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The Art of Libation in Classical Athens

April 2019 (123.2)

Book Review

The Art of Libation in Classical Athens

By Milette Gaifman. Pp. x + 186. Yale University Press, New Haven and London 2018. $65. ISBN 978-0-300-19227-8 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Libation was a ritual central to the lives of all Athenians. In her book, Gaifman uses the caryatids from the Erechtheion to frame her discussion and to emphasize the centrality of libation in fifth-century B.C.E. Athens. Most of our visual evidence for libations is on figure-decorated vases, but the caryatids, each of whom held a phiale at her side, were a constant presence on the Acropolis, seen by all who participated in rituals there, as were the women carrying phialae on the Parthenon frieze. That act of pouring a liquid onto the ground or onto an altar was presumably familiar to everyone in fifth-century Athens, but the point of it—particularly when gods make libations­—continues to puzzle us. The act itself and its implications are the focus of this book, the title of which, “The Art of the Libation,” has the double meaning of art inspired by libations, mainly vase painting and sculpture, and the performative art of libations themselves.

Gaifman’s book is not a traditional iconographic study focusing on images as images and providing an overview of the many forms they take, nor is it an attempt at an “empirical reconstruction” (4) in which images provide accurate representations of reality, nor does it provide a review of textual evidence for libations except in a few specific instances. Rather, the focus is on images of libations as visual responses to complexities of interpersonal relationships and relationships with gods. The performance of the act is key, and it is in that performance that we should look for its meaning. Her particular emphasis is on the interactive nature of painted pots and their demand for active engagement.

The discussion is organized around four chapters: chapter 1 deals with libations at sacrifices, chapter 2 with libations at symposia and departure scenes, chapter 3 with libations in a funerary context, and chapter 4 with gods making libations. The author has chosen some 40 Attic red-figure and white-ground vases from the fifth century B.C.E. to demonstrate her thesis. All of the vases are well illustrated with outstanding photographs. Some images of sculpted reliefs complement the scenes on vases.

The ambiguity of images—which the author terms “deliberate vagueness” (4)—on vases is a theme repeated with satisfying regularity throughout the book. There are many questions that we simply cannot answer. For example, is a libation scene with a warrior a departure scene or a celebration of a return? Do any of the figures on white-ground lekythoi represent the dead? Why do gods offer libations? The author reviews current scholarship that addresses many of the more ambiguous issues but then concludes that, rather than pursue such questions, we should consider the vases and their scenes as they interacted with their original audiences. So, we should consider the shape, how it was used, and how we have to manipulate the vase to see the images properly. For figures depicted, we should consider the relationships between them as indicated by their gestures and gazes, and we should look for indications of ties and hierarchies in relationships.

In libation scenes the primary subject is the interaction among mortals, among gods, and among gods and mortals. The extended phiale is a visual metaphor for nonmaterial relationships. A particularly powerful illustration of this thesis is on a stamnos in London (fig. 2.14) with two “departure” scenes that mirror each other. In one, a bearded warrior grasps the hand (dexiosis) of an older man while a woman stands behind him holding a phiale and a pitcher; on the other side a young warrior holds out a phiale toward a woman who pours from a pitcher as an older man observes. The images together suggest that the act of hand shaking and the act of libation are analogous, both serving as physical markers of relationship and commitment.

The discussion of a scene on the outside of a pyxis in Berlin (fig. 4.8) demonstrates well the author’s approach to complex imagery. She makes the point that one has to turn the vase to see the images of Iris, Hera, and Nike approaching Zeus, who pours a libation onto a bloodstained altar. The author carefully explores a range of possible meanings and ultimately concludes that the imagery explores gender relationships among the gods, which parallel relationships between mortals.

There is much merit in this approach, but it also has hazards, particularly the danger of reading too much of our own preconceptions into the imagery and assuming that the ancient viewer would have seen it the same way. Thus, for example, a sympotic scene on a cup in the Louvre (fig. 2.7), in which two youths recline on a couch, is described as a scene of seduction though the similar ages of the two make that unlikely. The line between friendship and eroticism on pots is another area of ambiguity that must be treated with care.

The relatively intact nature of most of the pots discussed implies that they were found in tombs rather than in domestic contexts, and the majority of those tombs were almost certainly in Italy, mostly in Etruria. They may have been used prior to deposition, but not in Athens. While the vases were certainly made in Athens, and the choices of shape, image, and the disposition of figures on the surface of a vase were decisions made by the potter and/or painter and reflect his or her perceptions, the market was elsewhere. Who, then should we imagine is interacting with the pots? Questions about audience are complex and clearly are beyond the scope of this book, but they should at least be acknowledged.

Gaifman’s book will be valuable for students of religion, vase painting, and Greek culture in general. Jargon-free prose makes the text accessible to specialists and lay readers alike. With her careful analyses of vases, the author asks new questions that require us to think about the objects and images in new ways. Whether we accept every detail or not, her enthusiastic and courageous expansions of traditional descriptions and interpretations of scenes are invaluable.

T.H. Carpenter
Ohio University

Book Review of The Art of Libation in Classical Athens, by Milette Gaifman

Reviewed by T.H. Carpenter

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 2 (April 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1232.carpenter

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