The goddess Athena, in full armour, springs out of the head of an enthroned Zeus. According to the Greeks, Athena was born in this astonishing manner after her father, Zeus, had swallowed her pregnant mother, Metis, the goddess of wisdom. The birth is depicted in great detail on the shoulder of this amphora. Demeters stands to the right of Zeus, gesticulating, while the midwife Eleithyia stands to the left. Behind her is the messenger god Hermes, already leaving the scene of the birth. Through a painted inscription he tells the viewer, “I am Hermes the Kyllenian” – referring to the place of his own birth on the Arcadian mountain Kyllene. The smithy god Hephaistos also hurries off to the left, bearing the axe he used to split open Zeus’ head to assist the birth. Bookending the scene at left is the wine god Dionysos, holding his typical drinking cup, the kantharos. On the righthand half of the frieze is another row of gods: Poseidon, Aphrodite, and Apollo, standing behind Demeter. Thus Athena is born amidst a great gathering of gods.
This mythological scene is just one of the numerous friezes that subdivide the vase into stark sections. The other friezes depict animals, hybrid beasts, and ornaments composed of lotus blossoms and palmettes. The central axis is marked by the lotuses and, in the mythical frieze, the seated Zeus. The amphora is roughly egg-shaped, part of the group designated “Tyrrhenian amphorae.” Vessels of this shape were made in an Athenian workshop from 570/60 to 550/40 BC.
Figuring Athena’s birth at the center of an Attic vase is entirely appropriate for the city that bore her name and dedicated the most important sanctuary on the Acropolis to her. Indeed, several years before this vase was made, the wise Solon wrote a poem about statehood that reads: “Our city will never perish by the disposition of the gods, nor by the will of the blessed or the fate of Zeus – for above us Pallas Athena spreads her caring hands, the proud and noble child of Zeus.”
It is therefore all the more surprising that this amphora was not found in Athens or Attika, but in Etruria. The vast majority of such amphorae were discovered in Etruscan graves. Because the Greeks called the Etruscans “Tyrrhenians,” the amphorae came to bear that name. Etruscan interest in Attic vases and their images was certainly not the same as the Athenian interest; but the Greek gods, known by other names in Etruria, could nevertheless stand for immortality in the context of a funerary offering. The findspot of Tyrrhenian amphorae makes abundantly clear that even in antiquity, vases already had long histories in which the significance of the image could change substantially.