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Concept of Symposium in Ancient Greece: Analytical Essay

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In the modern world, Ancient Greece is viewed as the paradigm of artistic and architectural achievement and expression. Along with being popular for its majestic temples and elegant sculptures, it is also well known for its vast and complex mythology and pantheon, with the creatures and deities that many associate with the Classical and Hellenistic periods finding their origins much earlier in the Bronze Age Aegean cultures. One such creature is the satyr. Often associated with the wine god Dionysos, satyrs generally represented drunkenness and debauchery in ancient times. They are often seen participating in various activities on both black-figure and red-figure painted pottery, including drinking, reveling, and attempting to seduce any living thing within close range. As half man and half horse, these wild creatures epitomize the ancient Greek ideal of barbarianism; not fully human, grotesque in appearance, uncivilized, uneducated, and unable to control their carnal desires, the latter of which was notoriously emphasized by satyrs being depicted as comically ithyphallic.

The abundance of negative traits exhibited by satyrs provided a number of ways for the Greeks to utilize them in painted pottery, many of which rely on the satyr as a comedic and joking element. The level of difficulty that accompanies the interpretation of these vessels varies from item to item, as some present clearly defined characters and events, while others lack inscriptions or are more unusual than the more easily recognizable ones. One such vessel is a fifth century red-figure kylix attributed by Beazley to the Codrus painter, housed in the Fitzwilliam Museum collection and described by Beazley as theatrical (fig. 1).

Figure 1: Fitzwilliam kylix, front and back.

On the sides of this kylix, a parade of satyrs follows behind a youth, who faces away from them and towards a different satyr in a confrontational manner. All of the figures depicted are draped, and the satyrs are each carrying various small items, including a stork, aryballoi, oinochoai, and staffs. In the tondo of the kylix, an Amazon is depicted on horseback. Aside from the initial strangeness of the images presented, the kylix also lacks an inscription that would normally provide some insight to inform the viewer of who the youth represents, or at least what is happening in this scene. However, by comparing this vessel to various other vessels and the ways satyrs are depicted, one can use the recurring themes and motifs to identify and decipher what is most likely to be occurring.

In order to interpret painted pottery that includes satyrs, one must first become familiar with the different uses that satyrs filled, as well as the recurring themes depicted on satyr pottery. Among the popular uses of the satyr is the parody of mythical characters, both gods and heroes. In cases like these, satyrs can be seen replacing the hero normally depicted in a specific scene and adding items or characters that emphasize the change in scenario. An example of this is a red-figure column krater depicting a satyr dressed as Jason stealing the golden fleece, with Dionysos watching from behind (fig. 2).

Figure 2: Red-figure column krater.

Other depictions include satyrs pestering and mocking the main hero of the scene, such as stealing weapons and clothing from Herakles while he is holding up the sky, or being cowardly and unhelpful to Odysseus as he and his men attempt to blind the Cyclops. Another typical way of depicting satyrs is as participants in Dionysiac ritual festivities, seen reveling with human dancers and wine vessels such as the kantharos and kylix and, according to Isler-Kerényi, representing the transition of a symposiast from human to satyr due to overindulgence in wine and dance. Satyrs cannot control their impulses; thus, these vessels remind symposiasts of their civic duty to remain level-headed citizens despite drinking too much at the symposium. A third category of depictions portrays satyrs as participants of a theatrical chorus, the members of a satyr play that interact with the main plotline as characters rather than provide narration and asides like a normal theatrical chorus. In the traditional Greek satyr play, the human chorus was replaced by a chorus dressed as satyrs, explicitly recognizable as actors on painted pottery due to the specific costumes and masks that they wore. An excellent example would be the Pronomos vase, which shows a vast array of both satyrs and satyr players dancing around Dionysus, each on opposite sides (fig. 3).

Figure 3: Pronomos vase.

Many pieces of pottery contain satyr motifs that are described as theatrical, but Walsh reminds us that it is important to differentiate between actual depictions of the stage and paintings that are only influenced by theatrical scenes or themes. The final use for satyrs in painted pottery to be discussed here is their role in the parody of stock scenes from everyday life. There are several variations of this type of vase. On many of these vessels, satyrs are seen dressed in human attire and participating in normal human activities that one would see every day in the city. These replicate popular scenes; an Attic red-figure pelike shows a draped satyr accidentally exposing himself to the seated satyr while giving a speech (fig. 4). The seated satyr listens attentively, and these actions appear as humorous and contradictory to such wild and raucous creatures.

Figure 4: Red-figure pelike

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Steiner tells us that the effectiveness of the parody image depends on how often the normal scene has been repeated on other vessels; the elements of comedy and irony are increased when more repetitions are seen, and in some cases this is emphasized by presenting the stock scene on one side of a vessel and the parody version on the other. In a sense, the presence of a satyr in a comical setting was the ancient Greek equivalent to modern memes. Overall, a wide variety of images on Greek pottery reflect different themes that fall under each of these categories.

For each category presented, there are a number of key elements that may be used to attribute a satyr vase to them, and thus one must identify these elements in the piece that is to be interpreted. The first category is mythical parody. Often on vessels decorated with these types of scenes, the main characters of the story, whether they be heroes or gods, are made clearly visible and discernible to the audience based on their physical characteristics, clothing, props, or even an inscription labeling the characters; an example of this mentioned by Walsh is the aforementioned column krater showing a satyr dressed as Jason; one can identify this figure as Jason because of the fleece hanging from the tree. Generally speaking, when a satyr masquerades as a hero, the emphasis is not only on the humorous aspects of the image, but also on the contradictory nature of the image; the heroic disposition of characters like Jason or Herakles juxtaposed with the grotesque and mischievous nature of a satyr. It is difficult, then, to attribute the Fitzwilliam kylix to the category of mythical parody. Although the youth is surrounded by satyrs, it is unclear whom he could represent and whether or not the scene is from a specific myth. With no mythological icons and no inscription, the boy could represent anyone, and the satyrs could be elements of any unknown story. Even the Amazon on the interior provides little context, aside from being seen as barbaric and wild women similar to the wild satyrs. While the probability of the kylix depicting a mythical parody cannot be completely discredited due to its ambiguity, it is very difficult to see it as such because of the lack of clarity in identifying the figures as mythical.

The next category to eliminate is the category of Dionysiac processional and ritual portrayals. As mentioned previously, Isler-Kerényi identifies the various objects and themes associated with Dionysiac activity, including the kantharos, groups of dancers, musical instruments, and the presence of Dionysos. It was also common for maenads, the female participants in such activities, to be included in these scenes. A prime example of this is an Athenian red-figure kylix decorated with reveling satyrs riding a phallic bird and playing pipes, dancing youths with amphorai and a ladle, and a satyr on the interior holding a kantharos (fig. 5).

Figure 5: Red-figure kylix

Despite the processional appearance of the satyrs on the Fitzwilliam kylix, it is quite unlikely that they represent a festival procession or event. Rather than appearing naked to emphasize their primitivity, as in the normal fashion of Dionysiac revelers as well as satyrs in general, the satyrs here are shown fully clothed, as well as the youth that stands among them. Instead of kraters or kantharoi, the satyrs wield oinochoai and aryballoi, and while the former is indeed a signature element of the symposium used to serve wine to the symposiasts, it provides a significantly weak link to festival and processional activity as it is the only item depicted that is specifically linked to wine. Despite this scene being depicted on a symposium drinking vessel, it ironically does not depict a drinking celebration.

Similarly, it is difficult to attribute the Fitzwilliam kylix to the theatrical category of depictions. In the world of Greek theater, specifically satyr drama, satyrs are primarily depicted nude because of their ignorance of societal standards and conventions. This raises doubts in the interpretation of the kylix. If satyrs are wild creatures and their stage presence emphasizes this, it would not make sense to show them fully clothed the way a civilized and respectable citizen would be. It is not uncommon to interpret a scene as theatrical based on unusual or comic subject matter, and in some cases scenes from or inspired by the theater are strongly assumed to be presented. Walsh draws attention to a red-figure kalyx krater illustrating Odysseus and his men preparing to blind the cyclops Polyphemus with satyrs on the sidelines watching the events unfold, and suggests that the scene could be inspired by the only satyr play to have survived in its entirety, called Cyclops and written by Euripides; due to the artistic license held by each individual painter, the inclusion of satyrs could just be an additional decorative element. Because of the lack of complete satyr play scripts and the fragmentary status of few others, it is difficult to ascertain whether or not any scene representing satyrs is inspired by the theater, and Mitchell reminds us that not all depictions of satyrs with heroes reference literary sources; he also describes the typical attire of a satyr player in Greek theater as specific satyr trunks and satyr masks. The Pronomos vase mentioned earlier clearly displays this costume being worn by actors, but the Fitzwilliam kylix does not. This distinction helps to indicate with certainty that the literal stage is not depicted, but whether or not it is a scene influenced by the theater is more ambiguous because of the lack of literary material needed to associate the theater to the painting.

The last category to compare with is that of the parody of everyday scenes and events. Based on the various details and elements displayed, it could be that the Fitzwilliam kylix falls into this category. The first element to be examined, and the element to disprove the other categories, is the absence of nudity depicted, particularly the absence of satyr nudity. As mentioned previously, satyrs are normally depicted as nude to emphasize their primitive, barbaric, and half-animal character, and to contrast them with the nude Greek athlete who was seen as the paragon of heroism, youthful beauty, and peak physicality. Therefore, to see one clothed implies the existence of a certain significance held by the scene. On some earlier vases, satyrs are depicted in a somewhat civilized manner, participating in procession. Isler-Kerényi argues that this participation in domestic Greek activities marks a transformation to humanity from bestial primitivity. This idea goes hand in hand with the idea that draped or clothed satyrs are meant to represent a parody of everyday life. One might remember the red-figure pelike showing a satyr orator, draped in the typical fashion of a Greek citizen. It could be possible, then, that the satyrs depicted on the Fitzwilliam kylix are draped because they are attempting to appear civilized in the presence of a youth. The presence of the youth must also be viewed in relation to the draped satyrs. Anything from daily life could be the victim of parody, and courtship scenes of all kinds were no exception. Mitchell draws attention to a pair of vases that show similar courtship scenes: on one, a draped man leans on a staff and presents a hare to a seated youth (fig. 6). On the other, a draped satyr takes the same pose and offers the same gift to another seated youth (fig. 7). The important relationship between the older erastes and younger eromenos was a popular theme in Greek art, and to find a parody of this theme is not surprising. It could be that the Fitzwilliam kylix illustrates satyrs who are attempting to court the youth standing before them.

Figure 6: Red-figure neck-amphora Figure 7: Red-figure pelike

In order to further support this idea, one must also take into account the various items that the satyrs carry. The first is the staff held by each satyr. As seen on the amphora and pelike, the older member of each of the couples leans on such a staff. It could be argued that a wooden staff such as these functions as a symbol of the erastes. Another item held by one of the satyrs is a bird identified as a stork. In the context of courtship, it was not uncommon for the older male to present the younger object of his affections with gifts, mainly animals, including hares, dogs, and roosters. The rooster was well known as a symbol of male sexuality. The replacement of such a popular symbol of fertility with an ordinary stork can be viewed as comical and fitting for a courtship scene involving satyrs. The aryballos held by a different satyr could represent another gift. Aryballoi were used to hold oil and were carried to the gymnasium and palaestra by the young athletes. The youth depicted on the Fitzwilliam kylix appears to wear a headband, and calls to mind the Diadoumenos, the statue by Polykleitos of a victorious athlete tying a diadem around his head. One could assume that the headband worn by the youth on the kylix is a prize diadem, and that the satyr is offering an aryballos as a gift to the young athlete. Another satyr holds an oinochoe, a vessel used for serving wine. The close association with wine symbolizes the connection of the satyr with Dionysos, as well as with the symposium. With an important element of the symposium being the courtship of men and youths, one might interpret the oinochoe as a gift from a satyr hoping to indulge in wine and courtship at the symposium. Similarly, the satyr bearing a lyre, often seen as both a symbol of Apollo and of, could instead be interpreted as a satyr preparing for a night spent hopefully at the symposium with the youth he plans to court. All of the satyrs appear in a line behind the boy, with the exception of one that stands face to face with him. One might interpret this as the satyrs each taking turns to try their luck.

A well-known element of satyr lore is that despite the various advances they make towards women, youths, and other creatures, they are always shooed away or ignored. This makes the scene on the Fitzwilliam kylix even more comical: in order to be more successful in their sexually charged endeavors, the satyrs have dressed themselves as citizens to seem more appealing to the youth. However, despite all the effort they have spent to appear civilized and to procure gifts for him, the youth seems quite uninterested in the satyrs and their gifts. This strengthens the idea that the scene is a parody of real life. In reality, suitors have little trouble courting their young counterparts because of their social status and role in the polis. Satyrs, on the other hand, are perpetually unable to achieve their goals. No matter what they try, rejection always follows. Dressing up as a man has no effect on their success because both the viewer and the youth standing among them knows that it is not a real man propositioning them, but a satyr in disguise; no costume can disguise their barbaric nature, and the youth is more interested in being involved with a wealthy and prominent member of society than with a barbaric satyr. Humanity is what yields success, and the comically obvious bestiality of the satyrs is the catalyst of their failure.

Interpretation of Greek painted pottery proves to be a difficult task, particularly when there is no specific literary material to attribute or compare it to. It is not uncommon for the first option that one turns to in order to decipher the meaning or story behind an unusual painted scene is scouring the ancient mythological and theatrical writings in search of a reference point, but Mitchell argues that this is unnecessary; rather than taking this approach, one must first examine the visual aspects of the piece that are being interpreted. Often the costume, props, inscription, and positioning of the figures on the pottery can provide insight into the meaning of the images based on the typical attributions and connotations that they hold, and when there is no inscription one must rely completely on the symbolic value of the items that are presented. Not everything is able to be clearly interpreted in terms of myth, but in the case of the Fitzwilliam kylix, the figural representations are inspired by elements of life and culture, and by studying these elements, one is able to find a potential meaning in the painting.


  1. DiMarco, M. 2017. “What is the Function of Satyr Play?” Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought 34: 432-448.
  2. Ferrari, G. “Myth and Genre on Athenian Vases,” Classical Antiquity 22: 37-54.
  3. Isler Kerényi, C. and Watson, W. G. E. 2014. Dionysos in Archaic Greece: An Understanding Through Images. Leiden: Brill.
  4. Mitchell, A. G. 2004. “Humour in Greek Vase-Painting,” Revue Archeologique 37: 3-32.
  5. Michell, A. G. 2009. Greek Vase-Painting and the Origins of Visual Humour. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Sansone, D. 2018. “Socrates, Satyrs, and Satyr-Play in Plato’s Symposium,” Illinois Classical Studies 43: 58-87.
  7. Shapiro, H. A. 1981. “Courtship Scenes in Attic Vase-Painting,” American Journal of Archaeology 85: 133-143.
  8. Steiner, A. 2010. Reading Greek Vases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  9. Topper, K. 2012. The Imagery of the Athenian Symposium. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  10. Walsh, D. 2009. Distorted Ideals in Greek Vase-Painting: The World of the Mythological Burlesque. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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