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Classical Black-figure Octopus Jug, Greek or Sicilian, c. Late 5th Century BC

Both the shape and decoration of this charming little vase are unusual and exact parallels are wanting. The octopus became a favorite subject of ancient Greek artists, who utilized its unusual biological form and symmetrical anatomy as a decorative device, perfectly adaptable to the curving surfaces of jugs such as this. They were popular motifs in the decorative repertory of Minoan and Mycenaean vase-painters, who developed what is known as the Marine Style. In addition, the creature is represented on gold foil relief ornaments from Grave Circle A at Mycenae.

In ancient Greek literature, the octopus makes its first appearance in The Odyssey when Odysseus, shipwrecked and clinging to a rock, is compared to one: “Just as when an octopus is pulled from its lair, closely packed pebbles are held against its suckers, so pieces of skin from his strong hands were scraped off against the rocks; and the great wave covered him.”

Descriptive references and accurate depictions of the octopus in literature and art, such as that painted on this vase, suggest that poets and artists must have had a first-hand knowledge about the appearance and behavior of this marine invertebrate. In antiquity, as today, the Mediterranean was a nearly tideless sea, and its gently sloping, rocky and pebbly beaches would have made it possible to observe the animal in shallow water. The octopus was a favorite food of the ancients, the best fishing grounds for it being located off the coasts of Thasos and Caria. It was admired for its sweet taste and was additionally thought to be an aphrodisiac.