The British Museum puts mythology on stage, with an exhibition that takes us back to the origins of the western world, to the age of Gods and Heroes
From November 20th to March 8th in the prestigious London museum, this event has all the cards in place to become the winter event. The goal is to ensure that visitors are left “enchanted by the epic legend and the city of Troy”.
William Simpson, Excavations at Hissarlik. Watercolour, 1877
Aerial view of Troy ancient city and Dardanelles Turkey[/caption]
In 1873, Heinrich Schliemann dug a huge trench right through the centre of the mound of Troy. This showed that the mound was made up of the layers of successive settlements
There are about 100 archaeological finds from Troy, a loan from Berlin museums, and the result of Schliemann‘s 1870 excavations. Ironically, he had offered them to the famous London museum, but had apparently been refused for lack of exhibition space. His finds then went to Berlin, including the so-called “Treasure of Priam”, above all jewels, like the superb diadem with golden fringes that Schliemann believed belonged to the period of the mythical war, however it was actually more ancient. The “treasure” is not part of the exhibition, which disappeared mysteriously during the Second World War and reappeared in the 1990s in Moscow, where it is today. However, the exhibits on display are remarkable, including bronze and silver weapons and pottery that document the life of the city.
In its Late Bronze Age heyday, the site was impressive, as this imagined reconstruction shows. © Christoph Haußner, München
Imagined reconstruction of the South Gate of Troy VI. © Christoph Haußner, München
However, this is not just an exhibition on the historical city. The event also highlights how the mythical story of its conquest influenced Western figurative culture. In fact, Troy is much more than its remains. It is also Homer’s narration of its long siege in the Iliad. Western literature begins with this absolute masterpiece, where not only the story of a war is told, but that of an entire civilization so that the memory of it does not die.
The story is well-known. The Mycenaean civilization is drawing to an end. The city of Troy, a city in Asia Minor, does not bend to the Greeks who want Elena returned, the wife of Menelaus who fled with Paris, son of Priam, the king of Troy. The old king is as wise as his son is beautiful, but not so careful. Perhaps it’s not his fault, because the gods are capricious and Aphrodite, regardless of the destinies of men, promised Paris the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. However, Elena is married and her escape triggers the conflict. Centuries later (at the end of the 8th century BC), the poet Homer would tell this story.
Portrait of Heinrich Schliemann in 1877 by Sidney Hodges. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Ph. Claudia Klein
Heinrich Schliemann liked to believe that the jewellery he found in Troy II had belonged to Helen of Troy. The model here is his Greek wife, Sophia. Credit- bpk
Filippo Albacini (1777–1858), The Wounded Achilles. Marble, 1825. © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees
On this detail of the Roman sarcophagus lid, the wooden horse is being pulled into the city. The splendid wheeled horse is itself armed with helmet and shield – a suggestion of the warriors hiding within [Credit: © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford]
In this work, there is everything: jealousy, blinding anger, the thirst for power, but also love, fear and honour. The Greeks had read Homer as something more real than the reality they see, because for them there was a poetic truth that is superior to the contingent facts. The classical world would then die, and other eras come with other stories and the events of Troy are relegated to the realm of fantasy. Troy remains a literary place until, during the 19th century, scholars would seek archaeological evidence that prove the existence of the city. However, it was a German merchant, Schliemann, who with the Iliad in hand, found the remains. Homer was not lying, and the world was left in awe.
Hittite tablet mentioning the city of ‘Willusa’
A fine temple was built at Troy in the Hellenistic period of the third century BC. This decoration from the temple shows Athena, patron goddess of the city, to whom the temple was dedicated. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Foto Philipp Groß.
Silver coin minted in Ilium
On display there are also about 200 works that tell how the myth, widely present until today, has been reworked in Western culture.
Among the pieces on display there is a remarkable photo of Eleonor Antin, who transformed the mythical story into a theatrical fiction – with an angry Elena sitting apart, while questionable minds and heroes decide her destiny. The artist, a historical feminist, is a performer who loves to explore different forms of art. The image is part of the series Helen’s Odissey, where Antin investigates the myth of Elena, for her “rich parable of beauty and desire”.
Wily Odysseus finds a way to hear the Sirens’ beautiful, all-knowing song, without being lured to his death on the dangerous cliffs below. He has his men tie him to the mast of the ship and then seal their own ears with wax so they can row on, immune to the bird women’s irresistible singing [Credit: Trustees of the British Museum]
Achilles and Hector face each other in combat. Achilles lunges forward while Hector falls back, his wounded chest exposed [Credit: Trustees of the British Museum]
The Greek hero Achilles kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea, fighting on the Trojan side, on a black-figure amphora from c. 530BC. According to one version of the story, at the very moment of her death, their eyes meet and he falls in love with her.
This Etruscan tomb-painting shows the Judgement of Paris. At the left, Paris awaits the three goddesses. Aphrodite, last of the three, lifts her dress to show off a flash of leg. On the right, Helen is approached by three women bringing jewellery and perfume [Credit: Trustees of the British Museum]
However, perhaps the most moving find is a silver cup from the tomb of a Danish chieftain, demonstrating the vast area covered by the myth. The cup depicts Priam asking Achilles to return the corpse of his son Hector. We are at the end of the poem, which does not end with a victory but with a funeral. Priam reminds his son’s killer that he too has an old father left alone at home. It is one of the high points of the poem. There are no more enemies, for a moment, just a father and a son crying together. Homer understood that something stronger than hate unites us: our painful humanity.
Anna Maria Calabretta