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Panathenaic amphoras

3 (2009)
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The holiday of the Great Panathenaia in Athens, as well as the Games in Olympia, is a rear event in history when the art in all its genres becomes the centre of national, religious, political life of the country.

The plot of the myth about the dispute between Aphena and Poseidon over the power over Attica was pictured on the west fronton of Parthenon in the main Acropolis temple. The elders of the city decided to give the victory to those of the gods whose gift to the people of Athens would be the most valuable. Poseidon hit the rock in Acropolis with a trident and at that moment the fountain of salt water gushed. After Athena stroked with a spear an olive tree grew. The goddess's gift which became the source of Attica's wealth brought her victory in the dispute. In honor of Athena, the protectrix of the state, every four years Panathenaia or All-Athens Games were held. The feast began with competitions after the sacrifice: races, wrestling, fist-fighting tournaments, chariot race. The central event was the procession of the Athenians, who were going from the city up to Acropolis to give a gift to Athena, the protectrix of the city. The gift was an expensive god weaved clothes-peplos. There was a custom at the Panathenaia Games in Athens to award the winner with an amphora filled with olive oil.

The amphora was not ordinary: the best craftsmen painted it with plots of different sport events and tournaments. The final type of Panathenaia amphora painting had been formed by 530 B.C.: the neck of the vase was decorated with a flower design, in front there was Athena with a shield and a spear in her hands, to the right and to the left of her there were Doric columns with sitting cocks-the symbols of the fighting spirit of the competitions, by the left column it was written in Greek: «Prize from Athens», and on the back of the amphora one could see the kind of sport for which the winner got the prize. Researchers still argue about some of the details on the Panathenaia amphoras. In the centre of the Athena's shield there is a drawing: it could mean the brand of the painter or the potter, it could be a symbol of one of the illustrious names in Athens, on whose land the holy olive trees had grown.

In about 400 B.C. the first changes in decorating the front side of the prize amphora were made: cocks on columns were replaced by sculptors. The latter were chosen by priests, who prepared the holy oil, thus they were becoming eponyms, literally “those who gave the name”. That means that because of the lack of common chronology their names were used for dating the time of the holidays. The inscription by the right column had the same meaning: it was the name of the archon (regent) — one of the nine annually elected policymakers in Athens. And the year was named by the name of the highest archon-eponym. So as the symbol on the shield of the prize amphora lost its meaning the shield started to be drawn side-face. On the back side appeared images of coaches and the Goddess of Victory- Nika.

According to the scrolls, plots of amphora drawings, information from antique authors it is known that for such kinds of events the winners got Panathenaia amphora filled with holy oil: for race, pentathlon, wrestling, pankration, chariot race, heavy warriors-militia men in helmets in hands, race with torches, musical competitions. During digging of ancient settlements and necropolis of the antique era in Northern Black Sea region archaeologists found more than ten Panathenaia amphora.


Author: Valery Chesnok