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September 2021

Tipsy Hephaestus Releases Mother from Chains

By Elevenses, Hephaestus and Hera, Talking art

‘Tipsy Hephaestus releases mother from chains’?? Er, yes! Which is why he’s often celebrated on Kraters (vessels used to mix wine with water) even though he essentially bound her in the first place. All clear? No? Read on…

Hephaestus on a horse Attic krater

Attributed to Lydos, Krater depicting Hephaestus, ca. 550 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y., USA

krater depicting Hepaestus

Attic krater depicting Hephaestus, ca. 440-430 B.C., Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden, Netherlands

Hephaestus is the one on the horse, looking (unusually) dashing in both depictions as he heads to Olympus. But this is the end of the story. The tale actually begins at the moment of Hephaestus’s birth. He was, shall we say, not the most attractive of babies. Actually, even his own mother was unbeguiled by him even though it was probably her fault that he wasn’t the cutest.

Hera had decided that she wanted another child. But she wanted this child to be her own. And when I say ‘her own’ I mean no father, no turkey baster, no donor, no nothing. As she was a goddess, it was in her power to produce life from her own body with no male intervention and that’s exactly what she did.

Why did she want this? Somewhere in the archives, there is an Elevenses all about Athena who was said to be Zeus’s favourite child because he kind of spontaneously gave birth to her out of the top of his head, hence he was her only parent. Once the pain subsided, that worked pretty well for him. Athena was a bit of a superstar of the Greek pantheon and Hera was jealous.

Athena emerging from Zeus's head

19th century German copy of an ancient Greek vase depicting the birth of Athena

When Hephaestus was born, however, she was so horrified and mortified, that she chucked him off Olympus.

The poor little lad fell and fell and fell for an entire day – that’s how high Olympus is – but instead of dying before he’d even got going in life, he eventually plopped into the sea, completely crippled but alive. That is why, by the way, he’s depicted on a horse, although his injuries aren’t featured and he’s looking pretty healthy to me, especially on the Leiden krater.

Anyway, when he plopped into the sea at the bottom of Olympus, Thetis (possibly Achilles mum) scooped him up and nursed him. She looked after him into his adolescence, when his skills as a blacksmith became ever more obvious. He wasn’t strong or dashing but Hephaestus became the often sought-after blacksmith of the gods. At some point, however, he found out that he’d been thrown off Olympus by his mum. That must have been a tough day. So it might be surprising that he subsequently sent Hera one of the most beautiful gifts that she’d ever received. Perhaps she didn’t know who it was from, or maybe she thought that she had a very forgiving son, but when she unwrapped the beautiful throne, she had to sit in it straight away.

Hephaestus's magic throne

Attributed to the Kleophon Painter, Attic Skyphos (wine cup), ca. 430 – 420 B.C., Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo

Here she is on her throne. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that there’s a satyr (flute girl was clearly demoted – see last week’s talk on the Greek symposium) blowing an aulos into her face. And frankly she looks as though she’s flinching but she can’t do much about it because she’s stuck.

Hephaestus made a throne that he knew his mother wouldn’t possibly be able to resist, and when she sat in it, she was bound by invisible chains and unable to move. Revenge is a dish best served cold, right?

So why does he appear so often on kraters? It’s a sort of nod to the benefits of wine. In the story, Ares or Mars (to use his Roman name) was sent to force Hephaestus to release Hera. It didn’t work. He even denied he had a mother. But when Dionysus or Bacchus was deployed to get him tipsy and persuade him to come and set her free, the wine did the trick.

In the full image on this cup, he’s riding into Olympus to do just that.

Hephaestus rides into Olympus to release Hera

What I love about these cups is that they give us a great insight into the way the ancient Greeks saw their gods and imagined their trials and tribulations and successes. We see all of this today as a great story, but it was more of a lesson for them; be it a warning or an encouragement.

With that in mind, I wonder what will become of aulos boy when Hera gets free???

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

The Greek Symposium

By Elevenses, Greek symposium, Talking art

Ah, the Greek Symposium. All politics and philosophy you might think. Er, no. The ancient Greeks indulged in drinking rituals that would rival anything the boys on a rugby tour might throw at you. And I’d say that they even upped the ante!

kylix symposium scene

Kylix depicting a symposium, 5th century B.C., Berlin State Museum, Germany

As the men are illustrated around the edge of the cup, so they would recline around the edge of the room, two to each couch, with numbers ranging from 6 to 30.

The evenings started off very respectably with a banquet at which it is entirely possible that alcohol wasn’t served at all. The ancient Greeks had clearly learnt the art of lining their stomachs. After dinner, the men (yes, it was a bit of a boy’s club) had their hands washed by slaves, the floor was swept (by slaves), the room splashed with perfume (by slaves) and as if those slaves weren’t busy enough already, they often had to make time to adorn the men with garlands.

Then they’d start drinking.

At the beginning of this process, one incredibly important ritual had to take place; there would be a number of toasts to divinities; one imagines that Bacchus was always included. No one could decline to participate and everyone had to keep pace.

After these toasts, the wine would be diluted with water in a vessel known as a krater.

Krater to mix water and wine

Attributed to Lydos, Krater (bowl for mixing wine and water), ca. 550 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y., USA

The banqueters had to decide what percentage of water to put in and anything less than 50% was considered dangerous. I love the thought of the wrangles between those who wanted more or less water – I’m thinking punishments may have been doled out for anyone considered too conservative? Or am I getting carried away by my limited knowledge of ferocious rugby drinking sessions? Anyway, once mixed, the ‘fun’ would begin. Each guest would have to drink the same amount, with everyone else, so they’d choose the size of the cup that would be used and off they would go round after round. As they drank, each man had to take a turn singing a song.

symposium fresco man holding lyre

  Symposium scene from the Tomb of the Diver necropolis frescoes in Paestum, ca. 475 B.C., National Archaeological Museum of Paestum, Italy

Some would be little love songs, and the performer might accompany himself on a lyre.

Here’s one such fellow, although I think he might be more interested in the bearded gentleman he’s sharing a couch with. This is a fresco from a rare Greek wall painting that has survived from circa 475 BC. It’s called the Tomb of the Diver (another fresco depicts a man diving).

Other men might have been more interested in the Flute Girl who accompanied more bawdy, rousing songs on a flute.

She’s looking quite demure here and rather professional as she plays a double flute or an aulos. The reality is that her aulos playing could well have sounded shocking because, in truth, the flute girl was hired for her looks and sex appeal rather than her musical expertise. With that in mind, she may well have worn far fewer clothes than depicted here. If you’re wondering what’s behind her, it’s her flute case.

The poor flute girl was I’m sure veritably molested by the end of the night – that was part of her job description I think, as sobering a thought as that thought might be, but there was at least one man that she was safe from…

Flute girl

Attributed to the Brygos Painter, Flute girl depicted on lekythos (perfume bottle), ca.480 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y., USA

There was an ancient Greek book called Epidemics in which all sorts of phobias were recorded. One of the more unusual entries related to a gentleman who stated that he suffered from a fear of flute girls. I suppose this might relate to the fact that he was rubbish at singing or wasn’t interested in groping her (or worse), in any event the evening ended for him as soon as she started playing because he became so ill.

Assuming, however, that you didn’t suffer flute girl phobia, the evening would offer plenty of chance for silliness and games.

monster eye kylix
gorgon at the bottom of your cup

Nikosthenes, kylix (drinking cup) with monster eyes and a gorgon, ca. 530 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y., USA

Assuming you didn’t suffer flute girl phobia, the evening would offer plenty of chance for silliness and games.

I mean, wouldn’t it be absolutely hilarious if you turned into a monster with crazy eyes every time you drank? Look at the eyes on this. This is Dionysus in the centre holding a rhyton or a wine funnel with satyrs and maenads on either side.

And as you drained your glass, imagine if a monstrous gorgon was gradually revealed, such as this one.

The gorgon joke was particularly effective as, of course, the drinker’s face that would have originally been reflected in the wine was slowly replaced as the wine was drunk. I feel this would become more apt as the evening went on!

As would flicking things. You get drunk, you flick things. Great game, as depicted both in the Tomb of the Diver fresco and on various drinking paraphernalia. This game was known as kottabos and basically once you’d finished your cup, you’d flick the dregs at a target saying the name of your beloved. If they hit the target, happy days, if not, that wasn’t so good. You’d want to try that one early in the proceedings! The chap here has his next drink lined up – he’s flicking with his right and cradling another cup with his left.

kottabos game

Kylix (drinking cup), Kottabos, ca. 500 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y., USA

kottabos tomb of the diver
Drinking cup symposium conga

Brygos painter, kylix featuring drunken revellers, Martin von Wagner Museum, Würzburg, Germany

And (almost) finally, there’s dancing. Of sorts. Unfortunately for the neighbours, this doesn’t seem to have been confined to the house where the symposium was taking place. Oh no, the guests would emerge, conga style, accompanied by the flute girl and try to rouse participants from other houses. Out of control!

And this is how the evening ends!

tondo from Bygros Painter kylix

Brygos painter, kylix featuring drunken revellers, Martin von Wagner Museum, Würzburg, Germany
Photo credit: akg-images / André Held

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Release the Kraken

By Elevenses, Kraken, Talking art

Last week was all about Behemoth and Leviathan, but is the Kraken the same as Leviathan? In some mentions in popular culture, they are interchangeable but I did some digging and as you can see from these images, they are indeed similar but not quite the same…


Behemouth, Leviathan and Ziz, 1236, Ambrosiana Bible, Ulm (Germany), Milano, Biblioteca Ambrosiana


Kraken, 2011, Wasted Talents Blogspot at

As you can see from these images, they are indeed similar but not quite the same.

Leviathan (the ‘fish’ to the right of the first image) is wrapped around an island, the Kraken IS an island.

The image of the Kraken is from a website called wasted talent – the strapline is ‘Corporate Artists wasting their talent by day, and unleashing their art super powers by night’. Love it!

The story goes that in around 1,000 AD a bishop was travelling from Norway to Greenland, spotted an island, celebrated mass on it and was very surprised to find that, after returning to his boat, he turned to take a last look but it had disappeared.

Anyway, said bishop was lucky to escape because this island was, in fact, what King Sverre of Norway termed in 1180 AD, ‘The Kraken’.

So the story of the Kraken is a Norse myth that actually has nothing to do with ancient Greece at all, no matter what you were led to believe in the Clash of the Titans.

The Kraken was described as a huge creature with tentacles and eyes the size of dinner plates. Some stories claim that the tentacles of the Kraken are more than a mile long which would make sense if it was mistaken for an island.

Kraken 1650 image of creature devouring boat

A kraken attacking a ship, c. 1650, getty images

Accounts of what the Kraken liked to eat were varied. According to the more bloody thirsty legends, the giant beast would rapidly ascend from the depths to wrap its monstrous tentacles around a ship, pulling it under the waves where it could devour the sailors.

Or it would swim around and around the vessel to create a maelstrom and sink the ship that way. Is that reminiscent of anything? Remember Charybdis?

Some say that it was more interested in fish which was such a terrifying prospect for the fish that they would swim near to the surface of the water, basically trying to escape. All that did was enable brave sailors to profit by making an easy catch. Nice choice, the Kraken or the fishing net! But the real kicker for the fish was that once the Kraken had eaten and digested them, it would poo out its waste but this waste would be so irresistible to the fish (seriously who came up with this theory?) that they were attracted back to the vicinity of the Kraken so that the cycle was put on repeat.

Much of this was noted, albeit rather less sensationally, when the Kraken made an appearance in scientific journals, which it did quite frequently. The first is dated to around 1250 and describes the Kraken in great detail. It also comments on the monster’s unique feeding habits but has a slightly different twist; it claims that the Kraken would regurgitate food particles from its mouth into the sea. Fish would be attracted to the food and swarm to feed. The Kraken could then scoop up the school of fish in one gulp. Is that less disgusting? Not sure.

When Swedish botanist and zoologist, Carl Linnaeus first undertook the task of classifying all living creatures on Earth, he also included the Kraken. The 1735 edition of his Systema Naturae has an entry for the Kraken, which he categorized as a cephalopod and named Microcosmus marinus. Subsequent reprints omitted the Kraken entry which was a shame. Perhaps that’s because, in another work, Linnaeus noted that the Kraken was a ‘unique monster that inhabits the seas of Norway, but I have not seen this animal.’

Nonetheless, it appears again in a description by the Danish historian and bishop, Erik Pontoppidan in his Natural History of Norway from 1755 which includes, by the way, mention of a ‘strong and peculiar’ scent that is particularly alluring to fish.

Pontoppidan didn’t go overboard (pardon the pun) in his claims about the terrifying nature of the Kraken, which, unfortunately cannot be said for Pierre Denys de Montfort. Granted he had figured out that, surprise, surprise, the Kraken was either a giant squid or octopus, and indeed he is known today for his pioneering inquiries into the existence of the gigantic octopuses.

Montfort turned out, however, to be a bit of a sensationalist. He claimed that ten British warships that had mysteriously disappeared one night in 1782 must have been attacked and sunk by giant octopuses. Unfortunately for Montfort, the British knew what had actually happened to the ships, and called him out on his claims. Suffice to say, his career went down the pan and never recovered.

de Montfort giant octopus attacking ship

Pierre Denys de Montfort, a colossal octopus, 1801

Not so for Jules Verne who’s original edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea included this illustration which pays homage to the Kraken.

So what was reported by the bishop who took mass on the island all those years ago? The description of the ‘emissions’ and the numerous tentacles suggest that it might well have been an octopus or a squid, and indeed several have washed up on northern shores over the centuries. As they are soft-bodied cephalopods, however, they wouldn’t leave behind fossil evidence so who knows?

Jules Verne giant squid

The crew of Nautilus battles a giant squid in Jules Vernes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, illustration from original 1870 edition

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Behemoth and Leviathan

By Behemoth and Leviathan, Elevenses, Talking art

I bet you’ve heard of Behemoth and Leviathan but who are/were they?

Here they are depicted as an ox (Behemoth) and as a huge fish (Leviathan) in a 13th century manuscript that was created in northern France but is written in Hebrew. The story of the pair is found in the book of Job but is far more developed in the Jewish tradition than Christian.

Behemoth British Library

Behemoth, The Northern French Miscellany, 1277-1286, British Library

Leviathan British Library

Leviathan, The Northern French Miscellany, 1277-1286, British Library

So it’s a story about an ox and a fish? Sort of but the ox is an animal so large that it covers the earth and the fish is of a similar size in the oceans.

The myth of Behemoth and Leviathan goes back to the beginning of time.

God created Leviathan on the fifth day and then Behemoth on the sixth. In some stories they both have wives created at the same time but in others only Leviathan gets female company. This doesn’t last long as Chaos comes along (like many things created at the beginning of time, chaos was both a concept and a living entity) and corrupts Leviathan. This means that Leviathan is now capable of evil intent and therefore God, quite sensibly, got rid of Mrs L. to avoid double trouble. As the pair were more powerful than any other creatures on land or earth, but equal in strength to each other, the world was held in equilibrium; evil existed but couldn’t prevail.

Ziz, British Library

Ziz, The Northern French Miscellany, 1277-1286, British Library

If you’re wondering whether the sky was represented in the same way, say hello to Ziz, the original big bird. According to a tale in the Babylonian Talmud, a bird was seen by sailors standing up to it’s ankles in water. They assumed that the water wasn’t deep but a voice warned them that they were very much deceived. Apparently a carpenter had dropped his axe seven years previously and it STILL hadn’t reached the bottom! I don’t, however, know how they knew it hadn’t reached the bottom?! If you watch the video, you will notice that I get this tale somewhat wrong but the essence is correct. These animals are massive.

So how do you represent animals of unfathomable size pictorially? You take your cue from written descriptions and think of animals that would garner the appropriate amount of respect and fear within your society.

The book of Job describes Behemoth as a strong herbivore with a tail like a cedar tree (to give some sense of scale). Leviathan is a scaly, twisty creature with sharp teeth.

Here they are again in a 13th century German manuscript. Ziz is a griffin type animal this time, Leviathan is huge enough to encircle an island and Behemoth is frankly just a happy ox chewing on a (presumably) very tall tree.

Behemoth, Leviathan, Ziz, Ambrosiana Bible

Behemouth, Leviathan and Ziz, 1236, Ambrosiana Bible, Ulm (Germany), Milano, Biblioteca Ambrosiana

I wonder, though, whether this mosaic from the House of the Faun references the same myth? It can’t refer to a Christian context as it was created late in the 1st century BC. The hippopotamus and crocodile in the centre are certainly engaged in a little contretemps but don’t seem to be about to take it to the next level!

The mosaic depicts scenes from the Nile and these were the most feared of the animals to be found there. They also correspond with later tradition in that the hippo is a giant herbivore and the crocodile is known for its teeth and ability to twist. Could this particular creation myth have ancient roots?

House of the Faun Nile Mosaic

 Late 1st century BC mosaic, Scenes from the Nile, House of the Faun, Pompeii

So that’s what happened at the beginning of time, but how does it end? With a feast of course!

This is the image directly below Behemoth, Leviathan and Ziz from the Ambrosiana Bible. The story goes that at the end of the world, God will command Behemoth and Leviathan to engage in combat. But as they are equally matched, it will be a fight to the death for both of them. Once dead, they will join the mother of all roast birds (Ziz – aww!) on the banquet table for all the righteous. And what a banquet this will be as it will herald the beginning of the Messianic Age when everyone will live in a world without evil.  At least this what the Jewish tradition states. The book of Job in the bible is quiet on the matter but the apocryphal Old Testament tells the same tale.

Ambrosiana Bible end of the world feast

Feast of the Righteous, 1236, Ambrosiana Bible, Ulm (Germany), Milano, Biblioteca Ambrosiana

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.