Red-figure Glaux Skyphos, owl wisdom symbol, Greek antiquity

160,00  125,00 

This red-figure skyphos from an Attic workshop, depicts an owl standing between two olive branches. The owl and the olive are the pre-eminent symbols of Athena, recalling her victory in the contest against Poseidon for rule of the city.

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Attic workshop, 5th c. BC
This red-figure skyphos from an Attic workshop, depicts an owl standing between two olive branches. The owl and the olive are the pre-eminent symbols of Athena, recalling her victory in the contest against Poseidon for rule of the city. They are represented on a large number of Attic works, such as Athenian coins, with emblematic significance, the most characteristic of which are the vases.
Donated by Peggy Zoumboulaki.

The owl and the olive tree, traditionally associated with the goddess of wisdom after Athena’s victory in the contest between her and Poseidon for supremacy in Athens, age the chief symbols of the city, depicted emblematically in many attic artifacts, in pottery and above all in coins.

During the fifth century BC, Athens produced large numbers of red-figure skyphoi decorated on each side with an owl standing between two sprays of olive.1 In the vast majority of examples the owl’s body is shown in profile facing the viewer’s right, while its head is turned full-face. The sprays are usually more or less vertical, but also there is often an attempt to fill the irregular space beside the figure of the owl. Below the red-figure decoration there is generally a narrow reserved line, which encircles the cup and acts as a support for the composition.

The owl-skyphos was extremely popular and was exported from Athens to other parts of the Greek world, including southern Italy and Etruria.2 Local imitations have been excavated at Corinth,3 and during the fourth century, or perhaps even slightly earlier, skyphoi similar to those from Athens were produced in Apulia and Etruria.4

The owl and olive spray motif is found on two shapes of skyphos.5 In Beazley’s system of classification,6 type A has two horizontal handles attached just under the lip, and the sides have a very slight curve. Type B has one handle horizontal and the other vertical; the sides slope outwards at a sharper angle than in type A, and they curve markedly. The type B skyphos, which in Attic pottery more frequently has the owl and olive spray motif, is often referred to as a glaux (owl).7This term for an owl-cup is based on a potter’s or shopkeeper’s graffito (price-tag?) underneath Berlin 2599: ΓΛΑΥ(ΚΕΣ).8 Beazley and Magi even went so far as to claim that the vessel’s shape described an owl: the vertical handle corresponds to the head, the horizontal one to the bird’s tail’.9

For various reasons there are problems in dating owl-skyphoi. It is difficult to relate them to other painted vases, for the owls do not sufficiently resemble those on the vases attributed to the artists and groups devised by Beazley. It has been suggested that this is because the cups were manufactured in workshops where people specialised, and their products became distinctive in their stereotyped details.10 That is, we cannot compare the owls to related images on vases that have been placed in a chronological sequence determined by gradual changes in style and technique. Writing at the beginning of the 1930s, Langlotz dated the collection of owl-skyphoi in Würzburg to c.500 BC, basing his dating on the shape of the skyphoi;11 however, this is not a reliable method. Beazley considered that the majority of the ‘standard owl-skyphoi’ belong to the period c.475–c.425 BC, but that some are earlier – ‘pre-standard’.12 Although skyphoi13have been found in archaeological contexts that allow datings compatible with Beazley’s, the problem has been to find a terminus ante quem, that is, an historical context that will demonstrate a definite earlier dating.

Attempts to do this have been based on the Persian sack of Athens in 480 BC. In 1928 Shear published a grave group from Corinth that contained an owl-skyphos (346-6) and late Attic black-figure ware.14 Although the latter was then dated to the period c.550–c.500 BC, it is now accepted that such black-figure ware was still being made well into the fifth century.15 In 1934 Dinsmoor reviewed some of the earlier excavations on the Acropolis and published two sherds (one with an owl’s head) and a complete owl-skyphos16 belonging to Johnson’s Group I.17 The sherds and owl-skyphos had been found among material that Dinsmoor thought predated the Persian sack; in his view they were therefore earlier than 480 BC. In the case of the complete skyphos, however, Beazley was sceptical.18 In a recent article on excavations in the Athenian Agora, Camp described a cup (not a normal owl-skyphos) with a tondo containing an owl (Agora P 32422), which piece he dated to c.490 BC.19 The owl on the tondo is related in stance and general technique to those on the skyphoi, but has more detail on the wing. The bird is also covered with a mass of dots to represent body feathers, and the eyes consist of a dot inside two concentric circles; the rendering of the eyes fits in with that on Dinsmoor’s sherd and with that of other ‘pre-standard’ owls.20

Given the lack of anything more definite, we should conclude that Beazley’s dating is basically correct.

The National Gallery of Victoria has in its collection two owl-skyphoi, both glaukes. On the first one (80R-D1A), which may be dated to the second quarter of the fifth century BC, the composition is well spaced out on each side (figs 1 & 2).21Both of its owls have an almost heart-shaped wing with two to three rows of dots at the top and a single row further down; the legs have a faint suggestion of feathers. Each owl has a short line on the belly to mark the separation of the legs. Each head has a pair of symmetrically curving ‘eyebrows’, largish eyes (each consisting of a dot inside a circle), a triangular beak and very few filling dots. Around the eyes is an almost unique feature: short lines radiate out in all directions, creating a disc of feathers.

One could compare Munich 2553, which has a second, narrower ring around each eye, with lines radiating rather untidily;22 the wings, however, are quite different from those in 80R-D1A. McPhee compares the Melbourne skyphos with Corinth C-73-197, which has related wings but no eyebrows, and shorter lines radiating from the eyes.23 In fact the lines do not actually start from the eyes, but are associated more closely with the numerous dots on the head, giving the impression of layers of feathers. A closer example to 80R-D1A is Corinth C-40-68, where the owl has similar wings and eyebrows, although – as in C-73-197 – the radiating lines begin a slight distance from the eyes.24 It is useful also to consider other examples that have short radiating lines, sometimes forming ‘layers’: Agora P 16530,25 Liebieghaus 534,26 Barcelona 431627 and Milan (Museo Civico Archeologico) 3643/19 Sp.28

The second owl-skyphos in Melbourne (4783-D3) is a standard type, dating from around the mid-fifth century BC (figs 3 & 4).29 Each of its birds has strongly arched eyebrows, overlapping eyes, and very few dots on the head. The wings are wedge-shaped, with lines converging near the tail, and have two untidy rows of dots at the top and a single row further down. The rendering of the top of the wing is different on each side of the skyphos: one bird has a line that passes from the top of the wing up to the right eye (fig. 3); on the other bird the line curves over the top of the wing (fig. 4). In both cases, a line on the belly marks the separation of the legs. The olive sprays are positioned more closely to the birds than on 80R-D1A.

This cup is typical of Johnson’s Group I. The vessels in this group are linked first of all by the touching, or overlapping, of the eyes. There are also two to three rows of dots at the tops of the wings and one or two single rows lower down. Most of the owls seem to have a line on the belly. Usually there are very few dots on the face, and sometimes there is no line drawn to signify the top of the wing. The group is not homogeneous, and I doubt whether Johnson imagined that the pieces in it were all by the same hand. It is even possible to have very different owls on opposite sides of the same skyphos.30 Many of the owls were very carelessly painted, as can be seen in fig. 3, where the top of the head was blotted out when some paint was applied to the lip. We can compare the owl depicted in fig. 3 with a similar bird on a cup from the Gallatin Collection,31 while the owl shown in fig. 4 is comparable with that in Toronto C. 373.32 Other useful comparisons are Goluchow 169,33 Berlin F 2596 and F 2597,34 Munich 2555,35 and Geneva 12476.36

The rendering of the owl on the skyphos has been linked to the image of the owl on various denominations of Attic silver coins.37 On the obverse of the coins is Athena wearing a helmet, on the reverse an owl with the same stance as those on the owl-skyphoi. In addition, the owl on the coins is accompanied by a small sprig of olive. The general consensus is that the series, initially tetradrachms, began in the last quarter of the sixth century BC.38 Jongkees has made a number of valuable comparisons between the coins and skyphoi where the owls have unusual postures, for example full-face with wings outspread or in profile with one wing raised.39 However, in matters of detail the owls in the two media have little in common: the painting of skyphoi took on a momentum of its own, which was quite unrelated to the striking of silver coins.40 Nonetheless, it is useful to note that the owls on the coins have large eyes, which often touch or overlap, and in some cases there are short lines radiating from the eyes,41 as on skyphos 80R-D1A.

The owl had a long history in Greek art, and its image in the form of a gold relief was used in graves as far back as the Mycenaean period.42 As a bird of the night, the owl had a funerary significance, as well as a prophylactic role, both of which continued well beyond classical antiquity. The bird had power against the evil eye, which, it has been suggested, originated from its own large, staring eyes.43 Indeed it could well have been this function which made the owl a useful symbol for the coinage: it offered protection. The owl also appears in the sculpture of the period.44 Two large archaic stone owls have been found on the Acropolis, and there is evidence that they may once have been placed on columns. Certainly in Attic pottery there are images of an owl on a column.45 The owl in flight was also a symbol of good luck: the sudden appearance of such an owl before the Battle of Salamis was used to raise the Greek morale.46 However, we shall have to look elsewhere for the bird’s significance on owl-skyphoi.

The popularity of the owl and olive spray motif in Athens was no accident. For most of classical antiquity, Athena, the eponymous goddess of the city, was accompanied by an owl, which over time became her symbol.47 The owl also became the symbol of Athens and its government, no doubt as the result of being placed on the reverse of the city’s silver coinage, which circulated throughout the Greek world – and beyond – as reliable bullion. In Greek, ‘owls to Athens’ became a saying48 like the English ‘coals to Newcastle’, presumably because of the coins.

The olive tree also had a special status in Athens. According to tradition, Athena and Poseidon had quarrelled over the ownership of Attica and the goddess had planted her sacred olive tree on the Acropolis to show that the city belonged to her. This tree also became a symbol of the people of Athens, for Herodotus (VIII, 55) tells us that, although the Persians burnt out the whole Acropolis, by the next day the remains of the olive stump had sprouted forth a new shoot. This was no doubt to signify the survival of Athena’s people, and their approaching victory at Salamis.49

Surprisingly the unique link between Athena and the owl does not reach back to the earliest literary tradition, nor was it general throughout Greece. In Homeric epic Athena is described as glaukôpis. At first sight, and by analogy with boôpis –that is, ‘ox-eyed’ or ‘wide-eyed’, for the goddess Hera – this means ‘owl-eyed’ or ‘looking like an owl’. However, many scholars derive glaukôpis from glaukós, that is, ‘gleaming’ or perhaps ‘bluish-green’ or ‘grey’.50 Throughout the epics Athena is associated with several different birds, but not with the owl.51 The archaeological evidence provides numerous examples of Athena without an owl52and owls without the goddess.53

It has been suggested by A. B. Cook and others that Athena was originally a bird goddess.54 Because birds could actually represent her, the image of the goddess accompanied by an owl was a form of double representation. Athena’s general, and rather mixed, association with birds is well illustrated on an Early Corinthian aryballos formerly in Breslau (Wroclaw). The piece shows Hercules and Iolaos fighting the Lernaean Hydra. Behind Hercules stands the goddess Athena, who has stepped down from her chariot and is gesturing to the hero (the figures are all labelled). An owl is perched on Athena’s reins, and a mysterious bird with the head of a woman sits on her whip.55 The creature is labelled wous. The meaning is quite unclear, and the word may be onomatopoeic.56 Cook suggests that the wous may represent a phase in the transition between a bird goddess and the anthropomorphic goddess. He supports this view with an illustration of a helmeted wous (unlabelled) on another Corinthian aryballos.57

Another example associated with Athena appears on an East Greek plate published by Anti.58 The plate illustrates an episode in the sack of Troy, when Ajax the Lesser assaulted Cassandra in the Temple of Athena. Standing behind the statue of the goddess is a small wous, rather like a witch’s familiar.

The theory of Athena as a bird goddess is supported by the image of the winged Athena, which occurred in both Eastern Greece and Athens in the sixth century BC.59 There are winged female figures on Clazomenian sarcophagi, as well as armed females without wings; at least one winged woman carries a shield and wears what may be an aegis. Many scholars have identified these figures with Athena.60 There are also archaic Ionian coins with the head of Athena, wearing a winged helmet,61 and to these we can add the frieze on the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi.62

However, the best examples of a winged Athena are to be found on three Attic black-figure vases.63 A most interesting skyphos (c.540 BC) in the Faina collection at Orvieto illustrates the deity’s dual nature. On each side of the vase is an armed Athena between two large apotropaic eyes; one figure is winged, the other is not.64 An amphora (end of sixth century) in the Louvre (F 380) portrays the winged goddess sitting on a stool, with an owl perched on the end of her wing.65 On an olpe (c.520–c.500 BC) in the Bibliothèque Nationale (260) a winged Athena carries the corpse of Pandion(?) across the sea.66 It is interesting to note that this image has also been found on an Etruscan mirror, though an owl has been added, no doubt as an aid to identification.67

It seems that in Attica the owl acquired its popularity as Athena’s companion in about the middle of the sixth century, during the rule of the tyrant Peisistratos and his sons. Peisistratos was the founder of the Panathenaic Games, and the Burgon amphora, an early Panathenaic amphora dated to c.566–562 BC, illustrates the beginning of the preference for the owl over the wous.68 On the obverse side, the amphora shows an armed Athena accompanied by a wous, and on the reverse a chariot with an owl above it. By the late sixth century the owl was Athena’s intimate companion and was sometimes found perched on her shield or even in her hand.69 The link between the owl and Athena was no doubt strengthened by the international popularity of the owl coinage.

By the early fifth century the owl alone could symbolise the divine presence. A black-figure hydria in Uppsala shows a sacrificial scene with a sheep being led to an altar. Standing on the altar is a large owl facing left, with profile body and head full-face.70 This owl is not a sculpture, but rather it signifies the goddess to the viewer. Nor is the bird a substitute for the cult statue, which would never have occupied this position on the altar.

By now the wous, which over time came to be referred to as a ‘Siren’, had little connection with the goddess. There is, of course, always an exception. A red-figure vase potted by Pamphaios (Villa Giulia 27250) shows Athena advancing beside her chariot; she is accompanied by her owl and her wous.71 By this stage the latter had developed a pair of arms, in addition to its wings.

The owl as a symbol of the state is perhaps represented by an image on an unusual black-figure belly amphora dated to c.500 BC (Munich 9406).72 On each side is a reserved panel containing an owl perched on a tendril. In one panel the word demosios is written in large, clean letters. The word has been taken to mean ‘public’ or ‘state’. Kaeser, who first published the vase, considered it to be an official measuring vessel, which had been made inaccurately and hence was sold on the open market and exported. This argument implies the existence of similar amphorae, for which we in fact have no evidence;73 the purpose of the vase remains unclear.

Cook claimed that the motif of the owl between two olive sprays was in fact like a civic coat of arms. He compared the tondo of a kylix cup, which shows the owl between two rounded sprays that almost form a circle. The cup was a dedication to a deity, probably Athena. Cook dated it to before the Persian sack in 480 BC. He also cited a similar owl and ‘wreath’ on a triangular pediment surmounting a fourth-century inscription. From a later date is a cylindrical ‘quart’ measure made of clay. It is inscribed demosion. Near the letter delta is stamped an owl with an olive twig; beneath the first omicron is the head of Athena.74 Though the ‘quart’ measure is distant in time from the Munich amphora, it is very tempting to see a connection.

This brings us back to the owl-skyphoi. What was their meaning? We have examined the history of the owl and its relative the wous, and the dual nature of the goddess Athena. We have also seen the link between the olive spray and the city of Athens and its eponymous goddess. Therefore, it would most certainly be a mistake to consider the owl motif to be meaningless decoration. Cook was possibly correct in claiming that the owl motif was like a civic coat of arms. However, this is not to say that it had lost its other meanings. The ancient Greek mind had no difficulty in reconciling two quite opposing ideas and thus the motif could never have become a secular image in the modern sense. In the fifth century the sacred permeated every aspect of a citizen’s life, from a drinking party to a theatrical performance. It is therefore impossible to ignore the religious significance of the owl and olive sprays.75

What then was the function of the owl-skyphos? It could well be that its use in most cases was purely domestic and secular.76 However, the large numbers of such skyphoi that were made seem to imply that they had a special purpose. There is no doubt that such a cup could have been used as a dedication to the goddess, for humble ceramic objects have been found in shrines and temples throughout the Greek world. Indeed, as we have seen, sherds of owl-skyphoi have been found on the Acropolis. The skyphos could have been used either in a domestic religious ceremony, of which there were many, or perhaps during a now unidentifiable religious festival.77 However, speculations of this kind notwithstanding, if the owl-skyphos had a special ritual use, then the details of it, and its meaning, are now lost.78

Michael Watson, Librarian, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1999).

The owls of Athena: some comments on owl-skyphoi and their iconography


Glaux Skyphos; 5th century BC; Attica; 72.001

From R D Milns Antiquities Museum

Glaux Skyphos
About this object
A vase of similar shape, and with similar decoration, but with both handles horizontal is by convention called an “owl-skyphos” or “owl-kotyle”. The heraldic arrangement of plant and bird sacred to Athena could well have been considered appropriate for an Athenian ‘coat-of-arms’. There are imitations of the type (often rather poor) from Etruria and elsewhere (e.g. Taras in the fourth century BC). The name “glaux” is the Greek word for ‘owl’, and this type of vessel is so named because the owl is the most prominent feature of its decoration.
Date Made
5th century BC
Place Made
Subject and Association Keywords
Subject and Association Description
Attic “owl skyphos”
Medium and Materials
Style and Iconography
Dr Stanley Castlehow Bequest from Charles Ede Stock
Object Type
Object number
Artist: Johnson’s Group II, Greek, Attic, ca 425-400 BC
Red-figure Owl Skyphos (glaux)

Dimensions: 12cm*20cm*10cm

Additional information

Dimensions 12 × 20 × 10 cm