In praise of an Athenian kylix at the Ashmolean Museum

Thurs. 31 May 2018

I visited Oxford recently and in my wanderings around that mediaeval city I popped into the Ashmolean Museum for as much of a look-around as a couple of hours would allow. I was particularly interested in the galleries for antiquities and for modern western art, so they were the ones I focussed on; I was not disappointed, and this is the first of two News items I will post here featuring what I found to be among the most interesting and topical results.

Without further ado I present an ancient Athenian kylix dating approximately from 550 BC to 501 BC. A kylix is a drinking cup, and ones used for symposiums (drinking parties) were ornate, sometimes not only elaborately so, but also in cheeky and even risqué – or downright raunchy – ways. Behold this one, for example: such an item would be banned from British high streets and department stores, and would only be available from upmarket licensed premises. I suppose ceramic artists would be open to private commissions, and that this would probably be the only realistic way to acquire a piece such as this one. It would certainly provide a topic of interesting conversation at dinner parties today as much as it apparently did with the ancient Greeks. Perhaps a set of six smaller versions could be commissioned so guests could drink from their own cup.

Here is what the Ashmolean curators say about symposium cups and the particular piece at hand:

Joking and dancing
Certain symposium cups employed clever visual trickery to surprise guests such as large painted eyes or amusing scenes on the underside that became visible as the drinker raised the cup to his mouth [...]
1 Athenian black-figure pottery kylix (drinking cup), 550–501 BC. Symposiasts recline outdoors under hanging vines. The foot of the cup is shaped as a phallus and testicles.

My photos of related plaques elaborate on the symposium.

There is a lesson here, however, that speaks to our own time in a different way: moral campaigners of whatever orientation need to remember that humanity is much older than the birth of puritanism, and that cultures through the ages have celebrated eroticism and human physicality in all manner of ways. Let’s see, where did the Olympic Games originate from? Ah yes, that was ancient Greece as well, wasn’t it.

An aside on the Olympics now. The Games, founded around 776 BC, were contested by un-attired athletes. That is, naked. Today’s moralists would never have that, would they. And not only did the athletes compete naked, but it seems that outside of competition they got to know each other a little better during “the all-male nude workouts under the statue of Eros”, and especially at “the round-the-clock bacchanal inside the tents of the Olympic Village”. Shock! Horror! Well, nothing much has changed: see Another Olympic ‘scandal’ from the blog of Chris Ashford, professor of law and society at Northumbria University, to which I linked in my News item at the time of the 2012 London Olympics, More on the big O.

The history of nude workouts under the statue of Eros and bacchanals in the tents quoted above comes from The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games, by Tony Perrottet, published by Random House in 2004 (on naked athletes, images of relics testifying to it, and basic general information on the Olympics, see Wikipedia, Ancient Olympic Games). In his Introduction, Perrottet reveals the ancient Games were ended by Christian Roman emperors, just as the Puritans in Civil-War-era England were instrumental in the decline of “traditional rural festivals” because they promoted “gambling, drinking, and lewd behaviour”. I wonder if a recurrent pattern is emerging here regarding the new moralism and choreographed outrage against the licentiousness allegedly infesting the internet to the extent that no-one can go online without being slapped in the face by Dionysus himself reaching from the screen and his orgy of nymphs and satyrs.

Whatever is the world coming to; what would Plato and Socrates say? (A clue to the answer: it seems they liked the Olympics, ancient style.)

To have a virtual glimpse at what the Ashmolean has to offer in the way of ancient Greek history and culture, see Ashmolean Museum (Department of Antiquities: Ancient Greece).

Mistress Geo

Update (07 June): Here is the link to my follow-up item: Satan in the Ashmolean Museum.