Underworld: Imagining The Afterlife In Ancient South Italian Vase Painting

Review by David Stuttard

On an Apulian funerary vase, a fair-haired young man sits clutching a spear in his left hand as he exclaims in terror, ‘I’m not coming!’ But it is no use. Grabbing his wrist in a vice-like grip is Hermes, escort of dead souls to the Underworld, and his words brook no disobedience: ‘Get up and go to Hades.’ No wonder that the young man is afraid. The peoples of 4th-century BC Apulia, in southern Italy, were as ignorant as we are of what lay beyond the grave, and many shared the sentiments of Greek Anacreon, who lived two centuries before them: ‘The pit of Hades holds such terrors, and the descent to death is wracked with pain. Only one thing is for certain: once that descent is made there’s no return.’

Yet not everyone felt so apprehensive. Some made the pilgrimage to Eleusis near Athens, where, after a series of initiation rituals, they were assured that a blessed afterlife awaited them. Others (called Orphics) espoused another ‘mystery’ (or ‘initiation’) religion that traced its origins to Orpheus, the legendary Thracian singer who, alive, braved the descent into the Underworld in the hope of retrieving his dead wife. Once there, they believed, he learned from both Persephone (the goddess who spent part of each year with her husband Hades, king of the dead) and Dionysus. Orphics considered Dionysus to be Persephone’s son, who was torn apart, eaten, and assimilated by jealous Titans, but whose heart survived, allowing him to be reborn. When Zeus destroyed the Titans, the human race rose from their ashes, which still contained the essence of Dionysus’ immortality. Orphics even believed that they possessed a roadmap to the Underworld, which (if followed to the letter) would lead them to a place of calm repose. Copies of these instructions on gold tablets still exist, as do some 42 Apulian vases in varying states of preservation, each revealing something of how the elite of that region, influenced by Greek neighbours in Tarentum, envisaged Hades’ realm.

It is to cataloguing these vases that this handsome volume is dedicated, and in almost half its pages stunning images of them appear arranged in roughly chronological order and accompanied by in-depth analyses. As readers become more familiar with their iconography, they recognise repeated characters within the Underworld setting: Hades and Persephone with their three-headed dog Cerberus; sundry fiendish acolytes; divine guests Orpheus and Dionysus; Heracles and Theseus, both mythological initiates into the Eleusinian Mysteries, both temporary visitors to the kingdom of the dead; and those forced to spend eternity atoning for crimes committed in life – Sisyphus forever rolling a boulder up a steep incline; Peirithous, glued to a chair for attempting to abduct Persephone; occasionally Ixion shackled to a blazing wheel; once Tantalus denied food and water; sometimes heroic warriors; but most commonly the Danaids, who having killed their husbands on their wedding night, are condemned ceaselessly to pour water from heavy, leaky jugs into a gigantic overflowing amphora. They symbolise the uninitiated, and their evolution is fascinating. Perhaps inheriting their role from primeval winged spirits, by the end of the 4th century BC instead of being punished they apparently enjoy an afterlife of enviable leisure. While many of the paintings seem to proclaim the benefit of initiation into mystery religions, there is, then, hope for everyone.

Although some images defy unequivocal interpretation, David Saunders’ exposition is both masterly and gripping, as are the two chapters that he contributes to the volume. Of the other four, general readers will benefit most from Sarah Iles Johnston’s ‘Ancient Greek Tales of the Afterlife’, and while they might perhaps find the others (discussing Orphic gold tablets, sacred Apulian sites, and Apulian funerary practices) overly specialised, this should not stop them from buying a book that will not only provide intriguing insights into a lost people’s attitudes towards a subject that concerns us all, but also enhance the most discriminating of coffee tables.

Edited by David Saunders
J Paul Getty Museum, Hardback, £55
ISBN 978-1606067345