The symposium is widely recognized as a primary locus for humorous interactions in the Greek world, and the imagery on sympotic pottery reinforces complex, often comic readings (Mitchell, Halliwell, Lissarague). This paper seeks to examine a particular visual metaphor used in Attic vase-painting, and its use to comic effect in the symposium: the pet dog. A rough statistical analysis from the Beazley Archive shows that dogs are represented on well over 400 red-figure vases. At least half of these are depicted with athletes in the gymnasium, or otherwise accompanying boys or men, sometimes in explicit scenes of “courting”. Despite their prevalence, dogs have been underrepresented in scholarship, and when discussed exclusively, studies of imagery focus on categorizing the breeds of dogs depicted (Johnson), and scholars otherwise have simply read the scenes as illustrations of everyday life. I will argue that the seemingly inconsequential image of the pet dog in Greek symposium pottery is often, in fact, a bitingly funny metaphor for an aggressive, or foolish erastes, in pursuit of his eromenos.
There is a rich linguistic and literary history in ancient Greece relating dogs to immodest sexual activity, but also the word “dog” could be used as a bawdy pun. We know from expressions like kÊnodesme, (“infibulation”), that one of the slang terms for the male member was kÊvn, or dog (Henderson). It has also been noted that a term of abuse, kun≈piw, (dog-eyed) can signify shamelessness, in particular, sexual intemperance (Lilja). Thus, the image of the dog and its metaphorical significance would have been immediately recognized in the context of the symposium. Barringer, in The Hunt in Ancient Greece, has convincingly argued that the hunt is a metaphor for pederastic pursuit, and with this in mind, I will show that the image of the hunting dog in homoerotic scenes is therefore significant in itself.
The humor behind these terms was context-dependent, and so are the images of dogs on symposium vessels. The images are immensely varied: many show the ideal elite erastes accompanied by hunting dogs, mirroring their human counterpart, drolly suggesting the man is on the hunt for an eromenos. Images with dogs in “courting” scenes could convey an added humorous layer of meaning, implying the possible lascivious intentions of an erastes on the prowl. Pots that link a hunting dog with Eros, on one side, and with a shy, decorous young man on the other, as on an amphora by the Charmides Painter, show the hunting dog standing in for the erastes, who is otherwise not depicted: his presence is implied by the dog itself. Plastic vases in the shape of dogs’ heads, including several by the Brygos Painter, offer the performative possibility of comic interactions, if one used the drained cup as a mask. Many have noted the function of symposium vessels as entertaining, possibly comic props (Boardman). I argue that these images were used within the space of the symposium to relieve stress, sexual tension and to bind the group together. The subtle and multiple meanings of the dog as a metaphor allows for levels of comic relief, both self-deprecating for an erastes, but also empowering for an eromenos, depending on the image and the possible conversation. Discussing the images on the pottery before them, performing with the vases as props, or even just laughing together at the humorous imagery would have provided a much needed element of play and tension relief in the erotically charged atmosphere of the symposium.