Online Review: Book

Μελανόμορφα γαμήλια αγγεία από τις πυρές θυσιών στο ιερό της Ελευσίνας

Rebecca H. Sinos


By Konstantina Kokkou-Vyridi (Βιβλιοθήκη της εν Αθήναις Αρχαιολογικής Εταιρείας 267). Pp. 241, figs. 68. The Archaeological Society at Athens, Athens 2010. Price not available. ISBN 978-690-8145-81-8 (paper).

Ancient texts are silent about the pyres at Eleusis, which have been revealed by the excavations of the Greek Archaeological Society at Athens. Three pyres, the oldest dating back to the eighth century B.C.E., provide evidence of ritual burning of pottery, figurines, plaques, and other offerings just outside the walls of the sacred center of this sanctuary. In her 1999 publication of the material associated with these pyres (Ελευσίς: Πρώιμες πυρές θυσιών στο Τελεστήριο της Ελευσίνος [Athens]), Kokkou-Vyridi reserved four wedding vases for separate study. These four fragmentary black-figure vases, one loutrophoros amphora and three lebetes gamikoi, are her focus in this study of the black-figure wedding pottery from the sacrificial pyres at Eleusis. She begins by fitting together what can be gleaned from excavation records to demonstrate that the four vases belong to the material from Pyre Γ, located outside the peribolos wall north of the archaic Telesterion, with material dating from 560–480 B.C.E. In the second chapter, she provides a full description of the fragments; in the third, she identifies the date and maker of each vase. The final chapter discusses the significance of the presence of wedding pottery in the context of the Eleusinian pyres. At the end is an English summary of the book’s contents and an index. It would have been helpful to have also a list of the many illustrations found throughout the book.

Of the loutrophoros amphora, we have three fragments from the neck, inscribed with the potter’s name, Kleimachos, the sole pieces known by this maker. Beazley includes it in his list of vases (ABV, 85) but hesitates as to its shape. Kokkou-Vyridi compares its arrangement of figures in conversational groups with those of other loutrophoroi and establishes that these fragments must belong to a loutrophoros amphora (47–8). This is of interest because the potter’s inscription identifies the vase as belonging to the potter himself (ΚΕΜI ΚΕΝΟY). Here we have, as the author points out, more evidence associating the amphora shape with the bridegroom’s wedding baths, what Kleimachos must have intended for this ritual shape (51).

The three lebetes gamikoi are here attributed to the Swing Painter, the E Group, and the Kleophrades Painter (his workshop and probably the Kleophrades Painter himself [157]). The Swing Painter lebes features a wedding procession on one side (including Dionysos, Hermes, and Apollo), a frontal chariot and horses on the other. What remains of the base depicts Artemis, Apollo, Leto, Hermes, and another female figure, with an animal frieze below. The E Group vase on one side depicts a wedding procession accompanied by, on a piece now lost, a man hauling on his back a large krater; on the other side are standing male and female figures, apparently in conversation. This vase was repaired in antiquity. Of the Kleophrades Painter’s lebes gamikos, only two fragments remain, from the base. It features an abduction, here identified as Peleus’ abduction of Thetis, with an animal frieze below. All three attributions are based on scrupulous attention to the range of possible evidence, from details of figural drawing to shape, ornament, and subject. Each vase is drawn as is and with supplements to clarify the scene; there are ample photographs and close-ups of these vases and those with which they are compared to illustrate and justify the author’s claims.

The final chapter grapples with the difficult topic of the meaning of wedding pottery in the context of the Eleusinian pyres. The author isolated these vases from the rest of the material from the pyres in order to take up this question, and although her conclusions on such a subject will be controversial, there is much to gain from her discussion.

Here, the previously published black-figure wedding pottery found at Eleusis, some indeed in the Eleusinian pyres, enters the picture. Six loutrophoroi, another in red-figure, and three lebetes gamikoi supplement the vases published here to complete the picture. All are illustrated, but without a systematic list it takes determination on the part of the reader to assemble the scenes. Discussion of their meaning begins with a survey of evidence for the use of these wedding shapes, the range of shapes on which scenes such as those shown on these vases occur, the contexts in which they occur, and also, perhaps most interesting, the contexts in which they do not occur. The Nymphe shrine south of the Athenian Acropolis is an important point of reference. We learn, for example, that the warrior’s departure appears on lekythoi and other pots intended for the tomb; it does not occur on the loutrophoroi at the Nymphe shrine, indicating that it represents a subject inappropriate for the pottery at this shrine, the warrior’s death (183–95). Thus, when paired with a wedding procession, as on our lebes, it indicates a young man killed in battle before his wedding (178–84).

Many scenes are appropriate both to weddings and to the dead. At Eleusis, and particularly on these pyres, the connection to death comes to the fore (196–97); underlying the discussion is the assumption that the pyres are essentially funerary. The scenes on these vases, the author’s analysis suggests, support that interpretation. Since chthonic powers, linked to fertility, are powerful forces here on earth, too, wedding pots may attain a second meaning when “sacrificed” (217) in pyres as part of a ceremonial connection of mortals with death and the underworld. The author envisions these offerings accompanied by prayers seeking both protection for the dead and to bring well-being and fertility to the living, a combination comparable to prayers in Greek Orthodox churches today “for the living and the dead” (217–19).

At times, this seems a circular argument. What if we don’t assume that the pyres have a funerary nature? And even in the case of vases found in tombs, do they necessarily convey the imagery of death? I found myself wishing that the author could have considered Patera’s essay, probably too recent to be taken into account here (“Vestiges sacrificiels et vestiges d’offrandes dans les purai d’Eleusis,” in V. Mehl and P. Brulé, eds., Le sacrifice antique [Rennes 2008]), with the suggestion that the pyres belong more directly to the ceremonies of initiation.

We have here a dense and richly imaginative discussion with valuable information throughout, including precious comments on unpublished material from the Nymphe shrine in Athens. Its discussion of iconography will be of interest not only to specialists in the field of vase painting but to the ever-growing number of scholars who make use of these images to gain insight into ancient Greek life and ideology. In the end, though, these enigmatic offerings seem destined to remain among the mysteries of Eleusis.

Rebecca H. Sinos
department of classics
amherst college
amherst, massachusetts 01002

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1163.Sinos

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Use [fn]...[/fn] (or <fn>...</fn>) to insert automatically numbered footnotes.
  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Typographic refinements will be added.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Click "Save" to submit your comment. Please allow some time for your post to be moderated.