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Where the Sword Fails, Wine may Prevail

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Dionysus Amphora

Amphora, Art Institute of Chicago
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme
Click to Enlarge.

This week’s post will be brief, as I have been traveling for the holidays. In the spirit of welcoming the new year, we’ll have a look at a charming motif of Attic vase painting.

This large ceramic vase from the late sixth century BCE is called an amphora, and it would have been used to transport oil or wine – probably wine in this case, as it is adorned with a black figure painting depicting Dionysus, the god of wine. We are also shown Hephaestus, god of the forge, atop a lively ass, led by Dionysus and trailed by a satyr.

Hephaestus was born with a club foot, making him monstrous in the eyes of his fellow Olympians, including his own mother, Hera. Humiliated by her son’s deformity, she cast him from Olympus in fire and agony, as Hephaestus recalls in Homer’s Iliad: “Thetis saved my life / when the mortal pain came on me after my great fall, / thanks to my mother’s will, that brazen bitch, / she wanted to hide me – because I was a cripple.” (1)

The Greeks understood that it is neither wise nor safe to offend a god, even for other gods. Hephaestus used his powers to craft an ingenious and beautiful throne with invisible, unbreakable bonds. He sent it to Olympus as a gift for Hera, who received it with satisfaction. But when she sat upon it, she was immediately held fast.

Zeus commanded the gods to bring Hephaestus back to Olympus to free his wife, but their entreaties fell upon deaf ears. The mighty Ares, god of war, sought to force Hephaestus back, but was driven away by fiery brands.

Hephaestus Temple, Athens

Hephaestus Temple, Athens
Image (C) Barnaby Thieme

Then came Dionysus, bearing not a sword but a flagon of wine. After commiserating with Hephaestus over many cups, it was an easy matter to load the inebriated god onto a donkey and carry him back to Olympus in triumph.

This story was an enormously popular subject of vase painting, appearing on more than thirty black and red figured vase paintings. (2)

1) Homer, trans by Robert Fagles. Iliad. Penguin Classics. 1990. XVIII, 461-464
2) Harrison JE. Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Forgotten Books. 1908. p 375


Written by Mesocosm

December 31, 2011 at 2:05 pm