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Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Deaths of Sarpedon and Memnon

By Lott Gwin       

       First, a note on the term “neck amphora.”  The Greek word amphora is a combination of amphi (“on both sides”) and pher-/phor- (meaning “carry”).  Thus, the word refers to a vessel with handles on both sides; it was often used to carry and store wine.  The vase depicted here is called a neck amphora because its handles are placed on the “neck” (thinner upper section) of the jar rather than on the “belly” (thicker, rotund section under the neck). These jars are sometimes decorated with scenes from myth.  The one shown here is late archaic (it dates to about 500 BC) and is painted in the black-figure technique.  It is attributed to the Diosphos Painter, who was active in Athens from ca. 500-475.
       The Trojan war offered Greek vase painters and other artists ample material (for an overview, see S. Woodford, The Trojan War in Ancient Art [1993]).  This vase shows two variations on the theme of the removal of a great warrior’s corpse from the Trojan plain.  In each case the warrior is an important ally of the Trojans.
       On the obverse we see the Thanatos (Death) and Hypnos (Sleep) carrying away the corpse of the Lycian warrior Sarpedon – the subject of another more famous late archaic red-figure vase, the Euphronius crater, which was presented in a previous post (DATE).  Sarpedon, the son of Zeus, was killed in battle by Achilles’ friend Patroclus.  According to Iliad 16, Zeus expressed his grief by crying tears of blood.  The painter has added a number of details.  Blood oozes from the wounds in Sarpedon’s limp body.  As for the deities, they are not the spectacular winged beings of Euphronius’ painting (found HERE).  Instead, they each wear a chiton, corselet, greaves, and a Corinthian helmet; they each carry a spear.  In other words, they are represented as ordinary warriors.  The small winged figure between them is the psyche or soul of Sarpedon flying away.  Readers of the Iliad will recall how the soul is said to float free from the body at the moment of death and flutter off to Hades (cf. e.g. Iliad 22.361-2).

       On the reverse Memnon is being carried off the battlefield by his mother Eos, goddess of the dawn.  Memnon was slain by Achilles (possibly the figure on the left) in single combat.  Achilles fought on behalf of Nestor to avenge the death of Nestor’s son Antilochus at the hands of Memnon.  Nestor would have fought Memnon himself, had he not been too old.  Eos has large wings and is shown aloft.  She wears a chiton, a mantle, and a necklace.  The bird in the upper right-hand corner may stand for the Memnonides, the companions of Memnon who were turned into birds by Eos; it is said that they came every year to lament at his grave.  Eos, for her part, shed tears for him every morning: this is an aetiology for the drops of dew that appear at dawn.

Dietrich von Bothmer, “Euphronios and Memnon.  Observations on a Red-Figure          Fragment,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 22 (1987) 5-11.        
Moore, Mary B., and Dietrich von Bothmer, Attic Black-Figured Neck-Amphorae,          Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, Fascicule 4 (1976) 67-68.

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