Larnax (Bath-tub)

Late Minoan IIIA. Mid-14th c BC
Carlos Collection of Ancient Art

Functional bath-tubs, the earliest known in the West, have been found at Bronze Age palaces such as Knossos (portable) and Pylos (built in). The Linear B tablets from Pylos also give us the ancient name: re-wo-te-re-jo. The decoration outside is probably a stylised version of octopus tentacles, which, together with the fish inside (bream) are obvious choices for aquatic contexts. The wavy double line on the floor represents water draining out through the plug; the semi-circles below the rim perhaps sea-urchins or anemones.

Water in Greece is precious. Even for the elite, a bath would have been a great and occasional luxury. Homer's description of Circe's servants preparing a bath for Odysseus underlines the ritual and formality: "the fourth maid fetched water and lit up a great fire under the big cauldron so that the water grew warm. When the bright copper was boiling, she sat me down in a bath and washed me with water from the great cauldron mixed with cold to a comfortable heat, sluicing my head and my shoulders until all the painful weariness was gone from my limbs. My bath done, she rubbed me with olive oil, clothed me in a tunic and a splendid robe and conducted me to the hall, where she seated me in a beautiful chair with silver decorations and a footstool below". To the Greeks, the Underworld was entered by water. As with many other Minoan bath-tubs, this one was probably later used as a coffin to convey the deceased across the sea, where marine imagery would be equally appropriate. The two functions of bath-tubs, bathing and burial, combine in the story of Agamemnon who, on return from Troy, was murdered by his wife and her lover in a silver bath.