The owls of Athena: some comments on owl-skyphoi and their iconography


During the fifth century BC, Athens produced large numbers of red-figure skyphoi decorated on each side with an owl standing between two sprays of olive.1See F. B. Johnson, ‘An Owl Skyphos’, in Studies Presented to David Moore Robinson on His Seventieth Birthday, ed. G. Mylonas, vol. 2, St. Louis, 1953, pp. 96–105; and his ‘A Note on Owl Skyphoi’, AJA, vol. 59, 1955, pp. 119–24; R. Stupperich, ‘Eulen der Athena in einer münsterschen Privatsammlung’, Boreas, vol. 3, 1980, pp. 157–80; A. Jacquemin & J.-J. Maffre, ‘Nouveaux vases grecs de la collection Piéridès à Larnaca (Chypre)’, BCH, vol. 110, 1986, pp. 189–91; E. Rohde, CVA, Berlin (DDR) 1, pp. 47–50, pls 29-31; M. F. Vos, CVA, Leiden 4, pp. 24–6, pl. 184. In the vast majority of examples the owl’s body is shown in profile facing the viewer’s right, while its head is turned full-face. The sprays are usually more or less vertical, but also there is often an attempt to fill the irregular space beside the figure of the owl. Below the red-figure decoration there is generally a narrow reserved line, which encircles the cup and acts as a support for the composition. 

The owl-skyphos was extremely popular and was exported from Athens to other parts of the Greek world, including southern Italy and Etruria.2For an example from Cumae near Naples, see E. Gàbrici, ‘Cuma’, Monumenti antichi, vol. 22, 1913, col. 460, pl. 104, 4; for an example from Populonia in Tuscany, see M. Cristofani Martelli, ‘Rivista di epigrafia etrusca: Populonia’, Studi etruschi, 3rd series, vol. 43, 1975, pp. 213–15, pl. 32. Local imitations have been excavated at Corinth,3 See I. McPhee, ‘Red-Figured Pottery from Corinth: Sacred Spring and Elsewhere’, Hesperia, vol. 50, 1981, p. 282. and during the fourth century, or perhaps even slightly earlier, skyphoi similar to those from Athens were produced in Apulia and Etruria.4Johnson, ‘An Owl Skyphos’, pp. 96–8, 104–5, pl. 32b, discusses an Apulian skyphos in the Farwell Collection; see also Johnson, ‘A Note on Owl Skyphoi’, pp. 122–4. For examples from the Chini Collection, see G. Andreassi, Ceramica italiota a figure rosse della collezione Chini del Museo Civico di Bassano del Grappa, Rome, 1979, pp. 132–3, nos 66–68, reprs. 

The owl and olive spray motif is found on two shapes of skyphos.5In Athens the motif also appeared on other shapes (see Beazley, ARV2, pp. 982–4; Stupperich, pp. 158, 166–7, pls 19, 3 & 6 (squat lekythos), 20, 5–6 (pelike); J. H. Jongkees, ‘Notes on the Coinage of Athens, VIII: The Owl of Athens’, Mnemosyne, 4th series, vol. 5, 1952, pp. 34–6). In Beazley’s system of classification,6Beazley, ARV2, p. 982. type A has two horizontal handles attached just under the lip, and the sides have a very slight curve. Type B has one handle horizontal and the other vertical; the sides slope outwards at a sharper angle than in type A, and they curve markedly. The type B skyphos, which in Attic pottery more frequently has the owl and olive spray motif, is often referred to as a glaux (owl).7For the differing modern usages of the term glaux, see Johnson, ‘An Owl Skyphos’, p. 9. This term for an owl-cup is based on a potter’s or shopkeeper’s graffito (price-tag?) underneath Berlin 2599: ΓΛΑΥ(ΚΕΣ).8For the graffito, see R. Hackl, ‘Merkantile Inschriften auf attischen Vasen’, in Münchener archäologische Studien dem Andenken Adolf Furtwänglers gewidmet, Munich, 1909, pp. 53, 73, no. LXXIX. Beazley and Magi even went so far as to claim that the vessel’s shape described an owl: the vertical handle corresponds to the head, the horizontal one to the bird’s tail’.9J. D. Beazley & F. Magi, La raccolta Benedetto Guglielmi nel Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Vatican, 1939, p. 87: ‘l’ansa verticale corrisponde alla testa, quella orizzontale alla coda dell’uccello’ (my translation). 

For various reasons there are problems in dating owl-skyphoi. It is difficult to relate them to other painted vases, for the owls do not sufficiently resemble those on the vases attributed to the artists and groups devised by Beazley. It has been suggested that this is because the cups were manufactured in workshops where people specialised, and their products became distinctive in their stereotyped details.10See Stupperich, p. 158. That is, we cannot compare the owls to related images on vases that have been placed in a chronological sequence determined by gradual changes in style and technique. Writing at the beginning of the 1930s, Langlotz dated the collection of owl-skyphoi in Würzburg to c.500 BC, basing his dating on the shape of the skyphoi;11E. Langlotz, Griechische Vasen in Würzburg (c.1932), Rome, 1968, p. 119. however, this is not a reliable method. Beazley considered that the majority of the ‘standard owl-skyphoi’ belong to the period c.475–c.425 BC, but that some are earlier – ‘pre-standard’.12Beazley, ARV2, p. 982. Although skyphoi13See Johnson, ‘An Owl Skyphos’, pp. 101–2. have been found in archaeological contexts that allow datings compatible with Beazley’s, the problem has been to find a terminus ante quem, that is, an historical context that will demonstrate a definite earlier dating.

Attempts to do this have been based on the Persian sack of Athens in 480 BC. In 1928 Shear published a grave group from Corinth that contained an owl-skyphos (346-6) and late Attic black-figure ware.14T. L. Shear, ‘Excavations in Corinth in 1928’, AJA, vol. 32, 1928, pp. 493–5, fig. 12; see also C. W. Blegen, H. Palmer & R. S. Young, Corinth XIII: The North Cemetery, Princeton, 1964, pp. 154–5, no. 346–6, pl. 55. Although the latter was then dated to the period c.550–c.500 BC, it is now accepted that such black-figure ware was still being made well into the fifth century.15See J. Boardman, Athenian Black Figure Vases, London, 1974, pp. 146–66. In 1934 Dinsmoor reviewed some of the earlier excavations on the Acropolis and published two sherds (one with an owl’s head) and a complete owl-skyphos16W. B. Dinsmoor, ‘The Date of the Older Parthenon’, AJA, vol. 38, 1934, pp. 419–20, fig. 5. belonging to Johnson’s Group I.17Johnson, ‘An Owl Skyphos’, p. 99; and his ‘A Note on Owl Skyphoi’, p. 120. The sherds and owl-skyphos had been found among material that Dinsmoor thought predated the Persian sack; in his view they were therefore earlier than 480 BC. In the case of the complete skyphos, however, Beazley was sceptical.18Beazley, ARV2, p. 982. In a recent article on excavations in the Athenian Agora, Camp described a cup (not a normal owl-skyphos) with a tondo containing an owl (Agora P 32422), which piece he dated to c.490 BC.19J. M. Camp, ‘Excavations in the Athenian Agora: 1994 and 1995’, Hesperia, vol. 65, 1996, pp. 242, 250, no. 32, pl. 75. The owl on the tondo is related in stance and general technique to those on the skyphoi, but has more detail on the wing. The bird is also covered with a mass of dots to represent body feathers, and the eyes consist of a dot inside two concentric circles; the rendering of the eyes fits in with that on Dinsmoor’s sherd and with that of other ‘pre-standard’ owls.20Dinsmoor, p. 420, fig. 5, 11 (530). Cf. Louvre G 618 (see E. Pottier, Vases antiques du Louvre, vol. 3, Paris, 1922, p. 294, pl. 158); Ashmolean 1927.4331 (CVA, 2, pl. 62, 1–2); Berlin (DDR), Antikensammlung, F 2595 (CVA, 1, pl. 29, 1–2); Orvieto, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, 493 (CVA, Umbria 1, pl. 12, 1). 

Given the lack of anything more definite, we should conclude that Beazley’s dating is basically correct. 

The National Gallery of Victoria has in its collection two owl-skyphoi, both glaukes. On the first one (80R-D1A), which may be dated to the second quarter of the fifth century BC, the composition is well spaced out on each side (figs 1 & 2).21 80R-D1A was purchased from D. V. Piccoli, Melbourne, in 1893 and is from the necropolis of Cancello, near Naples. The vase has a black painted interior and exterior, except for reserved red-figure motifs. On the underside is a small black dot inside a small circle; there is a black band on the inside wall of the ring base. Both of its owls have an almost heart-shaped wing with two to three rows of dots at the top and a single row further down; the legs have a faint suggestion of feathers. Each owl has a short line on the belly to mark the separation of the legs. Each head has a pair of symmetrically curving ‘eyebrows’, largish eyes (each consisting of a dot inside a circle), a triangular beak and very few filling dots. Around the eyes is an almost unique feature: short lines radiate out in all directions, creating a disc of feathers. 

One could compare Munich 2553, which has a second, narrower ring around each eye, with lines radiating rather untidily;22Munich, Museum Antiker Kleinkunst, 2553 (CVA, 2, pl. 95, 7). the wings, however, are quite different from those in 80R-D1A. McPhee compares the Melbourne skyphos with Corinth C-73-197, which has related wings but no eyebrows, and shorter lines radiating from the eyes.23McPhee, pp. 281–2, no. 66, pl. 72. In fact the lines do not actually start from the eyes, but are associated more closely with the numerous dots on the head, giving the impression of layers of feathers. A closer example to 80R-D1A is Corinth C-40-68, where the owl has similar wings and eyebrows, although – as in C-73-197 – the radiating lines begin a slight distance from the eyes.24See Johnson, ‘A Note on Owl Skyphoi’, pl. 37, fig. 28. It is useful also to consider other examples that have short radiating lines, sometimes forming ‘layers’: Agora P 16530,25 See M. B. Moore, Attic Red-Figured and White-Ground Pottery, Athenian Agora, vol. 30, Princeton, 1997, p. 306, no. 1313, pl. 122. Liebieghaus 534,26Frankfurt am Main, Liebieghaus, 534 (CVA, Frankfurt 2, pl. 80, 4 (lekythos)). Barcelona 431627Barcelona, Musée Archéologique de Barcelone, 4316 (CVA, 1, pl. 40, 11). and Milan (Museo Civico Archeologico) 3643/19 Sp.28Milan, Museo Civico Archeologico, 3643/19 Sp (CVA, 1, III, I, pl. 14, 4). 

The second owl-skyphos in Melbourne (4783-D3) is a standard type, dating from around the mid-fifth century BC (figs 3 & 4).294783-D3 was bought by Albert Goodbody in 1890 from, according to an old label, the ‘Curator of Naples Museum’. The vase has a black painted interior and exterior, except for reserved red-figure motifs. On the underside is a label covering the centre; there is a black band on the inside wall of the ring base. Each of its birds has strongly arched eyebrows, overlapping eyes, and very few dots on the head. The wings are wedge-shaped, with lines converging near the tail, and have two untidy rows of dots at the top and a single row further down. The rendering of the top of the wing is different on each side of the skyphos: one bird has a line that passes from the top of the wing up to the right eye (fig. 3); on the other bird the line curves over the top of the wing (fig. 4). In both cases, a line on the belly marks the separation of the legs. The olive sprays are positioned more closely to the birds than on 80R-D1A. 

This cup is typical of Johnson’s Group I. The vessels in this group are linked first of all by the touching, or overlapping, of the eyes. There are also two to three rows of dots at the tops of the wings and one or two single rows lower down. Most of the owls seem to have a line on the belly. Usually there are very few dots on the face, and sometimes there is no line drawn to signify the top of the wing. The group is not homogeneous, and I doubt whether Johnson imagined that the pieces in it were all by the same hand. It is even possible to have very different owls on opposite sides of the same skyphos.30See K. Rumohr Collection, s.n. (CVA, Norway 1, pl. 41, 1–2). Many of the owls were very carelessly painted, as can be seen in fig. 3, where the top of the head was blotted out when some paint was applied to the lip. We can compare the owl depicted in fig. 3 with a similar bird on a cup from the Gallatin Collection,31Gallatin Collection, s. n. (CVA, Fogg Museum & Gallatin Collection, pl. 60, 5). while the owl shown in fig. 4 is comparable with that in Toronto C. 373.32See D. M. Robinson, C. G. Harcum & J. H. Rifle, A Catalogue of Greek Vases in the Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology, Toronto, Toronto, 1930, p. 183, pl. 65. Other useful comparisons are Goluchow 169,33Goluchow, Musée Czartoryski, 169 (CVA, 1, pl. 40, 4). Berlin F 2596 and F 2597,34Berlin (DDR), Antikensammlung (CVA, 1, pl. 29, 3–4 (F 2597) & 5–6 (F 2596)). Munich 2555,35Munich, Museum Antiker Kleinkunst, 2555 (CVA, 2, pl. 95, 6). and Geneva 12476.36Geneva, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, 12476 (CVA, 1, pl. 12, 5). 

The rendering of the owl on the skyphos has been linked to the image of the owl on various denominations of Attic silver coins.37See Jongkees, pp. 28–41; G. Lippold, ‘Vasen und Milnzen’, Jdl, vol. 67, 1952, p. 95. On the obverse of the coins is Athena wearing a helmet, on the reverse an owl with the same stance as those on the owl-skyphoi. In addition, the owl on the coins is accompanied by a small sprig of olive. The general consensus is that the series, initially tetradrachms, began in the last quarter of the sixth century BC.38Though views on the dating have differed widely among scholars, this is now the prevailing opinion (see C. M. Kraay, ‘The Archaic Owls of Athens: Classification and Chronology’, Numismatic Chronicle, 6th series, vol. 16, 1956, pp. 43–68; W. P. Wallace, ‘The Early Coinages of Athens and Euboia’, Numismatic Chronicle, 7th series, vol. 2, 1962, pp. 23–42; C. M. Kraay, Greek Coins, London, 1966, pp. 324–6, pls 117–119; E. J. P. Raven, ‘Problems of the Earliest Owls of Athens’, in Essays in Greek Coinage Presented to Stanley Robinson, eds C. M. Kraay & G. K. Jenkins, Oxford, 1968, pp. 40–58; C. M. Kraay, Archaic and Classical Greek Coins, London, 1976, pp. 60–3). Jongkees has made a number of valuable comparisons between the coins and skyphoi where the owls have unusual postures, for example full-face with wings outspread or in profile with one wing raised.39Jongkees, pp. 35, 40–1. However, in matters of detail the owls in the two media have little in common: the painting of skyphoi took on a momentum of its own, which was quite unrelated to the striking of silver coins.40See Stupperich, p. 159. Nonetheless, it is useful to note that the owls on the coins have large eyes, which often touch or overlap, and in some cases there are short lines radiating from the eyes,41See Kraay, Greek Coins, p. 326, nos 355, 357, 363, pls 117–119. as on skyphos 80R-D1A. 

The owl had a long history in Greek art, and its image in the form of a gold relief was used in graves as far back as the Mycenaean period.42See S. Marinatos, ‘Die Eulengöttin von Pylos’, AM, vol. 83, 1968, p. 170, pl. 58, 2–3; R. Laffineur, ‘Le Symbolisme funéraire de la chouette’, Antiquité classique, vol. 50, 1981, pp. 432–5. As a bird of the night, the owl had a funerary significance, as well as a prophylactic role, both of which continued well beyond classical antiquity. The bird had power against the evil eye, which, it has been suggested, originated from its own large, staring eyes.43See Laffineur, pp. 437-8, 440-1; E. Pottier, ‘La Chouette d’Athene, BCH, vol. 32, 1908, p. 536. Indeed it could well have been this function which made the owl a useful symbol for the coinage: it offered protection. The owl also appears in the sculpture of the period.44See A. B. Cook, Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion, vol. 3, part 1, Cambridge, 1940, pp. 776–7, fig. 570; M. S. Brouskari, Musée de l’Acropole: Catalogue descriptif, Athens, 1974, pp. 23, 35, nos 1347, 56, pls 11, 26. Two large archaic stone owls have been found on the Acropolis, and there is evidence that they may once have been placed on columns. Certainly in Attic pottery there are images of an owl on a column.45See A. B. Cook, fig. 571 (Panathenaic amphora once in the collection at Castle Ashby (no. 11) (CVA, pl. 15, 5–6)). For later images, see Cook, pp. 779–81, figs 573–576. An example of a bird on a pillar has been found in the palace at Knossos (see A. J. Evans, ‘The Palace at Knossos’, Annual of the British School at Athens, vol. 8, 1901–02, pp. 28–32; Evans describes the sanctuary of a dove goddess). The owl in flight was also a symbol of good luck: the sudden appearance of such an owl before the Battle of Salamis was used to raise the Greek morale.46See Laffineur, p. 439; A. B. Cook, p. 784. However, we shall have to look elsewhere for the bird’s significance on owl-skyphoi. 

The popularity of the owl and olive spray motif in Athens was no accident. For most of classical antiquity, Athena, the eponymous goddess of the city, was accompanied by an owl, which over time became her symbol.47Stupperich, p. 157, refers to the owl as a Steinkauz (screech owl); for the Athene noctua, see Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, Oxford, 1980–94, vol. 4, pp. 514–25, pl. 48. Outside Attica, Athena was linked to other birds. Pausanias noted the cult of Athena Aithyia (gull) at Megara (I, 5, 3); he also saw at Korone in Messenia a bronze statue of Athena holding a crow (IV, 34, 6). The owl also became the symbol of Athens and its government, no doubt as the result of being placed on the reverse of the city’s silver coinage, which circulated throughout the Greek world – and beyond – as reliable bullion. In Greek, ‘owls to Athens’ became a saying48See A. B. Cook, p. 776; H. Bloesch, Antike Kunst in der Schweiz, Erlenbach, Zürich, 1943, pp. 137, 208, cites the introduction to Lucian’s Nigrinus (cf. Aristophanes, Birds, line 301). like the English ‘coals to Newcastle’, presumably because of the coins. 

The olive tree also had a special status in Athens. According to tradition, Athena and Poseidon had quarrelled over the ownership of Attica and the goddess had planted her sacred olive tree on the Acropolis to show that the city belonged to her. This tree also became a symbol of the people of Athens, for Herodotus (VIII, 55) tells us that, although the Persians burnt out the whole Acropolis, by the next day the remains of the olive stump had sprouted forth a new shoot. This was no doubt to signify the survival of Athena’s people, and their approaching victory at Salamis.49See A. B. Cook, pp. 749–64. 

Surprisingly the unique link between Athena and the owl does not reach back to the earliest literary tradition, nor was it general throughout Greece. In Homeric epic Athena is described as glaukôpis. At first sight, and by analogy with boôpis – that is, ‘ox-eyed’ or ‘wide-eyed’, for the goddess Hera – this means ‘owl-eyed’ or ‘looking like an owl’. However, many scholars derive glaukôpis from glaukós, that is, ‘gleaming’ or perhaps ‘bluish-green’ or ‘grey’.50See Pottier, pp. 534–5, 545–7; Stupperich, p. 157; A. B. Cook, p. 781, nn 2, 3; M. H. Groothand, ‘The Owl in Athena’s Hand’, BABesch, vol. 43, 1968, p. 35. Throughout the epics Athena is associated with several different birds, but not with the owl.51See A. B. Cook, pp. 781–3; Pottier, p. 538. The archaeological evidence provides numerous examples of Athena without an owl52For a series of Attic black-figure hydriae illustrating the exploits of Hercules, see CVA, British Museum 6, III H. e, pls 78, 1 (B308), 78, 3 (B310), 79, 2 (B313), 79, 3 (B314). and owls without the goddess.53Owls were a decorative motif in Corinthian ware (see D. A. Amyx, Corinthian Vase-Painting of the Archaic Period, Berkeley, 1988, p. 670, pls 29, 30, 33, 36, 38, 39, 61 etc.). For Chalcidian, see A. Rumpf, Chalkidische Vasen, Leipzig, 1927, pp. 84–6, 88, 90–1; for Protoattic, see R. M. Cook, Greek Painted Pottery, rev. edn, London, 1966, pls 16–17. 

It has been suggested by A. B. Cook and others that Athena was originally a bird goddess.54A. B. Cook, esp. pp. 784–5, 794–5; Pottier, p. 535. Because birds could actually represent her, the image of the goddess accompanied by an owl was a form of double representation. Athena’s general, and rather mixed, association with birds is well illustrated on an Early Corinthian aryballos formerly in Breslau (Wroclaw). The piece shows Hercules and Iolaos fighting the Lernaean Hydra. Behind Hercules stands the goddess Athena, who has stepped down from her chariot and is gesturing to the hero (the figures are all labelled). An owl is perched on Athena’s reins, and a mysterious bird with the head of a woman sits on her whip.55See A. B. Cook, pp. 795–7, fig. 597; Groothand, pp. 36–7; Pottier, p. 537. The whereabouts of the vase are now unknown. The creature is labelled wous. The meaning is quite unclear, and the word may be onomatopoeic.56F. Lorber, Inschriften auf korinthischen Vasen: Archäologisch-epigraphische Untersuchungen zur korinthischen Vasenmalerei im 7. und 6. Jh. V. Chr., Berlin, 1979, pp. 19–20, no. 17, questions the transliteration wous, transcribing the digamma as e or ei. Cook suggests that the wous may represent a phase in the transition between a bird goddess and the anthropomorphic goddess. He supports this view with an illustration of a helmeted wous (unlabelled) on another Corinthian aryballos.57A. B. Cook, pp. 799–801, fig. 601.
 

Another example associated with Athena appears on an East Greek plate published by Anti.58G. Anti, ‘Athena marina e alata’, Monumenti antichi, vol. 26, 1920, cols 281–3, fig. 5; Anti identifies the wous with Aithyia, the ‘Gull’ (cols 281–91). For references to the wous with Athena, see D. von Bothmer, in J. Camay & D. von Bothmer, ‘Ajax et Cassandre par le Peintre de Princeton’, Antike Kunst, vol. 30, 1987, pp. 63–4. The plate illustrates an episode in the sack of Troy, when Ajax the Lesser assaulted Cassandra in the Temple of Athena. Standing behind the statue of the goddess is a small wous, rather like a witch’s familiar. 

The theory of Athena as a bird goddess is supported by the image of the winged Athena, which occurred in both Eastern Greece and Athens in the sixth century BC.59See LIMC, vol. 2, pp. 964–5, 1019, nos 59–66, reprs (nos 59–65); A. B. Cook, pp. 804–11; A. Vining, ‘Athena as Ergane and Promachos: The Iconography of Athena in Archaic Greece’, in Archaic Greece: New Approaches and New Evidence, eds N. Fisher & H. van Wees, London, 1998, pp. 162–3. There are winged female figures on Clazomenian sarcophagi, as well as armed females without wings; at least one winged woman carries a shield and wears what may be an aegis. Many scholars have identified these figures with Athena.60See R. Zahn, ‘Klazomenischer Tonsarg im Antiquarium der königlichen Museen zu Berlin’, Jdl, vol. 23, 1908, pp. 169–80, repr. p. 170; A. B: Cook, pp. 807–8, fig. 616. However, R. M. Cook doubts this identification (R M. Cook, Clazomenian Sarcophagi, Mainz, 1981, pp. 121–2; all examples illustrated). There are also archaic Ionian coins with the head of Athena, wearing a winged helmet,61See LIMC, p. 965, nos 64–65, reprs. and to these we can add the frieze on the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi.62See J. Boardman, Greek Sculpture: The Archaic Period, London, 1978, fig. 212.4; Anti, cols 297-8, fig. 13. 

However, the best examples of a winged Athena are to be found on three Attic black-figure vases.63See LIMC, p. 964, nos 59-61, reprs. A most interesting skyphos (c.540 BC) in the Faina collection at Orvieto illustrates the deity’s dual nature. On each side of the vase is an armed Athena between two large apotropaic eyes; one figure is winged, the other is not.64See L. Savignoni, ‘Athena alata e Athena senz’ ali’, RM, vol. 12, 1897, pp. 307–17, pl. 12; Anti, cols 297–8, fig. 14; A. B. Cook, pp. 807–8, fig. 617. An amphora (end of sixth century) in the Louvre (F 380) portrays the winged goddess sitting on a stool, with an owl perched on the end of her wing.65See Anti, cols 286–8, fig. 8; A. B. Cook, p. 809. On an olpe (c.520–c.500 BC) in the Bibliothèque Nationale (260) a winged Athena carries the corpse of Pandion(?) across the sea.66See Anti, cols 287–9, fig. 9; A. B. Cook, pp. 809–11, fig. 618. Cook takes this image to illustrate the story of Pandion and Athena Aithyia at Megara (see note 47 above). It is interesting to note that this image has also been found on an Etruscan mirror, though an owl has been added, no doubt as an aid to identification.67See Anti, cols 289–90, fig. 10. The owl identifies Athena. But is it also the bird of death, and was the Etruscan winged Athena some sort of goddess of death? 

It seems that in Attica the owl acquired its popularity as Athena’s companion in about the middle of the sixth century, during the rule of the tyrant Peisistratos and his sons. Peisistratos was the founder of the Panathenaic Games, and the Burgon amphora, an early Panathenaic amphora dated to c.566–562 BC, illustrates the beginning of the preference for the owl over the wous.68See British Museum B130 (CVA, 1, III H. e, pl. 1, 1); Jongkees, p. 31; Stupperich, p. 158. On the obverse side, the amphora shows an armed Athena accompanied by a wous, and on the reverse a chariot with an owl above it. By the late sixth century the owl was Athena’s intimate companion and was sometimes found perched on her shield or even in her hand.69For Athens, National Museum, 1138, see C. H. E. Haspels, Attic Black-Figured Lekythoi, Paris, 1936, pl. 47, 2; H. A. Shapiro, ‘From Athena’s Owl to the Owl of Athens’, in Nomodeiktos: Studies in Honor of Martin Ostwald, eds R. M. Rosen & J. Farwell, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1993, p. 218, fig. 3. For a similar image (Heidelberg, Archäologisches Institut der Universität, 73/3), see Shapiro, pp. 216–17, fig. 2 (amphora). Berlin F 2313 has a seated Athena with a spear in her right hand and an owl in her left (CVA, Berlin 3, pl. 135, 4–5 (c.520–c.510 BC)). See also Groothand. The link between the owl and Athena was no doubt strengthened by the international popularity of the owl coinage. 

By the early fifth century the owl alone could symbolise the divine presence. A black-figure hydria in Uppsala shows a sacrificial scene with a sheep being led to an altar. Standing on the altar is a large owl facing left, with profile body and head full-face.70See E. M. Douglas, ‘The Owl of Athena’, JHS, vol. 32, 1912, pp. 174–5 (where the dating is far too early); A. B. Cook, pp. 782–3, fig. 578. Both commentators describe the vase, at the University of Uppsala, as an amphora; J. D. Beazley, Attic Black-Figure Vase-Painters, Oxford, 1956, p. 519, no. 5, ‘lists it as a hydria and attributes it to the Theseus Painter. This owl is not a sculpture, but rather it signifies the goddess to the viewer. Nor is the bird a substitute for the cult statue, which would never have occupied this position on the altar. 

By now the wous, which over time came to be referred to as a ‘Siren’, had little connection with the goddess. There is, of course, always an exception. A red-figure vase potted by Pamphaios (Villa Giulia 27250) shows Athena advancing beside her chariot; she is accompanied by her owl and her wous.71Villa Giulia 27250 (CVA, 2, III I c, pls 24–25); A. B. Cook, pp. 799–800, fig. 600. Note that the eyes on the owl are joined, as in the owls in Johnson’s Group I. By this stage the latter had developed a pair of arms, in addition to its wings. 

The owl as a symbol of the state is perhaps represented by an image on an unusual black-figure belly amphora dated to c.500 BC (Munich 9406).72The amphora is in the Antiken Sammlungen, Munich (see B. Kaeser, ‘Attische Massamphora’, Münchner Jahrbuch der Bildenden Kunst, 3rd series, vol. XXXVIII, 1987, pp. 228–31; Shapiro, pp. 213–16, 221–4, fig. 1). On each side is a reserved panel containing an owl perched on a tendril. In one panel the word demosios is written in large, clean letters. The word has been taken to mean ‘public’ or ‘state’. Kaeser, who first published the vase, considered it to be an official measuring vessel, which had been made inaccurately and hence was sold on the open market and exported. This argument implies the existence of similar amphorae, for which we in fact have no evidence;73See Shapiro, p. 221. the purpose of the vase remains unclear. 

Cook claimed that the motif of the owl between two olive sprays was in fact like a civic coat of arms. He compared the tondo of a kylix cup, which shows the owl between two rounded sprays that almost form a circle. The cup was a dedication to a deity, probably Athena. Cook dated it to before the Persian sack in 480 BC. He also cited a similar owl and ‘wreath’ on a triangular pediment surmounting a fourth-century inscription. From a later date is a cylindrical ‘quart’ measure made of clay. It is inscribed demosion. Near the letter delta is stamped an owl with an olive twig; beneath the first omicron is the head of Athena.74A. B. Cook, pp. 785–9, figs 581 (4th-century relief, in British Museum), 583 (tondo of cup). Though the ‘quart’ measure is distant in time from the Munich amphora, it is very tempting to see a connection. 

This brings us back to the owl-skyphoi. What was their meaning? We have examined the history of the owl and its relative the wous, and the dual nature of the goddess Athena. We have also seen the link between the olive spray and the city of Athens and its eponymous goddess. Therefore, it would most certainly be a mistake to consider the owl motif to be meaningless decoration. Cook was possibly correct in claiming that the owl motif was like a civic coat of arms. However, this is not to say that it had lost its other meanings. The ancient Greek mind had no difficulty in reconciling two quite opposing ideas and thus the motif could never have become a secular image in the modern sense. In the fifth century the sacred permeated every aspect of a citizen’s life, from a drinking party to a theatrical performance. It is therefore impossible to ignore the religious significance of the owl and olive sprays.75The olive sprays have been linked with the Anthesteria, a festival in honour of the dead but with Dionysiac revelry (see H. Hoffmann, Sotades: Symbols of Immortality on Greek Vases, Oxford, 1997, pp. 55–60). 

What then was the function of the owl-skyphos? It could well be that its use in most cases was purely domestic and secular.76Cook, p. 787, holds this view; Stupperich, p. 159, tends towards it. However, the large numbers of such skyphoi that were made seem to imply that they had a special purpose. There is no doubt that such a cup could have been used as a dedication to the goddess, for humble ceramic objects have been found in shrines and temples throughout the Greek world. Indeed, as we have seen, sherds of owl-skyphoi have been found on the Acropolis. The skyphos could have been used either in a domestic religious ceremony, of which there were many, or perhaps during a now unidentifiable religious festival.77For a suggestion regarding miniature owl-skyphoi, see E. Simon, ‘Ein Anthesterien-Skyphos des Polygnotos’, Antike Kunst, vol. 6, 1963, p. 10. Stupperick p. 159, does not concur. However, speculations of this kind notwithstanding, if the owl-skyphos had a special ritual use, then the details of it, and its meaning, are now lost.78For a recent study on the meaning of the images on Greek vases, see Hoffmann, esp. pp. 51–60 (comments on owl-skyphoi and the symbolism of the olive). 

Michael Watson, Librarian, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1999).

 

Notes

The following standard abbreviations have been used for journals and reference books: 

AJA                         American Journal of Archaeology 

AM                          Mitteilungen des Deutschen 

                                Archäologischen Instituts, 

                                Athenische Abteilung 

BABesch                 Bulletin van het Vereeniging tot 

                                Bevordering der Kennis van de Antieke 

                                Beschaving tes Gravenhage 

BCH                        Bulletin de correspondance hellénique 

Beazley, ARV2        J. D. Beazley, Attic Red-Figure Vase

                                Painters, 2nd edn, Oxford, 1963 

CVA                        Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum 

Jdl                           Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen 

                                Instituts

JHS                         Journal of Hellenic Studies 

LIMC                       Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae 

                                Classicae, Zurich, 1981- 

RM                          Mitteilungen des Deutschen 

                                Archäologischen Instituts, Römische 

                                Abteilung 

 

1     See F. B. Johnson, ‘An Owl Skyphos’, in Studies Presented to David Moore Robinson on His Seventieth Birthday, ed. G. Mylonas, vol. 2, St. Louis, 1953, pp. 96–105; and his ‘A Note on Owl Skyphoi’, AJA, vol. 59, 1955, pp. 119–24; R. Stupperich, ‘Eulen der Athena in einer münsterschen Privatsammlung’, Boreas, vol. 3, 1980, pp. 157–80; A. Jacquemin & J.-J. Maffre, ‘Nouveaux vases grecs de la collection Piéridès à Larnaca (Chypre)’, BCH, vol. 110, 1986, pp. 189–91; E. Rohde, CVA, Berlin (DDR) 1, pp. 47–50, pls 29-31; M. F. Vos, CVA, Leiden 4, pp. 24–6, pl. 184. 

2     For an example from Cumae near Naples, see E. Gàbrici, ‘Cuma’, Monumenti antichi, vol. 22, 1913, col. 460, pl. 104, 4; for an example from Populonia in Tuscany, see M. Cristofani Martelli, ‘Rivista di epigrafia etrusca: Populonia’, Studi etruschi, 3rd series, vol. 43, 1975, pp. 213–15, pl. 32. 

3     See I. McPhee, ‘Red-Figured Pottery from Corinth: Sacred Spring and Elsewhere’, Hesperia, vol. 50, 1981, p. 282. 

4     Johnson, ‘An Owl Skyphos’, pp. 96–8, 104–5, pl. 32b, discusses an Apulian skyphos in the Farwell Collection; see also Johnson, ‘A Note on Owl Skyphoi’, pp. 122–4. For examples from the Chini Collection, see G. Andreassi, Ceramica italiota a figure rosse della collezione Chini del Museo Civico di Bassano del Grappa, Rome, 1979, pp. 132–3, nos 66–68, reprs. 

5     In Athens the motif also appeared on other shapes (see Beazley, ARV2, pp. 982–4; Stupperich, pp. 158, 166–7, pls 19, 3 & 6 (squat lekythos), 20, 5–6 (pelike); J. H. Jongkees, ‘Notes on the Coinage of Athens, VIII: The Owl of Athens’, Mnemosyne, 4th series, vol. 5, 1952, pp. 34–6). 

6     Beazley, ARV2, p. 982. 

7     For the differing modern usages of the term glaux, see Johnson, ‘An Owl Skyphos’, p. 9. 

8     For the graffito, see R. Hackl, ‘Merkantile Inschriften auf attischen Vasen’, in Münchener archäologische Studien dem Andenken Adolf Furtwänglers gewidmet, Munich, 1909, pp. 53, 73, no. LXXIX. 

9     J. D. Beazley & F. Magi, La raccolta Benedetto Guglielmi nel Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Vatican, 1939, p. 87: ‘l’ansa verticale corrisponde alla testa, quella orizzontale alla coda dell’uccello’ (my translation). 

10     See Stupperich, p. 158. 

11     E. Langlotz, Griechische Vasen in Würzburg (c.1932), Rome, 1968, p. 119. 

12     Beazley, ARV2, p. 982. 

13     See Johnson, ‘An Owl Skyphos’, pp. 101–2. 

14     T. L. Shear, ‘Excavations in Corinth in 1928’, AJA, vol. 32, 1928, pp. 493–5, fig. 12; see also C. W. Blegen, H. Palmer & R. S. Young, Corinth XIII: The North Cemetery, Princeton, 1964, pp. 154–5, no. 346–6, pl. 55. 

15     See J. Boardman, Athenian Black Figure Vases, London, 1974, pp. 146–66. 

16     W. B. Dinsmoor, ‘The Date of the Older Parthenon’, AJA, vol. 38, 1934, pp. 419–20, fig. 5. 

17     Johnson, ‘An Owl Skyphos’, p. 99; and his ‘A Note on Owl Skyphoi’, p. 120. 

18     Beazley, ARV2, p. 982. 

19     J. M. Camp, ‘Excavations in the Athenian Agora: 1994 and 1995’, Hesperia, vol. 65, 1996, pp. 242, 250, no. 32, pl. 75. 

20     Dinsmoor, p. 420, fig. 5, 11 (530). Cf. Louvre G 618 (see E. Pottier, Vases antiques du Louvre, vol. 3, Paris, 1922, p. 294, pl. 158); Ashmolean 1927.4331 (CVA, 2, pl. 62, 1–2); Berlin (DDR), Antikensammlung, F 2595 (CVA, 1, pl. 29, 1–2); Orvieto, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, 493 (CVA, Umbria 1, pl. 12, 1). 

21     80R-D1A was purchased from D. V. Piccoli, Melbourne, in 1893 and is from the necropolis of Cancello, near Naples. The vase has a black painted interior and exterior, except for reserved red-figure motifs. On the underside is a small black dot inside a small circle; there is a black band on the inside wall of the ring base. 

22     Munich, Museum Antiker Kleinkunst, 2553 (CVA, 2, pl. 95, 7). 

23     McPhee, pp. 281–2, no. 66, pl. 72. 

24     See Johnson, ‘A Note on Owl Skyphoi’, pl. 37, fig. 28. 

25     See M. B. Moore, Attic Red-Figured and White-Ground Pottery, Athenian Agora, vol. 30, Princeton, 1997, p. 306, no. 1313, pl. 122. 

26     Frankfurt am Main, Liebieghaus, 534 (CVA, Frankfurt 2, pl. 80, 4 (lekythos)). 

27     Barcelona, Musée Archéologique de Barcelone, 4316 (CVA, 1, pl. 40, 11). 

28     Milan, Museo Civico Archeologico, 3643/19 Sp (CVA, 1, III, I, pl. 14, 4). 

29     4783-D3 was bought by Albert Goodbody in 1890 from, according to an old label, the ‘Curator of Naples Museum’. The vase has a black painted interior and exterior, except for reserved red-figure motifs. On the underside is a label covering the centre; there is a black band on the inside wall of the ring base. 

30     See K. Rumohr Collection, s.n. (CVA, Norway 1, pl. 41, 1–2). 

31     Gallatin Collection, s. n. (CVA, Fogg Museum & Gallatin Collection, pl. 60, 5). 

32     See D. M. Robinson, C. G. Harcum & J. H. Rifle, A Catalogue of Greek Vases in the Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology, Toronto, Toronto, 1930, p. 183, pl. 65. 

33     Goluchow, Musée Czartoryski, 169 (CVA, 1, pl. 40, 4). 

34     Berlin (DDR), Antikensammlung (CVA, 1, pl. 29, 3–4 (F 2597) & 5–6 (F 2596)). 

35     Munich, Museum Antiker Kleinkunst, 2555 (CVA, 2, pl. 95, 6). 

36     Geneva, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, 12476 (CVA, 1, pl. 12, 5). 

37     See Jongkees, pp. 28–41; G. Lippold, ‘Vasen und Milnzen’, Jdl, vol. 67, 1952, p. 95. 

38     Though views on the dating have differed widely among scholars, this is now the prevailing opinion (see C. M. Kraay, ‘The Archaic Owls of Athens: Classification and Chronology’, Numismatic Chronicle, 6th series, vol. 16, 1956, pp. 43–68; W. P. Wallace, ‘The Early Coinages of Athens and Euboia’, Numismatic Chronicle, 7th series, vol. 2, 1962, pp. 23–42; C. M. Kraay, Greek Coins, London, 1966, pp. 324–6, pls 117–119; E. J. P. Raven, ‘Problems of the Earliest Owls of Athens’, in Essays in Greek Coinage Presented to Stanley Robinson, eds C. M. Kraay & G. K. Jenkins, Oxford, 1968, pp. 40–58; C. M. Kraay, Archaic and Classical Greek Coins, London, 1976, pp. 60–3). 

39     Jongkees, pp. 35, 40–1. 

40     See Stupperich, p. 159. 

41     See Kraay, Greek Coins, p. 326, nos 355, 357, 363, pls 117–119. 

42     See S. Marinatos, ‘Die Eulengöttin von Pylos’, AM, vol. 83, 1968, p. 170, pl. 58, 2–3; R. Laffineur, ‘Le Symbolisme funéraire de la chouette’, Antiquité classique, vol. 50, 1981, pp. 432–5. 

43     See Laffineur, pp. 437-8, 440-1; E. Pottier, ‘La Chouette d’Athene, BCH, vol. 32, 1908, p. 536. 

44     See A. B. Cook, Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion, vol. 3, part 1, Cambridge, 1940, pp. 776–7, fig. 570; M. S. Brouskari, Musée de l’Acropole: Catalogue descriptif, Athens, 1974, pp. 23, 35, nos 1347, 56, pls 11, 26. 

45     See A. B. Cook, fig. 571 (Panathenaic amphora once in the collection at Castle Ashby (no. 11) (CVA, pl. 15, 5–6)). For later images, see Cook, pp. 779–81, figs 573–576. An example of a bird on a pillar has been found in the palace at Knossos (see A. J. Evans, ‘The Palace at Knossos’, Annual of the British School at Athens, vol. 8, 1901–02, pp. 28–32; Evans describes the sanctuary of a dove goddess). 

46     See Laffineur, p. 439; A. B. Cook, p. 784. 

47     Stupperich, p. 157, refers to the owl as a Steinkauz (screech owl); for the Athene noctua, see Handbook of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, Oxford, 1980–94, vol. 4, pp. 514–25, pl. 48. Outside Attica, Athena was linked to other birds. Pausanias noted the cult of Athena Aithyia (gull) at Megara (I, 5, 3); he also saw at Korone in Messenia a bronze statue of Athena holding a crow (IV, 34, 6). 

48     See A. B. Cook, p. 776; H. Bloesch, Antike Kunst in der Schweiz, Erlenbach, Zürich, 1943, pp. 137, 208, cites the introduction to Lucian’s Nigrinus (cf. Aristophanes, Birds, line 301). 

49     See A. B. Cook, pp. 749–64. 

50     See Pottier, pp. 534–5, 545–7; Stupperich, p. 157; A. B. Cook, p. 781, nn 2, 3; M. H. Groothand, ‘The Owl in Athena’s Hand’, BABesch, vol. 43, 1968, p. 35. 

51     See A. B. Cook, pp. 781–3; Pottier, p. 538. 

52     For a series of Attic black-figure hydriae illustrating the exploits of Hercules, see CVA, British Museum 6, III H. e, pls 78, 1 (B308), 78, 3 (B310), 79, 2 (B313), 79, 3 (B314). 

53     Owls were a decorative motif in Corinthian ware (see D. A. Amyx, Corinthian Vase-Painting of the Archaic Period, Berkeley, 1988, p. 670, pls 29, 30, 33, 36, 38, 39, 61 etc.). For Chalcidian, see A. Rumpf, Chalkidische Vasen, Leipzig, 1927, pp. 84–6, 88, 90–1; for Protoattic, see R. M. Cook, Greek Painted Pottery, rev. edn, London, 1966, pls 16–17. 

54     A. B. Cook, esp. pp. 784–5, 794–5; Pottier, p. 535. 

55     See A. B. Cook, pp. 795–7, fig. 597; Groothand, pp. 36–7; Pottier, p. 537. The whereabouts of the vase are now unknown. 

56     F. Lorber, Inschriften auf korinthischen Vasen: Archäologisch-epigraphische Untersuchungen zur korinthischen Vasenmalerei im 7. und 6. Jh. V. Chr., Berlin, 1979, pp. 19–20, no. 17, questions the transliteration wous, transcribing the digamma as e or ei

57     A. B. Cook, pp. 799–801, fig. 601. 

58     G. Anti, ‘Athena marina e alata’, Monumenti antichi, vol. 26, 1920, cols 281–3, fig. 5; Anti identifies the wous with Aithyia, the ‘Gull’ (cols 281–91). For references to the wous with Athena, see D. von Bothmer, in J. Camay & D. von Bothmer, ‘Ajax et Cassandre par le Peintre de Princeton’, Antike Kunst, vol. 30, 1987, pp. 63–4. 

59     See LIMC, vol. 2, pp. 964–5, 1019, nos 59–66, reprs (nos 59–65); A. B. Cook, pp. 804–11; A. Vining, ‘Athena as Ergane and Promachos: The Iconography of Athena in Archaic Greece’, in Archaic Greece: New Approaches and New Evidence, eds N. Fisher & H. van Wees, London, 1998, pp. 162–3. 

60     See R. Zahn, ‘Klazomenischer Tonsarg im Antiquarium der königlichen Museen zu Berlin’, Jdl, vol. 23, 1908, pp. 169–80, repr. p. 170; A. B: Cook, pp. 807–8, fig. 616. However, R. M. Cook doubts this identification (R M. Cook, Clazomenian Sarcophagi, Mainz, 1981, pp. 121–2; all examples illustrated). 

61     See LIMC, p. 965, nos 64–65, reprs. 

62     See J. Boardman, Greek Sculpture: The Archaic Period, London, 1978, fig. 212.4; Anti, cols 297-8, fig. 13. 

63     See LIMC, p. 964, nos 59-61, reprs. 

64     See L. Savignoni, ‘Athena alata e Athena senz’ ali’, RM, vol. 12, 1897, pp. 307–17, pl. 12; Anti, cols 297–8, fig. 14; A. B. Cook, pp. 807–8, fig. 617. 

65     See Anti, cols 286–8, fig. 8; A. B. Cook, p. 809. 

66     See Anti, cols 287–9, fig. 9; A. B. Cook, pp. 809–11, fig. 618. Cook takes this image to illustrate the story of Pandion and Athena Aithyia at Megara (see note 47 above). 

67     See Anti, cols 289–90, fig. 10. The owl identifies Athena. But is it also the bird of death, and was the Etruscan winged Athena some sort of goddess of death?

68     See British Museum B130 (CVA, 1, III H. e, pl. 1, 1); Jongkees, p. 31; Stupperich, p. 158. 

69     For Athens, National Museum, 1138, see C. H. E. Haspels, Attic Black-Figured Lekythoi, Paris, 1936, pl. 47, 2; H. A. Shapiro, ‘From Athena’s Owl to the Owl of Athens’, in Nomodeiktos: Studies in Honor of Martin Ostwald, eds R. M. Rosen & J. Farwell, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1993, p. 218, fig. 3. For a similar image (Heidelberg, Archäologisches Institut der Universität, 73/3), see Shapiro, pp. 216–17, fig. 2 (amphora). Berlin F 2313 has a seated Athena with a spear in her right hand and an owl in her left (CVA, Berlin 3, pl. 135, 4–5 (c.520–c.510 BC)). See also Groothand. 

70     See E. M. Douglas, ‘The Owl of Athena’, JHS, vol. 32, 1912, pp. 174–5 (where the dating is far too early); A. B. Cook, pp. 782–3, fig. 578. Both commentators describe the vase, at the University of Uppsala, as an amphora; J. D. Beazley, Attic Black-Figure Vase-Painters, Oxford, 1956, p. 519, no. 5, ‘lists it as a hydria and attributes it to the Theseus Painter. 

71     Villa Giulia 27250 (CVA, 2, III I c, pls 24–25); A. B. Cook, pp. 799–800, fig. 600. Note that the eyes on the owl are joined, as in the owls in Johnson’s Group I. 

72     The amphora is in the Antiken Sammlungen, Munich (see B. Kaeser, ‘Attische Massamphora’, Münchner Jahrbuch der Bildenden Kunst, 3rd series, vol. XXXVIII, 1987, pp. 228–31; Shapiro, pp. 213–16, 221–4, fig. 1). 

73     See Shapiro, p. 221. 

74     A. B. Cook, pp. 785–9, figs 581 (4th-century relief, in British Museum), 583 (tondo of cup). 

75     The olive sprays have been linked with the Anthesteria, a festival in honour of the dead but with Dionysiac revelry (see H. Hoffmann, Sotades: Symbols of Immortality on Greek Vases, Oxford, 1997, pp. 55–60). 

76     Cook, p. 787, holds this view; Stupperich, p. 159, tends towards it. 

77     For a suggestion regarding miniature owl-skyphoi, see E. Simon, ‘Ein Anthesterien-Skyphos des Polygnotos’, Antike Kunst, vol. 6, 1963, p. 10. Stupperick p. 159, does not concur. 

78     For a recent study on the meaning of the images on Greek vases, see Hoffmann, esp. pp. 51–60 (comments on owl-skyphoi and the symbolism of the olive).