Kabeirion (Thebes), the Judgment of Paris, circa 400 B.C. Black-figure skyphos; height, 20.5 cm; diameter, 21.6 cm.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

The skyphos is a large ceramic cup used by the ancient Greeks for the consumption of large quantities of wine. At informal male gatherings known as symposia, heady philosophical discussions usually progressed to drunken riotousness as the contents of the skyphoi were replenished.

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Skyphoi were often decorated with exquisitely painted scenes with clear references to Dionysos, the god of wine and revelry. In cases like the one seen here, however, the decoration evokes a far different relationship with the divine.

The scene on this skyphos represents a parodied depiction of the Judgment of Paris, a well-known incident from The Iliad, Homer’s epic story of the invasion of Troy by the Greeks. The evocation of a world of mysterious, irrational forces on the vase reveals a side of the Greek temperament at odds with the magisterial order imposed on human society by the Olympian gods.

The image of black people plays a key role in the reconciliation between the everyday world of the Greeks and the more intimate experience of spiritual revelation.

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The Trojan prince Paris was appointed by Zeus, ruler of the Olympian deities, to step in and settle rival claims of consummate beauty made by the goddesses Hera, Minerva and Aphrodite.

The fateful event is here reduced to only three summarily rendered characters. At left and center, respectively, Hera and Aphrodite are seated on the rocky slopes of Mount Ida, a sacred spot in the northwestern part of modern Turkey. Hera, queen of the gods, prominently wields her scepter, while Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and sensuality, holds the just-presented wreath of victory.

Before them stands Hermes, the winged god of communication and safe passage. In return for favoring Aphrodite, Paris received Helen of Sparta, the loveliest of all mortal women. The struggle by the Greeks to recover the already married Helen lasted 10 years and ended with the total destruction of Troy.

The story of the Judgment of Paris has been told and retold countless times, both in literary versions and in artistic form. Here, however, the straightforward treatment of the event has taken on a radically different form.

The face of Hera leers grotesquely with staring eyes and gaping mouth. Similarly, the representation of Aphrodite departs in a quite unexpected way from the somatic norm of the Greek figure. Rendered in strict profile, her negroid features are clearly evident. The same evocation of blackness characterizes the head of Hermes confronting her own.

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All painted wares of this particular type are associated exclusively with the Kabeirion, a sanctuary located several miles outside the Greek city of Thebes. The sacred precinct is named after the kabeiroi, underground deities worshipped in secret. The appeal of this and other ancient mysterious religions such as the Egyptian Isis cult lay in the profound shift from the conventional obeisance to the gods to a rapturous, personal identification with the divine by initiates to the cult.

The numerous drinking vessels found at the Kabeirion seem to have formed an integral part of the rituals held at the sanctuary. The rites apparently concluded with the smashing of the cups, perhaps as a way of invoking the power of the kabeiroi.

The painted scene on the skyphos could also recall a dramatic presentation of the event, perhaps a short play staged in honor of the local deities. In this case, actors such as those portraying Aphrodite and Hermes on the cup would presumably have appeared as Africans, their affect aided by carved and painted theatrical masks.

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The same inclusion of blackness holds true for several other types of scenes found on the Kabeirion skyphoi. One of the most remarkable of these presents a dramatic confrontation taken from Homer’s Odyssey, the companion epic to The Iliad.

During a stop along the wandering path of his journey home, the great hero Odysseus encounters the sorceress Circe, who tries to transform him into a pig in order to keep him with her. She offers him the fateful potion, which he rejects with a surprised gesture. Circe appears unmistakably as a black woman, while Odysseus’ image is in keeping with the standard type of the old man in Greek art.

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The underlying emphasis on powerful, occult forces in the Circe scene made it an ideal subject for use at the Kabeirion. The moment of potential metamorphosis from a rational creature into another, less comprehending form alludes to the ecstatic experience undergone by the initiates of the cult. Interestingly, the notion of a black Circe as skilled practitioner of spells reappears in our own time as the protagonist in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

The visual characterization of blacks as figures from Greek legend seems to have been derived from the association of Africans with the liminal zones of the earth, associated by the Greeks with barbarism—simply meaning non-Greek culture. On other skyphoi, the range of black figures includes the highly popular type of the cave-dwelling pygmy.

The great appeal of such foreign cultures for the Greeks stems, at least in part, from the belief that imagery derived from the African physiognomy could effectively counter the powerful, unsettling forces at large in the world.

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As in any society, the farther a given form departed from Greek norms, the more unsettling it seemed. This response was hardly demeaning, however, since for the Greeks the exotic in nature held an enormous capacity for warding off evil. The apotropaic effect was greatly enhanced by the caricatural treatment of the subject, as seen in the representation of Aphrodite and Hermes on this skyphos.

The apparently mocking treatment of the black figures in the Judgment of Paris should be regarded as a calculated inversion of the usual relationship between the Greeks and their gods. At a site where the powerful and potentially dangerous Kabeiric mysteries were summoned, the normal place of Greek religion was given over to the protection of the site’s resident forces.

The rendering of the Olympian gods as a positive form of the racialized other is supported in the extensive modern literature on the subject. Such a view is borne out by the argument of the pioneering scholar Frank Snowden that true racial prejudice did not exist in ancient times but evolved only with the advent of the slave trade in the early-modern period.

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Snowden’s view is further supported by the incredible variety of sympathetic guises taken by the black form in ancient Greek and Roman art.

The profile features of a black man appear on coins minted by the city of Delphi in apparent homage to the venerated founder of the city. Among the Etruscans, the masklike black face placed on the eaves of a sacred shrine served as a powerful means to repel evil forces, a quality incidentally attributed to the kabeiroi themselves. 

The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also chairman of The Root. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.