In Focus

Black-figure kylix [1972.5]

The following essay is from the 1996 publication Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art_._

On one side of the cup, Herakles reclines against a rock, holding a phiale, a footless bowl without handles, in his left hand. A soft cloak is casually draped over his left shoulder and arm. His traditional lion skin, taken from the mythical Nemean lion, hangs magically behind him from the vase rim. His weapons- a sheathed sword with shoulder strap, bow, and arrow-filled quiver- also hang above him. The hero has been distracted from his contemplative mood by something behind him. While his powerful body remains in repose, his head snaps about in the direction of the disturbance, and his right hand instinctively grasps his sword hilt.

The scene on the other side is more tranquil. Heracles reclines once again on a rock, his weapons suspended above him. Clad in an elegant mantle, he extends a kantharos, a high handled wine cup, toward an obliging satyr who obediently fills his vessel from a wineskin. The satyr is smaller in scale, denoting his secondary status to that of Heracles, and is distinguished by his equine ears and tail. In Attic vase painting, satyrs are partial to drink and are frequent companions to Dionysus, god of wine. The lack of furniture and the rocky setting create an out-of-doors atmosphere to which the satyr- a semi-divine spirit representing various aspects of nature- and the grapevines growing around the vase handles add a fitting touch.

Heracles was the most popular of heroes in Classical art and his cult was venerated throughout Greece. He was born of the mortal Alcmene, queen of Thebes, and sired by the father of the gods, Zeus, who appeared to the queen in the guise of her husband, King Amphitryon. During his life, Heracles accomplished many heroic feats (including the killing of the Nemean lion) and upon his death was apotheosized to join the gods on Mount Olympus. It is perhaps in this setting that we see him on the eye cup, in repose after his labors. Perhaps because of his own divine status, the images of the god Dionysus appear in like repose on Athenian vases during the last quarter of the sixth century BCE. The analogies extend to the reclining post; the head twisting about; the attendant satyr; the presence of grapevines; the phiale, which denotes a ceremonial or ritual occasion; and the kantharos, which became a regular attribute of Dionysus before becoming that of Heracles in Athenian vase painting.

Flanking each scene of Heracles are large almond-shaped "female" eyes, with eyebrows but without extended tear ducts. Such eyes were thought to avert evil from the bearer. When the cup was raised to the lips, the fertile imagination of one's drinking companions saw a comical face with cup handles serving as ears and the open, hollow foot as the mouth. The cup interior holds a Gorgoneion, also an apotropaic image, derived from the severed head of the Gorgon Medusa. Here one senses the humor of the vase painter in placing this motif so that the drinker comes nose to nose with this demonic image each time he drains the cup.

Excerpted from

Anne R. Bromberg and Karl Kilinski II, Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 60.