Friday, April 2, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Sabine Albersmeier (ed.), Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece. Baltimore: Walters Art Museum, 2009. Pp. 328. ISBN 9780300154726. $65.00.
Reviewed by Susan B. Matheson, Yale University Art Gallery

Table of Contents

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This catalogue and exhibition examine the ancient view of heroes as it is revealed in Greek art and literature of the archaic through the Hellenistic periods. Organized by the Walters Art Museum, the exhibition includes 106 vases, sculptures, and small objects from 17 American and European museums and private collections. More than half of these are from the Walters itself. Following its viewing at the Walters, the exhibition will travel to the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville, the San Diego Museum of Art, and the Onassis Cultural Center, New York.

The exhibition curator and editor of the catalogue, Sabine Albersmeier, deserves much credit for conceiving an exhibition rich in visual resources and engaging on many levels. The catalogue, a fully illustrated volume of 10 essays and 106 object entries, is organized around three themes: hero cult, the biographies of heroes in myth and art, and the role of heroes as exempla. Four heroes, Herakles, Achilles, Helen, and Odysseus, serve as paradigms, but a broad range of others, from the national and famous to the local and anonymous, are included. The catalogue argues that the concept of "hero/heroine" was more complex and fluid for the ancient Greeks than it is for us today. An ancient Greek hero needed a divine parent, and he or she must be the recipient of a cult. Who the individual was could be more important than any "heroic" actions he or she undertook, and the character traits and actions of some Greek heroes are far from the noble personae and selfless deeds that modern society expects in its heroes. The view of a hero presented by this catalogue is an important corrective to the general perception that Greek heroes and modern ones are the same, and a significant contribution to the field. Although there are difficulties with the organization of the catalogue and the layout of the installation, at least as it was shown in Baltimore, there is nevertheless much of value in the book that will recommend it to readers.

The catalogue essays are written primarily for a scholarly audience and presume significant knowledge. Guy Hedreen's essay on Achilles, for example, discusses the hero's appearances exclusively in sources other than the Iliad. There is much that is new here, and it is a valuable resource for students and scholars. The other essays, discussed below in connection with particular sections of the catalogue, are thoughtful and valuable contributions as well.

The exhibition curator is surprisingly absent from the catalogue, limiting her contributions to several entries and three short introductions to the major themes at the start of the relevant entry groups. An overview by the curator to introduce the catalogue would have gone a long way toward unifying the publication and giving the non-specialist the necessary context for the essays and entries. Jenifer Neils' essay on representations of the hero in art would have served this purpose admirably had it led off the catalogue.

The entries appear to be designed for the general reader, but with mixed success. Within them, the three major themes are fragmented into disjointed sub-themes, to which some of the objects are marginally related at best. The curator's short introductions to the thematic groups of entries do not treat the sub-themes, leaving the reader to rely solely on the page headers for navigational help. The four heroes are equally fragmented, and the reader must struggle to reconstruct each hero's narrative. The entries generally follow the exhibition, at least as it was installed at the Walters, and both suffer from a lack of narrative continuity and clarity of thought. Had the entries been written by a single author or edited into a continuous narrative sequence, they could have provided a solid foundation for the general reader and for the more specialized essays. Too many are simply descriptions of the objects. There is a certain amount of repetition among the nine entry authors, which could have been avoided, leaving more room for interpretation and better integration into the thematic narrative.

The most successful part of the catalogue focuses on hero cult, a defining marker of the hero. The literary and archaeological evidence presented by Jorge Bravo and Gunnel Ekroth in their essays is well complemented by the exhibition's varied and rarely seen reliefs, which represent a broad range of heroes and cult practices. Many of the entries for these works are substantial and informative. The introductory section of the Walters' installation focused on this theme, aptly combining objects, extensive narrative text, maps with cult sites, and photographs of such sites for each of the four paradigmatic heroes. Unfortunately, the section of the exhibition that dealt with cult for other heroes did not follow directly after this introduction, as would be logical, but appeared several sections later in the gallery sequence. Instead, the focus shifted to the four paradigmatic heroes.

The corresponding section of the catalogue, "Heroes in Myth," purports to present the four heroes within the framework of the overall life cycle from childhood to death. Excellent essays by John Oakley on child heroes and children as heroes and Corinne Pache on heroic death in Greek literature provide new material for the scholar and student. In the entries, however, the heroes are unevenly represented by works of art that in toto do not form a coherent narrative for each hero. The organization of the entries begins with birth, childhood, and marriage, but with no representations of Odysseus in any of these themes. The section closes with death, but of the four heroes only Achilles appears here.

The heart of this section comprises some of the best known myths attached to each hero, but the sub-themes (Agony and Glory, Respite, Friends and Monsters) hint at the somewhat unfocused and catch-all nature of the assemblage of objects here. Many of the choices are perfect, and also wonderful objects, and they clearly demonstrate that these heroes had wide popularity across a multiplicity of media. Others seem without context, such as the South Italian plate with a Nereid on a dolphin bringing a sword for Achilles (entry #48), for which there are no associated arming-of-Achilles scenes shown, and which is oddly placed between a scene of Herakles and the Amazons and images of sirens. Why should the splendid Berlin Odysseus and the sirens (entry #20) be separated from images of the sirens (entries #46 and 47)? The organization of these sections, in both the installation and the catalogue, left this reviewer puzzled and frustrated.

"Emulation," the final section of both exhibition and catalogue, considers ancient Greek heroes as exempla for the Greeks and, especially in the exhibition, for us today. The strength of Herakles is an obvious model for any athlete. More puzzling is the choice of Herakles kitharoidos as an exemplum for a victorious musician, since most Greeks would remember that he killed his music teacher. Jennifer Larson, in her fine essay on the hero, rightly emphasizes the complexity and often opposing forces in his character. Michael Anderson's excellent essay on "Heroes as Moral Agents and Moral Examples" explores myths that present poets and artists with ethical questions and discusses the degree to which these artists engaged their audiences in ethical inquiry. He demonstrates that the ancient heroes' moral characterizations evolved over time, and that their ethical choices made them suitable models. This emphasis on choice comes closest of any part of this catalogue to the criteria by which modern heroes are generally defined, and reveals the human side of the heroes. Achilles, for example, made a heroic choice that ultimately resulted in his death. The catalogue suggests that he is the prototype for generic scenes of an Athenian warrior arming or departing. Vases exist in which Achilles is identified by inscriptions and is shown in these roles, but none appear in this exhibition. Here we see only generic scenes of warriors arming, departing, or fighting that we are meant to conclude would prompt the ancient viewer to think of the heroic prototype. Including a prototype with Achilles named would have been helpful in making the point. Failing that, pairing the Athenian mother giving a helmet to the Athenian ephebe (entry #79) with the Nereid bringing Achilles his sword (entry #48) might have worked here.

Perseverance and tenacity were the characteristics most admired in Odysseus in antiquity, even more than his familiar wiliness, as Ralf von den Hoff argues in his essay. Von den Hoff, too, emphasizes the human side of the hero. The emulation of Helen on the basis of her ethical choices might be problematic to us, but the argument made here by Alan Shapiro is that in antiquity she was seen by some not as a guilty wife but as a victim of the gods. Her beauty made her a figure of romance, and it was this that was emulated by brides and young women and cherished in art. Again, the sequence of the exhibition and catalogue dilute this argument, placing the two images of Helen in the context of marriage (entries #11 and #12) far from the generic women and wedding scenes (entries 97-99) that are meant to relate to the mythological prototypes.

A useful glossary, a commendably extensive, comprehensive, and current bibliography, and an index follow. The overall design and production of the book are admirable. The quality of the illustrations is generally excellent and often outstanding, although in some cases details of the vase paintings are hard to see, and the primary scene is smaller than the secondary one.

This catalogue, the first to treat this subject so extensively, includes much that is of merit, and the essays in particular will be of use to scholars and students. The exhibition tour will bring both familiar and rarely seen works of art to a broad general public. The evident secondary agenda of showcasing the Walters Art Museum's fine collection, while worthy in itself, has resulted in the inclusion of objects that are peripheral at best. A more concerted effort should have been made to relate all of the objects to the catalogue essays and overall themes, and more attention should have been paid to continuity of narrative and thought in both exhibition layout and catalogue.

Table of Contents:

Jorge J. Bravo III, "Recovering the Past: The Origins of Greek Heroes and Hero Cult"

Four Paradigmatic Heroes
Jennifer Larson, "The Singularity of Herakles"
Guy Hedreen, "Achilles Beyond the Iliad"
H.A. Shapiro, "Helen: Heroine of Cult, Heroine in Art"
Ralf von den Hoff, "Odysseus: An Epic Hero with a Human Face"

John H. Oakley, "Child Heroes in Greek Art"

Corinne Ondine Pache, "The Hero Beyond Himself: Heroic Death in Ancient Greek Poetry and Art"

Jenifer Neils, "Beloved of the Gods: Imag(in)ing Heroes in Greek Art"

Gunnel Ekroth, "The Cult of Heroes"

Michael J. Anderson, "Heroes as Moral Agents and Moral Examples"

Heroes in Myth
Heroes in Cult

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