The Priam Painter’s Hydria, in the Elvehjem Museum of Art (Madison 68.14.1), shows a narrative of the deification of Herakles that maintains the classic version of the myth in the sense that Athena drives a chariot which brings Herakles to the realm of immortality, but insinuates the process was perhaps more peaceful and more simplistic than did other painters contemporary with the Priam painter.
Herakles stands at the flanks of the horses, recognizable by the lion’s skin on his shoulders and its jaws he wears on his head. Athena, to his left, will command the chariot once their travels begin; she wears her archetypical helmet; and Hermes is engaged in conversation with Herakles, wearing a “traveler’s helmet” and carrying his staff. At the horses’ heads hides a female figure, presumably of no more significance than a groom or a servant.
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Clearly Herakles and Hermes are talking; Athena looks ahead, over the horses’ ears, seemingly aloof to the conversation. That Athena is the charioteer is indisputable, as is the fact that Herakles is beside her. Their adornments are perfectly typical in the tradition of characteristic pieces associated with the goddess and the hero/to-be god. Thus, to an ancient viewer who had not been instructed that the vase depicted the apotheosis of Herakles, unless there existed another story in the oral tradition that Herakles was to ride behind Athena as Charioteer, the vase would have been instantly recognized as the myth the Priam painter intended. However, had I seen this vase without prior instruction as to its intention, I could have distinguished Athena and Herakles but probably not Hermes; I could see the intentions of Herakles to ride with Athena but be utterly clueless as to where they were going. There is no indication of Mount Olympus anywhere in the scene, so we don’t know where they are going; the chariot is stopped, so we wouldn’t know if the chariot has ended from its journey or is about to depart.
Furthermore, the scene on the vase isn’t at all consistent with the account of the apotheosis of Herakles by Apollodorus, which states simply that “while the pyre was burning, it is said that a cloud passed under Hercules (Roman) and with a peal of thunder wafted him up to heaven. Thereafter he obtained immortality . . .” (Apollodorus, Library). The chariot is conspicuously absent, as are both Athena and Hermes. This is possible for several reasons: did the transport of Herakles to Mt. Olympus by Athena, as a charioteer, fade out of oral tradition by the time of Apollodorus’ writing? Can art scenes show divine interactions that could not be constructed in oral tradition or writing?
Absent from the vase by the Priam painter are key elements of Apollodorus’ account of the ascent to Mount Olympus, namely the characters and events leading up to the near-death of Herakles. Obviously the scene is intended to display only a small portion of the myth, one not even touched on by Apollodorus.
What is striking about this scene, especially compared to other vase painting depictions of the apotheosis of Herakles, is that the human and/or god-figures appear calm and relaxed, while the horses appear tense and unnerved. In Munich 2360, for instance, while Herakles and Athena are calm and collected, the scene is much more suspenseful: Athena is driving the horses in the air, and Herakles is now riding with her instead of standing at their flanks; below is the burning pyre, and what have been described in Perseus as two nymphs are rushing forward to put out the flames. To their left and below the chariot are what Perseus calls “Silens,” two nude men. One of them is peering into the flames and the other appears panicked, backing away. An alternative interpretation might suggest a sort of arm conflict between the Silens, which is not described in Perseus but sort of appears as such on the vase. While Herakles is not wearing his lion’s skin and jaw helmet in this scene, making it more difficult for us to identify him, the rest of the action incontrovertibly describes the myth in a much more parallel fashion to that of Apollodorus.
Perseus dates this vase to the classical period, and the one by the Priam painter to the archaic, which gives evidence that with time the myth may have changed and the narrative in the vase by the Priam painter follows a more dated storyline, which explains its lack of consistency with the tale told by Apollodorus. The vase from the Louvre in Paris, F 30, depicts another scene of the same myth: here, Herakles is shown, with Poseidon, Hermes, and Athena, actually entering Mt. Olympus and the realm of the immortals. The characters are recognized by their adornments; Athena, for instance, is painted snow-white and carries her characteristic shield. To the left of Athena are Poseidon and Hermes respectively; to her right is Herakles, as though being introduced to a sort of hierarchy of deities. The scene is quite different from the two chariot scenes from Munich and Madison, obviously because it depicts another aspect of the same narrative. The mood to this painting is rejoiceful, a vivid contrast from both previous chariot scenes.
After comparison with these vases, the Priam painter’s Hydria seems simple and vague. The artist seems to have left much of the myth, which was probably still in a very formative period in archaic Greece, open to the viewer’s interpretation.
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