Oedipus and Jocasta on a ‘Bactrian’ Silver Bowl

Dan, Anca & Frantz Grenet. 2022. Oedipus and Jocasta on a ‘Bactrian’ silver bowl in the Hermitage, c. 350-500. Journal Asiatique 330(1). 55-79.

Silver bowl from Kustanai, now in Hermitage S–62; 15.5 × 5.2 cm, 4th-5th c., with scenes from Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus. After Marshak 2000: no. 31, and Ivanov, Lukonin, and Smesova 1984, fig. 39. Photo courtesy State Hermitage Museum.

Elites of the Hunnish states, including Tokharistan (ancient Bactria) and Northwest India from the 4th century, not only appreciated Greco-Roman art, inherited or imported, but also had a good knowledge of the Hellenic mythological cycles. Among the small silver bowls called ‘Bactrian’, attributed by Boris Marshak to the period after the Sasanian withdrawal from Central Asia, the one discovered at Kustanai (Hermitage, S-62) is decorated with scenes inspired mainly by Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus. While following the text sometimes literally (e.g. by portraying Oedipus as a child of Fortune), and using a Hellenistic iconographic repertoire which had become ‘Indianized’ during the Kushan period, the artist who executed the model transposed the Sophoclean plot in five scenes, adapting it to his customers’ interests: the son’s marriage to his mother, highlighted on this vase like nowhere else in ancient art, recommends the couple as a Zoroastrian ethical model. The tragic fault now lies with the servant, who did not expose the newborn Oedipus and did not tell the truth on the parricide: the confrontation between the lying servant and the sincere, generous Jocasta, gives the key to a cathartic reading of this vase.