Kantharos - Thrace Foundation


The Quest of the Argonauts

Vassil Bojkov Collection


Silver kantharos with the death of Orpheus and the abduction of Helen - 420-410 BC

Kantharos was used for ritual drinking of wine, usually a clay vessel. This type of drinking vessel was only rarely produced of precious metal. This is a small vase with a high foot and two vertical symmetrically arranged handles. Truncated cone-shaped body with a wide mouth and smoothly flaring rim. Two gilt medallions representing in detail old Silen’s head are attached inside the vessel where the handles start. A laurel wreath is depicted below the rim on the outer surface. The foot disc is decorated with a tied ivy spray with hanging fruits. On each side of the vase a multi-figural scene is depicted: one relates the myth of Orpheus’ death, while on the other a popular mythological theme in antiquity is shown: Theseus and Peirithoos abducting Helen.

Orpheus’ death scene

Several versions of Orpheus’ death have been related in myths. Ancient authors tell the following story: when Dionysos with his thiasos of Bacchants invaded Thrace, Orpheus neglected to honour him, but taught only men other mysteries. He climbed Mt Pangaios every morning to celebrate the Sun whom he named Apollo and preached that he was the greatest of all gods. In vexation, Dionysos sent him the Bassarides, Thracian women in Bacchant frenzy.

The expressive scene on the kantharos depicts the most popular variant of the myth about Orpheus being murdered by the Thracian women.

The singer is attacked by two women with flying hair approaching him at speed. The first one is about to smite Orpheus, who has already fallen on the ground, with a double-axe, as if a priest sacrifies an animal. Facial features express woman’s ecstatic frenzy. Her arms and legs are tattooed with star- and broken-line designs. The second woman, dressed in a lavishly decorated chiton that reveals below her naked bosom, wearing a garment, a chimation, flying behind her back, raises her right hand to throw a stone at the fallen man. Three ivy sprigs are hanging from under her waist band. Her flying hair suggests a bold movement, and her face is no less expressive than the first woman’s.

The scene shows Thracian women-Bacchants, enraged, holding men’s weapons in their hands, decided to kill the one who deprived them from participating in the mystery rites, together with their husbands. According to one of the myths about Orpheus’ death, Thracians tattooed their wives as punishment for their crime and to mark them forever.


Theseus and Peirithoos abducting Hellen scene

In the middle of the scene on the kantharos, Peirithoos is standing in a chariot, hardly managing the horses. Next to the chariot Theseus embraces Helen twisting back in resistance as she raises high her hands in opposition.

According to the popular variant of the myth, the two friends Theseus, the most famous hero of Attica, and Peirithoos, a Thessalian hero, went together to Sparta where they abducted Helen, but the lot fell upon Theseus to take her. Under an agreement the one who won was bound to help the other to abduct Persephone from the netherworld. Theseus went down with Peirithoos to the underworld where they met Hades, the lord of the realm of shades. Despite Heracle’s (Hercules’) intervention, the will of the gods who found out about the intention of the two friends was only Theseus to come back to the earthly world. Peirithoos remained forever in the Chair of oblivion.

The myth was illustrated on 6th century BC painted Korinthian vases. However, the iconographic scheme developed on the kantharos from the Vassil Bojkov Collection became common after the mid-5th century BC.

European year of cultural heritage 2018