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Eleusis Amphora

Eleusis Amphora (Proto-Attic neck amphora), 675-650 B.C.E., terracotta, 142.3 cm high (Eleusis Archeological Museum, Greece) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(lighthearted piano music) - [Voiceover] We're in the sanctuary at Eleusis and we're looking at a gigantic pot that was actually found with the body of a 10-year-old boy in it. - [Voiceover] 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. - [Voiceover] These are actually the largest figures ever found on a Greek pot. Lip frieze on the neck of the vase, tells the story of Odysseus and Polyphemus, the one-eyed cyclops, and down at the bottom, is the story of Perseus and Medusa. The style is before the Attic black figure was regularized. Now, 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. - [Voiceover] We have figures in that black silhouette, but we also have figures in outline, so we haven't quite settled into the typical black figure technique that we come to know. Now, both of the myths that we see here have to do with sight. With the top, we see a story that we know from Homer of Ulysses, who's on his way home from the Trojan War-- - [Voiceover] Otherwise known as Odysseus. - [Voiceover] He's come to an island occupied by giants with one eye, called the Cyclops. - [Voiceover] And he brings his men into a cave, which he finds really well-provisioned-- - [Voiceover] But it turns out that the cave is occupied by a cyclops named Polyphemus. - [Voiceover] So Polyphemus comes back to the cave and rolls a huge boulder to close the door, only then does he notice that he has guests. - [Voiceover] And proceeds to eat several of Ulysses' men of dinner, and then several more the next morning for breakfast. - [Voiceover] And Odysseus offers the giant some of his wine and the giant gets drunk. Now, what Odysseus has done in the meantime is to take his staff and to sharpen it and he heats it in the fire, and he plunges that staff into the eye of the giant when he sleeps, and that's the moment that we see here. We can see Ulysses, who is in outline-- - [Voiceover] 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. - [Voiceover] Now, of course, Polyphemus doesn't want to let these men out of the cave, so 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 clinged-- - [Voiceover] And so Ulysses and his men make it out of Polyphemus' cave, and we have another great story on the body of the vase. - [Voiceover] On the extreme left side, we see the now headless body of the Gorgon Medusa. - [Voiceover] She's been beheaded by the hero Perseus. Now, the Gorgons are three mythical monsters, so ugly that just the sight of them kills. - [Voiceover] And this is the result of a task that he's been given by a king, and Perseus know he doesn't stand a chance, but 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, and so what he does is, with Athena's assistance, he looks into the reflection of his shield and cuts off her head in that way. Now, what the pot is showing us, is the now headless body of Medusa. Next, we see her sisters and they are chasing Perseus, but before we get to the figure of Perseus, we can just make out a little bit of the arm and face of Athena-- - [Voiceover] Who's protecting Perseus. - [Voiceover] And 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. But probably the most interesting and the most unique aspect of this painted vase is the way in which the surviving Gorgon sisters are portrayed. - [Voiceover] They're horrifying. They have snakes for hair, snakes emerging from their shoulders, teeth like spikes, giant, staring eyes, and deformed faces. - [Voiceover] And more than that, they're looking at us and we're in danger of turning into stone as spectators. - [Voiceover] Now, anyone in the 7th century when this pot was made, would've known these stories. - [Voiceover] 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. - [Voiceover] Which differs from the angular geometric forms that we've seen in the geometric period. - [Voiceover] The heads look almost as if they're doubled cauldrons, that is bronze cauldrons that have been, like a clamshell, laid one atop the other. - [Voiceover] And cauldrons were used as gifts, as votive offerings to the gods, and they were found frequently in temples, so there's an association here of the cauldron with the idea of seeing the divine, of being awed by the sight of a god. - [Voiceover] Well, that issue of sight links the scene below with the 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, and so sight and blinding are critical here in both stories, and so one can only hypothesize what the original intent of this vase was. - [Voiceover] 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, so 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. - [Voiceover] We will see that interest in removing any real blank space. I mean, that had been so much more dominant during the geometric period, and 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. Now, that Orientalizing is the style that comes after the geometric that is influenced by art from the East. Now, this pot would have been made on a wheel, and you can actually see the marks of the tools that would have been used to shape it. - [Voiceover] 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, and so, the Gorgons would have been much more frightening, I think, than we see them today. - [Voiceover] Nevertheless, it's really remarkable how much of this vase has survived. (lighthearted music)