Historical story

Myths on Greek Pottery

Have you ever wondered what the image in the header shows above the subject page of History and Archaeology? It is so-called red-figure Greek pottery. Greek pottery gives scientists a special insight into the formation and imagery traditions of Greek myths. Many scenes on the vases show images of mythical stories in which our heroes often play a leading role.

Greek painting on vases obviously has a long development history. Long, long ago, geometric shapes like the meander were very trendy on Greek pottery. This was stylistically followed by naturalistic images such as plants and animals. This was followed by the so-called black and red figure pottery. These vases are very beautiful to look at and can be found in both Greece and Italy.


In the black-figure technique, the figures were painted with clay paint. Details were applied by scratching them with a sharp object.

The areas that had been painted turned black during the firing process. The areas that were not painted turned red. Sometimes the figures were enlivened by adding details with white or purple paint.

This black-figured technique is the oldest and dates back to around 700 BC. originated in Corinth. Around about 630 BC. it was taken over by the Athenian vase painters. They used this technique until about 470 BC.


The red figure technique is around 530 BC. invented by the Athenians.

They worked exactly the other way around. The figures were saved and the background was painted. This brought new possibilities with it; the painters could now work in much more detail. By applying details with fine brushes, the painters were able to avoid scratching. In this way, emotions and perspective could be better represented. After firing, the figures were red and the details and the background black.

Vases are known in which both techniques were used at the same time, but at a certain point the technique of the 'red figure' vases finally replaced the technique of the 'black figure' vases.


Greek painting on pottery has made an important contribution to the formation, but also the preservation of Greek myths.

The Greek myths explained the origin of the world and told of the lives and adventures of various gods, goddesses, heroes, heroines, and other mythological creatures. The story of the original epics was not fixed. After all, the epic is characterized by an oral tradition. Singers could adapt the poems to the wishes of their hosts, for example to emphasize the divine origin of a family. The oldest known Greek literary sources on the myths are the Iliad and Odyssey, which deal with the events surrounding the Trojan War.

The depictions of the myths on Greek vases are important to scientists for two reasons. On the one hand, because of this we know that many Greek myths have an earlier origin than we thought from literary sources. Of the twelve labors of Hercules, for example, we only find the adventure with the hellhound Cerberus for the first time in a literary text. Sometimes the images can even be dated centuries earlier than the first known literary source.

On the other hand, these images sometimes depict myths that we do not find at all in mythological literature. This is of course very interesting, but how do we know what is depicted?

Understanding the images

Greek vases are very beautiful in our eyes, yet they are art that used to be mass-produced. The painters made several copies of the same myth or scene according to (image) traditions that had developed over time in workshops.

The Greeks themselves probably just understood the images. They were acquainted with all variants of the myths, and knew which ways were common among the painters to depict them. That interpretation is more difficult for us. When we look at an image, in some cases it is completely unclear to us who is depicted and what exactly is happening. We cannot then directly connect the scenes with a myth. Sometimes this is because we do not know the myth depicted in literary sources, but also because we lack knowledge of the (visual) traditions used.

How can conservators and scientists tell such a beautiful story with a vase? There is, of course, a lot of research behind this. They compared images on vases to follow the style development and discover how image elements change over time.

In this way, scientists can establish which rules workplaces used when depicting different scenes. Attributes can, for example, be associated with certain people. We also know what certain postures mean and which actions are depicted in such cases. By applying this knowledge to other images, we can give them meaning and still understand many paintings, and place them within a (mythological) context.

What do they depict?

The painters were bound to a limited space on such a vase. They had to choose which scene they wanted to show, not every scene was suitable after all. Recognition was important. It was therefore preferred to choose a decisive moment from the myth (monoscenic). If this was not enough to recognize a myth, the painters sometimes chose to depict the myth in a kind of comic strip version. Different scenes from the myth were discussed, separated from each other by means of a stripe (cyclic). They also sometimes used an 'impossible' representation (synoptic). In this composition, different times and locations were combined to present a complete overview of the myth.

The painters therefore made a conscious choice of which moment they depicted and which figures they included in their depiction. By doing this repeatedly in the same way, fixed imagery traditions arose in which combinations of figures, clothing and objects made a direct association to a specific myth.

By using these fixed 'ingredients' in the visual tradition, the viewer could immediately see which myth was depicted, despite the lack of certain figures or elements. The viewer recognized the myth and filled in missing figures and events in his or her interpretation. But, as mentioned, we can also ultimately find out the meaning of such an image by comparing images with each other.