PATRICIA KARVELAS: This large ceramic container known as an amphora, would once have held olive oil harvested from the sacred olive trees of Athens. These trees were believed to be descended from the olive tree planted by the goddess Athena in her contest with her uncle, the sea-god Poseidon, for control of the city of Athens. According to this myth, each god was asked to provide one gift to the city and the city would then choose the best. Poseidon went first and provided a spring of salty water. Athena followed and planted the olive tree, a gift whose fruit and oil would nourish the city. Athena was declared the winner of the contest and became the patron goddess of Athens.
The descendants of this first olive tree were venerated by the Athenians and it was illegal, on pain of death, to cut one down. Oil was gathered from the fruit of the trees and presented in these large distinctive amphorae, as prizes, to victors at the Panathenaic games. The design of these prize amphorae is always the same. On one side they feature a representation of the sport for which the prize is being awarded. In this case, it was running. But you will see others in this exhibition for boxing, horse and chariot racing. The other side always features the goddess Athena.
On this amphora, she stands with her spear raised ready to enter battle. She is flanked by two inscriptions. The one on the left is the name Nikokrates, the chief magistrate for the year in which the prize was awarded. In this case, it was 333 BCE and it’s extremely rare to be able to date a Greek pot so closely. The other inscription tells us that this was a prize amphora presented during the Athenian games.
These games were held every 4 years in honour of the goddess Athena. They were designed to rival the older and more famous games in places like Olympia and Delphi. They attracted competitors and spectators from all over the Greek world. In addition to the athletic games, the festival for Athena included musical contests between tribal choirs, Homeric recitations, competitive gymnastics, equestrian and pyrrhic dancing – a type of military-style dancing – as well as torch races and a regatta. In this festival, sport was not separated out but included as part of a celebration of all human activity.
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Date published: 17 December 2021