Terracotta lekythos (oil flask)

Attributed to the Sabouroff Painter

Period: Classical

Date: ca. 450 B.C.

Culture: Greek, Attic

Medium: Terracotta; white-ground

Dimensions: H. 12 7/16 in. (31.6 cm)

Classification: Vases

Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1921

Accession Number: 21.88.17


This white-ground lekythos, attributed to the Sabouroff Painter, depicts the Greek god Hermes conducting a dead youth to Charon's boat. Known also as messenger to Zeus and protector of travelers, Hermes is shown here in his capacity as psychopompos, literally "leader of the souls." He was the deity who escorted the shades of dead mortals down to the banks of the River Styx, where Charon ferried them across to Hades.
Characteristically, the figure of Hermes is bearded and dressed in traveling clothes with a chlamys (short cloak), a petasos (broad-brimmed hat), winged sandals, and a kerykeion (herald's staff), which terminates in two entwined snakes. Greek heralds carried a similar staff as they traveled from city to city. Hermes reaches toward the youth to his left, and gestures with his staff toward Charon, who awaits their arrival. The beardless, bare-footed youth is completely enveloped in a long mantle, most likely the shroud of the deceased. Charon is depicted with his characteristic hat and exomis, a short garment pinned at one shoulder that leaves free his steering arm. The elderly ferryman is the most frequently represented mythological personality on Attic lekythoi, particularly on those attributed to the Sabouroff Painter. As on this vase, he is usually shown in his boat waiting patiently while the dead approach, accompanied usually by Hermes.
As a protector of travelers, Hermes was believed to clear the roads of stones and, in memory of this deed, herms (square pillars with carved heads and male genitals) were often dedicated along roads and where pathways crossed. Such representations were occasionally placed over graves, perhaps as a way of committing the deceased to the care of the god.