Arthur Wang | Reporter
Kathryn Topper, a professor at the University of Washington and author of The Imagery of the Athenian Symposium, gave a lecture entitled “Herakles and Atlas at the Symposium” on Monday in the Hooper-Schaefer Fine Arts Center.
Topper’s lecture focused on a pair of pottery pieces and the role the images played in the titular symposium as comedy. The first image she presented depicted Herakles running from Atlas, holding the golden apples he needed to gather as one of his 12 labors. The second piece of pottery showed Herakles as he held up the sky, facing a stool that holds a pile of clothes.
Shandong, China junior Matthew Sun said the audience’s reaction to the artwork directly relates to the culture they were raised in.
“The way that people act and their thoughts on the symposium, it’s about this cultural stuff that you know, that’s very different from our culture. And that made me very interested,” Sun said.
Topper described the symposium as nighttime occasions where Greek men would gather together and drink while engaging in games and philosophical conversation. One tradition that was common to all symposia she was the act of sharing a cup of wine and passing it to the right — the images of Herakles and Atlas being images on cups that were used in this manner.
Both images are placed on the inside of the cups so that they would be most visible once empty. Several other cups used in symposia utilized images that would often mock the holder — including the image of Atlas and Herakles.
“It’s going to be the symposiast who either drinks the last of the wine or receives the empty cup from a neighbor who will be confronted with the decoration at the bottom,” Topper said, “He’ll see that the burden shouldered by Atlas is in fact the very object that he holds himself.”
Other images portrayed on the cups were cruder in nature, including depictions of people vomiting or even excreting into vessels of wine. Topper noted that the second image of Herakles holding up the sky was part of another crude joke.
Topper said the use of apples as gifts is most often between lovers but Herakles in the image depicted is waiting for Atlas to return with the golden apples.
“We have these artifacts and we want to understand them as well as we can, and the ancient world has often really been idealized, held up there as something that we can and should all aspire to,” Topper said. “And I think when we take that approach, we’re not really seeing the humanity of the people we’re studying. I think when you look at jokes or even dirty jokes of any culture, you really start to see them as human, much more than you might if they’re separated from you by museum glass.”