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This blog has addressed many different deities of the underworld, but one of the most important figures of classical Greco-Roman underworld mythology has been left out. Persephone (or Proserpine to the Romans) was the queen of the underworld, the reluctant consort of Hades who ruled over a dark and mournful kingdom (as pictured above). However Persephone was one of the few figures in classical mythology who could leave the underworld. Like her mother Demeter, Persephone was a vegetation goddess—a deity that dies and is reborn with the annual growth cycle of plants.
Persephone was not just the queen of the underworld, but also the goddess of spring. When she emerged from the underworld, winter ended and life begin to grow and flower again. The vase below shows her returning with Hermes from the dark realm so that spring could once more come and winter’s darkness be banished for another year.
Since the last two posts concerning mollusks have also involved the classical Mediterranean world (where cuttlefish ink was used for writing/drawing and murex mucous was employed as a costly dye), I am going to continue the theme by presenting a gallery of octopus vessels from ancient Greece.
Most of these vessels are from the Minoan culture which flourished from 2700 BC -1500 BC or from the Mycenaean city states which were most successful between 2000 BC and 1100 BC (when an incursion of mysterious aggressive “sea people” apparently destroyed the great palace kingdoms). Such vases and jars were made by trained craftsmen and were prized throughout the Levant.
Because we only know tantalizing fragments about life in ancient Crete or in the Mycenaean palace states, the artifacts from that age have been subject to much conjecture and speculation. These lovely octopus vases have led some thinkers into believing that Minoans worshipped the sea and the creatures therein. Other scholars have conjectured that the ancient Cretans looked to octopus tentacles as inspiration for that characteristic Minoan architectural conceit, the labyrinth. The real symbolic or ritual purpose of the octopus motif remains unclear and probably always will. What is certain is that the vases, drinking vessels, and jars are quite lovely. The octopus motif originated around 1500 BC and by the Minoan period the so-called “marine style” of decorating pottery had become even more prevalent and diverse. Some ceramics were covered with fish, octopuses, dolphins, and crabs. In fact there was even a vessel covered with murexes. Perhaps these people simply liked octopuses and sea creatures. I can certainly understand that motivation!
In Greek myth, the Crommyonian sow was a great she-pig which lived on the Isthmus of Corinth and tormented travelers until the Athenian hero Theseus came along and killed her. In some tales the sow was a lone wild animal, but in other stories she had a human woman named Phaea associated with her: it is unclear whether this woman was young or old, lovely or haggard, a rude swineheard or a great sorceress. A few sources indicate she herself might have been a shapeshifter who became the pig. Whatever the case, Theseus slew her in addition to her sow. The Borghese Gallery has a very strange relief sculpture by Vincenzo Pacetti which portrays Theseus handling Phaea’s nude (human) corpse and looking perplexed.
It’s kind of unclear what happened here. Of all the children of Echidna, the Crommyonian sow seems to get the shortest shrift in art and literature. The sow vanishes from almost everything made after the fifth century BC. There are numerous red and black vases depicting Theseus fighting the great pig and/or her associated sorceress, so it seems like the story was important to Athenians. However the full version of this myth seems to have been lost in the mists of time and all we have are allusions and brief conflicting accounts [this sentence could apply to just about everything—ed]. Strabo asserts that the sow was the mother of the great Calydonian boar, whose mythical life and death engendered much strife, chauvinism, murder, and grief in the pantheon of Classical heroes. So perhaps, like Echidna, the sow found her greatest fame through her descendants.
I am going to go with Strabo and assume that the Calydonian Boar has a place in my musings about Echidna (being her grandson and all). The boar was sent by Artemis to obtain revenge on King Oeneus the winemaker who forgot to honor the goddess with ritual sacrifices. The monster destroyed the king’s vineyards and murdered his subjects, but it was only when Oeneus gathered the heroes of his age and sent them out (with his beloved son Meleager) to kill the boar that the virgin goddess obtained her true and terrible revenge. The machinations behind the story are long and complicated (and sad), but the story of the hunt of the Calydonian boar suits my Halloween theme for an entirely different reason. This was a favorite theme of sarcophagus makers who enjoyed sculpting beautiful armed nudes in the passion of the hunt. Beneath is a gallery of Calydonian boar themed sarcophagi from the lost classical world. The makers knew the story’s terrible fatalist tragedy (which I am not telling you) and they found it a most fitting subject for funerary art: