Scenes from the Odyssey in Ancient Art
The Ancient Greeks were incredibly imaginative and innovative in their depictions of scenes from The Odyssey, painted onto vases, kylikes, wine jugs, or mixing bowls. Many of Homer’s epic scenes can be found on these objects such as the encounter between Odysseus and the Cyclops Polyphemus and the battle with the Suitors. It is clear that in the Greek culture, The Odyssey was an influential and eminent story with memorable scenes that have resonated throughout generations of both classical literature enthusiasts and art aficionados and collectors. We present a brief slideshow of images that appear in Barry B. Powell’s new free verse translation of The Odyssey.
Aigisthos kills Agamemnon.
In Book 1, the “father of men and gods,” Zeus, speaks of Aigisthos who the son of Agamemnon had killed. He says, “men suffer pains beyond what is fated through their own folly! See how Aigisthos killed Agamemnon when he came home, though he well knew the end” (1.33-37). In this image, Aigisthos holds Agamemnon, covered by a diaphanous robe, by the hair while he stabs him with a sword. Apparently, this illustration is inspired by the tradition followed in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, where the king is caught in a web before being killed. Klytaimnestra stands behind Aigisthos, urging him on, while Agamemnon’s daughter attempts to stop the murder (she is called Elektra in Aeschylus’ play). To the far right, a handmaid flees. Athenian red-figure wine-mixing bowl, c. 500-450 BC. Photograph © 2014 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Penelope at her loom with Telemachos.
Telemachos (Odysseus’s son), stands to the left holding two spears, reproaching his mother. She sits mournfully on a chair, anguished by the unknown fate of her husband. Her head is bowed and legs are crossed in a pose canonical for Penelope. Athenian red-figure cup, c. 440 BC, by the Penelope Painter.
Telemachos and Nestor.
Telemachos, holding his helmet in his right hand and two spears in his left, a shield suspended from his arm, greets Nestor (the king of Pylos), who has no information about Odysseus. The bent old man supports himself with a knobby staff, and his white hair is partially veiled. Behind him stands his youngest daughter (probably), Polykastê, holding a basket filled with food for the guest. South-Italian red-figure wine-mixing bowl, c. 350 BC.
Odysseus and Kalypso.
The goddess presents a box of provisions for the hero’s voyage. The box is tied with a sash. The bearded Odysseus sits on a rock on the shore holding a sword and looking pensive. Athenian red-figure vase, c. 450 BC.
Odysseus, Athena, and Nausicaä.
Odysseus asks for the assistance of the Phaeacian princess Nausicaä while she and her handmaidens are bathing by a river. Nausicaa gives Odysseus directions to the palace and advice on how to approach Aretê, queen of the Phaeacians. In this image, the naked Odysseus holds a branch in front of his genitals so as not to startle Nausicaä and her attendants. On the right, near the edge of the picture, Nausicaä half turns but holds her ground. Athena, Odysseus’ protectress, stands between the two figures, her spear pointed to the ground. She wears a helmet and the goatskin fetish (aegis) fringed with snakes as a kind of cape. Clothes hang out to dry on a tree branch (upper left). Athenian red-figure water-jar from Vulci, Italy, c. 460 BC.
Maron gives the sack of potent wine to Odysseus.
Books 9 through 12 are told as flashbacks, as Odysseus sits in the palace of the Phaeacians telling the story of his journeys, from Troy, to the land of the Lotus-Eaters, to the land of the Cyclops. Here we see the beardless Kikonian priest Maron give a sack of wine to Odysseus by which Cyclops is overcome. In his left hand, he holds a spear pointed downwards. His crowned wife stands behind him with a horn drinking cup. The very long-haired Odysseus wears high boots, a traveler’s cap (pilos), and holds a spear over his shoulder with his right hand. To the far left stands a Kikonian woman. South Italian red-figure wine-mixing bowl by the Maron Painter, 340-330 BC.
Laestrygonians attack Odysseus’ ships.
Without any wind to guide them, the Achaeans row to the land of the Laestrygonians, a race of powerful giants. In this somewhat dim Roman fresco there are ten of Odysseus’ oared ships with single masts in the middle of the narrow bay, three near the shore, half-sunk, and a fourth half-sunk near the high cliffs on the right. Five of the Laestrygonian giants stand on the shore and spear Odysseus’ men or throw down huge rocks. A sixth giant has waded into the water on the left and holds the prow of a ship in his mighty hands. From a house on the Esquiline Hill decorated with scenes from the Odyssey, Rome, c. AD 90.
Kirkê enchants the companions of Odysseus.
From there, Odysseus and his men travel to Aeaea, home of the beautiful witch-goddess Kirkê. Shown here is a seductive Kirkê standing naked in the center, stirring a magic drink and offering it to Odysseus’ companions, already turning into animals—the man in front of Kirkê into a boar, the next to the right into a ram, and the third into a wolf. A dog crouches beneath Kirkê’s bowl. The figure behind Kirkê has the head of a boar. On the far left is a lion-man beside whom Odysseus comes with sword drawn (but in the Odyssey they turn only into pigs). On the far right, Eurylochos escapes. Athenian black-figure wine cup, c. 550 BC. Photograph © 2014 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The suitors bring presents.
Penelope sits on a chair at the far right, receiving the suitor’s gifts. The first suitor seems to offer jewelry in a box. The next suitor, carrying a staff, brings woven cloth. The third suitor, also with a staff, carries a precious bowl and turns to speak to the fourth suitor, who brings a bronze mirror. Athenian red-figure vase, c. 470 BC.
Death of the suitors.
This is the other side of the cup from Figure 22.1. All the suitors, situated around a dining couch, are in “heroic nudity” but carry cloaks. On the left a suitor tugs at an arrow in his back. In the middle a suitor tries to defend himself with an overturned table. On the right a debonair suitor, with trim mustache, holds up his hands to stop the inevitable. Athenian cup, c. 450-440 BC.
Melian relief with the return of Odysseus.
In this “Melian relief” (compare Figure 19.1), Penelope sits on a chair, her legs demurely crossed and her head buried in sorrow. The hatless Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, takes her by the forearm. He is in “heroic nudity” but with a ragged cloak over his arms and back. He holds a staff in his left hand from which his pouch is suspended. Behind Penelope is the beardless Telemachos, and at his feet probably Eumaios the pig herder, seated on the ground and holding a staff, his hat tossed back. The last figure on the left is probably Philoitios, the cow herder from Kephallenia. Terracotta plaque, c. 460-450 BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art Resource, NY.
Eurykleia washing Odysseus’ feet.
The old woman, wearing the short hair of a slave, is about to discover the scar on Odysseus leg. The bearded Odysseus, dressed in rags, holds a staff in his right hand and a stick supporting his pouch in his left. He wears an odd traveler’s hat with a bill to shade his eyes. Attic red-figure drinking cup by the Penelope Painter, from Chiusi, c. 440 BC; Museo Archeologico, Chiusi, Italy; Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.
Melian relief with Penelope and Eurykleia.
After the fight against the suitors, Eurykleia tries to persuade Penelope that her husband has returned. Shown here, the mourning Penelope sits in a traditional pose with her hand to her forehead and her legs crossed. Her head is veiled. She stares gloomily downwards, seated on a padded stool beneath which is a basket for yarn. The purpose of these terracotta reliefs, found in different parts of the Roman world, is unclear. Roman Relief, AD 1st century. Museo Nazionale Romano (Terme di Diocleziano), Rome; Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY.
Barry B. Powell is Halls-Bascom Professor of Classics Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His new free verse translation of The Odyssey was published by Oxford University Press in 2014. His translation of The Iliad was published by Oxford University Press in 2013. See previous blog posts from Barry B. Powell.
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