Terracotta lekythos (oil flask)

Attributed to the Sappho Painter

Period: Archaic

Date: ca. 500 B.C.

Culture: Greek, Attic

Medium: Terracotta; black-figure, white-ground

Dimensions: H. 6 13/16 in. (17.3 cm); diameter 2 13/16 in. (7.2 cm)

Classification: Vases

Credit Line: Rogers Fund, 1941

Accession Number: 41.162.29


Three different temporal personifications are depicted on this lekythos, which provide the context for the main action shown, Herakles sacrificing at an altar. There is only one specific moment in time intended, however, and it is sunrise; for Eos and Nyx are both moving away from the center of the vase, out of view, while Helios, on the central axis of the lekythos, ascends. Herakles' action is well attested in Homer (e.g. Il.3.105; 3. 277), who describes many instances of sacrifices performed during the day, by the Greeks and Trojans. These sacrifices also include the swearing of oaths, but all usually involve direct appeals to the sun god himself. But making sacrifices during the day was also an aspect of Greek life, a cultural practice that is reflected on this vase, and which provides the scene with a sense of realism, despite it's mythological subject matter.
There have been at least two suggestions regarding the actual subject of this scene. The first proposes that it relates to Herakles' tenth labor to fetch the cattle of Geryon, the triple headed beast who lives beyond the boundaries of the ocean, in a place reachable only by travel in the "sun-bowl" of Helios (the vessel in which the god sails across the ocean at night). In this scene, it is proposed, that Herakles makes a sacrifice to the god for the purpose of procuring the bowl so he can sail to the land of Geryon to complete his tenth labor. The other interpretation suggests that this scene shows Herakles sacrificing to the gods prior to his trip to the Underworld to catch Kerberos, Hades' three-headed dog. The second hypothesis contends the vase shows not time, but place, in particular the ends of the earth where Eos, Nyx and Helios all come together.