If you drink too much, it’s easy to make an ass of yourself. That has not changed, so it seems, across millennia.
A couple of donkey-headed vessels from ancient Greece in “Animal-Shaped Vessels From the Ancient World: Feasting With Gods, Heroes, and Kings,” at Harvard Art Museums through Jan. 6, attest to it. Take a long pull of wine from one, and your bleary-headed drinking buddies might see a donkey’s head on your shoulders, snout aimed at the heavens. If you’ve had a few too many, you might even bray.
The exhibition, full of frolic and fantasy, features nearly 60 mostly ancient objects. Susanne Ebbinghaus, curator of ancient art and head of the museums’ Asian and Mediterranean art division, uncovers three juicy overlapping themes: animals’ symbolic heft, the power dynamics of feasts, and the social, ritual, and mystical roles of alcohol.
The donkey, although associated with Dionysos, the god of wine, fertility, and wild indulgence, was not the most popular beast depicted on drinking vessels. Across ancient cultures in Europe, Asia, and Africa, the two favorite animals on cups, amphorae, and more were bulls and rams — powerful beasts of burden, used in religious sacrifice and as meat sources. Lions come in third. All three likely denoted leadership and nobility.
The creatures in “Animal-Shaped Vessels” are fierce, mythical, comical, and exquisitely crafted. Several vessels tell mysterious stories, or blend traditions so well it’s hard to place where they’re from.
It’s hard to know for sure what these deer, pigs, and centaurs, plus a portly Chinese duck and a latter-day Peruvian monkey signify. Feasts marked weddings and funerals; leaders held them to welcome foreign dignitaries. Tools used at such gatherings bore symbols affirming the leader’s power and the community’s values.
Drinking, highly ritualized, provided more than social grease. It honored bonds, delineated power structures, and facilitated communing with gods and ancestors.
The earliest objects here, painted terra-cotta pieces such as a lion with bared fangs dating to the second millennium BCE, are four-footed — formally, more animal than vessel, and in that way unlike most pieces on view. This lion has a spout rising from its back; drinking from it probably required a straw.
During rituals, the Hittites of central Anatolia (now Turkey), where the lion comes from, engaged in what they called “god-drinking.” That may simply signify a toast. Then again, perhaps they counted on the potency of their wine, beer, or mead to animate the beast, investing the fermented brew with a deific force.
Among the many mugs and beakers on view, Ebbinghaus spotlights two other types of drinking vessels: the rhyton and the drinking horn.
The fountain-like rhyta have two openings. They would be used to pour libations on the earth or an altar during rituals, but also to drink from. The Minoans, on Crete, invented them. A Minoan clay bull’s head from the 14th or 13th century BCE has cheeks and forehead tattooed with a cloverleaf pattern. It’s cup-shaped, with the rim around its neck, and a second opening in its snout. Pouring wine through such a vessel mimicked animal sacrifice.
Animal-shaped rhyta traveled trade routes, were exchanged diplomatically, and grew highly stylized. The form pops up almost a millennium later in the Persian territories of the Achaemenid Empire, among a people who fancied monsters. A Persian silver rhyton features a tall, ribbed beaker emerging from the forepart of a griffin — part eagle and part lion, here with horns.
Persian royal heroes legendarily slayed griffins, and perhaps tamed them; palace decorations in Persepolis show them domesticated into service, holding up the roof. A king might use a griffin rhyton to theatricalize conquering the mythical beast, spilling wine on the floor like blood.
Ancient drinking horns, made from bovine keratin, don’t have the lasting power of clay or metal rhyta. A more recent one on view demonstrates that they still had clout as diplomatic gifts as recently as the mid-20th century, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev sent President Kennedy Georgian wine and four drinking horns.
The largest of the horns is here, with a silver duck head finial. The apparent good will offering was a feint; Khrushchev made the gift in September 1962, just before precipitating the Cuban missile crisis. Could the duck have denoted something? Certainly, it’s no lion.
Lions and griffins and bulls, plus the specters of revelry and a warm cup of wine, make for a high-spirited exhibition. So does magnificent craftsmanship: One delicately muscled Hellenistic centaur, a silver rhyton, twists impressively in dance.
The show’s range across time and space underlines how trade spread designs and shaped material culture in the ancient world. A centaur with a swiveling sacrificial goat hinged to its hands adorns a four-legged bronze and copper rhyton. It was found in Pakistan and dates to the late first millennium BCE, and is speculatively attributed to the Saka, the last pre-Islamic people.
Then there’s a Greek cup with cross-cultural designs, circa 460 BCE. Modeled after Persian vessels, it depicts a black figure — an African youth, according to the label — in a throat-catching wrestling match with a crocodile. It’s a mystifying image. Is it evidence of Greek xenophobia? Or, given that crocodiles were sacred in nearby Egypt, is it the type of forbidden erotic embrace between god and mortal found frequently in Greek mythology?
We don’t know. Much about these vessels, and the beliefs and rituals they represent, remains mysterious. That’s another reason they’re intoxicating:
ANIMAL-SHAPED VESSELS FROM THE ANCIENT WORLD: FEASTING WITH GODS, HEROES, AND KINGS
At Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge, through Jan. 6. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.