Thursday, November 15, 2012


"In olden times, when men still worshipped ugly idols, there lived in the land of Greece a folk of shepherds and herdsmen who cherished light and beauty."... Ingri and Edgar Parin D'Aulaire, Book of Greek Myths, 1962

Fortunate is the child who has sat, on a rainy afternoon in a warm cozy house, with Ingri and Edgar Parin Daulaire's gentle retelling of ancient Greek myths about Zeus and his fractious family and vain, foolish, and sometimes heroic mortals who worshipped them...

Historians and linguists make it clear the "adult version" of these tales have a sometime darker side because the Greeks made their gods in the image of men.  It took very little to provoke an angry or annoyed Olympian into inflicting punishments so grisly that even a sadist would cringe at their vengeance...

Zeus, wielder of thunderbolts, takes aim at a target in this
illustration from Alfred Church's Stories of the Greek Tragedians  

The humanity of these gods made them particularly attractive to artists both in classical times and in the years following the Renaissance.  (Medieval artists did not ignore the Greco-Roman heritage but were far more dependent on the Church's approval and the patronage of noblemen than in a time when the power of organized religion was fading and wealthy merchants of common birth looked to claim a higher social status.)

Zeus sat on the highest throne on cloud-covered Mount Olympus as befitted the King of Gods and Men.  As the Greeks became more sophisticated and philosophical, the old stories of a philandering husband with an eye for pretty nymphs and lovely mortals gave way to a more dignified deity.  He assumed qualities of omniscience and omnipotence and demanded justice for the indigent and those powerless against earthly tyrants. We see him in this illustration from Alfred Church's Stories of the Greek Tragedians (1879) in the way early Greeks saw him: god of the sky, lord of the wind, wielder of lightning, giver and taker of rain...
Hera, as both wife and sister of Zeus, was
part of the ancient tradition of divine couples
related by birth and united by desire.

Residents living near the river Theris in Crete, if asked by curious travelers, would point to the exact spot where Zeus consummated his marriage to Hera.  The country folk who toiled near Mount Cithaeron disputed this bold Cretan claim to local fame, insisting he first lay with her on the crags of their mountain.  It was a stormy union despite the fact Hera was Zeus' sister and daughter of the Titans Cronus and Rhea.  Despite constant bickering and his constant need to bed any pretty girl unable to outrun him, Zeus adored Hera.  Mortal men likely first knelt before her as a sky goddess in a cult that rivaled that of Zeus.  In time, she like her brother, evolved into a more august deity and became the personification of all that is Woman and the protector of marriage.  Peacocks, those vain and flashy and noisy birds, were sacred to Hera, seen here in a Roman copy of a Greek statue chiseled between 450 and 400 BCE...

When I was much younger and first starting to learn about Art and Myth, it was common for writers to disparage anonymous Roman artisans who copied Greek statues and say the grace and beauty found in Athens failed to make its way to the Italian peninsula.  To some extent, this is true-- Roman copies strike us as colder and more formal.  But these qualities tell us that those who spoke Latin were a purposeful people whose business it was to get things done.  Appreciative of beauty, the Romans recognized it could also be used to create a sense of power and destiny...
Athena, in her role as a war-goddess,
commanded far more respect than did
Ares.  She was a strategist who sought
victory with the lowest possible loss of
life and the least destruction of property
necessary.  She craved peace for its
gifts of prosperity and comfort.

Power and destiny can be seen in a Roman version of the Greek sculptor Phidias' vision of Athena, known as Minerva in the Latin world.  She transformed herself into the ultimate warrior goddess  but desired a peaceful world above all.  Athena embodied the quality of prudent intelligence which allowed men to live in harmony, to sculpt and build, to meet in assemblies and find solutions to problems.

Artemis-- another powerful female figure-- ruled the forests and the hunt.  Early Greeks saw her as the Moon Goddess to her brother Apollo's Sun God.  Over time, Selene and Helios took over these functions to some extent.  One of the most horrific Greek myths tells the story of Actaeon.  This unfortunate hunter stumbled across Artemis bathing.  It mattered not that his transgression was accidental.  Actaeon had seen her nakedness.  He found himself transformed into a stag to be torn apart by his own dogs...

Titian, the most important member of the 16th Century Venetian school of painting, told another myth associated with Artemis in his Diana and Callisto, painted 1556-1559.  (In Rome, Artemis became Diana in the same way Zeus transformed into Jupiter and Hera into Juno.)  The painting shows the moment Artemis learns her handmaiden is pregnant with Zeus' child.  Expelled from Artemis' circle, Callisto gave birth to a son.  Hera, more angry with her husband than with his playmate, transformed the unlucky Callisto into a bear, hoping her son Arcas would kill his own mother while he hunted.  Zeus intervened and placed Callisto and her son in the heavens, safely from the wrath of either his wife Hera or daughter Artemis,  as the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor...
Artemis, goddess of the Moon and of the hunt, bathes with her
attendants in Titian's Diana and Calisto

[Depending on where a person lived, the story of how Zeus impregnated Callisto varied.  One version said he took on the appearance of Artemis and kissed the handmaiden as they swam nude.  Flattered to think the goddess thought her beautiful, Callisto joyously yielded her virtue.]

Contemporary students of the art of the High Renaissance often echo praise heaped on Tiziano Cecelli by his contemporaries: a canvas painted by Titian might be a landscape or a portrait or a scene from pagan myths or a Biblical story.  As a painter, he showed a lifelong fascination with color in the same way other painters explore light.  A portrait by Titian revealed subtle emotions in his subjects such as the resolute weariness betrayed  by Emperor Charles V when he posed as a Christian knight on horseback.   Titian, or "da Cadore" as many called him during his lifetime, is said to have found models among Venetian courtesans.  However, one woman who posed for him among the women he loved most deeply-- his daughter Lavinia.  After Titian's wife died, his sister Orsa took over the management of his household.  Lavinia assumed these duties upon her aunt's death...

Painter John Waterhouse tells the story of how the
laurel tree came to be in a Pre-Raphaelite inspired
Apollo and Daphne.

John Waterhouse painted a scene taken from the myths about Artemis' brother in 1908.  Apollo and Daphne follows the style of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of poets and painters and critics formed in 1848, the year before Waterhouse's birth in Italy to English parents.  Although the Brotherhood had long since disbanded and its tenets were no longer artistically fashionable when Waterhouse began painting scenes from mythology, he shared the Pre-Raphaelite rejection of the Mannerist style which followed Michelangelo and Raphael.  He hoped to continue their "reforming" of Art by rejecting, like the Brotherhood, static classic poses and overly elegant compositions...

Insulting Eros (Cupid) proved to be Apollo's undoing in matters of the heart after the son of Aphrodite took his bow and let fly two special arrows towards Apollo and the beautiful nymph Daphne.  Struck by a gold-tipped arrow, the god burned with desire for Daphne.  The lead-tipped arrow piercing her heart filled her with absolute repulsion at the sight of Apollo and she fled in terror.  Daphne called out to her father, a minor river god, for help and was transformed into a laurel.  Grief-stricken, Apollo decreed the tree would be forever sacred to him...
Poseidon, god of the sea, grasps his earth-shattering trident in a
Corinthian plaque dating to over 500 years before the birth of Jesus.

Historians of myth write that Apollo-- like the other Olympians-- was a complex figure; his cult was -- also like the cults of other Greek gods-- the result of fusion with the cults of deities from other Mediterranean and Near East cultures.  Above all, Apollo was the god of light and reason.  Perhaps these attributes led his worshippers to see him as a patron of seers and diviners who could look past dark clouds of the future to see what was to be in days to come.  But it is his roles as god of shepherds, town builders, and musicians that supports the historian's argument that his functions likely resulted from the contact Greeks had with their neighbors or nations whom they met on battlefields...

Poseidon, like Hades, was a brother of Zeus.  A Corinthian plaque from circa 550 BCE shows the god of the sea with his trident with which he created earthquakes by merely striking the ground.  The Greek historian Herodotus believed he came to be part of the Olympic pantheon after Greek contact with Libyans.  Modern historians believe he was actually a very ancient figure, even older than Zeus, worshipped by the earliest people living in the neighborhood of the Aegean region.  His earth-shaking trident may be the remnants of a time when he, and not Zeus, was believed to cast lightning from heaven.  Poseidon's wife, the Greeks believed, was Amphitrite.  We know too little of her origins in the historical sense.  Myths say this daughter of Oceanus or Nereus rarely showed jealousy of the sort Hera displayed when her husband dallied.  This made Poseidon a truly lucky god...

Love in its holiest and most profane aspects belonged to the province ruled by magical Aphrodite.  Scholars tell us she was, in her origins, a fertility goddess who nourished all creation and whose first worshippers may have been Phoenicians.  Her cult followed sea routes used by Phoenician traders to Cythera and Cyprus before spreading out to Greece and Sicily.  One myth had it that Aphrodite sprang into being from the foam of the sea.  Blown gently across stormy waters by the West Wind, her perfect feet (for all of her was perfect) first touched land along the coastline of Cyprus.  Four goddesses, rulers of the four seasons, waited on the shore to greet her and cloak her radiant nudity in the most beautiful garments ever made.  Then these Horae conducted Aphrodite to the highest realm of heaven where she took her place among the Immortals...
Aphrodite comes ashore for the first time in Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus.

We've previously, in an earlier issue of this blog, told the story of the sculptor Praxiteles who sculpted the courtesan Phryne nude.  He opened himself to charges of blasphemy after naming the resulting work after Aphrodite for the goddess was feminine perfection incarnate.  The challenge to artists since this incident has remained the same-- not just any woman can model as Aphrodite because, to model as Aphrodite, a woman must be  perfect...

Exactly who served as Sandro Botticelli's model for the Birth of Venus remains clouded in mystery.  This masterwork of the Italian Renaissance, painted from 1485 to 1486,  graced the villa of Lorenzo de Medici, a scion of a powerful banking family and de facto ruler of Florence.  Popular belief has it Simonetta Vespucci-- considered to be the most beautiful woman of her time-- inspired Botticelli's portrait of Aphrodite under her Roman name of Venus.  Many critics pooh-pooh the idea, pointing out Vespucci died nine years before the painter first put a brush to this canvas.  But, we must also note, Botticelli did request to be buried at Simonetta's feet in the Church of Ognissanti in Florence.  His wish was granted in 1510...

Our journey together this week ends at the shores of Aeaea, an enchanted island of the ancient world,  where we foreshadow things to come by briefly introducing ourselves to Circe, a minor goddess to some, but a major force to be reckoned with for others.  We see her here in an 1894 work by Alfred Drury whose art is part of a late 19th century "New Sculpture Movement" whose members sought to make sculpted forms more vital and lifelike...

The blind poet Homer says a shipwrecked king named Odysseus found himself sharing a year of his arduous ten year journey home from the Trojan War on this island with the stunningly beautiful sorceress who could transform fierce men into docile beasts.  And, perhaps blasphemously or perhaps with access to tales long lost to us moderns, Homer also describes Circe as the loveliest of all immortals...

Alfred Drury, Circe, 1894: Men
transformed into beasts howl,
begging for the attention of the
lovely sorceress.



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Note: All photographs for this essay were located through Google Images or Wikipedia, without authoritative source or ownership information except as noted: Hera from; Circe from; information about the Greek gods, goddesses, and their cults from the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, London, 1959

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