid, Museo Arqueologico Nacional, 19 497: Kurtz (supra n. 17), 202-203 with PL 19.1.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1. Argos. Proto-Argive krater C. 26611 from grave 319. Side A. Courtesy J.-F. Bommelaerand École française d’Athènes (neg. no. 63403).
URL http://books.openedition.org/pulg/docannexe/image/201/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 485k
Légende Fig. 2. Argos. Proto-Argive krater C. 26611 from grave 319. Side B. CourtesyJ.-F. Bommelaerand École française d’Athènes (neg. no. 63404).
URL http://books.openedition.org/pulg/docannexe/image/201/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 516k
Légende Fig. 3. Argos. Proto-Argive krater C. 26611, detail of Side A. Courtesy J.-F. Bommelaer and École française d’Athènes (neg. no. 41188).
URL http://books.openedition.org/pulg/docannexe/image/201/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 433k

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