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The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology

Mythology and religion

The most popular subjects of figural scenes on ancient Greek vases are mythical.

Some of these scenes depict episodes from the mythical tales, while others simply depict the gods and heroes who played a part in the myth. Mythical images were not simply pretty pictures to the Greeks, but played a central role in the visual culture. Just as we are bombarded with images from TV and the internet so the ancient Greeks surrounded themselves with images: they decorated objects used in everyday life, even buildings, with their gods and heroes.

Squat lekythos, showing represenation of Aphrodite ref. 52.3.2Some images of gods may have been used in worship of the gods; others might have served a patriotic purpose (as in the case of images of Athena). Of course these two uses were not easily distinguished: at Athens, for example, Athena was worshipped as a city goddess, so an image of her might fit well into a religious context while retaining its civic importance. Some of the gods might have decorated objects that were used for particular events: e.g. Aphrodite, the goddess of love and personifications of good things (Eukleia=Prosperity; Makaria=Blessedness) on a small lekythos (oil jar) that might have been a wedding gift ([ 52.3.2 ] ).

Usually the artists identified the participants in myth with labels (written in black on black figure, red or white in red figure) or attributes, e.g. Herakles? club on the Sam Wide cup ([ 47.8.1 ] ). Others are more ambiguous: which Greeks are fighting the Amazons on a small lekythos ([ 52.3.2 ]: see also [ 26.12.11 ] and [ 26.12.13 ])? According to preserved literature, Theseus, Herakles, and others fought the Amazons at various times.

All mythical scenes on Greek and even Roman vases could have been used as conversation starters, especially if they were used at parties. They would have been familiar with the stories known to us through the Iliad and Odyssey and other epics, as well as tragedies, and thus recognized the heroes on art works: a lamp decorated with Odysseus on ram ([ 50.4.25 ]); the Trojan prince Troilos on a Pontic amphora ([ 47.6.1 ] ); figurine depicting Leda/Swan ([ 34.10.23 ]); Medea and the golden fleece on a . Other stories not well known in literature - such as Herakles fighting a sea monster ([ 52.3.1 ]) and satyrs (e.g. and [ 37.7.5 ] and [ 50.5.2 ]) - are also suggested by the art. Other mythical characters such as Medusa, the snake-haired monster who would turn you to stone if you looked her in the face, would be that much more effective in the visual arts (see [ 2004.5.1 ] and [ 47.6.1 ].)!

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File last modified: 02 Aug 2012