Greek Black-Figure Jug with Octopus
Period: Greek, possibly Sicilian, late 5th century B.C.
Material: Greek Ceramic
Dimensions: Height: 7.1cm; Diameter of Mouth: 5cm
Formerly in the Ex-Leo Mildenberg Collection, acquired in the mid 1960s.
Intact, with a hairline crack below the nadle at the rim.
Both the shape and decoration of this charming little vase are unusual and exact parallels are wanting. Considering its small size and rounded base, it may have been fashioned as a grave good for use in the afterlife. The clay fabric of the vessel is light reddish-brown and the decoration is all executed in black slip. An undulating ivy wreath circles the neck, and there are double bands around the vessel’s shoulder, mouth, and handle. A highly animated octopus, Octopus vulgaris, is the primary decoration, although it is almost hidden from view when the vase sits on its base. The head of the creature is positioned below the handle. Its eight arms, with coiled ends and clearly defined suction cups, spread radially across the rounded bottom as if gripping the surface. The depiction of the animal is harmonious with the vase’s shape, and the octopus seems to cling to the vase as it would to rocks or a pebbly sea bottom. When seen from the side of the jug, the octopus appears to be extending its tentacles out from what, in nature, would be its hide-away in the crevice of one of the rocky outcroppings commonly found along the shores of the Mediterranean. Incised lines delineate details of the head, eyes, and mouth. Added red color distinguishes the eyes and the unusual spiral added at the end of one of its tentacles. The octopus became a favorite subject of ancient Greek artists, who utilized its unusual biological form and symmetrical anatomy as a decorative device, perfectly adaptable to the curving surfaces of jugs such as this. They were popular motifs in the decorative repertory of Minoan and Mycenaean vase-painters, who developed what is known as the Marine Style. In addition, the creature is represented on gold foil relief ornaments from Grave Circle A at Mycenae.
In ancient Greek literature, the octopus makes its first appearance in The Odyssey when Odysseus, shipwrecked and clinging to a rock, is compared to one: Just as when an octopus is pulled from its lair, closely packed pebbles are held against its suckers, so pieces of skin from his strong hands were scraped off against the rocks; and the great wave covered him.
Descriptive references and accurate depictions of the octopus in literature and art, such as that painted on this vase, suggest that poets and artists must have had a first-hand knowledge about the appearance and behavior of this marine invertebrate. In antiquity, as today, the Mediterranean was a nearly tideless sea, and its gently sloping, rocky and pebbly beaches would have made it possible to observe the animal in shallow water. The octopus was a favorite food of the ancients, the best fishing grounds for it being located off the coasts of Thasos and Caria. It was admired for its sweet taste and was additionally thought to be an aphrodisiac.
Ars Antiqua, Auktion 2 (Lucerne, 1960) no. 142, pl. 59.
Harrington, J. Some References to the Octopus in Early Greek Poetry. Persephone 3 (1997): 81-86.
Wells, M. J. Octopus: Physiology and Behaviour of an Advanced Invertebrate. London 1978, pp. 8-9.