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Ancient Greek Eye Cups By Zarifah Nawar

Terracotta kylix: eye-cup (drinking cup) dated ca. 520 B.C. in the Met Museum

In the second half of the sixth century BC, Greek artists began to paint pairs of eyes on the outsides of kylikes. The kylix was a wine drinking cup that was used during symposia (male-dominated drinking parties). The kylix had a broad, shallow bowl that rested on a small pedestal, with two handles on either side. When a person lifted the cup using the handles, to drink from it, the painted eyes obscured their own facial features. The handles of the kylix resembled ears and the base looked like a mouth, meaning the kylix acted like a mask. 

Greek vase painters would typically paint a pair of oversized eyes under arched eyebrows, and the eyeballs painted white with small black pupils, making the eyes appear wider and rounder. Sometimes the eyes had more feminine features, such as an elongated almond shape and tear ducts. The eye motif was introduced by the Greek potter Exekias through his infamous kylix that depicted Dionysus sailing in the ocean on the inside of the bowl (550-530 BC). Painters usually added a nose in between the eyes, but sometimes this was replaced with figures of gorgons or athletes if the artist wanted to celebrate a particular myth or sporting achievement.

The primary function of the painted eyes is thought to be apotropaic; the exaggerated eyes would ward off evil spirits from the person drinking the wine, acted as a defence against malicious supernatural beings and also against the envious gaze of the other guests at the symposium. Since the kylix could function as a mask, the eyes acted as a barrier so that the jealous gaze fell first on the painted false eyes, rather than the person themselves. Simultaneously, the wide and watchful nature of the painted eyes kept guard over the drinker, even when their own vision became impaired through alcohol and fatigue as the night progressed. They would also protect both the wine from being tainted and the cup from being destroyed by the power of negative thoughts. 

These kylikes have been found buried in Etruscan tombs, furthering the notion that the eyes served a protective function. The Greeks did not take the power of evil forces lightly, and lived in constant dread that they may be harmed by unappeased spirits or jealous neighbours. As such, eye cups were a precautionary measure. 

Yet, the eye cup was not just a protective talisman. Since the kylix doubled as a mask, it allowed the drinker to assume a new identity at the symposium. This served as a source of entertainment, as the drinker could adopt the characteristics of whomsoever they wished and test the boundaries of their personal identity. Often, the inside of the kylix depicted a myth and the drinker could envision themselves as the hero of the story. This theme of changing identities was also fitting with the Dionysiac nature of the symposium, as Dionysus was known for his shape-shifting abilities. He was also capable of manipulating the identities of mortals through the use of wine, dance and music, freeing them from the restraints of their self-conscious thoughts and cares. The exaggerated eyes painted on the kylix could also be seen to mimic the eyes of a drunk person, providing additional entertainment.

A third potential purpose of painting eyes on kylikes was to reinforce social constructs. The Greek society was built on strict social protocols based on the notion that one was always being judged by neighbours. At a symposium, guests were seated so that they were all able to gaze upon one another as they ate and drank. There was also a distinct social hierarchy in the seating arrangements: the host of the party or his honoured guest reclined on the couch at the head of the room, giving him the best view. As a result, the participants of the symposium were consciously aware of their social standing and, by implication, how they were expected to behave. Guests had to not only demonstrate exemplary table manners, but also the depth of their intellectual capacity by contributing to the lively conversation. As such, the enlarged eyes served as a reminder that each person was watching and judging the others. Each time a person raised the kylix to drink from it, the eyes that dominated their facial features drew attention to the fact that people around them were being avidly observed. It served as a warning that the symposium was not just a carefree evening of drinking, but a stage on which to display one’s best qualities. Thus, the eye cup reinforced the Greek culture of judgement. 

The eyes painted on kylikes were clever artistic additions that served a threefold purpose: apotropaic protection, entertainment and the maintenance of social order.

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