Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 24, 2019
Milette Gaifman The Art of Libation in Classical Athens New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018. 196 pp.; 127 color ills.; 5 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300192278)

Milette Gaifman’s The Art of Libation in Classical Athens focuses on the ritual practice of offering liquids, commonly depicted on Athenian vases. Depictions of Greek animal sacrifice have been the focus of several research projects, broaching the topic from the textual and pictorial sources. The less prominent libation rituals have been approached in the study of visual culture only for specific cases, e.g., deities offering libations. With her study, Gaifman aims to “explore . . . the visual potency” (4) of libation scenes by focusing on the rich material of fifth-century BCE Athens, especially on painted vases. The understanding of an image is bound to the context of the beholder, be it temporal, local, social, etc. Rather than insisting on explaining ancient Greek religion, she emphasizes “the range of ways in which images resonate with their beholders” (13).

The book comprises an introduction, four main chapters that focus on different settings and persons involved in the depictions, and the author’s conclusions. Gaifman describes the actual handling of the vessels during the ritual and contextualizes their uses in cultural and social settings. The objects themselves and the images referring to libation thus become comprehensible to nonspecialists. Despite this emphasis on describing the piece and its usage, Gaifman’s observations are never trivial; she offers in-depth interpretations and applies ideas such as self-referencing objects, embodied objects, or sensory approaches. Chapter 1 discusses libation as a prelude to animal sacrifices. Chapter 2 focuses on non-sacrificial libation scenes, where persons of different kinship interact with each other in pouring a libation. Gaifman analyzes the vases, based either on their decoration or on their shape and specific use in the ritual act. In chapter 3, she investigates the pouring of liquids in funerary contexts, looking mainly at white-ground lekythoi and selected examples of funerary sculpture. Chapter 4 deals with deities performing a libation. In her summary, Gaifman emphasizes that there is not necessarily a uniform interpretation for these depictions and stresses the particularity of each image and its polyvalence. For each possible reading, several aspects can be emphasized. So, for instance, the people involved in the scenes are hierarchized according to their utensils and the ritual action as described from the perspectives of the individuals involved; some depictions seem to allude to the emotional potential of this conjointly executed ritual as eye contact is made between the participants. Single practitioners might refer to other persons who are usually involved in the ritual, but are not depicted within the vase image. Thereby, these depictions might be read as an instruction to the vessel user on how to handle the vessel and also as an invitation to imitate the depicted ritual action. Some vessels even show their own usage in their decoration, creating a self-referential dynamic and aligning the actual user with the depicted one.

Gaifman’s book is truly “handsome,” as the blurb already states. Only figure 2.7c (68) and figure 4.10 (143) seem slightly blurred. Except for an error spotted in a caption (96), the text is almost typo-free. The volume’s enjoyable style takes the reader through a fascinating journey based on the author’s broad knowledge of ancient culture.

Regarding the content, only a few points of criticism might be raised. To illustrate her observations, Gaifman has chosen high-quality pieces. Given that there is no comprehensive database available and the depictions known so far are only selectively collected in an overview (e.g., deities offering libations), this approach leaves some open questions regarding, first, the “ordinary” vessels of lesser quality, and second, quantities. Statistics are only partially explained in the endnotes. As of January 2019, the Beazley Archive currently provided ninety-three entries of libation scenes on Athenian vessels of the fifth century BCE when using the search term “libation,” originating from inconsistencies in the database. In contrast, Gaifman mentions 730 vases, which do “not include scenes referring to libations that do not feature a phiale” (156). The search term “phiale” as depicted objects (159) is correlated with “man” or “woman.” Reproducing the searches is difficult; the search “phiale” for the time frames 500–450 BCE, 475–25 BCE, and 450–400 BCE returns more than 730 vases. Although Gaifman’s presentation is based on case studies, a statistical overview would be helpful for understanding the relevance of the chapters, their chosen focus, and Gaifman’s statements. Moreover, an analysis of the sex-based distribution of the ritual practitioners (48), for example, in all potential roles within the ritual would have been interesting.

Another point of criticism is the contextualization of the objects. Gaifman clearly states that most of the vases were acquired at an early stage of museum collection building without proper information on the contexts of the findings. She therefore opens up a spectrum of possible readings of the vases. However, in some cases, Gaifman favors a specific context for her interpretations. This makes her particular readings seem either forced or deliberate (e.g., cf. 35, she assumes a Greek context for the symposium in an image, whereas the vase itself most probably belongs to an Etruscan tomb; on 128 she assumes use at an altar. The good state of preservation would again suggest a funerary context. The assumed “life cycle” of the vase seems based on the intended reading). Other readings seem entirely unconvincing, for instance, the palmettos on white-ground lekythoi are read with specific regard to the funerary context (cf. 74). This seems deliberate as the palmetto is a common decorative motif. Many other examples in the book bear palmettos but cannot be assigned to a funerary context.

Apart from the objects, the written sources referring to libations also could be contextualized more precisely by focusing on fifth-century BCE Athens. The book’s aim is, of course, to understand the images and their resonance with the beholder. Literary sources are embedded plentifully. However, sources such as Homer are centuries removed from the period of research. Therefore, all the written sources would have benefited from critical contextualization before being correlated with Classical Athenian imagery. Besides, although the study does not aim to engage with the history of religion and images do not necessarily reflect cult reality, a more concise application of written evidence, as in inscriptions from the chronological and regional focus of research, such as those assembled in the Collection of Greek Ritual Norms (CGRN), could have added to certain observations.

Further, the multifaceted approaches are sometimes challenging for the reader, as the observations regarding one object seem to meander in detail—for instance, the information on a specific trait of one object is presented with several insertions. Some technical observations are only given for another object with similar traits (e.g., cf. 133: a fragmented white-ground cup is too delicate for use. Regarding a white-ground phiale cf. 46–47, its actual unfitness for wine offerings is not mentioned). Again, regarding technical aspects, pages 73–74 focus on a phiale in Six’s technique of adding color, which is not suitable for use. But is this valid for all liquids? Given that the author otherwise provides splendid insights on the handling and precise technical observations, it might be tempting to consider that such delicate vessels might have been specifically used for water libations.

As for the religious dimension, the aim of a libation is to contact the divine sphere. In the images, the divine and the human spheres often stay separated. During the performative act, divinities are present and yet set apart; they never interact with the performers and no visual contact occurs. However, depictions that show a much closer visual relation between worshipper and the divinity, more precisely, the divinity’s substitute, namely scenes showing a libation in front of a cult statue, are missing. As an example, an amphora in the British Museum (Beazley no. 467) shows the libation pourer looking into the eyes of the herm standing across the altar. In contrast to the gods in humanoid form, a visual bond with the deity’s substitute is possible. And yet, this substitute seems to return the look and therefore seems animate. On this specific vase, the bond with the god is at least possible through the statuary substitute. Coming back to the reaction of the beholders toward the images, the multiplicity of bonds achieved could be further analyzed according to the principle of “Resonanz” as coined by Hartmut Rosa, “Was heißt Resonanz? Annäherungen an einen Modus der Weltbeziehung,” in: Religiöse Praktiken in der Antike. Individuum—Gesellschaft—Weltbeziehung (Graz: UPG Unipress 2016, 13–19); Gaifman herself uses the word “resonate” to describe the potential object-beholder interrelations.

These small criticisms notwithstanding, Gaifman’s book is a valuable and thought-provoking read for students and advanced scholars alike. With her study of libation depictions, she clearly demonstrates the gain in applying new approaches to well-known artifacts from the classical world. The volume offers insights on a complex topic based in ancient material culture and is enriched with approaches from visual culture studies, opening up a spectrum of resonances within the ancient and the modern world.

Constanze Graml
Wissenschaftliche Angestellte, Institute for Classical Archaeology, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München