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The birth of Helen from an egg was a natural subject for Greek comic drama, though we know for certain of only one great, early treatment of the subject: Kratinos’s Nemesis, staged in Athens ca. 431. Recent work, especially by Emmanuela Bakola and Jeffrey Henderson, has done much to illuminate both the mythological background and the reconstruction of the plot from the exiguous fragments.

Approaching the subject from the visual iconography, we may be surprised to note that, in an extensive series of both Attic and South Italian vase-paintings extending over about a century (ca. 430-330 B.C.E.), only one clearly depicts a comic performance: an Apulian phlyax krater now in Bari that was recently exhibited at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Though known for more than a century, the scene has not elicited any agreement on its interpretation, because it includes so many elements not found on any other vase. In particular, one phlyax (Tyndareus?) threatens with an axe the baby Helen starting to emerge from egg concealed in a wicker basket, while a woman (Leda?) watches in fear from behind a door. A second phlyax (a slave?) frantically gestures to try to stop the attack.

By sorting through the various mythological traditions about the birth of Helen and that of her brothers the Dioskouroi, this paper suggests that the story underlying the scene could have been a variant on a motif much better known from another amorous adventure of Zeus, in which Alkmene conceived the hero Herakles by the god and the mortal Iphikles by her husband Amphitryon in the same night. So, too, here, a comedy of marital infidelity and mistaken identity plays out, in which Leda, with the help of a slave, tries to conceal a strange pregnancy from her jealous husband. This hypothesis also helps to explain the body language on at least one other South Italian vase whose interpretation has been unclear, but is surely more comic than serious. The Bari krater is not proposed as a reconstruction of Kratinos’s Nemesis, with which it may have no connection, but as an example of how various visual cues would have enable the ancient viewer to read and interpret scenes that continue to elude us.