Category: myth

Theseus: completed

Last Friday, after many glitches and a great deal of emotional stress, I printed out my dissertation and handed it in.

I am happy with it. I am confident that I did everything I could to make it perfect, and there is nothing I would change. That’s all one can ask for, right?

Now it only remains to be seen what other people (namely my supervisor and two other markers) think about it and if I get a decent grade.

It was my life for an entire month. When it was done I was both immensely relieved and strangely empty. I had no idea what to do with my time anymore.

Luckily, packing came along to keep me busy. That and Firefly.

I’m proud of myself. For finishing this and for getting this far. This is the physical manifestation of all of the work I have done in the last 5 years, and everything I have learned.

And, believe it or not, I think I finally found my niche. Yes, I could talk about pots, myths and political myth making forever.

Theseus: a democratic hero

Title page

It's so beautiful!

180 pages

The sacred mountains

After our class tour of Athens, complete with presentations, long walks uphill and a few failed dinner plans, Chandra and I headed to Delphi.

Once we finally found the bus station, we boarded the sketchiest bus ever. On the way to the bus station I practiced saying Delphi in Greek. It’s pronounced “thel-fon,” like saying “cell phone” with a lisp. Luckily, I never had to embarrass myself because it only takes one bus to get to Delphi and it’s all quite straight forward (we began to appreciate this more once we tried to get to Corinth and Olympia… more on this later!)

We arrived in Delphi as the sun was beginning to set. Over the mountains. It was, from the first moment, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

The modern city of Delphi, photo by me

Delphi's flowers, photo by me

We checked into our hotel, then spent the next hour or so chasing the sunset. I wanted to get the perfect picture, and we were willing to risk asp-filled fields to get it! How many times will you get a chance to take a photo of Delphi at sunset?

Sun setting, photo by me

I was waiting for the sun to disappear behind the mountain… Finally, it did.

Sun set from Delphi, photo by me

As I stood, awed and amazed, I realized that I had never really been to place with mountains like these. They made the most beautiful shades of blues I have ever seen.

We ate dinner at a restaurant overlooking the sunset. It was perfect. We stayed in the best hotel of the trip. And the next morning we found out that it’s just as beautiful during the day.

Mount Parnassos and such, photo by me

We went to the archaeological site for the day. Delphi was the most important Panhellenic (which means that Greeks from all city states could worship there) sanctuary in Classical Greece. It was a sacred oracle dedicated to Apollo. If you had an question about your future, you could ask the Pythia, beautiful young priestesses who would tell you the word of Apollo. Of course, like most oracles, it’s all about interpretation.

The ruins of ancient Delphi, photo by me

It’s not hard to understand why the Greeks would find this site sacred.

Because of Delphi’s status - both as an important sanctuary and as neutral ground for all Greeks - it eventually became a very important place to control. The Athenians used it as their main treasury when they formed the Delian League (a united Greece under the rule of Athens), and many city states built treasuries or dedications on the site to show their wealth or power.

The treasury of the Athenians, photo by me

Delphi really was one of the most stunning places I’ve ever visited, historically and geographically - though I’d argue that, like much of the ancient world, Delphi’s importance is undeniably linked to its geography.

Ancient footprints are everywhere…

#48. See the Acropolis and the Coliseum.

The view of the Acropolis from the Areopagus, photo by me.

It’s recently come to my attention that, in the past 5 months or so, I have seen a lot of the most important monuments and pieces of art in the world.

The Parthenon, under construction as per usual, photo by me.

More importantly, for me, is that I’ve finally seen all of the things I’ve been studying in my years of ancient history classes, essays and books.

The inside of the Coliseum, photo by me

Number 48 was about seeing what I thought were the two pinnacles of Greek and Roman civilization. But along the way I’ve seen some pretty awesome things that have come up over and over again in my studies. Not buildings or monumental structures, but artefacts.

It started with the Augustus of Prima Porta in the Vatican Museum in Rome. There was the statue of Laocoon and his sons in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. There were the famous statues of Nefertiti and Akhenaten in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Nike of Samothrace in the Louvre.

This trip to Greece was no exception.

In the Archaeological museum of Knossos in Heraklion, there was the Phaistos disc, a beautiful and mysterious Minoan artefact, engraved in a language (Linear A) that we have never been able to translate:

The Phaistos Disc, photo by me

And this famous faience statue of a Minoan snake goddess that I remember studying in second year Greek history.

Minoan Snake Goddess, found at Knossos, photo by me

In the National Archaeological Museum, the famous bronze statue of a God (Zeus or Poseidon) recovered from a shipwreck:

Zeus? Poseidon? photo by me

And the famous Mask of Agamemnon - a funerary mask that Heinrich Schliemann uncovered at Mycenae and wrongly interpreted it as being the Agamemnon (of Homeric fame).

Mask of Agamemnon photo by me

At at Delphi, the Charioteer of Delphi:

Charioteer of Delphi, photo by me

Just to name a few, and not to mention all of the hundreds of photos I took of other artefacts that I found super interesting, but aren’t as famous.

I had an interesting revelation, though. As I was taking these photos, I was thinking “So that someday I can use it in a Powerpoint for a lecture.” I always do this when I’m at museums. But I started to think about what that meant. That maybe I want to be a professor someday. Which means maybe I want to do my PhD someday. Which is a little bit terrifying.

It’s interesting how most of the things of my list of things to do before I die have turned out to have completely different meanings from where they started originally. This is just one example.

My Theseus

Between trips around the world and series of TV shows, I am actually an MA student at Newcastle University. I know, I forget sometimes too.

I’m doing a taught master’s program, so the first two semesters were mostly classes. The third semester, however, involves writing a dissertation on a topic that we choose. The final product is a 15,000 word essay on an original research question.

You may have gathered that I have a deep rooted love for Greek mythology. Archaeology doesn’t really lend itself to discussions on mythology. Or so I thought. But in December I started to ask around about the possibilities of studying something to do with mythology for my dissertation. And I figured it out.

My Greek Archaeology lecturer did her PhD on portrayals of women in Greek pottery. So what I decided to do, under her supervision, was portrayals of one certain myth in Greek pottery.

The difficulty lay in choosing. At first, my supervisor suggested that I write on Heracles, since we have a Heracles pot in our collection that I could work closely with. But it didn’t really grab me. I went to the British Museum on my way home for Christmas and took a bunch of pictures of their beautiful Greek pots. They have some stunning portrayals of the Judgement of Paris, which is my favourite myth.

As the deadline for a topic drew closer, we were told we had to start thinking of a question that involved original research. And I just couldn’t come up with a question for the Judgement of Paris. I was worried.

Then we had a class on the Athenian Agora. In particular, the artwork on the Hephaisteion. You see, this temple had a lot of sculptures of Theseus on it. Theseus, an Athenian king, represented as a hero to democratic Athens. The magic word? Propaganda.

I love the use of myth as propaganda. Last year, I wrote my favourite essay on heroic bone transfer as Spartan propaganda. Have I lost you yet…? Heroic bone transfer is a usually seen as part of a Greek hero cult. It involves finding the “bones” of a mythological hero (in the case of Sparta, most famously Orestes) and repatriating them to your city state in order to lay a claim on the power of that hero. In the case of the Spartans, it was their way to claim a connection to the heroes of the Trojan War, since the Spartans themselves weren’t autochthonous to the Peloponnese.

Right. So Theseus is used as democratic propaganda, even though he was a king. That’s too great to pass up.

In the end, this was my proposal:

Title: How does the change and increase in Theseus as the subject of paintings on Athenian pottery after the late 6th century BCE relate to the development of Athenian democracy?

Abstract: In the late 6th century there is a change in the portrayal of the Theseus myth on Athenian pottery. Most Theseus paintings prior to this period had focused on his slaying of the Minotaur. By the end of the 5th century, not only have representations of Theseus expanded to include a series of other events from his life, but he has also been firmly established as the national hero of Athens in a way that demonstrates close ties with democracy.

Even though in England they call this a dissertation, in North America is would be called a thesis. And so, I have started calling it my Theseus. Yes, I’m that cheesy.

The deeds of Theseus on an Attic red-figure vase, photo from the Beazley Archive

Where beauty is existence

I’m not an art historian. Or, at least I thought I wasn’t. I seem to have turned into one recently, since my current essay and dissertation topics both rely heavily on Greek art.

I’ve never been the one to suggest a visit to an art gallery. But I have a lot of friends who love art, and I find their passion contagious. I enjoy visiting with them, but I when I go alone I just get bored. Which is why I was surprised to realize that some of my favourite experiences on my trip last month were art galleries.

That might be because I visited some of the best galleries in the world.

I finally got to go back to the Louvre, and see the sculpture that I fell in love with six years ago.

Eros and Psyche, photo by me

When I first saw Eros and Psyche by Antonio Canova, I was amazed. I didn’t know that a piece of marble could be so beautiful. I never dreamed that a sculpture could be so real, could evoke so much emotion.

Close up of Eros and Psyche, photo by me

Undoubtedly, half of what I fell in love with was the portrayal of the myth. The Eros and Psyche story is one of my favourite Greek myths. It’s a tragic love story with a beautiful ending, and I think the sculpture captures that perfectly. One of those “love conquers all” stories.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized that I kind of love renaissance art. Especially sculptures. It isn’t that surprising, considering the renaissance was about reviving classical themes. Classical themes which I love. And classical art, which according to my choice in topics this semester (the emergence of Hellenistic portraiture and portraits of Alexander the Great), I apparently love too. Like this:

The Nike of Samothrace, photo by me

And this:

Laocoon and his sons, photo by me

Though I don’t love Rome, there’s no arguing that it has some of the best museums in the world. I could spend days in the Capitoline Museum. Or the Vatican Museum. It was amazing to finally see things I had been studying in class for years, like the statue above of Laocoon and his sons. I saw all of those in January. It was amazing.

This time, we went to a different kind of museum.

The Borghese Gallery is a privately owned collection. They get to make up their own rules. Rules that I’m not a huge fan of. You have a scheduled time you’re allowed to go in. You have to leave ALL bags, including purses, at the coat check. And you can’t take photos of the art.

It’s a good thing they have such an amazing collection.

Bernini was the second sculptor I fell in love with. The Borghese has some absolutely amazing pieces by him. Since I couldn’t take pictures, these aren’t my own.

Bernini's David

The Borghese is set up in a different way, too. It occupies a 17th century villa, and the building itself is a work of art. The rooms are all different. But each one has a centrepiece, or two. The masterpieces are here, and the lesser (but still amazing) works are on or against the walls.

Bernini's Apollo and Daphne

And my absolute favourite was this one:

Bernini's Rape of ProserpinaA close up:

Close up of Bernini's Rape of Proserpina

Breathtaking.