Issue 17, February 2011
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Heroes, Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece
By Leda Bouzali
 
Marble head of Polyphemos, first or second century A.D., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Photo © 2010 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
Marble head of Polyphemos, first or second century A.D., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Photo © 2010 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
 

The ancient Greeks did not require perfection of their heroes. They put up with their flaws and misconduct. But they demanded that heroes had exceptional skills, were sources of inspiration and that they drew admiration for their strength, their beauty and the greatness of their soul. 

The greatness of heroic figures from the ancient Greek mythology was overflowing from the Onassis Cultural Center in Midtown Manhattan, during the exhibition “Heroes, Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece” on view from October 5, 2010 to January 3, 2011. The exhibition has been organized by the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, in cooperation with the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, the San Diego Museum of Art and the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA). It was supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

General view of the exhibition hall in the Olympic Tower Atrium.
General view of the exhibition hall in the Olympic Tower Atrium.

“Heroes” brought together more than ninety exceptional artworks focusing on the Archaic, Classical and the Hellenistic period (6th – 1st century BC), drawn from collections in the United States and Europe. Through these objects, which ranged from large-scale architectural sculptures to beautifully decorated pottery and miniature carved gemstones, the exhibition showed how the ancient Greek heroes were understood and how they served as role-models. It also explored this human need for heroes as role models through the arts of one of the oldest and most influential civilizations in history.

“People today think of the Greek heroes and heroines as great fictional characters invented by poets and storytellers,” stated Ambassador Loucas Tsilas, Executive Director of the Onassis Foundation (USA). “But to the ancient Greeks, these were real men and women who had lived, died and then somehow transcended death. On behalf of the Foundation, we are proud to present ‘Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece’, exploring the original concept of heroism through a presentation of outstanding works of art that span more than six centuries."

The very word “hero” has a different meaning in our society than it did in the ancient Greek world. To provide a better understanding of the lives, fates and meanings of the first heroes and heroines, to explore the inherent human need for heroes and the comparison of the contemporary notion of “hero” with the ancient one were among the goals set by the organizers.
Starting from the narration of the feats of Herakles, Odysseus, Achilles and Helen, the exhibition focused on the presence of heroes in various myths. It then went on to other, less famous heroic figures, such as athletes and warriors. It is no coincidence that the athletic games were often linked with the name of local heroes.

A lot of female mythical figures were looked upon as examples and role models. Helen was worshipped by newlyweds; Alcmene. Herakles’ mother was linked to maternity; Iphigenia to childbirth.  Even statesmen based their sovereignty on mythical heroes; many families claimed that they drew their origins from old heroes. This practice was widespread during the Hellenistic times. Alexander the Great was associated with Zeus, on one side of his family, while the other side claimed descent from Herakles. Alexander often paralleled himself to Achilles.

Beautiful paintings and engravings narrate the breathtaking adventures of ancient Greek heroes.
Beautiful paintings and engravings narrate the breathtaking adventures of ancient Greek heroes.

Human flaws such as vengeance are evident in the exhibition. Depicted on a huge amphora from the Toledo Museum of Art, is one of the exhibition’s most intense scenes. It shows Achilles above Hector’s bloodied corpse, as a supplicating Priam reaches forward for his son. Behind him Hermes gives a nudge to a servant bearing gifts — a reminder that the gods had the power to make or break heroes.

The first section of the exhibition, “Heroes in Myth,” presented objects depicting moments in the life cycles of four major figures—Herakles, Achilles, Odysseus and Helen—suggesting the complexities inherent in the ancient Greek concept of heroism. A one-eyed head of Polyphemus reminds us of Odysseus’ escape from the Cyclops’s cave. Recalling the episode in further detail, a krater attributed to the Sappho Painter (around 510 B.C.) shows Odysseus escaping from the cave strapped to the underbelly of a sheep. Achilles meets Memnon on a Corinthian hydria dated around 575-550 B.C., while Herakles fights with Triton on a black-figure hydria dated 530-520 B.C.

Snapshots from the exhibition opening with the participation of Minister Pavlos Geroulanos, former Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos, Archbishop Demetrios and other honoured guests.
Snapshots from the exhibition opening with the participation of Minister Pavlos Geroulanos, former Minister Dimitris Avramopoulos, Archbishop Demetrios and other honoured guests.

Although common motifs emerge, such as the extraordinary parentage and births of the heroes, the remarkable deeds they accomplished in early youth and their frequently troubled experiences in marriage, the character traits, struggles and deaths of these four figures were distinctly different. This proves that the notion of heroism was truly complex in ancient times. Perhaps the quality that most strongly links them all, in the words of contributing to the exhibition catalogue scholar Corinne Ondine Pache, is their “becoming immortalized after death.” And as W. H. Auden wrote, “No hero is immortal till he dies.”

The second section of the exhibition, “Heroes in Cult,” expanded on the belief in the hero’s survival after death by illuminating the ancient Greek practice of worshiping heroes at local shrines. Heroes were regarded “as founders, protectors, healers or helpers, but also as dangerous and haunted revenants who had to be appeased,” writes the curator of the exhibition Dr. Sabine Albersmeier. “The Greeks held festivals in their honor, performed rituals and sacrifices, gave them offerings and asked for favors such as protection, fertility or healing in return.” Documenting the practice of hero worship were objects including votive reliefs, votive offerings and grave monuments.

The third section, “Heroes as Role Models,” brought the exhibition closer to our modern ideas of heroism by exploring how ancient Greek warriors, athletes, musicians and rulers modeled their behavior, and sometimes their images, on heroes. Objects on view ranged from black-figure vase paintings of soldiers and racing jockeys to coins bearing the images of kings dressed as Herakles.

Herakles captures the Erymanthian Boar. Paris claims Helen after the end of the Trojan War. The shaggy, bearded Odysseus in a Roman bust looks like a humble fisherman. A threatening Polyphymus and the scene of two members of Odysseus’ crew turning into pigs under the spell of the sorceress Circe depict episodes from the cunning hero’s adventures. Achilles meets with his teacher, centaur Chiron, and fights Penthesilea, the Amazon queen. A Nereid gracefully rides on the back of a dolphin, grasping Achilles’ sword.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 328-page, fully illustrated catalogue, edited by Sabine Albersmeier, exhibition curator and former Associate Curator of Ancient Art at the Walters Art Museum. Published by the Walters Art Museum, the catalogue includes 154 color, 107 duotone and 9 black-and-white illustrations and features essays by the scholars Michael J. Anderson, Jorge J. Bravo III, Gunnel Ekroth, Guy Hedreen, Ralf von den Hoff, Jennifer Larson, Jenifer Neils, John H. Oakley, Corinne Ondine Pache and H.A. Shapiro.

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