- Museum number
Pottery: red-figured pelike: The Shirt of Nessos, or Herakles swapping clothes with Omphale.
(a) Heracles (short, curly hair and beard, nude) has removed his lion's skin and dropped his club, and steps forward from left to receive a rolled up robe (the poisened shirt of Nessos, or a female garment?) which a figure, most probably a female servant (rather than Lichas, Herakles male servant), standing on right offers him. The figure, shorter than Herakles, is dressed in a long chiton and a bordered mantle covering the left arm; the hair falls only to the neck in short wavy curls. Two horizontal lines on the forehead might indicate a hair band rather than wrinkles.
(b) A woman, Deianeira or Omphale, exactly in the same position and dress as the female servant in a), but with long hair looped up and confined with a red fillet wound twice round it each way.
Surface slightly decayed. Purple fillet. Brown inner markings. Drawing minute and careful, but figures heavy, the heads being very long in proportion to their width. The hair and beard of Heracles are in raised dots. The muscle on the thigh is curiously indicated. Below and above each side, a strip of egg pattern.
- Production date
- 430BC (circa)
Height: 14.60 centimetres
- Curator's comments
- There are two possible interpretations for this scene. One is the myth of the poisened shirt of Nessos (LIMC Herakles1680; LIMC Nessos 93), which Herakles' wife, Deianeira, unwittingly gives to her husband. Before he died at the hands of Herakles, the centaur Nessos had instructed Deianeira to keep some of his blood as a love potion that would secure her the affection of her husband. When Deianeira later steeps Herakles’ shirt in this blood, and Herakles puts on the shirt it becomes clear that the blood is in fact poison. It burns the hero’s flesh so painfully that he ends his own life by burning himself on a pyre. Deianeira might be the woman on the side b), while on side a) a female servant gives the robe to Herakles. Some scholars, including Smith in the British Museum vase catalogue, had earlier identified the servant as Herakles’ servant Lichas (LIMC Lichas 7), who according to Sophokles' Women of Trachis (lines 757-8) brought the robe to Herakles, but the figure’s long hair and dress suggests a female, perhaps a slave. If this is the scene that is represented it would be unique to date.
An alternative interpretation has been proposed by Vollkommer (1988, 32, 34 fig. 42), who notes that in texts the shirt is always kept in a box, as the poison began to work when exposed to light. He suggests an interpretation as the myth of Herakles swapping clothes with Omphale, queen of Lydia (LIMC Omphale 2; Kirkpatrick 2002, 40-41). To atone for a murder, the Delphic oracle had condemned Herakles to serve as Omphale's slave. Falling prey to her charms, the hero agrees to swap roles with the queen and dressed as a woman works among Omphale's maids, while the queen dons Herakles' lionskin and weapons. The figure holding the dress would then be a servant of Omphale while the queen herself is shown on side b), keenly stretching out her hand to receive the lionskin. This particular episode, however, gained popularity only in later periods, which would make the vase an exceptionally early representation.
As observed by Cohen (1988, 133-134, pl. 16 fig. 10), either way the image highlights the power that women have over the hero. Whether Herakles is lured into cross-dressing or paying the price for adultery, in taking off the lion skin, he places himself at the mercy of a woman.
Vollkommer, R., 1988, Herakles in the Art of Classical Greece, Oxford.
Cohen, B., 1998, ‘The Nemean Lion’s Skin in Athenian Art’, in C. Bonnet, C. Jourdain-Annequin and V. Pirenne-Delforge (eds), Le Bestiaire d’Héraclès: IIIe Rencontre héracléenne, Liège, 127-139
Kirkpatrick, J. and Dunn, F. 2002, ‘Heracles, Cercopes, and Paracomedy’, Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974), 132(1/2), 29–61
- On display (G69/dc37)
- Acquisition date
- Greek and Roman
- Registration number