August 2020

Janiform head-kantharos of the early 5th c. B.C. from Akanthos

Janiform head-kantharos of the early 5th c. B.C. from Akanthos. © Greek Ministry of Culture - AMTh

This particular kantharos (wine cup with vertical high handles) comes from a rich grave of the cemetery of Akanthos at Chalkidiki and it will be on display at the temporary exhibition of the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki “From the South to the North: colonies of the Cyclades in the Northern Aegean” until the end of the month.

This is a luxury vessel produced by an attic workshop and attributed to the Syriskos Painter. Its main body is composed of two plastic heads that are conjoined at the back. So, on the one side, one sees a white woman with beautiful, delicate features, whereas on the other side, one faces a man with a broad nose, full lips and dark flesh, characteristics that denote his African origin. On the cup’s neck there is a branch of ivy, the sacred plant of Dionysus, which alludes to wine drinking and to the symposium’s ambience.

It comes as a surprise the humoristic content of the inscription engraved at some time on its rim and in a manner that gives the impression that the two figures are presenting themselves. So, on the woman’s side one reads: “I am Eronassa, most beautiful”, whereas on the man’s side it says: “I am Timyllos, as handsome as this face”.

The inscription’s meaning as well as the choice of these specific iconographic models are of particular interest and they are better understood in the use context of the vase, the banquet (symposium). Around the end of the 6th c. and the beginning of the 5th c. BC, human-head vases came into fashion in Attica. They were mainly oinochoai and kantharoi, that is vessels used for pouring and drinking wine at the symposia. In particular, in the case of the janiform kantharoi the potters represented plastically heads of a white or a black woman, a black man, a Satyr, Hercules or Dionysus and they often completed the decoration with motives of the Dionysiac repertory. Although there is a variety of head combinations, there is however an expressed tendency of contrast based on sex or/and race, as it is the case with the Akanthos kantharos.

Given that the iconographic themes are inspired by the symposium setting, the woman figure has been interpreted as a prostitute (etera) and the African man as a slave, who are both directly linked to the wine serving and the entertainment of the banqueters. In this way, the symposium vessels are “personified”, they acquire anthropomorphic features and the form of the servants who handle them. Nonetheless, the representation of the African man remains a choice hard to explain. Ancient Greeks were familiar with African people, the “Aithiopians” as they used to describe them, and therefore they depicted them with great realistic vigor in their artistic production. Although these artistic images of otherness offer us unique occasions to view their perceptions on racial identities, their connotations and meanings are case specific and far from evident. Therefore, in the Akanthos vase the exotic origin of the servant and his grotesque depiction with protruding teeth as well as the playful character of the inscription should be perceived in the cheerful and amusing environment of the symposium.

Date: 480-470 BC
Dimensions: height 19cm, rim diameter 12.5cm.

You may see the exhibit at the temporary exhibition “From the South to the North: colonies of the Cyclades in the Northern Aegean”.