Misogynoir in ancient Greek vase-painting

Satyrs torture an African woman. Black-figure lekthyos circa 470-460 bce. Athens National Museum 1129.

Earlier in this year's course, I wrote about the barbarizing treatment of Libyan women in Greek mythology, in an excerpt from the final chapter of Book II: Priestesses, Amazons and Witches: Women's Power in Greek Patriarchy. (© 2020 Max Dashu, all rights reserved.) Below I discuss the racist depiction of Africans in Greek vase painting, a necessary introduction to contextualize the horrific image shown above (which I'll get to below).

There’s one more line of evidence for Greek attitudes toward North Africans: ceramic paintings, especially the Kabeiric ware from Boiotia. Many of these are grotesque, with grossly exaggerated facial features: snub noses under huge foreheads, protruding jaws and lips (sometimes exaggerated to the point of resembling bills), faces often lined. The African figures often stand with knees bent, their rears sticking out; or their mouths hang open, or their eyes are placed high on the forehead or far down the cheek. The sub-genre of “Pygmies” are depicted with huge genitals and generally as objects of ridicule. The older literature describes these portrayals as “humorous,” and I could find little critical analysis of them in more recent writings. Snowdon’s discussion of them is remarkably restrained, given how much some of this dehumanizing art resembles the iconography of minstrelsy and Jim Crow.

Pejorative depictions of Africans on Kabeiric ceramic painting. At left, Aphrodite and Hera, in a scene from the Judgment of Paris, which is a beauty contest, but here their beauty is mocked, treating African countenances as grotesque.

Even goddesses like Aphrodite (above, far left) and Hera (above, 2nd from left) get this treatment, on a vessel depicting a beauty contest between three Olympian goddesses. [Snowden, 161] They aren’t intended to look beautiful, au contraire: the artist intends to make them to look ridiculous, even monstrous—parodies of the goddesses. The face of Aphrodite is deeply cleft between forehead and a fully horizontal nose; her eye is placed just below the hairline. But the god Kabeiros is portrayed as a Greek, without grotesque elements. [Bedigan, 287] 

By contrast, a ceremonial scene, possibly a wedding, depicts African women respectfully. Lebes, Kabeiron of Thebai.

But the lebes painting above is the exception rather than the rule. Why does Boiotian art render so many ceremonial scenes, Kabeiric or Dionysiac, in this derisive way? It has been suggested that they are theatrical, even comedic, but ritual predominates in the paintings. Also, similar mocking depictions are also found painted on ceramics in south Italy. One shows an African woman dancing naked, her features exaggerated to a bestialized maw (see Apulian asco, 380-360 bce, below) Her arms are outstretched in the manner of the Amazon dancers, but she awkwardly lifts one leg high to give a peek at her genitals. The description is bad enough, but the image is worse, contemptible.

It is too offensive to publish it in the book, but I'm posting it here to illustrate the blatant racism of these representations. Unfortunately, I have not found any recognition of the fact in classics literature, which usually calls the caricatures "humorous," "ugly," or uses the old pseudo-scentific label "Negroid," without acknowledging the pejorative racialized buffoonery and ridicule in these Greek depictions of Africans. I just plowed through a 450 page dissertation on "Images of Ritual Mockery in Greek Vases" (Erin Louisa Thompson, Columbia University, 2008), which never once mentions the racist aspect but is content to stop at treating these depictions as "humorous."

Moderns can recognize the contempt and mockery built into such depictions, but while also acknowledging that they occur in a different context than that produced by the intensely racialized European slave trade. Ancient Hellenic societies operated on slavery economies, especially the most powerful city-states; but any nationality could be trafficked, including Greeks of other cities and regions. Greek slave traders did not single out Africa as their main target. They shipped out far more captives from southwest Asia, the Black Sea and the northern Aegean than from Africa. In other words, these societies did not know the color bar which developed in the modern slave states. Greek artists also produced fine realistic sculptural vases of Africans, some of them quite regal. Hellenes famously held Egyptians especially in high regard as the most ancient civilization and fount of knowledge. Yet they did indulge in barbarizing representations of Africans as symbolic Others.

We know that priestesses were active in the Theban Kabeiron, and not only from the painted skyphoi that show women beating on frame drums. Kallimakhos wrote a funeral epigram for a priestess of whom no other record has survived: “I, the old woman who am now dust was once the priestess of Demeter and again of the [Kabeiroi] and afterwards of Cybele. I was patroness of many young women. I had two male children and closed my eyes at a goodly age in their arms. Go in peace.” [Bedigan, 253]

A favorite subject of the Kabeiric ceramic paintings is Kirkē (Circe). She is usually portrayed as an African woman in the act of giving a potion to Odysseus. (See Pharmakides chapter.) Kirsten Bedigan describes these depictions of Kirkē as “intentionally grotesque,” and counterposed to Odysseus as trickster. [Bedigan, 285] Although Kirkē is familiar to moderns as a witch archetype, the most ancient Greek texts describe her as a goddess. The Kabeiric art presents her as an African woman, which, when I first saw these paintings, seemed to indicate a genuine tradition. The Odyssey's description of Kirkē "of the braided tresses" might point to the idea that she was African. Now that I've become familiar with the Kabeiric vase paintings, I see them more within a context that treats African-ness as grotesque—doubly so in the case of Kirkē, who is demonized as a woman, a witch who casts spells on men.

Detail of the lekythos, which may depict a scene from the scurrilous satyr-plays, possibly depicting Lamia, a Libyan queen who was demonized in Greek mythology. It's the only scene of this kind.


Now we come to a black-figure lekythos by the Beldam Painter, from Eretria on the island Euboia. This harrowing piece of art is racialized in an Othering manner, though not to the same degree of caricature as shown above. But it depicts a hateful scene drenched with violence: a group of satyrs are torturing an African woman. They have bound her hand and foot to a palm tree, as if to a stake, and they are burning her with fire. One holds a torch to her sex, while reaching toward her very long breasts, which protrude from her body in defiance of gravity. Another satyr pulls out her tongue with tongs, while a third lashes her from behind with a many-tailed whip. A fourth satyr charges toward the woman wielding an oar above his head. The scene has the feel of a witch hunt, a lynching. Five male aggressors torment a lone, bound woman, who is shown still and expressionless, as if she feels no pain.

Frank Snowden suggested an interpretation based on a story about Euphemos the Karian. While he was voyaging to Italy, winds drove the ship a long way off course, to the outer sea. There, some islands were uninhabited, but on others lived red-haired wild men called the Satyrides. The men had horse tails, just like satyrs. (So we are back in the realm of the mythical, as Hellenic stories about distant lands so often are.) From previous experience with these islanders, the sailors were reluctant to land, but had no choice. The satyrs saw them approaching: “They ran down to the ship without uttering a cry and assaulted the women in the ship. At last the sailors in fear cast a foreign woman on to the island. Her the Satyrs outraged not only in the usual way, but also in a most shocking manner.” [Pausanias 1.23.5-6, tr. Jones] Now this translation is rather boulderized. Literally the text says, “but using her entire body as well.” [ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸ πᾶν ὁμοίως σῶμα. https://sententiaeantiquae.com/2016/03/28/what-are-satyrs-little-worse-than-the-sailors-in-this-story/]

The satyrs clearly rape the woman (in keeping with their sexual aggression in art and literature), with a strong implication of oral and anal rape. There’s nothing to suggest torture with instruments.. But there’s another problem: this late Archaic painting of woman-torture cannot be a depiction of the story that Pausanias says Euphemos told to him personally, in the mid-2nd century CE. However, the scene on the Eretrian lekythos is likely to have originated from a satyr play. (These raunchy performances closed out a set of three tragedies performed in the Great Dionysia festival.) Charles Seltman suggested as much, pointing to a different interpretation of the painting (in the fusty anthropological language current in 1920): “The popular satyric comedies seem to have represented her as an evil daimon of negroid appearance who was justly tormented by the Satyrs,” the followers of Dionysos. [Seltman, 15]

More recent scholars follow this line of thought, identifying the woman as Lamia, the Libyan queen-turned-demoness. [Osborne 1998:191; Oxford’s Beasley database also labels her “Lamia.” Back in 1891, M. Mayer already suggested this identification in “Noch Einmal Lamia.”] It seems more likely that the woman is being tortured as a witch. The satyrs target her tongue—her ability to pronounce incantations and spells—tearing it out with tongs. They also attack her vulva, her sexual potency, burning it with fire. Satyr scenes are mythic, but the vicious sadism depicted here is disturbing, and without any equivalent in ancient Greek art. Very few depictions of Lamia exist; this appears to be the oldest known. It is also the most ancient example of misoynoir, an absolute Othersing of an African woman.

Here and there I’ve seen the woman’s African-ness challenged. Bizarrely, a Getty Images replica (De Agostini Collection 931376272) actually reconstructs her as a white man—but with sketchy marks of erasure around her breasts, which still remain faintly visible. Photographs of the lekythos contradict this desexing and de-Africanization. The woman’s facial profile and very full lips look very different from the way Hellenes are portrayed. The sketched incisions that are the first stage in all black-figure painting unmistakably mark out the woman’s breasts.

Here's a side-by side of the original painting next to the Getty Images replica (note the scratched-out breasts and changed facial profile, including inaccurate depiction of her lips and nose):

I've seen a pattern of depicting victims of violence (such as witch-burning) as expressionless, or even with little smiles on their faces. It reflects an absolute failure of empathy with the woman being tortured or put to death. Someday I'll compile a photo essay illustrating this aspect of dehumanizing art.

Complete and Continue