If you were throwing a feast during the Achaemenid Persian era and looking to impress your guests, nothing but a rhyton, animal-shaped and brimming with wine, would do. But the rockin’ parties of 500 B.C. were hardly the only occasion for the beastly vessels.
Based on the Greek word rheo, meaning “to flow,” the rhyton first appeared in Bronze Age Greek civilizations and was mainly used for pouring liquid offerings during religious rituals, frequently out of the hole in the animal’s muzzle onto an altar or the ground. Later, Persian Empire vessels were associated with feasts and would have been poured into a cup, or directly into the mouth, offering revelers a swift (and messy) route to intoxication. Some rhyta were part of sacred ceremonies, while others were buried in tombs or even used in statecraft.
Nearly 60 examples of animal-shaped rhyta, mugs, cups, pitchers and other drinking objects make up a new Harvard Art Museums exhibit that celebrates artistry and the exchange of ideas across cultures and centuries. The show, “Animal-Shaped Vessels from the Ancient World: Feasting with Gods, Heroes, and Kings,” features a range of beasts, including rams, bulls, lions, boars, birds, and even a hippopotamus, fashioned from silver, terracotta, bronze, glass, and other materials. In addition to Harvard-held vessels, the show includes loans from around the world.
“This exhibition really is about people coming together in different senses at a feast, at a celebration, but also coming together internationally and exchanging drinking vessels and thereby also ideas and concepts,” said the show’s curator, Susanne Ebbinghaus, George M.A. Hanfmann Curator of Ancient Art and head of the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art at Harvard Art Museums.
The core of the exhibit focuses on vessels from the ancient Mediterranean and Near East between 2000 B.C. and 800 A.D., with objects that shed light on feasting practices, religious rituals, burial rites, statecraft, power, privilege, migration, trade, and, perhaps most importantly, fun.
A Greek penchant for play is captured in a range of animal-shaped mugs on view, including a 520–500 B.C. terracotta cup, on loan from the British Museum, that resembles the head of a braying donkey. The thirsty reveler who took a sip would have had his or her face covered by the animal.