Mixing Bowl (Krater)
Unknown artist, Greek, Attica
Mixing Bowl (Krater), 520-510 BCE
Height: 31.8 cm (12 1/2 inches)
Museum Appropriation Fund 29.140
The ancient Greeks always diluted their wine with at least an equal amount of water, mixing the two liquids in large vessels such as this krater. The expansive exterior surfaces of kraters allowed vase painters to depict complicated scenes with multiple figures.
Side A Here Herakles (the Roman Hercules), having successfully completed the Twelve Labors, enters Mount Olympus to become a god. Wearing a lion skin, Herakles steps onto a chariot drawn by four horses. Behind him is Iolaos, his charioteer. The goddess Athena, wearing a crested helmet and breastplate and carrying a spear, faces Herakles. Behind her stands the wine god Dionysos, identified by the garland of ivy leaves on his head. Apollo, god of music, wearing a laurel wreath and holding a kithara, is on the right.
Side B The Athenian hero Theseus, shown here wrestling the Minotaur, is wearing a lion skin in imitation of the Greek hero Herakles. Directly behind Theseus is the princess Ariadne, who helped him to defeat the Minotaur. Behind her is a youth, holding a spear and watching the action. Two similar youths watch on the right. These probably represent the Athenians rescued by Theseus after the slaughter of the Minotaur.
About the work
This vessel’s wide opening and sturdy handles reveal that it was used to hold, mix, and pour large quantities of liquid. In ancient Greece, such containers, known as kraters, were used much like the modern punch bowl—for mixing wine at social gatherings. Ancient Greeks drank wine with almost every meal, but they usually watered it down. A finely decorated krater like this would have been the centerpiece of a symposium, or a dinner party for Greek men. During these gatherings, men discussed the day’s news, the latest gossip, cultural events such as plays and sport, and debated spiritual beliefs, politics, and philosophy. Elegant scenes painted on the exteriors of vessels inspired these discussions; in fact, the actions and motives of gods and heroes depicted served as the talking points in conversations about bravery, human virtue, morality, and the afterlife.
This terracotta vessel depicts two scenes decorated in the black-figure painting style. One side shows Herakles as he becomes a divine being. The physical and mental challenges met by Herakles (or in Roman myth, Hercules), known as the Twelve Labors, made him a role model for the ancient Greeks. Each of his Twelve Labors is outlined here.
In this scene, Athena, the goddess of war, greets Herakles, clad in a lion skin, a trophy from his first labor, killing the Nemean lion. Herakles ascends the chariot, followed by his charioteer nephew, Iolaos. Dionysos, the god of wine, adorned in ivy leaves, waits on the chariot. At the far right, Apollo holds a musical instrument called a kithara and wears a laurel wreath, signs of his special jurisdiction over music. Apollo faces to the right, away from the other figures, as if leading the way to Mount Olympus, the home of the gods and the site of Herakles’s elevation to divine status. The dress, adornments, and objects helped ancient Greek viewers recognize the figures and interpret the narrative.
The other side of the krater depicts another hero, Theseus, fighting the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster that lived in a labyrinth in the palace of king Minos on the island of Crete. The Minotaur fed on the youth sent by the city of Athens as penalty for the killing of king Minos’s son. To Theseus’s left is the princess Ariadne, Minos’s daughter, who helped Theseus plan his dangerous task of killing the Minotaur and escape the labyrinth. Young men on either side represent the youth to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. Heroic feats such as this provided provocative material for the drinkers at the symposia as they imbibed wine, gazed at the krater, and discussed the hero’s exploits.
The two scenes reinforced Greek beliefs by picturing key moments in the stories told about Theseus and Herakles. These narratives provided drinkers and onlookers gathered at the symposium with complementary perspectives on heroism as well as mortals’ relationships to the gods. Great bravery is rewarded: Theseus’s scene makes concrete the challenges faced by a brave man, while Herakles’s scene affirms that great heroism is rewarded with immortality. Significantly, the krater shows us that the ancient Greeks envisioned the gods in human form, interacting with the most worthy humans.
The Greeks constructed a visual culture populated by a pantheon of gods and heroes. Ask students to focus on one or more figures—Herakles, Iolas, Athena, Dionysos, or Apollo in the first scene or Theseus or Ariadne in the second scene. Ask students to work in small groups, looking at each figure’s dress, pose, and the objects they carry, then discussing specific characteristics, powers, and responsibilities. Each group can present their notes interpreting the characteristics they think are significant for understanding each figure.
These two scenes present different heroes and different stories. Compare the hero from each scene. Carefully considering the depictions of Herakles and Theseus, discuss how they relate to one another.
Where do we see representations of Greek heroes and gods in contemporary public spaces or forums? Is there an example on the façade of your local library, city hall, or museum? Choose an example and analyze how is the hero or god is presented. What qualities are emphasized, and why might this figure and story have been chosen for this setting? Focus on representations of Herakles or Theseus in popular culture, such as film or graphic novels; how is the figure reinterpreted in this presentation?
To further explore everyday life in the ancient world and imagine how the images on this krater might have been viewed and discussed, have students hold their own symposium in groups of four or five. Each student can have a printout of the scene of Herakles. Remind students that the images on the krater were intended to stimulate conversation about different important subjects. Arrange students in a circle and select one student as the host. Have the host serve everyone in the circle something to drink and have the assembled toast the host, collectively. Then, select one student to read aloud the following quote from the epic poem Shield of Heracles by Greek poet Hesiod about the apotheosis of Herakles:
Mighty Heracles … when he had finished his grievous toils, made Hebe, the daughter of great Zeus and Hera … his tender wife in snowy Olympus. Happy is he! For he has finished his great work and lives amongst the undying gods, untroubled and unaging all his days.
Select one student to comment briefly on one of Herakles’s characteristics or a theme in the passage. Then, going around the circle, have each student give their view on the topic, feeling free to question, expand, or propose another interpretation, as time allows. Ask students to make connections between the quote and the way the figures are presented on the krater. Afterward, reflect as a larger group about the subjects or issues that came up during the symposium discussions.
Working in pairs, ask students describe and discuss the relationship of the humans Herakles and Iolaos with the Greek gods. After providing students with some background about the use of kraters at social gatherings such as symposia, ask groups of students to research the role of the gods in others areas of ancient Greek life, including sports and politics, followed by short group presentations.
What are other important moments or scenes from ancient Greek history or myth that focused on a virtuous or brave person and would serve as a good “talking point” depicted on a krater? To activate students’ prior knowledge of Greek myths, ask them to name figures they know and the myths associated with them.
The Classical Art Research Centre/Beazley Archive at the University of Oxford: http://www.beazley.ox.ac.uk/tools/pottery/shapes/kraters.htm
Gina Borromeo. Ancient Greek and Roman Galleries: A Guide to the Collection. Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 2012: 58–59.
Colette Hemingway. “The Labors of Herakles” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/hera/hd_hera.htm (January 2008).
Andrew Greene. “Theseus, Hero of Athens” in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/thes/hd_thes.htm (August 2009).