People have always found a way to tell stories. As well as the oral and written traditions; music, performance and art have been used through the ages.

One particularly beautiful form of storytelling can be found in Ancient Greek vase painting. Combining the poetic with the practical, Greek vases can depict myths, legends, or stories through the use of symbols and people easily recognisable to contemporary audiences. In this article, Deirdre Harrison Collection Manager, Archaeology, examines a well-known tale depicted on a hydria from the Auckland Museum collection.

Reading a vase

Reading a vase

There are two scenes on this vase – the smaller one on the shoulder shows a typical frieze of the god Dionysus and several maenads and satyrs dancing or celebrating, which contrasts with the more serious topic of the scene on the body of the vase. 

In this main scene, a seemingly peaceful procession of three goddesses, a hero and a god represents, to the ancient Greek* viewer, not just the moment of the “Judgement of Paris” but the whole story of the causes of the Trojan War and the roles played by the gods in this important episode.

For the modern viewer too, this part-myth, part-historical episode can be seen as a precipitous moment which initiated the Trojan War. The legends, myths and stories of this event have retained their significance for millennia.  

It is useful then, to be able to understand the way the story is “told” by the artist of this vase. Sets of symbols or objects are used which make up an iconography that could be understood by the contemporary audience in much the same way as language. Iconography is very powerful “shorthand” for getting ideas and associations across to an audience and adding depth and resonance to an image.

The scene on this vase depicts the beauty contest between three goddesses for a golden apple inscribed “to the fairest”. It fell to Zeus (ruler of the gods) to select the victor but sensing a no-win situation in choosing between Hera (his wife), Athena (his daughter) and Aphrodite (goddess of beauty and love) Zeus called on Paris to adjudicate. Paris was a son of King Priam of Troy, an attractive youth with a reputation (up until then) for integrity. 

Attic black figure hydria, late sixth century B.C., attributed to the Group of Faina 75 painters.


The figure on the extreme right of this scene is Hermes, the messenger god who is often used by other gods to intercede with mortals.

Hermes is shown wearing winged sandals (denoting his speed and association with travel) and holding his kerykeion (a staff with twisted serpents), which symbolises Hermes’ speciality areas - trade, eloquence, trickery, and negotiation.

In a modern context, this symbol is often now associated with medicine, possibly due to some confusion with the single snake twisted around the rod of Asclepius

An example of the kerykeion in (mis)use today:

Image by USG - US Government, Public Domain.


These symbols would have been readily recognisable to the contemporary Greek audience, and their mythical meaning understood. Thus, they are used as icons (or attributes) to identify Hermes and to remind the audience of his powers and connections to gods and other mythic events. Their meaning and attributes contribute to the audience’s interpretation of the story.

(Detail) Attic black figure hydria, late sixth century B.C., attributed to the Group of Faina 75 painters.
The goddesses

The goddesses

Similarly, attributes can identify other figures on the vase and establish their mythic “credentials”. The selection of attributes used may vary depending on the aspect of the story the artist wishes to emphasise.

Here, Aphrodite (on the left), goddess of love and sexuality, is dressed simply, as a woman in an ornate cloak. Athena (central figure), the warrior goddess, is recognisable by her spear, aegis, and crested helmet, and the goddess Hera (on the right) is fully draped and wearing a 'polos' on her head (representing marriage, and matriarchal authority).

The goddesses’ symbols align with the rewards (bribes?) offered to Paris should he choose them as the winner of the contest. Hera offered sovereignty of Europe and Asia; Athena guaranteed invincibility in battle; and Aphrodite promised the love of the most beautiful woman on earth, i.e. Helen - unfortunately already married to Menelaus, king of Sparta.

(Detail) Attic black figure hydria, late sixth century B.C., attributed to the Group of Faina 75 painters.


Between the goddesses and Hermes, Paris is depicted as plucking on a lyre (an instrument linked to culture and pleasure). He is elegantly coiffed and dressed. These attributes foreshadow his hedonistic choice. Swayed by her sexuality and charm, and the promise of a beautiful woman of his own, Paris selected Aphrodite as the winner. 

Later, when Paris had claimed Helen from Sparta and brought her (his “prize”) back to Troy as his wife, the Greeks formed an alliance under Menelaus (Helen’s husband) and Menelaus’s brother, Agamemnon. They mustered an army from all over Greece, sailed to Asia Minor and laid siege to the city of Troy; eventually defeating the Trojans with the trick of the infamous “Trojan horse” (itself a powerful metaphor still in common usage - most often now to refer to a computer virus).

(Detail) Attic black figure hydria, late sixth century B.C., attributed to the Group of Faina 75 painters.

The selection of this scene for this vase would have been deliberate by the painter or his patron and would have sent a message to the viewer relevant to the social or political situation at the time.

This vase was painted (around 520 B.C.E.). At this time the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus had recently died, and Athens was continuing to enjoy a relatively stable and prosperous period ruled by his sons. The selection of this scene could be a subtle endorsement of some of the trends and policies which characterised the rule of Peisistratus.

  1. The region of Attica had become increasingly unified culturally and economically, like the heroic days when the Greek states combined to vanquish the Trojans,
  2. Peisistratus was known for championing the poor and lower classes of Athens and reducing the power and influence of the aristocracy. The “Judgement of Paris” highlights the self-indulgent choice of Paris as the cause of the Trojan War. It references not only his personal flaw, but by extension could be seen as an indictment of the aristocracy.
  3. There had been a concerted attempt to produce a definitive version of the Homeric epics (The Iliad and The Odyssey). The “Judgement of Paris” was the cause of the Trojan War – the basis of the Homeric epics.

Attic black figure hydria, late sixth century B.C., attributed to the Group of Faina 75 painters.


The painter’s choice of attributes and the positioning of the figures would be key to expressing these messages and although many of the contemporary nuances may be lost, some of the references can still be understood. Themes and events from the Trojan War are still revisited in Western popular culture from Shakespeare to online gaming. In many cases the ancient iconography has been preserved, or only slightly reworked to offer a modern understanding.



Related objects


*The term Greeks is used for the ancient inhabitants of the modern-day peninsula of Greece, not to imply that there was any political union between the various cities or regions which existed there at this time.


About the author

Deirdre Harrison is the Collection Manager in the Archaeology Department at Auckland Museum. She has a background in Archaeology, Classics and Chemistry.



Campbell, J. and Harrison, K. (1997). The art of Greek vase painting. Auckland, Longman.

Oakley, J. H.  (2013). The Greek vase: art of the storyteller. London, British Museum Press.

Trendall, A. D.  (1951). “Attic vases in Australia and NZ”.  Journal of Hellenic Studies. 71 (178).


Further reading about black-figure vase painting

Beazley, J.D. (1986 [1964]). The Development of Attic Black-figure, Revised by D. von Bothmer and M.B. Moore. Berkeley, Univ. of California Press.

Boardman, J. (1978). Athenian Black Figure Vases. London, Thames & Hudson.

E.A. Mackay, "Figures of Comparison. A Study of the Potential for Animal and Bird 'Similes' in Attic Black-figure vase-painting" in C. Lang-Auinger – E. Trinkl (eds.), ΦΥΤΑ ΚΑΙ ΖΩΙΑ. Pflanzen und Tiere auf griechischen Vasen. Internationales Symposion Graz 2013 (CVA Österreich Beiheft 2) pp., 2015