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Persian, Indian, Hunnic… The Oedipus myth adapted by the cultures that adopted it


Discovered in 1903 in what is now Kazakhstan, a fourth-century silver bowl features an exotic representation of Sophocles' play, according to a study conducted by the CNRS and the Collège de France.

Hellenistic culture was savored on the borders of empires, at the gates of India and China, almost a thousand years after the passage of the army of Alexander the Great.

This is the story told, in essence, by the decoration of a silver bowl kept at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg.

By dint of tweaking the images and figures, two researchers managed to lift the veil that had been hovering over the decor of this cup for a century.

His male nudes and buxom women depicted, in reality, five scenes from

Oedipus King

, the play written in the 5th century BC.

AD by Sophocles.

With one difference: the tragedy is colorful with local flavors.

"We have elucidated a vase at the crossroads of three cultures, whose Greek-inspired images have been reinterpreted, remodeled and adapted under the Indian and Sassanian gaze"

, rejoices Anca Dan, research fellow at the CNRS and co-author of a study published on this bowl in the latest issue of the scientific

journal Asian Journal


The interpretive work completed this year highlights the persistence, but also the mutations of Greek culture in the western foothills of the Tibetan plateau, in the 4th century AD.

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The vase has enchanted as much as puzzled since its discovery in 1903, near the present city of Kustanai (Kazakhstan).

Something was wrong.

“Several scholars have noticed, during the 20th century, that the forms represented were of Greco-Roman origin, but we did not know what to trust to understand the meaning of the decoration,

explains Anca Dan


The setting is Hellenistic, of course, but the clothes are reminiscent of those

of Gandhara

, in northern India, while certain gestures are typically Iranian and Zoroastrian


Indian clothing, Iranian gestures

Indian coins from the Gupta dynasty, from the 4th to the 6th century AD, revealed a first key to the mystery in the 1980s.

There are similar representations of a Hindu goddess, in the pose of royal relaxation (



Stylistic relationships make it possible to date the vase to Late Antiquity rather than to the time of Alexander and his successors (end of the 4th – 2nd century BC).

But the precise meaning of the scenes that adorn the outer walls of the bowl escapes all understanding.

There seems to be one or more literary sources.

“Previous hypotheses had proposed to see in it a collage of different plays

by Euripides


But that was not it,

says Anca Dan


These representations of Greek influence produced in Central Asia are complex.

They could not be understood by Hellenists alone


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The researcher thus worked on the Kustanai vase with Frantz Grenet.

Professor at the Collège de France in charge of the chair of History and Cultures of Pre-Islamic Central Asia, the specialist co-signs the study published in

the Asian Journal


“By comparing this cup to the series of so-called “Bactrian” bowls to which it belongs, we were able to establish an order of reading of the scenes

, describes Frantz Grenet.

Once the meaning was determined, we saw that a scene presenting an abandoned baby taken in by a shepherd was near the beginning of the story, and that it ended with a woman ready to hang herself.

Either the beginning and the end of

Oedipus the King


The wedding scene between Jocasta and Oedipus is depicted according to Zoroastrian custom.

Hermitage Museum/CNRS

The discovery is surprising, given the dating of the vase.

Sophocles' play on Oedipus had its greatest heyday in the Classical and Hellenistic era, following the appreciation of Aristotle.

It is however supplanted towards the beginning of the Roman period by the text of Euripides,

recalls Anca Dan.

Western iconography of the myth emphasizes confrontation with

the Sphinx

: Oedipus is the only human being to know the definition of Man, while he does not know himself, does not know who he is born.

But it is not at all this imagery that we find on the vase, where we see Oedipus abandoned in his childhood, then killing his father, marrying his mother and blind,

Torrid Oedipus

And for good reason, the region where this series of vases was produced, formerly known as Bactria, was never directly under Roman domination.

On the other hand, it was for a time one of the most remote steps of the Macedonian empire.

Indo-Greek kingdoms succeeded Alexander's conquest and continued to promote Hellenistic culture – including the work of Sophocles – in the northern steppes of Central Asia.

It's all very erotic and would be very shocking in Rome or Greece.

Frantz Grenet

The cut, however, does not quite transpose the spirit of Sophocles' story.

She adapts it.

Jocasta, Oedipus' mother, is omnipresent and very sexual;

she is dressed in Greco-Buddhist fashion, represented in the manner of an Indian princess, with full hips and marked breasts.

Her nuptials with her son figure prominently here, whereas the episode is traditionally eclipsed in Western art.

And Oedipus, in heroic nudity, presents a flower to his mother – a Zoroastrian gesture.

This is all very erotic and would be very shocking in Rome or Greece!

“, emphasizes Frantz Grenet.

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The myth is perceived differently in the Persian and Persian-influenced world, where incestuous marriages were, unlike the majority of Greek and Roman cities, perceived as very pious.

The tragic couple becomes an exemplary couple, a "

Zoroastrian ethical model

", in the words of the study.

By celebrating the incestuous marriage of Oedipus, Greek tragedy finds itself fundamentally transformed!”

laughs Anca Dan


The interpretative and moral key to this version of the story therefore lies elsewhere, in the betrayal of a servant who spared the child - Oedipus - whom he was supposed to kill.

This servile character hid the truth about the killer of Laios

(the father of Oedipus, Ed.)

, and fled instead of delivering the whole truth to Jocasta, his mistress.

The tragedy here arises from lies, the supreme evil in Zoroastrianism.”

The Kustanai vase contributes to throwing another light on the populations of the oases of Central Asia around the 4th century AD.

At the time, this section of the Silk Roads was under the domination of Hunnic peoples, whose barbarism, widely decried by foreign sources, is now reassessed by researchers.

The Huns suffer from a bad reputation peddled by Western sources which equated them with bloodthirsty savages

“, regrets Anca Dan.

However, underlines the researcher, this Oedipal cup could have belonged to a Hunnic elite aware of the meaning of its history.

And heiress of a lineage still poorly identified cultural transfers.

It is thus in an Indian and Iranian form that the myth of Oedipus continued to flourish, and this as far as the gates of the Far East.

Source: lefigaro

All news articles on 2022-12-25

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