Goat Rhyton - Thrace Foundation


The Quest of the Argonauts

Vassil Bojkov Collection


Silver rhyton with goat protome and death of Orpheus - 420-410 BC

Rhyton (the word derives from the Greek verb rheo – ‘flowing’), according to the classical definition is a cup in the shape of a horn with two openings: one for pouring in and one, in the front part, for pouring out of the liquid. Sometimes the latter is missing. Usually, rhyta finial is in the shape of an animal head or forepart, a protome. This shape, known since very ancient times, spread in different parts of the ancient world. Rhyta of bone, clay or wood, and later of precious metals, were used in every-day life, as well as in rituals.
Rhyta of clay or horns were among the most popular types of vessels in ancient Thrace. Cups of precious metals appeared in this large area as diplomatic gifts or heirloom/loot. They had a specific purpose in the elite life style: wine was drunk at gulps from the front opening of a rhyton over a phiale (a shallow wide bowl) during a feast. They were used in rites of purification, affiliation and initiation.
The rhyton in the shape of goat’s protome (front part of the figure) is one of the extraordinary objects in the Vassil Bojkov Collection. The elegantly curving horn is rather long compared to the animal figure; it is very narrow in its lower part, covered with exquisite tiny tongue-shaped flutes, and gradually flares at the mouth. The mouth rim is decorated with a band of pearls and ovules. Below a very wide frieze is depicted, divided into two visual fields bordered by an ivy wreath above and a laurel one below. Images and decorative patterns are incised.


The goat protome

The forepart of a running goat is exquisitely modeled as its expression betrays psychological state as well. It has a long beard and plastically rendered hair in separate flocks on the neck. Gilding survived on some spots of the head. The tubular spout of irregular quadrangular cross-section is situated at the animal’s chest.

A story about Dionysos’ childhood relates that Zeus, his father, in order to hide him from his jealous and angry wife Hera, gave him to the nymphs in Nysa. They raised him there in a deep cave, changed into a goat by the Storm god in order not to be recognized. Usually this story accounted for the ritual importance of the goat in the worship of Dionysos whose retinue included satyrs, silens, Pan who had goat’s zoomorphic features, as well as Maenads and Bacchants.

Orpheus’ death scene

In the upper field a scene develops around the singer who is already down on his knees leaning against his lyre which occupies the exact center of the pictorial field. He has tossed his head back, a Bacchant is holding his curly hair ready to cut his throat with the machaira in her hand. She is followed by another young woman heading fast, holding a crescentshaped shield, pelta, in one hand and a spear in the other hand. A third Bacchant is represented facing the singer as she is about to throw a rock. Her wrists bear tattooed bands filled in with triangles.
Konon, an ancient Greek writer who lived at the turn of our era (1st century BC – 1st century AD), tells us the story about Thracian women killing the poet. Orpheus, son of Oeagros and Kalliope, one of the Muses, ruled over the Macedonians and the Odrysian land, but was also a musician and sung to the accompaniment of a lyre. People liked him very much for this. He not only enchanted wild beasts, but made the trees and rocks move from their places to follow the sound of his music. Thracian and Macedonian women tore him apart, because he did not allow them into the orgiastic rites. At certain days a number of armed Thracians and Macedonians used to come to Leibethra where they gathered in a big and well-constructed building for mysteries. Always when they entered this building to celebrate the orgia they stacked their weapons outside. Women waited for this moment, seized the weapons, and angry because they had not been honoured, murdered the first men they met and then tore
Orpheus limb from limb and throw his parts into the sea.
According to Konon’s narration, the country was devastated by famine, because women had not been punished for their deeds. Oracular prophecy said that they should discover the poet’s head and bury it. When they found it driven away by the current, it was still lively, singing and no damages of death were seen. Thus, they took the head and buried it under a great mound surrounded by a sacred yard. This was a heroon for a certain time, then it turned into a sanctuary. Sacrifices and what else was dear to the gods they offered, but for women the place was completely inaccessible. Thus ends the story told by the ancient writer of myths.


European year of cultural heritage 2018