Saucy Dressings has carried a guest contributor piece on glassware (see Steve McGraw, Managing Director of Riedel Glass) before, but never one on drinking vessels, their history and their significance. Guest Contributor, Domini Hogg, studied Classics at Cambridge, where she also founded the university Tea Society – very popular and still going strong – so her knowledge of drinking vessels isn’t purely academic!
Anyone who has ever had an important dinner party to prepare for will know the amount of effort that goes into it. From the garnishes for the various dishes to the wine and table service, every last detail must be arranged to perfection. Where previously you might have been content to eat with dishwasher-safe cutlery, now you dig out the silver along with your best glasses. But, at the end of the day, mostly your guests will still just be mortals, like the rest of us.
The Gods were invited to our ancestors’ dinner parties
Not so for our European ancestors. They were in the habit of inviting their gods to dine! It was a way of saying thank you and keeping them on their side, but often the gods needed a little help arriving and attending the dinner. To this end our ancestors developed some very special “eye cups” that stared omnipotently at the other guests.
They needed encouragement though, so eye cups were invented
I first came across these ‘eye cups’ in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which, unlike the British Museum, is small enough that you can whizz through it in a few hours. You can, of course, spend much longer exploring its wonderful treasures, but on this occasion I was seeking inspiration for my Classics thesis and didn’t have time to spare.
How did it work?
Naturally I found myself in the Greek and Roman section looking at vases and other painted pottery. Staring at me across the gallery, it was hard to ignore the ‘eye cups’. I knew a little about them already. They were Greek drinking cups meant for wine to be drunk in Dionysian rituals. The cups were more like shallow bowls ranging from about 10-30cm diameter and perched on low stems. The large, staring eyes were painted on the outside of the cup so that when the drinker started to drink it would look as if he were wearing a mask, with the eyes as his eyes.
The Chinese tried the same method
It wasn’t until, still at a loss for a good topic, I wandered aimlessly into the ancient Chinese section that I had a eureka moment. Unlike the Greek and Roman vessels, these incredible Chinese vessels were made in heavy bronze, now green with age, their decoration carved into the surface of the mould that cast them. And yet there was something similar about them….these vessels too were staring me! I had to find out why. What was it about these eyes that seemed so essential to drinking vessels for people of such different times and cultures?
So what’s the big idea?
I won’t bore you with the details here, but as with much of archaeology, it is mostly speculation. The theory that can provide the most convincing evidence, is the one that sticks to the truth at least until another more convincing theory comes along. And even then different people can favour different theories contemporaneously. What I write here is my theory to explain what is a relatively poorly understood phenomenon. And it’s a phenomenon over which there is already very little agreement among scholars. I did, however, score a First for my argument and you are welcome to read the detail should you wish.
The eyes have it
The Chinese vessels came first from circa 1600 to 771 BC. The Greek vessels later from circa 540BC to 480BC. There was little to no connection between the Greeks and the Chinese during this period so it is reasonable to assume the one was not influenced by the other. Completely independently then, these directly staring, slightly unnerving eyes were key features of drinking vessels in both cultures. In both cases the vessels were used in dining rituals where the gods were supposed to be present. And in both cases they ceased to appear with the advent of philosophy in their respective regions, replaced instead by more naturalistic depictions of human life.
Why we didn’t need to invite the gods any more
It seemed that as agricultural techniques, such as irrigation, developed, the people were less reliant on the fickle gods for their own survival and started to recognise their own capabilities much more. This gave rise to a greater confidence that enabled them to distance themselves from the gods and start to look more inwardly at their own human world.
This development is very similar to the development of an individual human who starts life unaware of itself but totally reliant on their parents for food. As they grow up they start to recognise themselves in the mirror and understand the results of their own actions. They become more and more independent of their parents, even rebelling against them in their teenage years.
So coming back to the eyes. They were used as a way of representing the gods. When combined with alcohol intake, a strong belief in the gods, flickering low light, and almost certainly music, it is easy to imagine how their disembodied eyes could have easily conjured up a divine presence for dinner.
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