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Greek Libations from a Visual Perspective

Milette Gaifman

Yale University

The study of Greek religion in its various traditions has been informed by a variety of anthropological theories. For instance, Robert Parker’s Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion was inspired by Mary Douglas’ seminal book, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, or the so-called Paris School’s approach to Greek religion (e.g., Detienne, Marcel and Vernant, Jean-Pierre, La cuisine du sacrifice en pays grec) owes much to French anthropological studies. Using various theoretical models such studies seek to bring together evidentiary material, whether textual or material for the study of various aspects of ancient cult practices, myths and beliefs. At its core however, the scholarly field of Greek religion is, by and large, a text-based field. The standard textbooks that still dominate it (e.g., Nilsson, Martin P., Geschichte der griechischen Religion; Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical) rely firstly on texts, whereas archaeological finds are usually cited to confirm and illustrate text-based reconstructions and interpretations. This tendency is also seen in treatments of material evidence, for it is typically classified and interpreted in relation to the modern frameworks that are based on the interpretation of texts. Similarly, Greek imagery is taken as illustrative of textual evidence, as can be witnessed, for example, in the various entries of Thesaurus Cultus et Rituum. It goes without saying that textual evidence is of prime import in this field of exploration. However, if we seek to understand ancient religious experience we cannot take images as ancillary to texts, if only because ancient worshippers encountered their gods on daily basis in various visual representations ranging from large-scale statues to imagery on painted pottery.

This paper proposes that side by side with current methodologies, visual material ought to be used in the study of Greek religion not merely as illustrative, but as an informative source in its own right. It takes the libation as a case in point for such an approach. It offers a close examination of a well-known vase attributed to the Kekrops Painter's that is today Eichenzell, Germany, (Museum Schloß Fasanerie AV 77) that features Erichthonius and Athena handling libation vessels. Rather than consider how the vase’s imagery may illustrate familiar Athenian myths, the paper considers the ideas that the vase may articulate about the libation. Through close visual analysis it shows that the ritual is presented primarily as way to affirm relations between various parties. It then examines the consequences of this position by considering the possible use of the large krater in the performance of libations. Altogether the paper shows how ancient images not only articulated ideas about the gods and religious practices, but also shaped ancient religious experience.

Session/Panel Title

God the Anthropologist: Text, Material and Theory in the Study of Ancient Religion

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