Sunday 8 May 2016

Oedipal Quiz-Llittle Boys in Greek Tragedy

The "Oedipus Vase"--NOT
Fancy a Greek Theatre Workout? This is a blog crowd-sourcing about a famous ancient Greek image. Which myth or play does this vase-painting illustrate?

Sophocles’ Oedipus is one of the most famous plays in world history, but it is difficult to find any ancient Greek image illustrating the play in performance. So the one vase-painting that scholars have said shows a scene from the play gets endlessly reproduced. It is from the fourth century BCE, when the then century-old classic tragedy was being performed all over the Greek world. The precious pot is in the archaeological museum of Syracuse, Sicily. The label beside it insists it is a scene from Sophocles' Oedipus

Not much room for doubt there then
I recently had to withdraw from a wonderful conference in Leiden organised by two of my fave Hellenists, Ineke Sluiter and Felix Budelmann, about mental processes in tragedy, because my mother has been critically ill. I was going to argue that our assumptions about what Little Girls Ought to Look Like has led to a massive misunderstanding of this vase-image.
The assumed 'girls' on assumed 'Oedipus' pot

Everyone has assumed that the two children are girls, simply because they have long dresses and ringlets. The only play we have in which two little girls appear is Sophocles' Oedipus. At the end of the tragedy, the incestuous and parricidal hero is brutally separated from his daughters/sisters, Antigone and Ismene. Scholars have assumed that this vase-scene shows a fusion of the scene in which Oedipus and Jocasta learn who he really is, and that painful parting scene at the end of the drama.

Mystery woman with no role in Oedipus and ringlets
The best scholars did admit that the ‘extra’, ringleted dark-haired woman, listening in from behind the pillar on the right of the scene as you look at it, could not be explained from the play. She is also reacting to the bad news the messenger brings, but in a different way from the blonde queen-person.

Boy has frock and girl is semi-nude
I talked to several colleagues who know much more about ancient art than I do.They all said I was deluded because we would expect small mythical boys to be naked. But then I came across this second vase-painting, showing a scene from Euripides’ Alcestis. Alcestis dies, after a tearful parting from her son Eumelus and her daughter. In this image, it is certainly the daughter (right) who is semi-naked, and the son (left) who has a long frock and ringlets. 

What this means is that on the 'Not-Oedipus Vase' we need to see a myth/tragedy involving two different adult females looking horrified, and two little boy children who look like beardless, miniature versions of their dad and ringleted mystery woman. Fortunately there are far more brother doublets than sisters in Greek mythology. I will blog back with your suggestions soon! You can find my email on my personal website.


  1. Might this be illustrating Euripides' Hypsipyle? The boys could be Euneus and Thoas.

    1. Hi Aadam--that was my very first thought too. She could be overhearing reactions to the death of Opheltes. But I think her sons were grown-up in Euripides' famous play?

  2. Hope your mum gets better soon

    1. Thanks so much; that is very kind of you.

  3. Emails have come in suggesting Euripides' INO (very plausibly) from Professor Vaios Liapis, and Euripides' MEDEA (intriguingly) from Caroline Latham.

  4. There is a methodological pitfall here which I am sure you are aware of: the question of whether or to which extent (Greek) vase-paintings can ever be seen as 'illustrations'. On this issue, I recommend the highly illuminating review of Oliver Taplin's 'Pots & Plays' by Luca Giuliani in Gnomon 81, 2009, 439-447.
    Mythological (pot-)Images and their production have their own laws and stand in a different, complex interrelationship with the oral and written tradition of myths. Thus, it is, for instance, questionable whether the vase-painter had a name in mind for each and every figure he included; scholars (like Stansbury-O'Donnell in his 2006 book) have illuminated, for example, the important functions of 'bystanders'/spectator figures (who need not be namable in order to fulfill their pictorial function).
    This is not to say that this is the case here; I just wanted to point out that we have to be careful with our assumptions.
    Anyway, good luck, it's an intriguing image!