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Silver lamp in the form of a boat, with a figure of an infant strangling snakes soldered to the top.
Lamp with baby Herakles

LUCAS: OMG, this is one of my favourite objects. I’m so excited to see it because … wait, wait, I promised I would let you all try and guess first.

So … what on earth do you think this strange thing was used for? Any ideas? Let’s have a look.

It’s made from silver, so it was probably owned by somebody who was rich.

It’s hollow. Look at the hole at the front – you can see right inside.

There are 4 holes on top that connect to the hollow space inside.

Oh, yeah. And there’s a baby strangling a snake. Totally normal.

Well, strangling snakes is all in a day’s work if your name is Herakles, even if you are just a baby.

That’s right, Herakles! He is my all-time favourite god and is completely awesome! He practically invented competition and nobody could beat Herakles at anything.

Herakles, who was also known as Hercules, was a famous demi-god. This means one of his parents was human, and the other parent was a god. In Herakles’ case, his dad was the head god, Zeus. His mother was a human princess called Alkmene.

Herakles was super strong and performed many astounding feats of strength over his life, including fighting mythical creatures like the Hydra, a swamp monster with many heads. Much harder to strangle than just one snake!

The most famous stories are captured in a legend called The Twelve Labours of Herakles. You can even see some of them at other displays in this exhibition. Here are some clues – look for an enormous lion, a giant pig and a man with 3 bodies!

So that’s who Herakles was, but have you worked out what the item in front of you is? It’s a lamp! Ancient Greeks didn’t have gas or electricity for lighting so it could get very dark at night.

To solve this problem, they used lamps like this one, although if you didn’t have much money, your lamp would have been made from pottery and it wouldn’t be as fancy. Remember the hole at the front? That’s where you fill it with olive oil. Then wicks, which were strings made of linen or reeds, were inserted into the holes at the top and into the oil below. The oil slowly soaked up along the wicks, which were lit on top, just like a birthday candle today.

I wish I could have this to go with my Herakles-themed bedroom. I have a Herakles quilt-cover, Herakles poster, Herakles slippers, Herakles ruler …

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This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–21. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 17 December 2021

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