Kinryas and the Modeled Ships of Ancient Greece

Clay model of a first century Roman War Ship / Museum of Sparta

The story of modeled ships starts with the introduction of Kinyras, a King of Cyprus.

Center for Hellenic Studies

Kinryas and the Honeycomb Boats

The Gift of Kinryas

This story of modeled ships starts with the introduction of Kinyras, a King of Cyprus. His roots are in Cilicia, Phoenicia, or Syria. At the time of his rule those areas had closer ties to Cyprus than did the Greek speaking world.

Kinyras was renowned for his wealth which was said to surpass the wealth of Midas and Kroisos. He was a cherished priest of the sea goddess Aphrodite [1] and he started the copper and metallurgical traditions on Cyprus [2]. His name may be connected to that of a musical instrument, a harp named kinnōr [3], which completes the image of a lyre-playing, temple-building priest-king with Phoenician roots, possibly embodying various historical figures into one mythological person. Within the formative stage of Homeric poetry, King Kinyras was established as the central cult hero of Cyprus.

Like so many of these legendary kings, however, his luck turned sour. A catastrophe kept alive for us by Ovid [4] tells how Kinyras, now at an older age, was unwittingly seduced by his daughter Myrrha. She was metamorphosed into the myrrh tree, feeding her baby Adonis with its sappy tears. Eventually Kinyras lost his fortune and was—cursed by Agamemnon—driven from power by the Greeks. At the end of his life Kinyras was buried in the great Cyprian sanctuary that he had built for Aphrodite.

One version of the lost epic Cypria is said to narrate how this king Kinyras donated a fleet of fifty ships to Menelaos. This was his contribution to Agamemnon, High King [anax] of Mycenae, who mobilized to transport the Achaean army to Troy. Agamemnon’s fleet eventually counted twenty-nine contingents under forty-six captains, accounting for a total of 1,186 ships [5]. But none of them from Cyprus. The story is alluded to in the Homeric tradition [6]:

The son of Atreus shouted aloud and bade the Argives gird themselves for battle while he put on his armor. First, he girded his goodly greaves about his legs, making them fast with ankle clasps of silver; and about his chest he set the breastplate which Kinyras had once given him as a guest-gift. The story, which reached as far as Cyprus, was that the Achaeans were about to sail for Troy, and therefore he gave it to the king. It had ten circles of dark lapis, twelve of gold, and ten of tin. There were serpents of lapis that reared themselves up towards the neck, three upon either side, like the rainbows which the son of Kronos has set in the sky as a sign to mortal men.
Iliad 11.15–24

What went wrong? Did Kinyras break his promise? The great Kinyras, similar in importance to Agamemnon, did not break his promise to contribute ships against Troy. His gift, however, given within the tradition of gift-giving that characterizes Great Kingship, consisted of one full scale ship and a fleet of forty-nine Cypriotic terracotta modeled ships: [7]

Menelaos went with Odysseus and Talthybios to Kinyras in Cyprus and tried to persuade him to join the battle. But he [Kinyras] made a gift of a breastplate for Agamemnon, who was not present; and vowing to send fifty ships, he sent one, which [name lost] the son of Mygdalion commanded. And molding the rest out of clay, he launched them into the sea.
Apollodorus, Epitome 3.9

The Grecophone storytelling about Cyprus mentions the stop by Paris and Helen at Sidon en route to Troy [8], and the post-Troy wanderings of Menelaos, which take him to Cyprus and Phoenicia and the Egyptian people [9]. Teucer, the half-brother of Ajax became the legendary founder of the city of Salamis, named after his home town near Athens where he was not allowed to stay, being judged guilty of negligence for not bringing the body or armor of Ajax back with him [10]. Agapenor, leader of the Arcadians in the Trojan war, on his return from Troy, was cast by a storm on the coast of Cyprus, where he founded the town of Paphos [11].

As said, the most famous goddess of Cyprus, “Aphrodisia”, is Aphrodite. Sophocles, one of the three Attic tragedians whose plays survived, writes about her as follows:

Children, the Cyprian is certainly not only the Cyprian
But she is a being of many names.
She is Hades. She is immortal life.
She is mad insanity. She is desire undiluted.
She is lamentation. In her is everything
Earnest, peaceful, all that leads to violence
She seeps into the organs of everything
In which life resides. Who is ever sated by the goddess?
She enters into the fishes’ swimming race,
She is in the four-limbed tribe on the land
And guides her wing among the birds.

Among beasts, mortals, among the gods above.
Whom of the gods has she not thrown three times?
If it is right for me—if it is right to speak the truth,
She rules Zeus’ chest without a spear or iron
The Cyprian certainly cuts short
All the best plans of humans and gods.

Sophocles, fragment 941 [12]

The Honeycomb Boats

The terracotta model of a thirty-oared merchant ship found at the Hodigitria monastery [13] has a hull that is covered with a honeycomb. It is assumed to have a votive function, where the honey serves the idea of food for the deceased person. The model is described by Christos Boulotis in his presentation titled “Greece and the Sea”. [14] The physical model is kept at the Archaeological Museum of Chaniad, Crete.

Figure 1: The honeycomb boat of Hodigitria. / Archaeological Museum in Chania

Almost the complete hull is covered with a ceramic piece of honeycomb. Possibly this tells us something about how the after-life was considered. Was sweet honey the food for the spirit of the deceased on its voyage to the Elysian Fields?

In side view the small boat shows feet, pods, on which it stands. This strengthens the idea that this type of form served as a votive, or as the container of a votive.

Figure 2: The sarcophagus of Agia Triada / Iraklio Archeological Museum. Heraklion

An extraordinarily rich image of how a noble deceased, Minoan, or Mycenaean, receives his gifts is shown on the sarcophagus of Agia Triada (Crete, 1400 BCE). The sacred tree and the stepped shrine tell us about the character of the event. The first gift in line is the model of a boat, without mast, without oars. Is it possible that the honeycomb boat had a similar function? Does the votive indicate that the person was connected to the sea? The metaphor of the ship must have been powerful, also considering that the ship was a symbol in the system of Bronze Age Cretan hieroglyphs. [15]

The Spectator and the Mast Step

The Spectator on the Aft Deck

A clay model found in a tomb at Amathos [16] tells us the story of a man who comfortably sits on the back of his ship without a helm, having such a clear vision over the well-built ship—and where it is going to—that we could call it a modeled scene of a theōriā: the figure being a spectator who looks with his eyes and his mind: a state pilgrim [theōros]. We do not know what his role, his activities, will be, both on the journey and at the sanctuary [17].

The ship is a theōris built to take the sacred delegate outside of his own territory. He is the Homeric pilot who is lost at sea and finally finds his bearings and reaches home. He directs not only the ship but also, metaphorically, the community that is the ship. Possibly he is the kubernētēs, the governor who directs the ‘ship of state’ [18].

Figures 3 (left) and 2 (right): Single figure who sits back against the poop deck / The Cesnola Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Alternatively, the helmsman, who looks so balanced [sōphrōn] is the keen observer who recognizes Dionysus for what he is and who is therefore saved by the god Dionysus himself from being transformed into a dolphin:

Meanwhile the steersman took note right away …. As for the steersman—he [= Dionysus] took pity on him, holding him back [from leaping overboard]. He [= Dionysus] caused it to happen that he [= the steersman] became the most blessed of all men [19].

Another indicator [sēma] for the meaning of this clay model may be the absence of oarsmen or sails: the ship moves by the power of thought and observation of the helmsman, who does not even have to touch the rudder [20], but keeps his arms resting on the gunwales. Odysseus, when talking about the Phaeacians, says: “They are a sea-faring folk, and sail the seas by the grace of Poseidon [21] in ships that glide along like thought, or as a bird in the air.” [22]

The model shows transverse beams protruding from the quarters of the ship. The extremities of the beams are called “catheads” [23] [epōtides] and are mentioned by Euripides:

There we saw a Hellene ship, winged with ready blade for the stroke, and at the oar-locks were fifty rowers with their oars; the two youths stood by the stern, freed from their chains. Some were holding the prow in place with poles; others were fastening the anchor from the cat-heads [epōtides]; others were drawing the stern-cables through their hands and making haste to let down the ladders into the sea for the strangers.

The catheads on the raised aft deck [ikria] provide support for the pennants, or straps, which are used to control the tillers of the quarter rudders. This idea can even take the shape of housings for the rudder [pēdálion] as we see in Figure 4, showing an integration of the epōtides and the steering bench. On later, Hellenistic ships, these extensions were called parexeiresia [24]: outside the eiresia, the oarbank. On Homeric ships the raised aft deck could have a width of seven feet [eptapódiníkriaIliad 15.729]

The next ship model, shown below, is kept at the Thalassa, Agia Napa municipal Museum at Cyprus. It models the type of vessels used around 600–480 BCE, especially in between Amathus—on the southern coast of Cyprus—and Egypt.

Figure 4: Terracotta ship model, Cyprus, 600-480 BCE / From Casson Lionel. 2014. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Illustration 94.

The model is slightly more detailed than the ones represented before and features what seems to be a raised and ornamented bow shape. The forebody shows the catheads for the ground-tackle. The middle of the stern and the ship as far as the prow is undecked [asanidon] [25]. The aftbody of the model shows again a single figure, standing on the poop-deck, not evidently involved in the operation of the ship. The width of the poop-deck with epōtides exceeds the width of the ship.

The Histopedē (Mast Step)

The word for “mast”, histos, is used for the ship’s mast of Odysseus. The related word is histopedē, which indicates a construction placed at the bottom of the ship structure into which the lowest part of the mast fits: a mast step. The third word is mesodme; a tie-beam with a hole or notch in it which centers over the mast step. The masts were lowered in aft direction, as we do today, so the notch in the mesodme was open towards aft and closed towards forward.

Figure 5: Terracotta model of a merchant galley from Cyprus, c 750–500 BCE / Photo by Claus Ableiter, Treasures of Thalassa Museum, Ayia Napa, Wikimedia Commons

For visualizing all this we can look at the terracotta model of a thirty-oared merchant ship from Amathos, Cyprus, dated about 600–500 BCE. The ship model is kept in the collection of the British Museum. The waterlines in the forebody are slender. The aftbody with aft castle is full. Cross-beams span the full and deep hull and the most central beam represents the tie-beam [mesodme], the brackets of which are open in aft direction. This agrees with the event of Odyssey 12.411 in which the mast falls not forward, as you would expect in a ship that can sail before the winds only, but towards aft, upon the head of Baius [26], the unfortunate helmsman.

Lionel Casson [27] describes the mesodme as “a carling, running fore and aft between two thwarts amidships, that had a hole or notch in it which centered over the mast step”. It is translated by LSJ as “tie-beam” and within the CHS source text [28] it is convincingly introduced as a “socket in the cross plank”.

Underneath the tie-beam, mounted to the bottom of the ship, we can see the mast step [histopedē], fitted with a slender vertical casing to accommodate the lowest part of the mast. The word histopedē is commonly as “a piece of wood” and within the context of the Odyssey [29] it is suitably translated as “mast step”; a construction placed at the bottom of the ship structure into which the lowest part of the mast is mounted. It is from this uncomfortable low view point, the top of the vertical casing, that Odysseus watches the Sirens [30].

Protonos and its antonym, epitonos, respectively indicate the forestay and the backstay of a mast. According to Iliad 1.434 the mast is let down by slackening the forestays and settled into the mast crutch [histodokē], which consequently must be in the aft of the ship. Next the mast is fastened with the forestays (Odyssey 2.425). The epitonos is only mentioned once, in Odyssey 12.423, but not in the context of raising or lowering the mast. Apparently the epitonos is the standing rigging, tensioned by the running rigging, which are the protonoi. The forestays [protonoi] are always described in the plural form, indicating that there is “a pair of forestays” and Apollonius of Rhodes [1.563] describes that there is one on either side of the bow, which would allow them to absorb some side-forces too.

Figure 6: Gokstad Viking ship: mast foot detail

Figure 6 shows the mast foot and aft-body of the 9th-century Gokstad Viking ship. The lower part of the mast is locked into the mast foot by a wedge, which indicates that the mast of this forty-oared Viking Ship was lowered in a similar way as the mast of the ancient Greek ship, namely by lowering it aft, by slackening of the forestay. The Viking ship is wider and less deep than the full block merchant galley from Cyprus, making the application of the mesodme impractical.



  1. Foam-sprung Aphrodite (Aphrogenia) had the largest number of epithets related to the sea: Anadyomene (as having risen from the water), Euploia (good sailing), Pontia (of the open sea), Limenia (of the harbor) and Pelagia (of the sea). On the eastern face of the Parthenon frieze, Aphrodite sits right beside Poseidon, Amphitrite (the wife of Poseidon) and the sea goddess Leucothea.
  2. Franklin, John Curtis. 2016. Kinyras: The Divine Lyre. Hellenic Studies Series 70. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.
  3. Franklin, John Curtis. 2016. Ibid. Compare Hebrew kinnōr, the lyre famous as the instrument of King David.
  4. “The royal Cinyras was sprung from her; and if he had been father of no child, might well have been accounted fortunate—but I must sing of horrible events—avoid it daughters! Parents! shun this tale!” Ovid Metamorphoses Book X, 298–302
  5. “It was I and no one else who invented the mariner’s flaxen-winged car that roams the sea. Wretched that I am—such are the arts I devised for mankind, yet have myself no cunning means to rid me of my present suffering.” Aeschylus Prometheus Bound 467–8.
  6. Iliad 11.15–24, Sourcebook
  7. Apollodorus Epitome 3.9, Eustathios ad Il 11.20.
  8. Proclus’ Summary of the Cypria, attributed to Stasinus of Cyprus. The Epic Cycle, Sourcebook
  9. Proclus’ Summary of the Nostoi, attributed to Agias of Trozen. The Epic Cycle, Sourcebook
  10. “For who does not know how Teucer, the founder of our race, taking with him the ancestors of the rest of our people, came hither over seas and built for them a city and portioned out the land.” Isocrates Niocles or the Cyprians 3.28, translated by George Norlin, on Perseus. “This he [= Euagoras, King of Cyprus] did as an Athenian whose ancestry connected him with Salamis, for he traced his pedigree back to Teukros and the daughter of Kinyras. ” Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.3.2.
  11. “Agapenor, the son of Ankaios, the son of Lycurgus (Lykourgos), who was king after Ekhemos, led the Arcadians to Troy. After the capture of Troy the storm that overtook the Greeks on their return home carried Agapenor and the Arcadian fleet to Cyprus, and so Agapenor became the founder of Paphos, and built the sanctuary of Aphrodite at Palaipaphos (Old Paphos). Up to that time the goddess had been worshipped by the Cyprians in the district called Golgi.” Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.5.2
  12. Sophocles, fr. 941, Sententiae Antiquae
  13. Province of Herakleion, Crete.
  14. Griekenland en de zee. Ministry of Culture of Greece, 1987. Angelos Delivorrias ea.
  15. See, for example, John Younger’s illustration of Symbol 040 at
  16. The Cesnola Collection, Ancient Art from Cyprus, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
  17. Ian Rutherford: State Pilgrims and Sacred Observers in Ancient Greece, University of Reading, (2014).
  18. “The Ship of State” is a metaphor put forth by Plato in Book VI of the Republic (488e–489d). Leonard Cohen’s song “Democracy” contains the line “Sail on. Sail on, o mighty ship of state. (p. 12). In the British TV series Yes, Minister, Sir Humphrey Appleby pointed out that “the Ship of State is the only ship that leaks from the top”.
  19. Homeric Hymn (7) to Dionysus. Translated by Gregory Nagy. Sourcebook.
  20. “Of all who lived pure, he was purer than a steering oar, even though the steering oar is always in the sea.” (Soudas 1.30. no. 2810.10f)
  21. “Hail, Poseidon, Holder of the Earth, dark-haired lord! O blessed one, be kindly in heart and help those who voyage in ships!” ([Homeric Hymn 22 to Poseidon 6–7)
  22. Odyssey 7.34–37 Samuel Butler’s translation, revised by Timothy Power, Gregory Nagy, Soo-Young Kim, and Kelly McCray. Published under a Creative Commons License 3.0.
  23. In the expression “cathead”, the “head” is the extremity of the beam that supports the set of sheaves through which a ‘cat fall’ runs. The assembly of beam, sheaves, and cat fall, forms a lifting tackle.
  24. Euripides Iphigenia in Tauris 1345–1352; translated by Robert Potter, on Perseus.
  25. Based on J. S. Morrison, Joseph Francis Coates, J. F. Coates, N. B. Rankov. The Athenian Trireme: The History and Reconstruction of an Ancient Greek Warship p161. The Greek word parexeiresia suggests some part of the ship concerned with pulling the oars [eiresia] outboard [ex-] and alongside [par-]. Morrison mentions it in the context of the oar system of triērēs.
  26. Casson Lionel. 2014. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World p151: Undecked: ‘asanidon’. The covered area along either side of the hull is called the ‘deck’ [katastroma] or the ‘platform’ [thranos] or the ‘planking’ [sanidomata]
  27. Baius and Misenus, two of the companions of Odysseus. (Strabo Geography 1.2.18)
  28. Casson Lionel. 2014. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Princeton University Press.
  29. Odyssey 2.424.
  30. Odyssey 12.51, 62, 179.
  31. “have them bind you in the swift ship, hands and feet, upright in the step of the mast [histopedē], and have the ends of the ropes be fastened to the mast itself”. (Odyssey 12.50–51)


Aeschylus. Prometheus Bound. Translation by Herbert Weir Smyth. 1926. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd.

Apollodorus. Epitome. Translation by Sir James George Frazer. 1921. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd.

Anonymous. 1914. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd.

Casson Lionel. 2014. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Princeton University Press. Available online at Project MUSE, Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore.

Delivorrias, A. ea. 1987. Griekenland en de zee. Ministry of Culture of Greece

The Epic Cycle, Translated by Gregory Nagy, revised by Eugenia Lao, CHS

Franklin, John Curtis. 2016. Kinyras: The Divine Lyre. Hellenic Studies Series 70. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Homeric Iliad  Samuel Butler’s translation, revised by Timothy Power, Gregory Nagy, Soo-Young Kim, and Kelly McCray. Published under a Creative Commons License 3.0.

Morrison, J.S. ea. 2000. The Athenian Trireme: The History and Reconstruction of an Ancient Greek Warship.Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Great Britain.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Brookes More. 1922. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co.

Pausanias. Description of Greece: A Pausanias Reader, Translation based on W.H.S. Jones, edited, with revisions, by Gregory Nagy

Plato. The Republic translated by Paul Shorey. 1969. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd.

Rutherford I. 2014. State Pilgrims and Sacred Observers in Ancient Greece, University of Reading, UK.

Sophocles Fragment 941 [=Stobaeus 4, 20.6]: Source

Originally published by the Kosmos Society, The Center for Hellenic Studies under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.