Herakles Parts of Herakles' story are probably based on the life of a historical figure, while other parts seem to be taken from the myths
of other eastern Mediterranean countries. In Greek mythology, the hero Herakles personified physical strength and courage. His repeated
triumphs over evil, particularly his successful completion of the 12 labors, earned him god status. Throughout the ancient Greek world,
Herakles was worshiped as a protector.1
Another example of a Greek hydria vase.
Black-Figure Hydria (Water Jar) with scenes of Herakles Painted in the manner of the Antimenes Painter
Greek, Attic, late Archaic Period, ca. 520-510 B.C.
Carlos Collection of Ancient Greek Art. 1984.8
History Herakles was the most popular hero in 6th-century Athens, even though none of his exploits was performed there. He appears frequently
on Athenian vases. Herakles' popularity was due in part to his association with Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. She protected
Herakles against the evil doings of Hera.
Detail of incised lines from the Hydria
In his efforts to gain control of Athens, a 6th-century tyrant named Peisistratus (pie-sis-trot-us) took advantage of the well-known
relationship between Athena and Herakles. He wanted people to think of him as a modern Herakles-strong, unbeatable, and heroic, so he
staged a chariot procession to the Acropolis (a-CROP-a-lus), pretending to be Herakles. Seated beside him was a woman dressed up as
Athena. This event inspired many vase paintings of Herakles' journey with Athena to Olympus, including scenes of Athena with her
Antimenes Painter The Antimenes (an-TIM-en-eez) painter painted many images of Herakles and Athena together, responding to public demand. Although
many Athenian vase painters did not sign their work, art historians can identify them by certain traits that recur in their paintings.
This vases's theme, extensive use of white, and composition helped art historians to identify the artist as the Antimenes painter. He
signed the name Antimenes painter to only a few of the 150 vases attributed to him.
Hydria This vase, called a hydria, was used for carrying and pouring water. The two handles on the sides were used for carrying, and the
third one, on the back, was used for pouring.
Style The painting style of this vase is called black-figure because the figures are rendered in black against the natural red color
of the clay. The artist drew the figures on the surface of the vase with a clay and water solution called
(ON-gobe), which turned black during the firing process.2 White and dark red accents were added with separate solutions. The artist
details into the engobe before firing. For example, the lines that show details in faces and clothing in this vase painting are all
This hydria exemplifies the qualities of harmony and symmetry, highly prized by the Greeks. The orderly designs conform to the different
parts of the vase and accentuate its well-balanced, harmonious proportions. A circle of tongue
(moe-TEEFS) decorate the base of the vase and emphasize its function as the support of the whole vessel. A circle of rays rises out
of the base and draws the viewer's attention to the paintings on the main body.
Roll over the image to see qualities of harmony and symmetry from the Hydria
Scenes The main scene on the body of the hydria shows Athena in her chariot, presumably having just arrived from Mount Olympus to take
Herakles to live with the gods. Because the Greeks thought of gods as humans, it is almost impossible to tell the difference between
the two in this scene. However, Greeks familiar with their stories could readily identify the most popular figures by their
Athena wears armor, which identifies her as the warrior goddess and the protector of heros. She fought not for the sake of destruction but
for just causes. The cloak she wears is made of serpents, a reference to the serpent-haired head of Medusa (meh-DOO-sa) given to her
by Perseus (PURR-see-us) after she helped him to kill the evil gorgon. Her skin is white because vase painters typically colored all
women's skin white and men's skin black.
Roll over the image to see specific attributes of Athena from the Hydria: white skin and serpent-haired cloak
Roll over the image to see specific attributes of Herakles from the Hydria: short spiky hair and short beard
Roll over the image to see specific attributes of Hermes from the Hydria: pointed traveling hat and long red beard:
Herakles is shown in profile facing Athena in the middle of the scene and is easily identifiable because he has the short spiky hair of an
athlete and a short beard. The figure to the left of Herakles is Hermes (HER-meez), the messenger god, who guided Herakles on his many
journeys. Hermes is identified by his pointed traveling hat and his long red beard. He is also carrying a traveling staff in his left
hand. The other figures are grooms who assist Athena in harnessing the four horses to the chariot she and Herakles will soon be riding
to Mount Olympus. Athena taught the mortal king of Athens, Erichtonius (Ay-rick-toh-nee-us) how to harness the first war chariots.
In fact, the harnessing of the chariot horses on this vase accurately reflects the equipment and methods used in 6th century
A band of lions and wild boars surrounds the bottom of the vase. They represent the Nemean lion and the wild boar of Erymanthus that Herakles
had conquered as 2 of his 12 labors.3
1The foundation of the Olympic games was attributed to Herakles in his role of athlete-hero. The
Greek lyric poet Pindar (518-438 B.C.), who wrote a set of poems about the games, says that Herakles arranged all the rules and
details. [New Larrousse Enclycopedia, 169] The first official Olympic games were held in 776 BC, about 130-150 years before this
vase was made.Return to Text 2The process by which the figures become black is called an oxidation and reduction firing.
During the first stage of firing, when oxygen is let into the kiln, the body of the vase turns red. During the second stage the oxygen
supply is cut off, causing the whole vase to turn black. During the last stage the oxygen is let back into the kiln and the clay, but
not the engobe, returns to its original red color.Return to Text 3See Story section of Door Knocker in the Form of MedusaReturn to Text