Mythical Monsters in Early Attica

by Naoíse Mac Sweeney

With a deep red face and wavy black hair, a figure strides purposefully to the right, facing someone in front of him while another person stands behind. His gender (male) is signalled by the curve of a beard along his jawline, although his top lip remains clean-shaven, and his long hair cascades over the high neckline of his simple tunic. His face is portrayed in profile, and a label with his name runs downwards from his forehead to his chin, broken midway through the fourth letter. It reads: “ΠΕΤP …” (or in the Latin alphabet: “PETR …”).

Who was this mysterious figure, why was he depicted on a black-figure vase from Attica in the late seventh century BCE, and what can we learn from this particular vase inscription on this particular pot sherd (no. 651 d)?

The vase fragment [IKA, photo: K. Klein].

Monstrosity, instability, and politics

The sherd in question is the earliest in the group of inscribed vessels that we have studied together as part of the ‘Talking Pots’ project at the Institute of Classical Archaeology, University of Vienna. The image and its accompanying inscription were painted on the surface of a lebes (a deep and incurving vase, almost a cauldron) in the second half of the seventh century BCE, roughly a century after the Greek alphabet was first developed, and two centuries before most of the other vases discussed on this blog were made.

At the time, the city of Athens had already become the dominant settlement within the region of Attica where this vase was made, and was also beginning to emerge as an important player in wider networks of Mediterranean trade (Doronizio 2018). It had not yet, however, established itself as the cultural hub or the economic centre that it would later become. The structures of the Athenian state were still developing, and our evidence suggests that there was neither political centralisation nor social coherence at this time (Rönnberg 2021). Later historical sources describe this period as beset by political instability, from the attempted coup of Cylon to the homicide laws of Draco. This impression has been strengthened by new archaeological evidence in the form of several mass graves recently discovered at Phaleron just outside Athens – graves of men of fighting age, their hands bound as prisoners, who seem to have been executed and buried without special care (Ingvarsson and Bäckström 2019).

In this period of violence and unrest, the painted vases of Attica often bore images of mythical rather than real-life monsters (Winkler-Horaček 2015). The famous ‘Polyphemus amphora’ from Eleusis features a large scene of the monstrous gorgons chasing the hero Perseus, as well as a smaller image of Odysseus and his companions blinding the cyclops Polyphemus (Eleusis Archaeological Museum 2630). The same story of Odysseus and the cyclops appears on the name vase of the Ram Jug Painter (Aegina Archaeological Museum MA 1754); while on a fragmentary amphora, Peleus cradles his infant son Achilles as he greets the centaur Cheiron (Berlin Staatliches Museen A.9; CVA Berlin 1, pp12-13, plate 5). Sphinxes were especially popular, and indeed are even a feature of what is known as the ‘Protoattic’ style (the name given to the style of ceramic painting produced in seventh century Attica: see Arrington 2021). We find them depicted on ceramic stands (e.g. stand for a dinos: Mainz University 154), mixing-bowls (e.g. krater fragment from Anavyssos: National Archaeological Museum Athens 497), and perfume jars (e.g. oinochoe from Phaleron: Munich Antikensammlung 1352).

The popularity of mythical monsters in the visual arts of this period can be seen as serving a double function. On the one hand, it was a means of comprehending the very real violence that accompanied the emergence of new political structures. On the other, allusions to a shared corpus of myths allowed viewers to build on the common ground of their humanity as well as acknowledging their cultural reference points. One artist who seems to have had a particular interest in depicting mythical monsters is the pot painter known as the ‘Nessos Painter’, the artist usually associated with this particular sherd.

The hand of the artist

The artists who decorated Greek painted pottery can sometimes identified because they signed their names on their work (for these and other categories of name inscriptions, see this earlier blog post by David Hack). More often, however, individual artists are identified by their characteristic stylistic traits.

The Nessos Painter is a good example of this, with a characteristic style exemplified by this ‘name vase’ (National Archaeological Museum Athens A1002). On the neck of this amphora, the painter has depicted Herakles wrestling the centaur Nessos (both of these figures are labelled with name inscriptions), while the main body of the vase is decorated with monstrous winged gorgons running towards the right. Characteristic features of this painter’s style include the use of pendant hooked rays as a decorative motif, and the details in the rendering of facial features including eyes and ears. Vases attributed to the Nessos Painter often depict mythical monsters, not only gorgons but also sphinxes (e.g. amphora discovered in the Athenian agora: Vanderpool 1938, p367–371) and harpies (e.g. bowl found on Aegina: CVA Berlin 1, pp36–37, plate 47).

Our particular sherd seems to fall into this category. The red-skinned male figure whose name inscription is only partly preserved has been identified as Petraios (CVA Wien 1, p14, plate 5), a centaur known to us from both literary texts (Nonnus, Dionysiaka 14.189; Ovid, Metamorphoses 12.330ff) and other vase paintings (notably the famous ‘François Vase’: CIG IV 8185c). This interpretation is not only highly plausible but also appealing, given what we know about the Nessos Painter’s work and of Protoattic pottery more generally.

Who is our centaur?

But is this figure really a depiction of the centaur Petraios? On our sherd, the male figure’s rounded nose is particularly reminiscent of that of the centaur Nessos on the name vase of the Nessos Painter, perhaps implying that we are seeing some early convention in the representation of centaur physiognomy. Yet this is another possible reading of the broken name inscription.

The four preserved letters are usually read as: “ΠΕΤP …”.

However, in the seventh century BCE there were still significant divergences in the way the Greek alphabet was written in different parts of the Greek world. Different regions had their own scripts, with variations in both letter forms and orthography (Jeffrey 1990). In the local Attic script of the time, two peculiarities are relevant here:

  • The writing of letter “Π” (pronounced “Pi”, the equivalent of “P” in the Latin alphabet) was similar to that of the letter “N” (pronounced “Nu”);
  • The letter “T” (pronounced “Tau”) was used interchangeably with the letter “Σ” (pronounced “Sigma”, the equivalent of “S” in the Latin alphabet).

The first three letters of the name could therefore be “ΠΕΤ…” (Pet…), but they could also possibly be “NEΣ…” (Nes…).

Which begs the question: could this figure be the centaur Nessos?

This might be an attractive possibility, given the stylistic similarities between our sherd and the corpus of vases attributed to the Nessos Painter, and also given that we know the Nessos Painter sometimes revisited the same mythical scene on more than one pot (Perseus’ flight from the gorgons is represented not only on the Nessos Painter’s name vase, but also on the bowl with the harpies found on Aegina).

The key must lie in what remains of the fourth letter, which is broken and faded. It is usually read as the Greek letter “P” (pronounced “Rho”, the equivalent of the Latin letter “R”), implying in the name Petraios; but it could possibly also be read as a second “T”, implying the name Nettos or Nessos. Through the collaborative work of the ‘Talking Pots’ group, these different possibilities have come to light, reminding us of the importance of examining our materials closely at first hand.

Personally, on balance I would probably say that the standard reading of the inscription is correct, that the fourth letter is a “Rho”, and that our centaur is Petraios rather than Nessos. But other interpretations remain possible. Who do you think he is?

Works Cited

  • N. Arrington, Athens at the Margins: Pottery and People in the Early Mediterranean World (Princeton 2021).
  • A. Doronizio, Athen im 7. Jahrhundert v. Chr: Räume und Funde der frühen Polis (Berlin/Boston 2018).
  • A. Ingvarsson – Y. Bäckström, Bioarchaeological field analysis of human remains from the mass graves at Phaleron, Greece, Opuscula 19, 2019, 7–158.
  • L. H. Jeffrey, The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece (revised edition with a supplement by A.N. Johnston, Oxford 1990).
  • M. Rönnberg, Athen und Attika vom 11. bis zum frühen 6. Jh. v. Chr. Siedlungsgeschichte, politische Institutionalisierungs- und gesellschaftliche Formierungsprozesse (Rahden/Westf. 2021).
  • E. Vanderpool, The Rectangular Rock-Cut Shaft, Hesperia 7,3, 1938, 363–411.
  • L. Winkler-Horaček, Monster in der frühgriechischen Kunst. Die Überwindung des Unfassbaren, Image & Context 4 (Berlin/Boston, 2015).

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Matthias Hoernes (2023, 9. März). Mythical Monsters in Early Attica. Talking Pots. Abgerufen am 30. Mai 2024, von

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