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Saturday, April 2, 2016

Herakles and Busiris

Among the parerga of Herakles was the slaying of Busiris, a mythical Egyptian pharaoh. (A parergon was a subsidiary or minor labor that the hero undertook while performing his major ones, i.e., the canonical twelve.) Like Herakles’ encounters with Nereus and Antaios, the killing of Busiris took place during his eleventh labor, the acquisition of the Golden Apples in the Garden of the Hesperides (cf. the post for 3/16).

When Egypt was ravaged by drought, Busiris sought advice from a seer, who told him that he could insure himself against calamity every year by sacrificing a stranger. The seer himself hailed from outside Egypt, so Busiris put the seer’s claim to the test by sacrificing him! And the trick worked: no drought that year, no famine. So the next year when Busiris began looking for another victim, is so happened that a certain stranger showed up as though on cue. You guessed it: that stranger was Herakles. When he was led to the altar and realized what his hosts intended to do to him, Herakles broke free from his bonds and slew Busiris and his son.


The earliest extant depiction of this story on a complete pot is on this black-figure hydria from Caere belonging to the second half of the sixth century BC. Here Herakles is a huge, dark figure who with his bare hands hurls around numerous dark- and light-skinned, white-clad Egyptian priests in front of the altar. He tramples two even as he chokes two more in the crook of his arms, strangles a third, and grasps a fourth by the ankle. The other Egyptians are doing their best to escape.

Most scholars regard this and similar later depictions as a parody of Egyptian monuments showing Pharaoh smiting or trampling his enemies. The great J. D. Beazley saw it this way as early as 1910. “The wit in the painting,” writes Susan Woodford, “comes from fitting the style to the subject; Herakles turns the tables on the Egyptians, the artist turns the tables on the Egyptian style!”

Such parody presupposes familiarity with Egypt. At the end of the eighth century Greeks were serving as mercenaries in Egypt, and they were influenced by the monuments there.  They had a trading post at Naucratis in the Nile delta from the seventh century BC. Contacts between Greece and Egypt were regular. “It is hardly conceivable,” concludes Martin Robertson, “that the painter of the Busiris vase had not himself seen Egyptian monuments.”


Another illustration of the myth, the earliest complete one in Attic vase painting, is this one by the Swing Painter from the second half of the sixth century BC. Here the figure that has fallen over the altar must be Busiris.  Herakles, wearing the lionskin, holds a white-clad Egyptian by the ankle and is about to use him to club Busiris, while another priest expresses his dismay. The others flee.


The story of Herakles and Busiris is popular in Attic red-figure vase painting during the first half of the fifth century. On this pelike by the Pan Painter from about 460 BC Herakles encounters more opposition than he did on the two vases considered above. One Egyptian is poised to strike the hero with an ax. For his part, Herakles has grabbed another by both ankles, prepared to meet the ax with a human weapon, even though his club is within easy reach.

The basic type is constant in these and other Attic depictions of Herakles and Busiris for most the fifth century: in the center Herakles attacks Busiris in front of the altar, while priests and attendants flee for their lives. Then, toward the end of the century, the type vanishes from Athens.



Carpenter, T. H.  Art and Myth in Ancient Greece.  1991.  128.
Robertson, Martin.  A History of Greek Art.  2 vols.  1975.  2.139.
Woodford, Susan.  Images of Myth in Classical Antiquity.  2003.  73-76.

- Ryan Summers

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