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Why Did The Ancient Greeks Paint Black Women as Goddesses?

Written by PlayBack

By Marissa Johnson

The Root, in a partnership with Harvard University’s Hutchinson Center for African and Research, explains why women were painted as goddesses on ancient pottery.

The Judgment of Paris is a scene painted on an ancient skyphus, or a large wine-drinking cup. The cup is estimated to be from the year 400 B.C.

Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, is usually associated with the wine-drinking ritual by ancient Greeks in some way. The Judgment of Paris is a memorable scene from Homer’s Iliad.

Aphrodite is pictured as a black woman. Not only is the pigment used for her a black one, but she has a vacant stare in her eyes and a huge mouth with a dumb-founded expression.

So, why was a black woman on an ancient Greek cup anyway?

The Root explains that African physiognomy—the art of judging human character from facial features or the act of divination using facial features—is to blame. They believed this had power to ward off evil.

One person from the Iliad who was depicted as a black woman was Circe. She was the antagonist in the story. She so wanted to trap Odysseus and keep him with her, that she transformed him into a swine. So, if Odysseus is the hero, then obviously she’s the villain who is evil and is therefore pictured as black.

However, one must be clear. The Ancient Greeks were not racist. They did not see black people as inferior simply because they were black. They were looked down upon simply because they weren’t Greek.

To the Greeks, to be non-Greek was to be a barbarian. There’s even an example of a toleration or even respect for black people. A black man appears on ancient Greek coins.

Therefore, the Root concludes that the depiction of black women as Greek goddesses was due to a superstition that painting them black had the power to ward off evil, and also as an attraction for the exoticism of non-Greeks.

Ancient Greeks therefore can be concluded to be not only polytheistic but also open to influence from other cultures. This cultural diffusion can be in part an example of the degree of toleration Greeks had for other cultures and can help to explain the Greek’s success as an ancient civilization.

However, what the Root fails to address in the article is whether or not black men were also depicted as evil and whether they too were painted black. If they were, that would be interesting to know.

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