A woman passes a child from her arms to those of another woman; a man walks his pet; girls play on a swing; women wash themselves; in the countryside, fruit is gathered from a tree; two men wrestle for a sporting prize before a judge.
The painting onto vases of mundane activities like these by the ancient Greeks have received far less attention than depictions on vases relating to mythological stories featuring gods, goddesses and heroes like Odysseus and Achilles.
Hence the long wait for a book offering a comprehensive survey of Athenian daily-life scenes on vases between around 630 and 320 BCE.
There is so much that is reassuringly familiar about the depicted scenes of everyday life that it is tempting to conclude that the ancient Greeks were, after all, just like us.In their homes, wooden chests or large baskets stored clothing and blankets and – here’s a surprise – housework was not carried out by men.
One of the many illustrations in this book shows a woman stuffing a pillow with balls of wool but there are far more pictures of the home’s mancave (andron) where party banquets (symposia) took place; men, sometimes with female company, are shown drinking, singing, dancing and vomiting – so, you may conclude, nothing new there.
But the ancient Greeks were not just like us and there are aspects of their culture that show them representing and interpreting life in ways we – two and a half thousand years later – cannot share or readily understand. Life in ancient Greece was precarious by our standards but their religion did not promise a happy afterlife if a particular creed was followed. There was no church but certain rituals and traditions acknowledged existential threats, attributable to divine powers which could be assuaged by forms of animal sacrifice and various cult activities.
A chapter in the book, “At the sanctuary”, is devoted to this intriguing realm. Libations at an altar are frequently depicted and presumably they point to some tie between mortal and divine, between the living and the dead, but how participants felt they benefitted from the rite remains unknown.
The sacrificing of animals commenced with the sprinkling of water, a casting of grain and the cutting of a few hairs from the animal’s forehead.
After slaughter, the animal’s entrails were removed, examined for signs of the future and roasted separately; thigh-bones were wrapped in fat and burnt on the altar but the lean meat was eaten in a shared feast by the participants.
These and other procedures, as well as religious festivals, are painted onto vases but interpreting what all or some of it means is vexing because questions lack definitive answers.
There are thirty three colour plates and hundreds of illustrations in black and white to look at in detail.
The familiar and the strange vie for our attention and the author is careful when suggesting how best to interpret what is seen.
There is much about the ancient Greeks that is puzzling but the same will be said one day about aspects of our own behaviour and beliefs.
“A guide to scenes of daily life on Athenian vases”, by John H. Oakley, is published by The University of Wisconsin Press.