Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Would you Like this on Your Dresser? Greek Gems

Perfume containers in ancient Greece were most often earthenware, spun ceramics, whose shape reflected the type of perfume held within. Lekuthos, slim elegant vials, were often made of glass and were mostly used for liquid perfume. Aryballes were used for perfumed oils, balms and ointments. Alabastron bottles were very collectible perfume containers, often branded by the craftsmen who made them, rendering them even more collectible, especially amongst women. Tourists that visit Greece nowadays will be hard-pressed to find any original Greek perfumes today, despite the fact that this little, beautiful Mediterranean country has had a strong relationship with perfumes and cosmetics since ancient times. In addition to flower essences such as iris, rose, lily and violet, the Greeks also favored spices and herbs, such as marjoram, sage and cumin for their scents. Incense and myrrh were originally seen as only fit for the gods and were reserved for religious rituals, up until the 4th century B.C., when a shift in tastes and ideology occurred. Certain regions and islands still produce scents made with local plants and resins, but even these are hard to find even for natives. The island of Zakynthos (also known as Zante) for example, still has a small family operated perfumery business which makes six different scents, four marketed towards women and two that are considered rather more masculine. These are all made with local ingredients, the most beautiful of which is made by a local flower that resembles jasmine. However interesting, these modern Greek perfumes likely bear no resemblance to the Greek perfumes of ancient times. Still, we can admire the containers of these precious oils and essences while imagining a world in which perfume was once so popular it was feared that it would bring on an economic crisis...

· Aryballos shaped like a warrior’s head, wearing a helmet. Two-tone ceramic, 6th century B.C., found in Rhodes.

· Alabastron bottles, ovoid-shaped. Particularly attractive image of woman looking in the mirror (far left). 4th century B.C., Egnatia.

· This magnificent Aryballos stands only about 6.8 cm (2.7 inches) tall, yet manages to display no fewer than seventeen fully armed warriors. According to the text accompanying the picture on the British Museum’s website the warriors
“are locked in combat, thrusting their spears, jostling for position, or falling to the ground. Each warrior is armed with plumed helmet, spear and blazoned shield. Some are realistically streaked with blood. Two further figure scenes below show a horse-race and a hare-hunt. The upper part of the vase takes the form of a lion's head, its mouth open to display rows of fearsome teeth and a red tongue.”
This fabulous flacon dates from about 640 BC, was made in Corinth and is said to be from Thebes, Greece.

· This funny looking terracotta scent bottle in the shape of a rotund, squatting little man stands about 15 cm (5.9 inches) tall and according to the British Museum’s wonderful website, he is more of a “caricature, made for comic effect”. It was found in Kameiros, on the island of Rhodes, where reportedly, hundreds of other perfume bottles have been found. It dates from about 520 BC.

· I love the graceful lines of this perfume bottle, in the shape of a heron. This particular aryballos is clay earthenware and stands about 13 cm (5.1 inches) tall. It dates from about 580 BC. The piece belongs to the Cleveland Museum of Art, it is, however, not on display at the moment.

· This beautiful alabastron also comes from Kameiros, Rhodes, and is made of clay. Standing 21 cm (8.3 inches) tall, it is in the shape of a woman wearing a veil on her head and a pendant around her neck. She is tenderly holding a dove against her breast. According the British Museum’s website alabastra were mostly used by women:
“Scenes on figured vases suggest that women were the main users of alabastra: they are shown being given to women as presents or being bought by women in the market.”
This particular one dates from 550 BC.



PinstripedZebra said...

Now that is very interesting! I did not even think about how perfume would have been kept. Thank you for enlightening me!


Anonymous said...

Dear Divina!
This is just too fantastic - I am at present preparing a Greek civilisation lesson, and soon will be taking my students to the British museum so we will be looking for artefacts like these! I'm also interested in what you say about family firms on some of the islands making their own fragrances - yet another reason to holiday in a beautiful country beneath the sun...
Yes, here it was amazingly sunny and hot two weeks ago, and now it's the usual cool British spring and I'm back in a jumper. Ah well, all the more reason to treat myself to Jicky!
Linda ;)

Perfumeshrine said...

Dear D,

very interesting subject, bravo, but a few corrections> if I may, because this is my area of expertise after all. Much like you had been a little irritated by The Guide's oversimplification on psychology, I need to clear some finer points in case someone is misled.

I understand it is not a personal fault of yours at all, but of your sources, which is something that can happen easily enough on the Net.
Therefore, for ease, I will state them in order as they appear in your article:

1.Correct spelling of "Lekythos" is with a "y", not "u". The International Perfume Museum ( has it misspelled.
Also, more importantly, they were usually made of milky faience (comparable to coarse porcelaine and named "pre-glass") and not glass, which was considerably precarious to make and not very pure (no white silica sand in abundance).
The latter pure type was more popular in Egypt and during Roman times. (ref: "De re metallica" by Agricola).
Little artefacts were known to be made out of natural volcanic glass, named "obsidian" in ancient Greece, but they were not jars and containers, they were sharp razor blades and scraping tools.

2.Plural of "Aryballos" is "Aryballoi". It is a Greek word and has a Greek plural form, after all. Again the spelling of the International Perfume Museum is wrong...

3. "Aryballoi" were not always used for perfumes(!), despite the romantic notion that they were.
The British Museum in all its authority is proclaiming the lion-headed one as having the shape of aryballos (which it identifies in its transaltion as a perfume bottle, because that is the Type's common use), but the specific artefact's use is not entirely corroborated. It is hypothesized that due to its size it was used for oil for athlets/soldiers (to which its artwork corresponds more than to women applying perfume).
Same applies to the one shaped like a warrior's head on the top, from ~again!~ International Perfume Museum. The fact that there are holes in the front dispels any suggestion that it might hold something volatile, anyway.

(Caution: in general there are inaccuracies on the above site and many cases of skewed translation)

Also "Aryballoi" were used as funeral pottery (stellai) holding inside offerings of agricultural products: a tradition kept up to modern times in our tradition of "Kolyva" (=sweet wheat and nuts for the dead).

References to all these are found in Emily Vermeule, John Boardman and the Beazley Archive (, which are all considered the definitive sources for ancient Greek pottery.

Anonymous said...

Divina, these are so beautiful! Fascinating post! I especially loved looking at the small jar with the lion's head. Making it bigger I noticed so much detail around its mouth. It is absolutely gorgeous! Is it on display in the BM I wonder? Thanks for this!


chayaruchama said...