The Afterlife as an Eternal Banquet

2019 Friends of Library Lecture
Thomas Carpenter, distinguished professor emeritus at Ohio University, delivers the 2019 Friends of Library Lecture

By Claudia Trezza

To catch a glimpse of the long-lost beliefs of the ancients and their visions of the afterlife, one needs to look at the images of the gods that they painted on their pottery.

This was the argument Thomas Carpenter made this month during the Patricia H. Labalme Friends of the Library Lecture at the American Academy’s Villa Aurelia, where the archeologist and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Classics and World Religions at Ohio University delved into his decades-long study of how the local Italic people of Apulia, in the South of Italy, viewed the afterlife as “an eternal banquet.”

Carpenter explained how a two-year project became a two-decades-long “detour” from his usual archeological studies in pursuit of how the Italics thought of the hereafter.

“Research seldom follows a straight line,” he said.

Carpenter examined thousands of images painted on vases from ancient Greece, but ultimately became fascinated with those painted in Apulia in 400 BC. Those vases found in Southern Italy were originally thought to have been mere reproductions of the Greek ones, “made by Greeks for Greeks,” he said. Instead, years of examination has led to the assessment that these vases were in fact made and painted by the Italic populations in the area that had actually replaced Greeks in the vase-making market.

They weren’t copies. They were innovations.

Not only did the Apulian vases differ from the Greek ones in their function—they were funerary object most often found in tombs, not export commodities—but their images told a significantly different story about how the artists and their customers saw the afterlife.

Among the thousands of vases examined, Carpenter was particularly interested in the depictions of one character in particular: Dionysos, god of wine, theater, and symposia—social gatherings where men would socialize, drink wine, and discuss politics and poetry. Dionysos was also the object of mystery cults into which individuals had to be initiated.

In the Greek vases, he appears in scenes of chaos and dance, representing wine drinking. Those who refused to join his cult were depicted as being punished by violent ends. Limbs are torn off those who offend the gods, like King Pentheus, who repudiated Dionysos’s myth.

The vases painted in Apulia show the same naked god, holding flowers rather than ivy, usually in processions surrounded by satyrs. But the fact that they were found in tombs led many scholars to infer that the god and initiation into his cult had something to do with the afterlife.

Carpenter was determined to find confirmation of this hypothesis. “What was it that initiation into Dionysos cult gave you, anyway?” he asked, “Aside perhaps from a hangover.”

The “missing link,” Carpenter argued, came in 1994 in the form of another vase dating to 330 BC that was acquired by the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio and, given its high level of preservation, most probably originating from a tomb of a non-Greek in ancient Apulia. The 92 cm tall vase, attributed to an Italic and named “the Darius painter” by scholars, explicitly depicted Dionysos in a way never depicted before.

Differently from other depictions of the god in other vases, in the Toledo vase, Dionysos appears not naked but dressed in ornate clothing, reaching out and shaking the hand of Hiatus, god of the underworld.

It is the only time Dionysos explicitly appears in a scene of the underworld. The context—and key to fully understanding the images painted on the Toledo vase—is Euripides’s tragedy The Bacchae.

Characters from the tragedy are depicted appearing more “lighthearted” compared to those in Greek vases. The traditional capture by Heracles of a monstrous three-headed dog Cerberus is replaced by Paniskos, who instead “teases” the dog.

“It’s kind of cute,” remarked Carpenter, who said that this and other evidence led him to believe that the ancient Apulians had a rosier view of what came after death than the Greeks.

“Here,” Carpenter concluded, “the afterlife is nothing to be feared.”

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