previous next

'This last sentence reads almost like a description of the picture on the vase, save for the introduction of Hermes, who plays no part in this episode of the Odyssey. The artist may have added him from a mixture of motives: partly because he wanted a composition with three figures, partly because one of the functions of Hermes was to conduct the souls of the dead to the lower world; it is also possible that the god appeared in a tragedy dealing with this theme.

'Some details of the picture, hard to see in photographs or even on the vase itself, appear more clearly in the drawing in which the doubly curved surface of the pelike has been flattened into a plane. Such are the lines in thinned paint indicating the inner markings on the bodies, the fleece of the sheep, the shading on the hat of Odysseus, and the like. The inscriptions giving the names of the three figures,1 the contours of the rocky landscape, the reeds behind Elpenor, the pit with the blood of the sheep dripping into it were added in the form of a thick yellowish-white pigment applied on the black ground. Except for one small fragment these details have flaked off; but it is still possible to make them out, since the surface they covered lacks its characteristic lustre. This indication of scenery, though sketchy, is unusually elaborate, and interesting besides as showing how closely the artist followed Homer. The tall reeds with their tops waving in the wind suggest the proximity of the rivers. And the rock at their confluence is represented by the undulating line extending to the upper border of the picture. Elpenor, whose legs from the knees down are hidden in a depression of the ground, leans his body and raised left arm against this rock, the hand grasping a projection from it, while his right hand, planted on another rock, gives him the additional support he needs. Like Agamemnon, who appears later in the story, "no longer had he substance to stand firm or the vigorously free movements such as once filled his supple limbs". Odysseus sits quietly in an attitude more familiar in Greek vase painting, his head propped on his hand, gazing sorrowfully into the staring eyes of his comrade. He is in the prime of life and strength; his muscular arm with the hand firmly gripping his sword helps to differentiate him from the ghost opposite. Both figures are well drawn in complicated poses; the rendering of Elpenor's head in three-quarter view — a problem which vase painters of this time still found difficult — is fairly successful.2 Hermes, in comparison with the other two, seems like a lay figure. Yet the attitude of his right hand and his intense gaze add somewhat to the pathos of the scene.'

The inscriptions are ΕΛΠΕΝΟΡΟΣ, ΟΔΥΣΕΥΣ, ΗΡΜΟ. For the genitives see ii p. 85; for ΗΡΜΟ, Kretschmer Vaseninschriften pp. 97-8 and Richter and Hall p. 195. Οδυσευς for Οδυσσευς.

It is plain from Caskey's language that he would have preferred Hermes away. Perhaps there is more to say about this. Two things are expressed in the figure of Odysseus: pity, and self-control. That a third, surprise, should also be expressed in it is almost too much to expect. Yet surprise is one of the chief elements in the situation. It is expressed in the figure of Hermes. Again, the action of Hermes emphasizes the self-control of Odysseus. At the terrifying apparition, the god steps forward, ready to stand by the man: but the man has not flinched.

In a drawing of the scene that follows this in Homer, on an Etruscan mirror in the Vatican (Gerhard E.S. pl. 240; JHS. 69 pl. 5, b with p. 6), Hermes makes a third to Odysseus and the shade of Teiresias.

Caskey speaks of Hermes as conductor of the souls of the dead to the lower world: he might have added that when the living Herakles went down to Hades to fetch Cerberus, he was conducted by Hermes (Hom. Od. 11.626), and the two are often seen together in this scene on vases; Orpheus also was escorted to the nether world by Hermes.


1 'Elpenor's name is given in the genitive. This might be taken to mean "(ghost) of Elpenor". But Hermes is also labelled "of Hermes". And on another vase in the Museum, which is attributed to the same hand, the name of Zeus is in the genitive, while those of Artemis and other figures are in the nominative. It seems safer to draw no conclusions from these variations in the forms of names. The painter was not a faultless speller: he has omitted the second letter of Hermes' name; and similar mistakes occur on other vases decorated by him.'

2 'In the photograph of Elpenor his cranium is distorted owing to the curvature of the vase.'

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: