Iliad 18.599-602: The Simile of the Potter & the Wheel

Iliad 18.599-602: The Simile of the Potter & the Wheel
2023.10.11 | by Stan Burgess

§1 A modern potter would be somewhat baffled upon encountering an ancient Greek predecessor at work on the wheel. That the wheel oscillated noticeably as it turned would surely intimidate our time-traveling craftsperson. The visual evidence of ancient Greek wheels suggests they were propelled by hand, either by the potter or an assistant. Modern potter’s wheels employ a variety of technologies to make them turn. There are kick-wheels and treadle wheels, which rely on a heavy fly-wheel driven by the potter’s feet[1] to retain momentum, and electric wheels. These have one feature in common. The axle which turns the wheel-head on which a pot is formed is stabilized by a frame or armature. As a result, a modern wheel-head  spins level and consistently horizontal.

§2 The ancient Greek potter’s wheel, as evidenced on Attic vase-paintings and Corinthian pinakes, would not have been so stable. Visual and comparative evidence indicates that they likely wobbled. That the Greek potter’s wheel may have wobbled or oscillated is subtly suggested by the simile comparing the dance to the potter’s wheel from the “Shield of Achilles” in lines 18.599-602 of the Iliad:

οἳ δʼ ὁτὲ μὲν θρέξασκον ἐπισταμένοισι πόδεσσι
εῖα μάλʼ, ὡς ὅτε τις τροχὸν ἄρμενον ἐν παλάμῃσιν
ἑζόμενος κεραμεὺς πειρήσεται, αἴ κε θέῃσιν·
ἄλλοτε δʼ αὖ θρέξασκον ἐπὶ στίχας ἀλλήλοισι.

And at one time on skillful feet they (the dancers) were running
with great ease, as when a potter sitting at the wheel
Fitted in his hands tests it if it might run.
And at another time in turn they ran in rows at one another.

A modern audience unfamiliar with how an ancient Greek potter’s wheel worked could overlook the beauty and appropriateness of Homer’s visualization of the dance through the simile. In fact, the rotation of a perfectly turning modern wheel at high speed is hardly noticeable and would surely not stimulate the visualization of a dance. If the ancient wheel had worked accordingly, the simile would not have conveyed much at all. But the singer’s audience with even a passing familiarity of the potter’s craft would instantly nod admiring approval of his imaging. The poet notes that the potter makes a test of the wheel to see if it will run. Why is this a question? When an ancient wheel turns, it doesnt just spin evenly but sways or oscillates. Perhaps too much to work properly. But if it turns well, it still oscillates. It dances. And what the dancers do with their skillful feet, the potter does with his hands, first powering the wheel then shaping the pot. First let’s explore evidence of ancient wheels.

§3 Below are two fragments of Corinthian pinakes from Penteskoupia (early 6th century BCE), among those that Eleni Hasaki has exhaustively documented depicting a potter at the wheel.[2] On both the potter sits low to the ground, as Homer indicates. This is typical. The wheel-heads are quite large, estimated to be 30+ inches in diameter and 4+ inches thick.[3] Both wheels are supported on a thick base on which they rotate. Where the surface of the base and the under side of wheel-head come in contact lubrication may have been applied. Unseen in this view is the fitting which joins the wheel-head to its base (see §6 below). A short axle, cone, or ball, perhaps iron or polished stone, fits into a socket in both pieces. Around this fitting the wheel-head rotates. On F868 the potter has finished throwing[4] the vessel and appears to be applying slip (a liquified clay that has been sifted to remove coarser particles, used for decoration) in a frieze with one hand while he turns the wheel with the other. On F869, the potter is still forming the pot. Likely there is an assistant to the right turning the wheel, but the pinax is too fragmentary to be sure. The mound of clay below the vessel is an example of an efficient technique contemporary potters refer to as “throwing off the hump.” The potter begins by placing a large mound of clay on the center of the wheel-head, and rather than centering the whole mass, he only has to center the amount he will need for the particular piece he is making. When a vessel is completely formed, he cuts it off, removes it, and starts the next pot from the hump. One benefit to the technique, as we will see, is that it does not require the  wheel-head to be perfectly steady and level.