This vase-like object is a Bell Krater; a ceremonial vessel used to mix water and wine at Symposia (drinking parties) in Ancient Greece. It is decorated in the red figure style. The picture on the front of the krater shows the Theban Sphinx, a mythical monster with the face and breasts of a woman, the body of a lion, and wings. The Sphinx’s paw is laid upon a seated youth, who is accompanied by three other youths and a bearded man. The identity of the youth touched by the sphinx is contested. It has been variously suggested that he is Oedipus, who famously solved the Sphinx’s riddle, King Creon’s son Haimon, who was the creature’s last victim or that the picture shows the Sphinx among the Thebans before Oedipus’ arrival.
The legend of the Theban Sphinx begins with Oedipus’s father, Laius. His kidnapping and rape of the illegitimate son of Pelops was said to be the origin of homosexuality amongst men. Laius was the Prince of Thebes who, after Amphion and Zethos usurped his throne, sought sanctuary with Pelops, the King of Pisa. Pelops welcomed the young Prince as one of his own alongside his own sons, the twins, Atreus and Thyestes, and the illegitimate Chrysippus. Pelops asked Laius to help train Chrysippus in charioteering for the Nemean games. Laius fell head-over-heels in love with his pupil, but Chrysippus spurned his advances. On route to the games Laius kidnapped the beautiful youth and raped him, taking him to Thebes where he reclaimed his throne. Some relate that Chrysippus, ashamed of his fate, committed suicide, whereas others write that he was drowned in a well by his brothers.
The Sphinx was said to have been sent down by the marriage-goddess Hera as punishment against the Thebans for failure to atone for the crimes of Laius. She guarded a pass on a cliff by the sea and asked all who would pass a riddle. Laius married Jocasta, but was warned by the Delphic oracle to abandon thoughts of fathering a child since he was fated to be killed by his own son. Though he initially managed to keep from her bed, they had intercourse whilst drunk on wine one night. When Oedipus was born Laius thrust a spike through his feet to ensure he could not recover, and handed him over to a shepherd to be exposed. However, the shepherd took pity on the child and placed him in the care of a childless couple in Corinth who raised him as their own. In his youth Oedipus was told by the Oracle at Delphi that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Horrified, he resolved never to return to Corinth. Ignorant of his true ancestry, he set out for Thebes and on the road encountered King Laius, whom he slew in a quarrel over the right-of-way. Near the city he answered the riddle of the Sphinx. When Oedipus gave the correct answer, the Sphinx hurled herself over the cliff to her death in the sea below. As a reward he claimed the throne of Thebes and the hand of the former queen, Jocasta (his mother).
The reverse shows three male youths with himatia (a large rectangular piece of cloth) thrown over the shoulder and wrapped around the body. One of the youths is holding the strigil which was used to clean the sweat and dirt of the body of male athletes. The youth on the left is holding an aryballos a pot used for storing olive oil or perfume which would be used a body cosmetic. The oil-set (strigil-aryballos-sponge group) has been associated with elite customs of homosexuality which took place within the gymnasia.