May 27, 2021

‘A Holy Little Helicopter’*: The Curious Case of Libating Nike, by Cara Grove

Lekythos Shoulder lekythos by the Bowdoin Painter depicting Nike (?), pouring from a patera at an altar, Walters 48257, side A. Creative Commons CC0.

*quoted from Patton (2009), 42.


This example of Greek pottery is a lekythos, dated to c. 480 – 470 BC, painted in the red-figure technique. It depicts the winged goddess of victory, Nike. While the findspot of this lekythos is not recorded, it is Athenian in origin, and it is now in the possession of the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (48.257), although it is not currently on display. It is attributed to the Bowdoin Painter, whose career spanned at least 30 years, from c. 480 BC – 450 BC, based on other dated examples of their work.

Here, Nike is depicted in flight, facing to the right, holding a phiale, a shallow bowl used for pouring libations during rituals, in her right hand and an oval-shaped object in her left, possibly a fruit. An altar is depicted below the goddess, to her right, on which a fire burns and onto which Nike pours liquid from her phiale. She wears a chiton underneath a himation, disc earrings, serpentine braceletes and a ribbon in her hair, styled in a bun.

The majority of the works attributed to the Bowdoin Painter are lekythoi; more than 400, in fact, of the 558 entries in the Beazley Archive Pottery Database online, and Nike was a favourite subject of theirs: some 145 entries in the Beazley online database that are attributed to the Bowdoin Painter feature the goddess (where a winged female figure is identified as Nike), and all but 3 are lekythoi. What’s more, 110 of the 145 entries show this winged figure in the presence of, near or libating at an altar.

The term lekythos (Greek λήκυθος) had a wide-ranging application in antiquity, seemingly used for any kind of oil jug, from the oil vessels used by athletes, which are now categorised as aryballoi (Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazousai, 139 ff.; Aristophanes, Frogs, 1198 ff.; an aryballos attributed to the Douris Painter, inscribed ΑΣΟΠΟΔΩΡΩΗΕΛΕΚΥΘΟΣ, ‘this lekythos belongs to Asopodorus’, ARV(2) 447.274) to storage vessels in the home (a cooking scene in Aristophanes, Birds, 1589; Aristophanes, Wealth, 810 f., regarding household stores). While it is still understood that lekythoi were multifunctional, archaeologists now use the term lekythos, -oi for a specific shape of pottery, a one-handed jug with a narrow neck, that would have contained scented oils (perfume) or oil for household use. In particular, lekythoi, especially white-ground lekythoi, are associated heavily with death in Ancient Greece vase-paintings, including on lekythoi themselves, often depict these vessels as offerings to the dead; many of the examples surviving to us were excavated from grave sites and cemetries, once left as gifts for the deceased; in Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusai, 996, lekythos is used to refer to ‘funeral urns’ (ὃς τοῖς νεκροῖσι ζωγραφεῖ τὰς ληκύθους / The one who decorates funeral urns; ‘lekythos’, lambda439, Suda On Line); and, perhaps, they were used in the funerary rites themselves (Scholiast on Plato, Hippias Minor, 368 c).

Nike appears on this example in an unusual configuration for her role as a divinity, the personification of victory, but one that in vase-painting was surprisingly popular, especially in the Classical period of the 5th century BC. Nike is typically closely associated with Athena and Zeus, at times considered little more than an attribute of them, as opposed to an individual deity of her own right. Despite this, Nike also has her own attributes, and is commonly depicted in scenes with themes or contexts of victory with a wreath or a tainia (a headband, ribbon or fillet) and crowning a victor, or with other symbols of victory, such as a palm branch, a tripod, a lyre (kithara) to reference a musical contest, an aphlaston to designate a naval victory, or driving a chariot. Wings, indeed, are also considered an attribute of the goddess; Nike is rarely, if ever, depicted without wings, except in the case of the Temple of Athena Nike, sometimes also referred to as the Temple of Nike Apteros (Wingless Nike) (Pausanias, 1.22.4).

Yet, prolific in vase-painting is the depiction of Nike with a phiale and/or oinochoe, an incense burner, an altar, and holding torches. This group of attributes is religious in sphere and to ritual and sacrifice. Images of libating gods are not totally uncommon, but the absence of clear signifiers of victory is strange. What, then, is the goddess of victory doing with ritualistic and sacrificial instruments and without symbols of victory, much less participating in ritual?

One solution to this curious case of libating-Nike could be that the winged figure’s identification as the victory goddess is incorrect, and that in ritualistic contexts with no overt relation to a victory, the winged figure should be understood as Iris, a messenger of the gods. Iris, perhaps, could have greater claim to the role of libation-pourer, on account of her attributed pitcher, in which she carries water of the river Styx, and depictions of her in art as cup-bearer to gods such as Poseideon, Hera and Zeus. However, Iris is rarely seen without one of her main identifying symbols: the kerykeion or caduceus, a herald’s staff, also carried by Hermes. In three examples of Greek pottery where Iris is named by inscription, she has a kerykeion. In five examples of pottery where Nike is named, she does not. While it will never be possible to confidently identify every example of Greek vase-painting depicting a winged female as either Nike or Iris, and there is undeniable overlap in their iconographies, simply deferring to Iris in identifying the winged female in this libation scene at an altar is not satisfactory.

Likewise, it would be easy to say that images of altar-side, libating-Nike are simply meant to evoke the rituals that would occur following a victory, that she is libating in place of the victor. Even easier, that this imagery represents the success of the ritual itself. Yet, Greek art does not shy away from depicting overt victory, the rituals following victory undertaken by mortals, victory rituals undertaken by Nike, such as the famous image of the goddess leading a bull to sacrifice, or ritual scenes in general, but without Nike present. The image of Nike, alone, altar-side, attributes or contexts or victory absent, and engaged actively in libating, thus, requires a different approach.

To understand Nike’s role in this non-agonistic, religious scene, it is helpful to turn to an example of art later than the lekythos currently in question. A marble relief from the balustrade of the Temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis of Athens, dated to c. 410 BC, depicts Nike bending to adjust or remove her sandal. The mundanity of this image of the victory goddess is quite bizarre: for a divinity so frequently depicted crowning a victor or with other symbols of victory, here, she could be anyone – she could be mortal.

Towards the end of the 4th century BC, a blurring of the lines between the mortal realm and the divine can be observed quite prolificly in art. The so-called Sandalbinder Nike may, in this timeline, signal the concrete beginning of this shift, with its construction at the end of the 5th century. It would seem, however, that this muddying of the waters may have already been occuring in early 5th century vase-painting. The image of the lone, libating goddess would have been relatable to the everyman of Greek society, and women especially could see themselves in the image of Nike performing the same rites they did. Care is taken to never completely destroy the boundaries of the mortal and godly worlds; Nike remains winged, a clear sign of her divinity, yet she nevertheless participates in libations of unknown end.

Nike, as a victory goddess, already transcends the separate realms within her usual sphere of activity. To bestow victory, she travels from Olympus to the mortal realm in order to crown the victory. By nature, she is already a transitional god, occupying and crossing liminal spaces. Perhaps, then, it follows that she is well predisposed to connect the two worlds in contexts outside of victory-seeking ones, too. The Greek people, already cogniscent of the fact that Nike visits their world to grant victory in games, contests and war - all hugely important aspects of Ancient Greek life - may thus consider their relationship to this particular divinity unique or special, and so it follows that she becomes the favoured actor in ritual scenes of all contexts, either as sacrificial attendant or active libation-pourer.

Bibliography

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Cara This post was written by Cara Grove, currently an MA by Research student in Classics & Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Cara did her undergraduate degree in Classical Civilisation, also at the University of Warwick. Cara's research interests are in Hellenistic art and archaeology, the Antigonids, and using multidisciplinary approaches to understanding the iconography, functions, myth and receptions of the goddess Nike.

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