Attic red-figure skyphos, decorated with two owls (c450BC). Australian National University Classics Collection, acquired 1963. On display, Australian National University Classics Museum, Canberra. The symbol of the owl has an enduring history in Greek art and design. It appears in sculpture, on pottery, on prize amphoras for the Panathenaic Games and on various denominations of Attic silver coins.
As a bird of the night, the owl was associated with funerals, and its image has been traced to graves in the Mycenaean period. It also was believed that the owl had power against the evil eye, which, it has been suggested, originated from its own large staring eyes. Two large stone owls were found on the Acropolis.
Furthermore, the owl in flight was considered a symbol of good luck. The sudden appearance of such an owl before the naval Battle of Salamis in 480BC was used to raise Greek morale preceding the decisive victory of the sorely outnumbered Greeks against the Persians.
Much of the owl’s popularity was tied to Athena, the goddess of warfare and wisdom. The owl was Athena’s symbol: the bird was often depicted perched on her shield, flying nearby or even in her hand.
Athena also was the patron goddess of the city of Athens. During the 5th century BC her symbol, the owl, featured prominently on terracotta cups. These owl cups, or skyphoi, were produced in large numbers in Athens and were so popular they were exported to other parts of the Greek world, including southern Italy and Etruria, according to Michael Watson in his essay The Owls of Athena: Some Comments on Owl-Skyphoi and Their Iconography.
One such red-figure owl cup, dating from about 450BC, is on display at the Australian National University Classics Museum in Canberra. When I visit the museum, curator Elizabeth Minchin shows me the two-handled cup that is decorated on each side with an owl standing between two sprays of olive, also associated with Athena.
The function of the owl skyphos was in most cases domestic and secular. It was something to drink from, water or wine mixed with water, or it could be used as a dipper to dip into larger vessels. But, Minchin says, used to serve milk.
“Milk was turned into cheese,” she says. “The Greeks thought people who drank milk were barbarians and strange. This cup was a cup for water and wine.”
The owl skyphos is one of Minchin’s favourite pieces in the museum’s collection. “One reason I like it is that it is something very much from the domestic sphere. It represents life in the everyday world,” she says. “Second, the images of the olive sprigs and the owl are very much symbols of Athens. They represent aspects of the Athenian mindset. Third, the owl it certainly wasn’t depicted on one side of the cup is quite cutely cross-eyed. I find that quite engaging.”
Minchin believes the cross-eyed owl wasn’t painted as a prank. “I think it is an accident because the owl on the other side isn’t cross-eyed. I think it is just a case of a painter placing the bird’s eyes a little bit too close to each other. I think that it is accidental — an irregularity that brings a smile to your face.”
There have been some difficulties dating owl skyphoi, but Minchin says the date can be narrowed down.
“After 530BC the painting style in Athens changed and a new technique, red-figure technique, was introduced whereby figures were reserved in terracotta against a black background,” she says. “This technique enabled far more detail to be rendered. If you look at our owl, you notice that its little wings and the dappled spots showing its feathers have all been sketched out in black.
“This style comes about in the early 5th century and lasts for about 50 years with this particular owl illustration, which was a very common and very popular image during this period.
“Our owl skyphos was one of the earliest acquisitions for the museum collection. As a representative of a vessel in common use, it was a wise purchase.”
Terracotta, black slip; height 8.2cm, diameter 10.5cm