Issue O032 of 1 June 2003

The Eleusinian iconography on the Red-figure pelike from Hermitage

Alena Trckova-Flamee, Doctorate, Ph.D (Hist. Art)
Previously at the University of Palacky, Czech Republic

The theme of the Eleusinian myths became a subject of decoration on the Greek vases from the early times until the Late Classical period. But sometimes it is not easy to interpret an iconography program of the vase-painters and to identify all the participants and relations between these figures and their episodes. Mainly during the Classical and the Late Classical times the scenes were taking a form of narration, in which the main actors were accompanied by many figures of gods and heroes, including the mortal beings too. Such compositions have been the subject of studies and point of discussions for many years among scholars.

A typical illustration of this situation is the scene, named "The initiation of Herakles in Eleusis" on the red-figure pelike (a Greek vase) from Kerch in the collection of Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia (St 1792). There is no agreement among scholars about the identification of some figures, which are explained in many different ways. I want to summarize the various ideas and to present my opinion. I believe that the narrative scene on the initiation of Herakles (Hercules) in Eleusis scene was created with some higher purpose --to give a philosophical message to people. I shall try to decipher the painter's logical plan of this composition and on this base to identify the participants and relation among them.

Literature and research
The vase-painting Initiation of Herakles in Eleusis was attributed by J. D. Beazley to the so-called Eleusinian Painter, who lived (according P.D.Valavanis) in the central third of the fourth century. Beazley characterized the Eleusinian Painter as "a laboured and weak" designer compared to the Marsyas Painter. J. Boardman also agreed that his figures are indeed somewhat weaker and more crowded. But P. D. Valavanis believes that these painters (Marsyas and Eleusinian) were identical and that the pelike was one of his late works. C.Kerenyi described the Initiation of Herakles in Eleusis on the pelike from Kerch as the most grandiose theme, which adorns the Eleusinian religion. Moreover, the following consensus exists among scholars about the central figures. The composition consists of the enthroned Demeter with her son Ploutos (keeping the horn of wealth) on the one side and her daughter-Kore (Persephone) on the other side and Triptolemos on his chariot above the head of the goddess Demeter. Also, the initiating Herakles and the sitting Dionysos are no controversial figures. They are positioned on the corners of a geometric triangle with Demeter in the center.

The identification of the other personages is a point of discordance among scholars. First, the male figure that is bearing two torches and is standing between Demeter and Herakles is identified by Kerenyi and some of his followers as Eubouleus and by E.Simon as Eumolpos, the ancestor of the Eleusinian hierophantai. Eubouleus, mentioned in the Orphic hymn as the third brother of Triptolemos, was according to Kerenyi a "good councel" of the underworld-god. E.Simon/s identification is basead on the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, where Eubouleus does not appear. She called this figure Eumolpos, the colleague of Triptolemos.

Two of the most controversial female-figures are sitting at the corners of the first row. According to Kerenyi the woman on the left with the winged small figure at her feet is Aphrodite with Eros and he also writes that her counterpart, who is giving support to Dionysos, can be only Dionysos/ mother, Semele. E. Simon brought a new presumption about the figure with maternal features, sitting on the right. But her idea that this figure is Rhea provoked a strong reaction against this theory from K.Clinton, the author of the 1992 study "Myth and Cult, The Iconography of the Eleusinian Mysteries." He argued, that Rhea does not at all occur in the cult of the mysteries and he came up with a hypothesis about the identification of this figure with the Eleusinian Thea. However, his opinion was not accepted by E. Simon, who does not agree with the interpretation according to which Demeter and Persephone appeared twice in the first row of this composition.

Iconography program of 'The Initiation of Herakles in Eleusis' Scene
To find a solution in this discussion and to reach some conclusions, we have first of all to turn to the artist himself, to the Eleusinian Painter, and try to understand which message he wanted to give us, when he created this composition. E. Simon wrote that the painter did not represent a cult scene but an etiologic myth. Probably we could suppose that she is right because this composition with the initiating Herakles among the other figures expresses not only religious ideas but some philosophical message too. If the artist wanted his message to be intelligible and successful, he had to create a logical plan of his composition.

I believe that this picture and the position of the figures were made according to a specific iconography program. Without any doubt this program was based on the glorification of the Eleusinian cult and also the Dionysos' cult --Anthesteria had to be celebrated and heroes like Herakles were worshipped too. The central figure of the composition is Demeter with a corn in her hand making a gesture of blessing. She is surrounded by her children, Ploutos and Kore on the one side and Iakchos (the son of Demeter and Zeus) could be the figure on the other side while above her head is her messenger to mankind, Triptolemos.

It is well known that the Greeks worshipped Iakchos during the Eleusinian Mysteries. He is also represented as a torchbearer, an official priest at the mysteries, leading the procession of initiates in the famous Ninnion Tablet (in the collection of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, AM 11036) or together with Eumolpos (among the figures) representing the cult initiation of Herakles to the Mysteries, a work that is attributed to the Pourtales Painter (exhibited in the British Museum in London, F 68).

As I have already mentioned in the logical scheme of composition, Demeter is seated at the bottom of a reversed geometric triangle with (upper corners) Herakles on her right and Dionysos on her left. Their position is in relation with the other figures standing in front of them in the triangle and also with their vertical female partners, sitting in the first row.

First we discover Herakles, who is lead by a torchbearer to Demeter, as he is usually seen in the procession scenes. I can present several reasons to identify his vertical counterpart as Hebe, Herakles's future wife. She is waiting for him as she is going to be his spouse after his assumption among the gods on Olympus. This is the reason why she is dressed as a bride, as E. Simon has pointed out. When we look downwards to Hebe's left side, we can observe a small winged figure (most probably Eros), which is sitting near her feet. By the way, this was a very favorite motif in the marriage compositions of the Marsyas Painter, who is identified with the artist of this painting. Finally, Herakles together with Hebe are also depicted on the other late classical attic vase-scene called "The apples of Hesperides" made by the Pourtales Painter (exhibited in the Allard Pierson Museum of Amsterdam, 8229).

Looking up to the right corner of the triangle, we meet Dionysos sitting in a resting position. He is touching his cloths, his elbow is on the head of Persephone and one of his feet is lying on the back of his vertical female partner. We could imagine that the painter wanted surely to say something with the position of Dionysos (on the same line of the triangle with Persephone and Demeter) and with his intimate gesture. Of course, the mother of Dionysos is known under many names as Demeter (the mother of Dionysos-Iakchos), as Persephone (the mother of Dionysos-Zagreos), but most often Dionysos has been recognized as the son of Semele, the daughter of the king of Thebes. However, Semele is not always seen as a mortal person as sometimes she can appear in her immortal role because Dionysos lead her into heaven, where she received therefore the name of Thyone. Finally, the Greek tradition since antiquity has associated Semele with the Phrygian Mother of Gods - Kybele, who is named Rhea in Greek myths.

Therefore, as there is very close relation between Semele, Thyone and Rhea, I could partially agree with Simon's suggestion about the identification of this figure with maternal features, who she names Rhea. On the other hand, I believe that this figure is first of all in direct contact with Dionysos as is presented by his intimate gesture. Dionysos is usually and most often thought to be the son of Semele, but in the iconography program of this vase Dionysos's mother (as a counterpart of Hebe and accompanied by the other gods), could appear also in her deity role as Thyone. Therefore, I prefer to identify Dionysos's vertical female partner as his mother with the name Semele - Thyone.

We could finally ask ourselves what message had the Eleusinian Painter in mind while creating this vase. We have to note that at his times the Eleusinian cult did not have any more such a strong respect between the people as it happened before. So, we could suggest that the artist of this scene tried to warn the people who lived in the 4th century BCE that they have to recognize the Eleusinian cult and the cult of Dionysos -the Anthesteria, as well as heroes like Herakles-- as a real blessing of the gods that could give them wealth and peace in their life and happiness after their death.

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