The blinding of Polyphemos

Funerary Proto-Attic Amphora with a depiction of the blinding of Polyphemos by Odysseus and his companions, Archaeological Museum of Eleusis, Greece
Photo by Carole Raddato, Wikimedia Commons

Hoisting high that olive stake with its stabbing point / straight into the monster’s eye they rammed it hard…and bored it round and round in the giant’s eye / till blood came boiling up around that smoking shaft…so the eye of the Cyclops sizzle round that stake!” Homer did not mince his words when he described the blinding of Polyphemos, the one-eyed savage man-eating monster that subsisted on a diet of Odysseus’ men. This powerful story from Book IX of the Odyssey was represented nine times in seventh-century Greek art, and nowhere with more success than on a Protoattic (ca. 650-625 BCE) neck amphora from Eleusis. This vase (now in the Archaeological Museum of Eleusis) was created to serve as a tomb marker but was eventually used as a funerary vessel for the skeleton of a ten-year-old boy.

A clay vase for every need

There was no limit to the usefulness of pottery and the industry created many different types of clay vessels to satisfy the requirements of clients. It must have been very rare indeed to visit an ancient Greek household that did not use amphorae to store liquids (wine, olive oil, milk, water, honey) or solid comestibles (cereals, nuts, legumes, salted fish). Young girls employed them to carry water for the bridal bath. Married women balanced them atop their heads when they went to the public fountain. Children entertained themselves with tiny clay pots. Men used a whole array of specialized and elaborately decorated vases during their night-long banquets. And when Hades called, mortals carried with them to the grave various vessels full of offerings, while highly decorated vases could be used as tomb markers or monuments for as long as man or nature allowed them to stay in place.

The gifted student

The Eleusis amphora is attributed to the so-called Polyphemos Painter. We do not know his name, so we have to use his most famous artistic creation to identify him. This is not the only accepted work by his hand; there was also a clay stand in the Antikensammlung Berlin that depicted a group of men holding spears. One of them was identified as “Menelas”, the Doric dialect form of Menelaus (king of Sparta and husband of Helen of Troy). Unfortunately, the stand was lost during the Second World War, but the unconventional use of the Doric dialect for a product of an Athenian workshop reinforces the theory that the Polyphemos Painter received his training in Athens (next to the brilliant Mesogeia Painter) but then established his business in the island of Aegina.  

A picture is worth a 1000 words

The Polyphemos Painter could draw on any number of sources of inspiration for his work. Since the ninth century BCE, the most popular choice was geometric patterns. Zigzags, meanders, triangles, and swastikas covered the entire vase in neatly organized horizontal bands. The human form appeared gradually; the earliest figures of humans and animals are usually associated with scenes depicting funerary practices, especially the prothesis (lying in repose) and the ekphora (funeral procession) of the deceased. But there were also scenes of shipwrecks, naval battles, chariot processions, horsemen, athletic contests, and hoplites that may reflect daily life at the time or depict events associated with the commemoration of the departed. As the centuries rolled on, though, narrative artists turned their attention to another rich source of material. The old abstract motifs lost their hold on the artist’s imagination in favor of episodes from Greek mythology and powerful poetic images from the epic poetry of Homer, Hesiod, and other popular (but now lost) authors. The Polyphemos Painter used both of these sources to create a masterpiece.

A red geyser of blood

The neck of the amphora dominates the composition. Odysseus inserts the fiery tip of the stake into Polyphemos’ eye. The hero drives his weight on it from above and bores it home “as a shipwright bores his beam with a shipwright’s drill”. The Cyclops cries in unimaginable pain; we cannot hear his voice, but on the amphora, his mouth is wide open, the very first display of emotion in Archaic pottery. Two men assist Odysseus (in the epic poem he was supported by four companions); they turn the geometric border into a weapon, as they grab the triple-line band at the top of the panel. Polyphemos holds a wine cup in one hand (to remind the viewer how the king of Ithaca got the monster drunk just before he blinded him), while with the other hand he attempts to wrench the spike from his eye as a “red geyser of blood” comes out. The artist collapsed successive moments of action into a new entity that served his narrative goal and addressed the limitations of his medium.

How to create a monster

The body of the amphora is decorated with characters from the myth of Perseus; the headless corpse of Medusa lies on its side, while her two sisters (Sthenno and Euryale) chase after Perseus under the watchful gaze of the goddess Athena. But the painter faced a serious problem. Hesiod didn’t describe what a Gorgon actually looked like and there was no conventional rendering to fall back to, so the Polyphemos Painter experimented and improvised. His Gorgons have heads that resemble the bronze cauldrons that were becoming increasingly popular as dedications to sanctuaries. Their eyes are large and slanted, their mouths are toothy and straight. One of the sisters has lions instead of hair, the other has snakes. We may think of them as ridiculous or improbable, but these monsters must have struck a genuine terror or abhorrence to an audience that had never really seen an image of a Gorgon.

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Study abroad in Greece - The Art of Ceramics in Ancient Greece - Mentor
Link to Study abroad in Greece – The Art of Ceramics in Ancient Greece – Mentor

Study abroad in Greece – The Art of Ceramics in Ancient Greece – Mentor

Upon completion of this module, the students will have a full picture of ceramics in ancient Greece from the Neolithic era up to the late classical period.

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