Circumcision in the Greek mind

These are images of Beazley Archive 206325= Athens, National Museum, 9683.  I wanted to think a little more about the myth of Herakles and Busiris and especially what the artistic tradition says about it in contrast with the literary sources (summarized here).  Basically, he’s an evil king of Egypt who sacrifices humans and Herakles puts a stop to it.  His attendants are often represented with stereotypical sub-Saharan African features.

The vases are likely to have strong relationship with the theatrical tradition of the play.  The above image struck me because of its use of facial features to differentiate Greeks and Africans but not skin color.  The other major distinguishing feature is the emphasis on the penis.  Herakles is a ‘proper’ small uncircumcised non-erect phallus.  The African are represented not as ithyphallic like satyrs or other some pygmies, but instead as non-erect and circumcised!  The hitching up of their tunics to reveal this feature is likely to be a borrowing from the stage, but this vase tells us something of the Greek conflation of cultural practices when thinking about ‘The Other’.

Playing with Iconography

What does the imagery on a tomb mean? Meleager of Gadara here plays with the decoding of relatively traditional symbolism and reinvents its meaning to be appropriate for another poet Antipater of Sidon, while at the same time mocking the man and his art.  The joke in this poem turns on the specialized, atypical meanings given to the very typical images. I’ve discussed cocks elsewhere on this blog: they often mean martial Mould-made pottery lamp with a voluted angular-tipped nozzle (broken), a flat shoulder and a broad inward-sloping moulded rim. The discus is decorated with a cock holding a palm-branch. Within the slightly raised base is a faint mould-mark in the form ofprowess and are combined with typical images of victory like the palm or wreath.

Knucklebones are also very common images on funerary monuments especially of children:


Elsewhere, they may symbolize chance or fate.

In a much more general sense this type of joking reading of familiar iconography is helpful to the numismatist because it confirms the visual literacy of the ancient audience.