The Muddy Archaeologist's Blog

Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist

Troy Myth or Reality: An Eternal Epic

British Museum’s ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’ exhibition is open.
I was delighted to visit the exhibition this week and also to accompany a study day group here, and I have to say that it is a marvellous collection and narrative.
The exhibition begins with Homer, and the myths and legends associated with the story of Troy: the marriage of sea goddess Thetis (mother of Achilles later) and mortal Peleus, and Eris, the goddess of Strife’ vengeance when not invited.
Immediately, the millennia slip away; the old dilemma of who do you invite and who don’t you invite to a wedding … and what will happen when you omit someone who is capable of taking grudges to extremes …!
Then we are into the Judgement of Paris, where Eris tosses the Apple of Discord for the fairest in amongst the goddesses: mortal Paris is chosen to make the choice (to avoid any divinity being ‘to blame’).  The young man is swayed by Aphrodite’s offer of the most beautiful woman in the world if he chooses her …
Snag is, that woman is Helen.  Who happens to be married to Menelaus, king of Sparta.  When Paris whisks Helen away to Troy, Menelaus and his brother, Agamemnon (king of Mycenae) gather the Greek armies and leaders to get Helen back.
When the winds prevent the navy from leaving, Agamemnon wins over the gods by sacrificing his daughter, Iphigenia.  Not surprisingly, his wife, Clytemnestra will reek her revenge for this later, after the war when Agamemnon returns …
So begins the Trojan war.  Homer writes of Achilles’ sulking anger when his prize, the girl Briseis, is taken from him by Agamemnon (who returned his prize because she was the daughter of the priest of Apollo who had sent plague on the Greeks as punishment).
The Fall of Troy is told in later tales such as the Odyssey, the Greek dramas, the Roman Aeneid of Virgil).
And, when Troy falls, Odysseus adventurous voyages to return home (in Homer’s Odyssey) and Greeks, Romans and even Etruscans will tell tales of other heroes (Greek and also Trojans fleeing from the burning city) who sail away and home and to new settlements.  
The Trojan War spoke to each culture;  we see how those Etruscans loved the grisly images of Achilles killing Trojan prisoners at Patroclus’ funeral – it is thought-provoking when when we consider that the Etruscans were the ones who gave Rome their gladiator games (first initiated as funeral rites …).
This exhibition reveals the vast array of items celebrating these stories that were created through the centuries that followed.  The art gives substance to the tales.  And the Greek tragedies gave depth of human feeling, agony, love and loss to them, while exploring the moral issues of the day; these issues turn out to be timeless ones that speak to us still today.
From Archaic vases to black- and red-figure vases, and on to Roman sarcophagi, we can experience a thousand years of celebrating Achilles and Hector, Patroclus, Penelope and Paris & Helen.
Then the medieval scribes and printers revelled in creating their own versions. As did the artists who followed.
And during those latter years, Schliemann hacked his greedy way into the mound of the city of Troy. Others followed with more care. The early Bronze Age pottery of the 2,000s BC has a marvellous appeal, even though it dates to hundreds of years before Homer’s Troy.
But then there is pottery through the age of the fall of Troy (c.1,200 BC) and beyond.
Troy has to have been a difficult exhibition to plan; items are not easy to gather, and artefacts are few.  The politics of ‘looted’ items is never far away.
Yet, by revelling in the impact the stories have had on us through the ages, the exhibition shares how Homer’s heroic Troy became a living, dynamic power. Its energy and the way it spoke to so many people – even /especially in matters of life and death at burial – is a testimony to the timelessness of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
This exhibition’s lush display of so many types of art and the evident presence of Homer’s tales in so many people’s lives speaks for itself.
Humans are still fascinated by stories of love and loss, of war and family, and of life and death and how we face them all.  The epics of Troy had it all.
The oldest literature in the west continues to draw the crowds today. Nigh on 3,000 years later.

Achilles    Muddy Archaeologist

Gillian is an ancient historian, archaeologist & award-winning writer who provides lectures, gallery talks and study days.

2 comments on “Troy Myth or Reality: An Eternal Epic

  1. simonjkyte
    November 28, 2019

    Excellent post – and here are a few more images fromj the exhibition if that is OK to post here:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. gunst01
    March 11, 2020

    Reblogged this on Die Goldene Landschaft.


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