English Shelley’s Art Musings

Shelley’s Art Musing – Greek Myth Influences on Art

When thinking about Greek myths, or any myths, legends or religion for that matter, you probably have some very defined ideas of what the characters in those stories look like.  For example, if I were writing about Zeus, you would probably be thinking of an aging yet muscular, bearded man, with a thunderbolt in one hand and an animal of some kind around him.  If I were to have said Jesus, you would have thought of a dark-haired, bearded gentleman in a white robe and a halo of light around his head.  These are accepted symbols and images used in the art world to portray figures of mythological or religious importance; but how have they played an intrinsic role in how we view these myths and what role did that iconography play to the Greeks?

The art and myths of Greece, have evolved, almost hand in hand, as stories of the gods were passed around, the more elaborate they became, and the more inspired artists were to present their images of how they felt these characters would have been seen and their worldview.  This question, therefore, in my eyes, is not to see how art firstly influenced the myth-making process, but how art developed a group consciousness of what the mythical beings looked like and how they were represented.

Discobolus, the Discus-Thrower, copy after a bronze original by Myron, c. 450 B.C. Bronze, h: 155 cm. Glyptothek, Munich.

Pericles was documented as saying by Thucydides …we are lovers of the beautiful, yet simple in our tastes, and we cultivate the arts without loss of manliness. Excerpt from the funeral speech for Athenian War Dead.

Art was more than just something to be viewed to the ancient Greeks, it demonstrated their dedication to their deities, without formalised education it gave a basis to teach the population, it taught them about absolutes and origins as well as forming part of their democratic society.   Art held a certain political significance as it expressed a freedom of thought and an equality.  Monuments such as the Parthenon as well as literary works such as “The Iliad” and “The Theogony” all bring about a political ideology through the various stages of the evolution of the Greek empire. These beliefs have carried forwards through cultures, fascinating scholars, psychologist, and laymen alike, forming complex theories of the human psyche and intriguing filmmakers and authors as these seemingly timeless stories are used time and again to demonstrate the morality of creation and the endless struggle of man as downfalls are faced to reach a conclusion.

Fight Scene: Herakles and Triton, Temple of Athena, Assos, c. 550-525 B.C. Trachyte, h: 81 cm, l: 294 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.
Banquet Scene, Temple of Athena, Assos, c. 550-525 B.C. Trachyte, h: 81 cm, l: 287 cm. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Notably, Sigmund Freud elevated the myth of Oedipus, developing the myth from a tragic tale of a prophecy, to a deep-rooted psychological theory of how all men want to kill their father and sleep with their mother at some point within their development.  On the walls of his office hung the painting Oedipus and the Sphinx by Ingres (1808) [a], acting as a reminder of the origins of the culture he held in such high esteem, but also to have his patients sit between what he felt was the base development of humanity and his interpretations of the patient’s issues.  While this may seem like a far-fetched theory, the use of art in this way feeds human base instincts as we interpret everything around us in a visual way.

Oedipus and the Sphinx
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Oedipus and the Sphinx (Oedipus Explains the Riddle of the Sphinx), 1808, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Carl Jung developed the theory of the collective unconscious, in his book Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious it is explained how there is an unconscious that it unified to all of mankind, which will, therefore, create the same cyclical turn of events when myths and stories are developed.  That they will develop the same kinds of characters because there is a predefined root of understanding of the human condition within an inherent brain structure.

If we combine Jung’s theory with thoughts from Aristotle in that …art partly completes that which nature cannot bring to a finish… something very exciting occurs.  This brings a theory that art enlivens and enriches the collective unconscious, manifesting itself in a collective consciousness where artists use common representations to tell the story and make the characters universally identifiable.  Taking this theory combination then leads me to think that art is an intrinsic part of the way in which myths have been told and retold and why the Greek myths are still particularly prevalent in modern times.

Art, in its many guises, is something which had a high status in Greek culture, and its evolutionary path went from being something inspired from trading with other cultures to development and refinement of styles which has shaped our current view on classical sculpture and the symbolism used.  To demonstrate this, we can look at the evolution of Eros over time.

Hesiod described Eros as …the most beautiful among the immortal gods, loosener of limbs, who subdues the mind and prudent counsel… It’s not much to go on, is it?  Throughout the great literature which was produced, I have observed that the description of the image is lacking.  This is where the theory of group unconsciousness and art completing really comes into its own.

If asked to imagine Eros (or Cupid) now, the common response would be a cherub holding a bow and arrow. This isn’t necessarily how Eros began, being shown on ancient Greek pottery as a slime adolescent, and while the being was winged, there were no other symbols.

Eros playing flute, Athenian red-figure lekythos C5th B.C., Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Development of this image changed from a lithe young man to a more rotund childlike figure by the Hellenistic period. It could be argued that this change in image for this God was to more bring about the characteristics which were attributed to the being and to give an iconic identifier to the audience which they could relate back to the emotion.  If you think about how being in love feels, especially at the start of a relationship, it is almost childlike, foolish and impetuous – and this is how the image stayed.

Bronze statue of Eros sleeping
Bronze statue of Eros sleeping, Hellenistic period, 3rd–2nd century B.C., The Met Fifth Avenue 

Eros did go through a further cycle of identity assassination in the arts during the medieval, as myths where being adapted for Christian use, there was a shift the in moral ideals between cultures.  Eros/Cupid was then identified as a demon of fornication rather than a God by Theodulf Of Orleans, reputation was however restored during the Renaissance as poets and artists used the image as a representation of love.

Jean Gebser, developed the theory of consciousness, and that there are five structures of consciousness which have enabled the understanding of origins.  These structures consist of Archaic, Magical, Mythical, Mental and Integral.  Gebser believed that without exploration of each of these structures, despite our scientific understanding of the world now, we would be in a rational wasteland, as prior to this higher conscious understanding, without the magical/mythical narrative and artworks mankind could not have reached the conclusions within the integral.  Through this theory, Gebser explores art as being a new kind of consciousness.  It is a group identification method which leads to further exploration.  It doesn’t shun the methods from a previous structure, more grows and enhances the imagery used, thus developing storylines and characters within myths.

With all this in mind, it is very easy to see why art and myth have evolved together.  It is human nature to visualise and relay stories, one method developing the other, enabling the unconscious of the human mind into the group consciousness that we see in galleries today.  It is possible to argue that myths and religious experiences are elevated using art, giving the social humans depictions, which are agreed on, and enabling a unified feeling towards the stories which the Greek myths gave us.

Artemis, east frieze, Parthenon, Athens, c. 438-432 B.C. Marble, h: 100 cm. British Museum, London.

There is a point to be made here about the unconscious and the conscious.  When I read a book, I very easily visualise what the character in the book looks like, this usually brings disappoint when I see a movie adaptation, as I have unconsciously already assigned to the characters an identity.  Whereas if the book has pictures of the characters, or I have seen the film of the book prior to reading, I readily accept what that is what the character was visualised to look like by the author.  There is a point when the unconscious of an individual doesn’t fit the consciousness of a group, which is why it is even more important during the early stages of myths to create an identity through all visual medium available, or the group consciousness will diverge and split creating factions of stories which will fall by the wayside.  The eyes see only what the mind is prepared to comprehend (Robertson Davies – Tempest-Tost) If the mind is left for too long without the visualisation, it will create its own, leaving the individual disillusioned or disappointed when seeing the group.

The influences of art on the myth-making process are integral, as they unify and penetrate the culture.  It teaches the morals and ideals in an easy to understand form and enables the stories to travel, which is why Myths (not just Greek ones) are still prevalent among cultures across the world. I could not imagine a world where a myth from any culture would not have poetry, paintings or sculptures to bring that story to life.

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