Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.02.17

Herbert Hoffmann, Sotades: Symbols of Immortality on Greek Vases.   Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1997.  Pp. xvii + 205.  ISBN 0-19-815061-X.  $135.00.  

Reviewed by Diana Burton, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand (
Word count: 2481 words

The works of Sotades and the Sotades Painter are among the most distinctive and unusual Attic pots left to us. A potter of remarkable skill and imagination, the originality of the shapes of Sotades' pieces is equalled only by the difficulty of interpreting them and the images painted upon them. This book is an attempt to unravel the meaning behind these images. Herbert Hoffmann (hereafter H.) began this study of Sotades' work as 'a traditional archeological monograph' (p. vii). This book has been over twenty years in the writing, and, as H. points out in his Preface, it has changed considerably in form and direction during its genesis. Much of it (Chapters 3, 5, 6, 7, 9) is reprinted and adapted from previously published work; however, this reads more as a continuous work than a collection of articles, as H.'s argument here is cumulative. It sits squarely in the centre of the current debate over Greek vases between connoisseurship and social history, or, as H. prefers to call it, iconography and iconology (p. 3).

Studies in social anthropology at Oxford, followed by a year in Sir Edmund Leach's graduate seminar, and another with J.-P. Vernant and the 'Paris school', convinced H. that 'the key themes of ancient Athens must be studied and understood as interpenetrating one another, much as they would have appeared to be in the mind of a fifth-century Athenian' (p. viii). This is an increasingly familiar basis for the study of Greek vase-painting (pace H., p. 3). However, H. has here taken the approach a step further. He seeks not only 'meaning' in individual vases but also 'a unity reflecting the prevailing ideas and sentiments of the society from which they spring' (p. 3). He selects a single potter and painter (possibly one and the same) and sets out to show that the whole of the Sotadean oeuvre reflects, in essence, a unified underlying preoccupation with Dionysian ritual and its inherent promise of immortality for the initiate. His reasons for this are set out in the Introduction, the most crucial section of the book. It is here that H. sets out the foundations of his argument, before applying it to the pots in succeeding chapters, and readers who are not convinced by this part of the book are unlikely to be convinced by the rest.

The Introduction begins with a brief summary of the iconography-iconology debate. H. defines iconology here as the attempt to understand a work of art as 'the expression of the basic attitude of a society ... a document of a civilization'; 'we are then dealing with the work as a symptom of something else which expresses itself in a countless variety of other symptoms' (p. 3; H.'s italics).

H. uses, as a springboard for his argument, the ritual function of the phialai and rhyta -- particularly the latter -- which make up much of the surviving Sotadean corpus. He argues that the importance of pots as temple and funerary offerings has to do with the symposium, 'the most noble form of social activity', paralleled by the banquets of the gods, thereby establishing links between living, dead and immortal (pp. 4-5). Drinking-vessels found in tombs 'were conceived by the Greeks to possess the same magical power to establish a link with gods and heroes for the benefit of the buried dead as they did for the benefit of the living in their own ritual observances on earth' (p. 5). However, I would suggest that grave goods have a considerable range of possible meanings,1 and the symposium has a secular aspect that is not given sufficient weight here (nor is it true that 'wine-drinking took place almost exclusively in this context', p. 52).

H. argues that the imagery of Sotadean rhyta reflects two divergent belief-systems. Vessel-rhyta, which were not spouted, were used in banquets commemorating hero-ancestors, in order to assimilate their strength and courage, in allusion to the type of drinking-vessels thought to be used by the heroes themselves (p. 8-9). In temples or tombs, such earthenware pots are substituted for more precious metal vases; they 'are put there in simulation of value and thus are clearly surrogate offerings, a form of sacrifice' (p. 9; this is, perhaps, more true of those found in temples than of those found in tombs). H. argues that funnel-rhyta, which had a spout at the base from which the wine jetted out in a thin stream, were probably used in connection with the ritual drinking attested for the cult of Dionysos (p. 10). These rhyta, used as offerings for tomb or temple, 'expressed conviction in personal immortality by placing the dedicator in the same category with the banqueter-divinity' (p. 11). In interpreting this group, H. cites Dionysos' inversion of social and heroic norms (p. 13); the ram's-head rhyton is an example of the first type; the rhyta in the form of a crocodile devouring a negro boy is an example of the second (p. 12-13; Chapters 3 and 5 for the former, 1 for the latter). H. envisages the patriotic-heroic and Dionysian belief-systems as both contradictory and complementary, and finds both of these belief-systems reflected throughout the pots studied in this book. 'In the latter half of the fifth century, the concept of "hero" was gradually expanded to embrace the Dionysian mystery initiate'; rhyta placed in graves acted to establish the deceased in a 'banqueting relationship' with his (or her) forefathers, so as to assimilate him into their ranks: 'in this sense the vases in effect created immortality' (p. 15). I would suggest, rather, that the initiate after death may have gained a status modelled upon, and in some ways similar to, that of heroes (in one sense of that very elusive word), but doubt that the two concepts were as closely linked as H. presents them to be. Moreover, any interrelation the vases had with such status is more likely to be as a reflection of it than as a cause of it.

H. argues that the forms of these rhyta (and, indeed, of other Sotadean pots) always correlate in meaning with the images painted on them (p. 13). Dionysian elements, as H. points out, are strongly in evidence; satyrs abound, often in pursuit of women. A little less clear-cut is the imagery concerned with initiation, which always involved dying in one status and being reborn in another (p. 14). Hence, the imagery concerned with various rites of passage is closely interrelated, 'indeed interchangeable' (p. 14). 'Death-rebirth symbolism can also stand for funerals, in which case the message of the image is "The deceased was an initiate"' (p. 14). Here, as elsewhere in this book, the development of an interesting idea is not quite delineated with sufficient clarity to be convincing.

The chapters following are, for the most part, fairly short, each dealing with a single pot or small group of pots related in form. Chapters 1-7 cover rhyta and kantharos-rhyta of various types: negro-crocodile, crane-pygmy, ram, ram-donkey, ram, sphinx, and Amazon respectively. In each chapter H. looks at all variants from the mould, occasionally including South Italian variants for comparison. Chapter 8 discusses the iconography of a cup in Naples showing satyrs stalking a bull and a billy-goat, Chapter 9 a head-vase of (H. suggests) Charos, the medieval Greek equivalent of the grim reaper, and Chapter 10 that most intriguing of objects, the astragalos or 'knucklebone,' in the British Museum. Chapter 11 is given to a pot without painted images, the phiale mesomphalos with a cicada on it in Boston. Chapter 12 continues the debate on the much-discussed trio of white-ground kylikes in the British Museum, and Chapter 13 discusses a fragment of a cup-skyphos depicting morra players. There follows a brief Conclusion and a catalogue, expanding on Beazley ARV2 763ff and discussing briefly some of those vases not already covered in the main text.

The scope of this book is broader than this summary would suggest. H. weaves together such diverse themes as facial similarities between pygmies and satyrs, rape by divinites disguised as beasts, a Thracian image of effeminacy, and departing warrior scenes (among others) and binds them in with Dionysian ritual and its promise of immortality -- and this in just the first chapter. H. has an impressive grasp of a formidable range of evidence related to his subject, and has built up a complex and interesting series of interpretations. The footnotes in particular testify to a readiness to include evidence from all areas of the ancient world, not solely from art and archaeology.

However, I found some parts more persuasive than others. The worst flaw in this book is the looseness of the connections H. draws between his materials. The problem with H.'s methodology is the freedom of association that it promotes. I have no argument with the attempt to make use of anthropological methodology in order to place the pots in their context; but that methodology needs to be applied with an extra degree of caution to counterbalance the lack of contemporary, trained observation in the field, which might act as a corrective to hypotheses based on material culture. In this respect, H. is not always as careful as he might be. Occasionally he undermines his own argument, as he makes use of material that is ambiguous (e.g. the fragments of Herakleitos), anachronistic (e.g. evidence from Nonnos for the boar as an animal manifestation of Dionysos, p. 69 n. 56) or (rarely) inaccurate (p. 101 n. 33: 'life: death: life: Dionysos' is not on the gold tablet from Hipponion, but on a bone tablet from Olbia; nor is the supplement 'Dio[nysos]' universally accepted).3 In some cases H.'s hypotheses for the meaning of the Sotadean images are not sufficiently supported by the evidence; for example, a ram's-head kantharos-rhyton, painted with satyrs masturbating and fowling for owls, alludes to sacrifice (Chapter 3). How much 'meaning' are we justified in reading into an image? H. points out that the kind of symbolical values for which he is searching are 'often unknown to the artist himself and perhaps even differing from what he intended consciously to express' (p. 3). This is perfectly reasonable; but it becomes a question of where to draw the line, which is, of course, subjective.

Parts of H.'s arguments also rest on the assumption that the Sotades Painter was not averse to stretching the traditional iconography of mythical figures. For example, on the sphinx-rhyton a woman is depicted (p. 86, fig. 46) in chiton and himation, her hair held in place by a sash, who 'can only be Athena'; this identification rests on the spear which she holds in her hand. However, it does not have any visible point on it, and might simply be a staff. In any case, is the presence of a spear, without any of Athena's other attributes, enough to identify this figure for certain?

Certainly Sotades and/or the Sotades Painter did create a particularly distinctive group of pots (in fact, almost all fifth-century Athenian rhyta are Sotadean) and some very unusual imagery. In general, however, I admit to some doubt as to whether we can assume the whole corpus of an artist's work to have the same 'meaning', and to maintain that meaning throughout the artist's career. In the case of Sotades, that career may have spanned twenty or thirty years, as he is usually placed c. 470-460 BC, but H. dates at least one piece to c. 440 BC (fig. 52 again). To demand consistency, even subconscious consistency, in a society changing as quickly as Athens was at that time, is perhaps asking rather a lot. One has the uncomfortable feeling that the pieces are being interpreted to suit the hypothesis. H. is out on a limb, and it is just a little too thin, I feel, to support the weight that he places upon it. Occasionally H. does seem aware of this (p. 38, 'Far-fetched as it seems...'; p. 87, 'These tentative suggestions...') although he does also use 'clearly' for things that, to me at least, are not clear at all (e.g. pp. 71, 121).

The Conclusion is largely given over to the problem of 'artist personality'. H. deliberately leaves aside the question of whether Sotades and the Sotades Painter are one person or two (he does discuss this problem in the Conclusion, p. 147f., but does not offer an opinion), avoiding the 'cult of personality' which is one of the criticisms so frequently levelled at 'connoisseurship'. As a result, throughout the book, 'Sotades' is sometimes synonymous with 'the Sotades Painter' and sometimes not (examples of both uses can be found on p. 2f., along with 'Sotadean' which can mean either). Although this conflation is apt, given the nature of what H. is trying to do here, it would be useful to know just how far 'Sotadean' extends -- especially as, at one point, it apparently includes work that is not by the usual painter of Sotades' pots (p. 94; fig. 52, 'by the Sotades Painter', cf n. 34, 'the pictures are not in the same style as those on other vases signed by Sotades as potter'). In a sense, as H. is trying to 'establish what is distinctly and uniquely Sotadean' (p. 3), he undermines his own argument here. Sotades emerges from these pages a shadowy figure, true, but with more 'personality' than derives from narrower empirical studies (as H. is aware, p. 150). H. argues that, given that Sotades' works share their social context with a myriad of other pots, a close analysis of these would have the same result: 'the core meaning of Athenian imagery derives from the common immortality ideology in each instance' (p. 149). A wider range of thematic comparanda would be needed to support this. The initiatory and mystery-cult-related significance that H. finds in much of the Sotadean imagery, and in the unusual forms of the pots, would seem to set Sotades in a class of his own -- and H. himself finds 'a quality of spirituality unusual in Greek painting', which leads him to think that Sotades 'must have been familiar with the content of Dionysian mystery religion from his own experience' (p. 150).

The book is generously illustrated with black-and-white photos and with François Lissarague's finely detailed line-drawings, although some colour illustrations -- particularly of the beautiful white-ground kylikes discussed in Chapter 12 -- would not have gone amiss, especially given the high price of the book. The standard of the editing, however, was disappointing; some remarkable misspellings have slipped through, such as Athesteria for Anthesteria (once) and sparmagos for sparagmos (consistently); and why nekyiamanteion rather than nekyomanteion?

This is, in some ways, a rather frustrating book. Yet H. has some fascinating insights, and has certainly thrown open new areas for study; the book is full of possibilities. Although one may not be convinced by all his conclusions, the process by which he reaches them is always interesting.


1.   See the discussion in Ian Morris, Death-Ritual and Social Structure in Classical Antiquity, Cambridge 1992: 104-118.
2.   On taverns, see James Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes, London 1997: 53-61.
3.   Bone tablets: M. L. West, 'The Orphics of Olbia', ZPE 45 (1982) 17-29. Gold leaves: Susan Guettel Cole, GRBS 21 (1980) 223-238.

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