Semiotics Research: Ancient Greek Ceramics
by Natalie Iman
Ask almost anyone born Generation Z and they will most likely tell you that they read the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan at some point during their childhood. This series, which quickly blew up and expanded outwards into numerous spin off series, was a story based off of the Greek mythologies, specifically those dealing with the Demigod Perseus. Though this series had a major influence on kids today in terms of learning the mythologies, these stories have been passed down through the centuries primarily because of how effectively they conveyed society. Aside from the appeal of the fantastical elements, each story’s structure was carefully constructed to reinforce societal norms; through the colorful and exciting stories of their gods and goddesses, the ancient Greek society was able to effectively inspire a sense of loyalty, morality, and strength within the people; it was these icons and images that helped people give their lives purpose and explain natural and societal phenomena.
Growing up, I gravitated towards the Percy Jackson series for a number of reasons. The first is that I viewed fantasy novels as an escape from the boring lulls of ordinary life. It allowed me to immerse myself in a world full of endless possibility, and it allowed me to unleash my creative side to the fullest extent. I was always daydreaming about what my life would be like if I lived in a society like that. What I did not know was that I actually did. As I got older, I slowly started to understand how these crazy stories came together–their purpose transitioned from a hazy, unclear conglomerate to a concrete, interwoven conversation about how a society functions. Soon I became obsessed with the Greek culture for what it was and not just because of some novel; the amount of breathtaking expression and complexity that came out of this civilization is truly fascinating, and because of its age, there is always more to uncover.
The first and most important thing to understand about the Greek mythologies is that they are extremely complex. The definition of myth is expressed as “a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events” (“Myth”). The Greek mythologies are a system of tales and legends that explained many different facets of Greek society, and they were originally meant to be told by word of mouth (Cartwright). They all are based around a central plot line, but because of their age, there are many conflicting versions. Regardless of the fact that there were not many other ways of relaying these stories, this orality allowed for a much more personal and vibrant touch that not only captivated the audience but convinced them of each myth’s veracity. Though this element of storytelling that was so vital to this process brought an element of embellishment to each story, it has been suggested that there was a specific guide to telling each tale (Cartwright). People from all across the centuries and the world have dedicated their lives to studying these stories, and the fact that most of them boil down to one specific plot line is evidence that they were told systematically and with genuine faith.
Though these stories continued to be recounted orally, this component of myth-telling in the early stages of Greek society soon became obsolete with the emergence of written work from scholars like Homer and Hesoid in the 8th century BCE (Cartwright). Famously recounted by historian Herodotus, Hesoid and Homer were two famous authors that were responsible for establishing the baseline stories of the Greek Gods and Goddesses. While Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey include the Olympic gods and goddesses, he depicts them in a less iconic light. Hesoid’s Theogony depicts the primary gods and goddesses in the most detailed way; this genealogy includes the tales of how each god and goddess was born, most of which originating from Zeus (Wasson). Zeus, the leader and most powerful of the Olympians, is the god of the sky, thunder, and lightning; Hera, Zeus’s sister and wife, is the Queen of Olympus and goddess of marriage and birth; Poseidon is the god of the sea; Hermes is the messenger god; Hades is the lord of the underworld; Dionysus is the god of wine and indulgence; Demeter is the goddess of agriculture; Apollo is the god of healing, medicine and archery, and of music and poetry; Ares is the god of war and bloodlust; Artemis is the goddess of the hunt; Athena is the goddess of reason, wisdom and war; And finally, Aphrodite is the goddess of love, sex and beauty (Pallardy). Together, these powerful beings fought off treacherous monsters and vengeful titans, all while watching over the Greek people. These stories of triumph and bravery soon became the faith of the Greeks, and they are what tethered them to their social positions and duties of the time.
Just as there were stories involving the gods and goddesses, there were also a myriad of tales depicting heroes and ordinary beings that inspired Greek society. These stories were still told by word of mouth and occasionally written, but soon after the time of Homer and Hesoid, these stories started being told through art, pottery specifically. The heroes painted on these pots, often the offspring of a mortal and a god, gave the people a direct connection to their deities; these heroes were highly regarded within Greek society because the gods rewarded their triumphs and good deeds with blessings. The Greek people, in turn, were encouraged to do good deeds and provide offerings to the gods in hopes of receiving those same blessings (Cartwright). To name a few, Perseus and Heracles (Hercules) are two largely know heroes that went on numerous quests and received great praise. Perseus was known by most for slaying the gorgon Medusa and saving Andromeda, his later wife, from a sea monster (“Perseus”). From his offspring, Heracles would be born (“Perseus”). Heracles was known for many accomplishments; he successfully completed the Labours imposed upon him by Eurystheus, he went on numerous war tours, fought the river god Achelous, and more (“Heracles”). Both of these figures had a great influence on Greek society because of how they overcame their challenges, used their resources, and conquered their enemies with guile. Having these reminders spread throughout one’s home was a daily reminder that to strive for greatness will bring blessings upon oneself and one’s family.
There are three examples of this pottery in particular that are on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and they are the epitome of how these myths interacted with and morally encouraged Greek society. The first is a Black-Figure Eye Cup that depicts the gorgon Medusa in the middle. The second is a Black-Figure Amphora that depicts the birth of Athena from Zeus’s head on one side and Heracles duelling the Lion on the other. The third and final example is another Black-Figure Amphora depicting Heracles’ apotheosis into Olympic court.
Within this first vessel, which was created around 530 BCE, the gorgon Medusa is seen at the end of a mass of swirling circles. Medusa is a famous figure in Greek myths who had snakes for hair and turned people to stone with her gaze. She was the only mortal gorgon, and she was killed by Perseus using her own piercing gaze (“Perseus”). This story functions on an iconic level because Medusa represents fear and deceptiveness, something that is often characteristic of antagonists. With this lesson, people are taught to demonstrate their strengths and stand up to evil. However, it also functions on an indexical level in that the snakes and deathly gaze point to women’s connection to nature and feminine powers. In Greek society, women were seen as the inferior, submissive sex, and men were taught to quell these ‘inferior qualities’ in order to reinforce male dominance (“Medusa Analysis”). Finally, it functions on a symbolic level in that Perseus’s actions are seen as heroic, and through acting in similar ways, the Greek people could ascend in the way that he did.
The second artifact, created 10 years earlier, the amphora depicting the birth of Athena, addresses how war-centered Greek society was and how that, in turn, influenced art and culture. As discussed previously, Athena sprang from Zeus’s mind, and was deemed the goddess of wisdom and war. This strange story is significant evidence of Greek culture in that it further demonstrates how men were seen as the superior sex. Athena’s mother was Metis, the goddess of cleverness. The fact that Zeus consumed her represents how a woman’s cleverness is not seen as desirable, and it reinforces the consequences of acting out of place in Greek society (Collins). Furthermore, being one of the most powerful gods of Olympus, Athena represented something that everyone in Greek society wanted to be: intelligent, cunning, and strong. This was due to the fact that their society was often at constant war with other civilizations (Collins). The Greeks were a superpower for a large portion of history, so they had to have a superior army and defense system in order to maintain their power and conquer other territories. With Athena alongside them to guide the way, the people were able to live up to the expectations of the Greek government. Through the depiction of Athena on this amphora, Greek social structure and customs were reinforced, thereby keeping the people focused on individual strength and functional community.
The final artifact from the VMFA that gives great insight into these myths is the amphora depicting Heracles’s apotheosis into the Olympic court, and it was created around 510 BCE. The Greek mythologies were designed in a way that specifically laid out how one was supposed to act; strong morals were extremely important when conducting oneself in society, and this was reflected through numerous stories and journeys within this mythology (“The Function”). Heracles’s ascension into Olympus was the most famous of these stories because it represented the outcome of adhering to these moral standards. Heracles performed countless acts of charity outside of his most famous conquests, and the stories name these acts as the catalyst of his ascension. Heracles was the only mortal figure in Greek mythology that reached the same level of importance and power as the gods of Olympus (“Heracles”), so by naming him as the example to follow, people were convinced to follow in his footsteps. They believed that they, too, could reach this level of success. Overall, this exemplifies how targeted the Greek mythologies were in terms of creating an idealized and loyal society.
Though these objects are extremely valuable to us now, they were not as valuable at the time of their creation. All three objects serve a similar purpose; they are used to hold a small but substantial amount of any sort of food or drink. Around the time that they were made, these ceramics were solely handcrafted–mass production was not for another thousand years. It was among these household items that any sort of personalization or religious expression was conveyed. Because the Greek mythologies were such a prevalent force in people’s lives, these items were covered in gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters, and any other symbolic elements that related back to these myths (Cartwright). Now, thousands of years later, these vessels and any other artifacts from this time period serve as evidence of civilizations past. They are cherished and of great value, but their purpose is obsolete, quite the opposite of their original status.
Some people may be thinking, ‘We already know all about Greek mythology– it’s so overused. Why is it so important to write another essay about it?’ It is easy to understand how some people may find this redundant because of how overstated and overused Greco-Roman culture is, especially when countless books and stories similar to Percy Jackson push these boundaries even further. However, it is important to understand that this culture is only one example of how art and iconic imagery reflect how people cope with the world they live in. There are examples of this all throughout history, and it is necessary to understand these connections so that we can do the same when analyzing modern art, culture, and society. Through recognizing the relationship between art and history and stories like those from the Greek mythologies, we will be able to better understand how our society operates on a psychological as well as functional level. Even if this starts with reading a book like Percy Jackson, it is an important first step, This is how society improves for a better future and leaves its legacy behind.
Cartwright, Mark. “Greek Mythology.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 29 July 2012, www.ancient.eu/Greek_Mythology/.
Collins, Erik. “Athena.” Special Topics: Athena, Hampden-Sydney College , people.hsc.edu/drjclassics/syllabi/greekreligion/athena.htm. Accessed 20 November 2019.
“Heracles.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 13 Feb. 2019, www.britannica.com/topic/Heracles.
“Medusa Analysis.” Medusa, medusa.plush.org/analysis.shtml. Accessed 20 November 2019.
“Myth.” Lexico Dictionaries, Lexico Dictionaries, www.lexico.com/en/definition/myth. Accessed 20 November 2019.
“Perseus.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 28 Aug. 2019, www.britannica.com/topic/Perseus-Greek-mythology.
Pallardy, Richard. “12 Greek Gods and Goddesses.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/list/12-greek-gods-and-goddesses. Accessed 20 November 2019.
Wasson, Donald L. “Theogony.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 19 Dec. 2017, www.ancient.eu/Theogony/.
“The Function of Mythology in Ancient Greek Society.” We’re Never Far from Where We Were, Brewminate, 23 Feb. 2017, brewminate.com/the-function-of-mythology-in-ancient-greek-society/.