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Askos with Plastic Decoration Depicting the Monster Skylla

Askos Depicting the Monster Skylla
Askos with Plastic Decoration Depicting the Monster Skylla
South Italian, Apulian, probably Canosa
Ca. 300 BCE
Pottery with traces of pigment
Weinberg and Gilbreath-McLorn Museum Funds

After the disastrous Peloponnesian Wars on the mainland, Greek émigrés to the western colonies in Italy and Sicily increased, and the period from the fourth century BCE to the middle Hellenistic period witnessed a zenith in terracotta and pottery production in this area. Whimsical and elaborate vessels became the hallmark of the South Italian potters. Forms were attenuated, flares exaggerated, and plastic (molded) decoration proliferated. Among the Museum’s latest acquisitions is a pot that represents one such type from this period.

This vessel is in the form of an askos (Gr: wineskin). In reality, an askos was stitched from animal skin and used to carry wine. The skin was eventually imitated in pottery, and the resulting vessel type spread far and wide and is known today in varying sizes. Some of these were functional and could have been used to serve wine. Those from south Italy, especially the ornate Apulian varieties, were never meant to be functional, however, and were largely manufactured as tomb goods. Indeed, the Museum's askos has no bottom, a common feature in others like this one. The handle does not provide adequate grip for the fingers either. One important aspect of Greek burial ritual involved pouring libations, and askoi of this type may have been used in this very ritual. The askos would have been placed onto the ground and a libation poured into the spout. The liquid offering would thus trickle down through the bottomless vessel and into the earth, where the deceased was interred.

The pot is a white-ground vessel with painted decoration applied on top. In addition to the snaky figure of Skylla, hippocamps ("horse sea monsters") on either side of the vessel complete a marine theme. Like the Sirens, the Sphinx, and the gorgon Medusa, Skylla was a lethal female creature who killed sailors and other hapless travelers. According to myth, Skylla dwelt in the rocky crags overhanging the Straits of Messina, between Sicily and Italy, where she plucked unlucky sailors from their ships with the help of mutant dogs that grew from her torso. While all these creatures were deadly, their images could carry an apotropaic or protective function. The presence of the man-eating Skylla probably served such a function on this vessel. She also appears to be making offerings, holding an offering dish in one hand and a fish in the other. These are likely references to funerary offerings or a ritual meal at the gravesite.

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