Troy: Myth and Reality

Troy: Myth and Reality


Such are the number of captions alongside each work on display, walking through the exhibition can be likened to taking a stroll through a giant book, but how else to impart so much convoluted information to the visitor? For the past three millennia, stories from the Trojan War, first written about by Homer and Virgil, have been told and re-told, right up until the present day. There has been a bit of a surge of books, mostly using the Trojan Wars as a backdrop to the antics of Achilles, Paris, Hector, Helen, Priam and Odysseus. Madeline Miller gave us two excellent volumes,The Song of Achilles and Circe, while Pat Barker eschewed the First World War for The Silence of the Girls, set a world formed in the imagination, myths and legend three thousand years ago, where heroic warriors battled it out with a little help from the gods. Margaret George wrote Helen of Troy, a lush, seductive novel of the legendary beauty whose face launched a thousand ships, and yet another Margaret, this time Attwood, wrote the Penelopiad, from the wife of Odysseus’s perspective. Shakespeare based Troilus and Cressida in the Trojan Wars, but it was Christopher Marlowe who coined the description of Helen ‘was this the face that launched a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?’ from his tragedy Doctor Faustus. Isaac Azimov playfully suggested that the unit ‘millihelen’ could mean the amount of beauty that can launch just one ship.

One of the problems faced by the curators is whether the Trojan War actually took place in the first place. It was not until 1870 that a German amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who started a large-scale dig at the entrance to the Dardanelles in modern-day Turkey, uncovered an ancient city, believed to be Troy, that was destroyed in the War. Schliemann began by digging too deep, unearthing artifacts from the Bronze Age. It was not until 1890 that he began to uncover objects from around 1300BC that confirmed contact between Troy and Greece. Some of his finds, both at Troy and later at Mycenae, home to King Agamemnon of Greece, were extraordinary golden treasures, known as ‘Priam’s Treasure’, which included what he thought were ‘the Jewels of Helen,’ which disappeared from Berlin at the end of the Second World War, only to turn up again in 1990 in Russia, having been taken there for safe-keeping. Schliemann originally offered his finds to the British Museum after an exhibition in 1870, but they were turned down as ‘they did not have enough space.’ A large amount of pottery, silver vessels, bronze weapons and stone sculpture are now on loan from the Berlin Museums, who did have enough space. Having resolved the question of whether Troy existed, there is another dichotomy haunting curators and academics alike, namely, did Homer actually exist as a single, blind, possibly illiterate, genius poet who single handedly created two of the greatest stories in human history, The Odyssey and The Iliad. This is now called the ‘Homeric Question,’ and has yet tobe resolved by scholars.

The whole epic saga kicks off with the wedding of Thetis, a sea goddess, and Peleus, a mortal. Uninvited to the celebrations is Eris, Goddess of Discord, who throws a golden apple into the midst of the guests, with the inscription ‘to the most beautiful.’ A cat-fight breaks out between three beautiful Goddesses, Hera, patron of Marriage, Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, and Athena, Goddess of War and Wisdom. As Zeus does not want to get involved, a young, good-looking mortal, Paris, is elected to make the judgement. He is the son of Priam and Hecuba, the king and queen of Troy. All three Goddesses try and bribe him with more land, glory in battle, and, from Aphrodite, the promise of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. She is no mere mortal, but the daughter of Zeus and Leda, with whom he had coupled in the form of a swan. One little problem with Paris falling for Helen, is that she was already married to Meneleus, King of Sparta, and while he was away, she is taken on Paris’s ship bound for Troy. It is unclear whether she went as a victim of ‘most ill-fated beauty’, or voluntarily as a feared seductress of the young Trojan prince. In one depiction of her in a wall-painting from Pompeii, she is seen being led onto the boat by a servant with a sense of foreboding. Whatever the reasons for ending up in Troy, a massive war ensued, that resulted in a nine-year siege, with countless men being slaughtered on both sides.

The story of Troy is told in three main chapters, beginning with the city itself as seen in the ancient world, with Discord, leading to the siege led by Meneleus and his brother Agamemnon, the subsequent fall of the city, and the journey home for Odysseus, which took another ten years and was beset by insurmountable problems. The second section deals with the excavation of Troy by the over-keen German, and shows, in a most clever manner, how each layer revealed different objects from different eras, with some stunning pieces on display, including an exquisite Roman silver cup, on loan from Denmark, of all unlikely places, where it was found. The cup shows Priam begging Achilles, who had slain his son Hector and dragged his body behind his chariot for twelve days,   to release Hector’s body for burial, This was an act of vengeance and retribution, after Hector had killed his friend, and possible lover, Patroclus. As Priam is quoted to have said in the Iliad, ‘I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before – I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son.’ Achilles relents and releases the body for a ransom, but that is not the end of the War. Achilles is then killed by Paris, who shoots an arrow into his heel, the only part of his body left vulnerable after his mother Thetis dipped him into the River Styx, holding him by the heel of one foot. A beautifully-carved, early nineteenth-century marble statue by Filippo Arbacini on loan from Chatsworth, complete with a gold arrow, is probably more to do with the homoerotic indulgences of the Duke of Devonshire than empathising with the anguish and suffering of the Greek hero. Odysseus is credited with the idea of The Trojan Horse, which ultimately ended the siege, and this is first depicted in a Roman relief from the lid of a marble sarcophagus, found in Rome. 

The third section of this absorbing and moody exhibition reflects the effect the stories of the Trojan War have impacted on art down the years, with some glorious examples of illuminated manuscripts, paintings and prints by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, John Collier, Antonio Canova, Evelyn de Morgan, Edward Burne-Jones, Peter Paul Rubens, John Waterhouse, John Poynter, Henry Fuseli, Herbert Draper, William Blake, Nicholas Poussin, Lovis Cloris and Elizabeth Frink. One of the most intriguing is The Judgement of Paris by Lucas Cranach the Elder, painted around 1530, which is an almost modern-day take on the male fantasy of idealised female beauty. Cupid’s arrow is pointed at Aphrodite, one of the three Goddesses, dressed only in jewellery and the merest wisps of diaphanous drapery, turning to the viewer in a most seductive and foxy manner. Poor Paris has just woken from a dream and is suddenly confronted by three beautiful, young, naked ladies, one of whom he has to choose as ‘the fairest of them all’. He chooses Aphrodite, who, in turn promises Helen to him. And that’s where the trouble starts.

Troy: myth and reality

British Museum

Until 8 March 2020

Admission £18


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