We usually think of the Greek gods as figures, as human embodiments, but to the Greek mind the gods were also, above all, states or conditions of being. Poseidon is god of the sea, yes, but he’s really the ungovernable force of natural disturbances — he is tempests and earthquakes. Virginal, woodland-rover Artemis punished the youthful hunter Actaeon (by turning him into a stag that his hounds turned on and killed) not simply because he’d seen her bathing naked but because his trespassing violated virgin wilderness. The gods meddled constantly in human affairs but remained awesomely remote as beings. Greek heroes, though, were closer to the human scheme of things because Herakles, Achilles, Odysseus, and Helen were mortals or semi-mortals; they were implicated in historical time, in the human order and its travails. They’re active presences in our consciousness because we recognize in their tasks, conflicts, and journeys analogies to our own existence and because they possess mortal attributes: Herakles, strength and stamina; Achilles, peerless violent valor; Odysseus, cunning. Theirs are among the oldest stories, and they never get old.
The stories are illustrated and elucidated in the San Diego Museum of Art’s Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece. The exhibition is structured in three chapters: “Heroes in Myth”; “Heroes in Cult”; and “Hero as Role Model.” The chapters give the many objects on display an easily grasped structure. The wall labels dispense edifying information and don’t shy from introducing us to unfamiliar words and concepts. But what really matters is the impressive historical reach and artistic elegance of the stuff on display, and short of going to the Getty Villa in Malibu or New York’s Metropolitan, it’s the best opportunity right now for Southlanders to approach the completeness and otherness of the Greek imagination.
Consider Herakles. In a fit of madness, he killed his wife and children. To expiate his crime, he was commanded by his archenemy, King Eurystheus, to perform the 12 apparently impossible labors we learn about as children — slaying the Hydra, cleaning the Augean stables, killing the Nemean lion, retrieving the golden apples of the Hesperides, and all the rest. The Greek imagination held his entire life cycle in its head and depicted it in many forms. As an infant, he was believed to be fearsomely strong. As a child, he could already wield the club that along with a lion skin would become an identifying attribute. Unlike Achilles and Odysseus, he lived to be an old man more or less in retirement from his tasking. The exhibition marks each stage of his life cycle. A 4th-century BCE coin depicts the baby Herakles strangling snakes; a small bronze of a beefy man-child boasts the hero’s destiny in his compact musculature; a large terra-cotta sculpture presents the aging Herakles at rest, his body still heavily muscled but as a mature man’s body is muscled — it’s meatier, filled-out, more gravity-bound. This big piece is neatly paired with a tiny, exquisitely carved gemstone bearing the same motif.
Along the way, vase paintings count off the labors Herakles performed. We see him wrestling down the fat serpent-creature Triton; wound tightly around each other, they manifest the Greek preoccupation with human nature’s nearness to the monstrous. One painting is shockingly graphic in the rage it expresses. Returning to King Eurystheus’s palace, Herakles pile-drives the captive but still terrifying Erymanthian boar down on the king’s head. Some scenes appear on small precious stones for rings, so you may want to bring a magnifying device to see (more clearly than I did) the fine detail of our hero bearing the golden apples, carved into a carnelian disk no bigger than a dime.
I know a journalist who, as a kind of meditation that engages his imagination and sharpens his language skills, translates lines from the Iliad every week. And I’m not the only writer who reads one of the Homeric poems every year, believing that what’s most elemental in existence is enacted there. The poems have a piercing specificity about what William James called the bright particulars of the physical world. When heroes died, they went to a drab, boring place where those particulars dimmed and lost their throbbing energy. Vase paintings represent the energy of the Homeric world in rigorously stylized forms, so a modern, realist sensibility has to work a little to access the feelings coded into the scenes. But when our imagination completes the force of Homeric events as they lived in the consciousness of antiquity, the effect is electrifying.
I’m thinking of two pictures. In one, Ajax bears Achilles’ corpse on his back. Not only are the two heavily armed, unrecognizably visored heroes pure images of warrior culture, but the stiff, angular tableau style adds dread to the weight of grief. The other is the tremendous scene late in the Iliad when the aged Priam begs Achilles to return his son Hektor’s corpse, which Achilles (that single-minded engine of anger and slaughter: when he returns to the field to avenge the death of his friend Patroklos, he kills everybody) has been dragging around behind his chariot. The supplicant father pleads with the supremely confident killer (who in the poem gets typically testy and curt with the old man) while Hektor’s abused corpse lies right there under the couch Achilles reclines on.
Vase imagery is mostly lateral; we read across the action or scene. The constraint actually frees up anecdotes involving confrontation, rout, or pursuit. Battle scenes especially, with their bristling disorienting mayhem, play out with a kind of thickened expansiveness. On one vase, a stumbling foot soldier is trapped between two charioteers charging each other. One Herakles myth relates his fight against the Amazons, and a 6th-century BCE painter used the narrow shape of a bottlenecked, cylindrical vessel called a lekythos to amazing dramatic effect. The vessel’s shape tightens the tension among the small cast of characters wrapped around it: Herakles seizes an Amazon while another flees his fury and yet another rushes to the aid of her sister warrior. The curvilinear surface of another vase pops with formal inventiveness: its artist represented mounted warriors not sidewise but head on, as if trying to punch his way into perspectival depth perception.
The Greeks, and the Romans after them, established cults to honor their heroes, and the exhibition includes votive objects found at ceremonial sites and in worshippers’ tombs. Only aristocratic, well-to-do citizens could afford to keep horses, and the most breath-stopping object in the show is a sleek, streamlined 8th-century bronze horse with a herringboned mane. The scariest object is a sculpture of one of Odysseus’s sailors, under the curse of the sorceress Kirke, changing into a pig. The swinish head and hackles smooth out, with unnerving transformative fluidity, into the finer shape of the human form that’s being lost.
Heroes also showcases the Sphinx, the Centaurs, the Sirens, and other familiar motifs, but I don’t want to leave the impression that the exhibition is a stuffy lesson in Greek culture. It wakens us to life as it was once experienced and imagined and so re-wakens us to life. There are marvelous things that surprise and delight, like the statuette of a child training to be a boxer. Its meaning deepens when we remember how honored and enriched athletes were, not to speak of the sport of boxing in antiquity, when fighters wrapped their forearms and fists with extremely thick strips of cowhide that, depending on the punch, could dent an opponent’s skull, rip off an ear, or righteously rearrange a nose. Then there’s this: Greeks had their sense of tragedy, of course, but they also celebrated and respected the obscene and the comic. One vase hilariously burlesques the sack of Troy. It depicts the mighty Ajax, about to rape Kassandra, carrying, along with his sword, a mighty erection, while Menelaus in the same scene, grabbing Helen, dangles a sadder-looking item. A very different, gorgeous painting shows Menelaus so hot in pursuit of Helen that he’s dropped his sword and looks a little gaga while the great beauty’s gown flies open to reveal a hint of breast and a lot of leg.
The most mysterious image in this fine exhibition is a vase painting of Achilles and Ajax at leisure, playing a board game of some kind. Their armor lies close at hand, as if to suggest both the proximity and moral distance between warfare and play. But the mystery is this: the scene was a great favorite among the artists of ancient Greece — it appears on over 150 vases — and yet in the Homeric literature this placid scene is mentioned nowhere.
Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece
San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park
Through Sunday, September 5. For additional information, call 619-232-7931.