The tripod and its significance in ancient Greece

The word tripod derives from the Greek words ‘tripous’, meaning three-footed, and refers to a three-legged structure. Used as a seat or stand, the form of the tripod is the most stable furniture construction for uneven ground, hence its ancient and widespread existence.

Bronze tripod, symbol of achievement and a token of gratitude between host and guest.

Bronze tripod, symbol of achievement and a token of gratitude between host and guest.

In Ancient Greece, tripods were most frequently used as a support for a lebes (cauldron) or as a base for other vases, although they could also function as ornaments, trophies, and sacrificial altars.

Indeed, in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, we are often told of tripods being given as gifts exchanged between hosts and guests, or as prizes to those successful in games, and in the Classical period, vases show that they continued to be awarded as prizes for athletic competitions (below: a black-figure ceramic tile showing a charioteer with his team; on the ground, the tripod awaits the victor).

Ceramic black-figure tile

Ceramic black-figure tile of a chariot race for Patroklus, a detail taken from the François vase.

Some were made of gold, but these were normally reserved for use as dedications to the gods because of their special value.

Important tripods

One of the most famous tripods belonged to the Pythia in the Sanctury of Apollo at Delphi. This divinely-inspired priestess used to sit on top of a tripod to deliver the oracles of Apollo, and a laurel-branch was placed on top of the tripod whenever she was away. Because of this, by the Classical Period, the tripod had come to be strongly associated with, and even sacred to, the god Apollo.

A popular image on Athenian black and red-figure pottery is that of the myth of Apollo and Herakles contesting for the Delphic tripod; angry at not having received a cure for his illness from the Pythia, Herakles began destroying the temple, and tried to carry off the tripod, thinking he would establish an oracle of his own. However, he was prevented by Zeus and Apollo, who reclaimed his sacred seat.

Herakles and Apollo's tripod

Red-figure plate showing an image of Herakles with club, lionskin and the tripod of Apollo.

Another famous tripod is the so-called Plataean Tripod, made using some of the spoils taken from the Persian army after the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC. Particularly elaborate, it comprised a gold basin supported by a bronze serpent with three heads, in whose coils were inscribed the names of the states who had taken part in the war. During the Third Sacred war (356-346 BC) it was taken as booty by the Phocians and in AD 324 the stand was transported by the emperor Constantine to Constantinople and can to this day still be seen in the hippodrome in Istanbul.

Bronze tripod, symbol of achievement, a prize for victory and a token of gratitude between host and guest.

Bronze tripod, symbol of achievement, a prize for victory and a token of gratitude between host and guest.

author: Alexandra Hamburger for It’s All Greek

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2 Responses to The tripod and its significance in ancient Greece

  1. Gundega Korsts says:

    The word for tripod, as ti-ri-po-de, was also crucial in recognizing the language of Linear B as Greek. I studied under Emmett L. Bennett, who worked out the weights and measures of Linear B, and under Murray A. Fowler, classical linguist. It’s a joy to spend some time with your websites, both shop and wordpress. (I’d like to read that dissertation on Dionysos!)
    PS: I wish I could figure out how to subscribe to your weekly newsletter, or to follow your wordpress blog.

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