Not too long ago, I took a Mythology class through HarvardX, the online University-wide platform. It was a fantastic tour de force of the major Greek works of antiquity: Homer, Hesiod, Sappho, Euripides and many more, who introduced me to the world of ancient Greek epic and lyric poetry.
While reading the Odyssey and the Iliad, our teacher constantly reminded us that “ritual is neat, myth is messy”. This phrase didn’t make much sense to me, at least not in the beginning – why would Professor Nagy need to emphasize the messiness of myth? Wasn’t it already obvious by the amount of decapitated heads and severed genitals rolling around, the incestuous relationships made public, and the full depth and breadth of human and Godly emotion on display?
Looking back, it turns out he had good reasons for being so insistent. Today I’d like to start by discussing one of them, perhaps the least academic: when studying Greek Mythology we quickly come across a fantastic selection of messy, bloody tales. However, these tales are accompanied by a selection of rather blasé artistic representations that don’t seem to match the intensity of the stories – a rather strange phenomenon, for the power of image is so essential to the works of our psyche.
There are several tentative explanations for this artistic mismatch. First of all is the passing of time: most of these tales were written between the eight and the fourth centuries BCE. What little archaeological and historical evidence remains from that period in time must be evaluated and re interpreted by scientists and scholars alike. Secondly, our exposure to ancient Greek art is highly mediated – that is, we have to make do with architectural ruins, rests of ancient vases, marble statues and perhaps the occasional bronze. Using these fragmented evidences as our springboard, we must reconstruct and complete a world of imagery in our heads.
For me, the process of matching myth and art in my mind can be particularly difficult. There’s something so pure, so pristine in a pale marble statue that feels almost ethereal and abstract – almost modern, if you will. How to reconcile the white, weathered stone of a dying Achilles with the strength and raw messiness of this Myth on the page?
A possible answer to this question comes from the work of German archaeologist and polychromy expert Vinzenz Brinkmann, who has taken on the task of painstakingly reconstructing the original colors of the ancient world. What seems to us an abstract piece of white marble is actually the result of centuries of weather and erosion at work: Greek and Roman art pieces were lavishly painted in vibrant, organic dyes that have disintegrated with the passing of time, leaving us exposed to only the inert white core that laid underneath.
To see ancient Greek statues restored to their original splendor can be quite a shock: bright greens, bold blues and shiny yellow tones bring back the original energy that these mythological scenes were originally portraying. Armors are once again golden, hair locks are brown, and blood is a disturbingly deep, deep red.
In our modern secular world we might be reluctant to accept the newly-found explicitness and goriness of ancient art. Perhaps it’s good to remember that the Greek word for marble (marmoreos) also means shining, and an earlier Greek word for statue (agalma) meant delight as well. It seems that Myth was always bound to have a delightfully messy streak.
Elisa Markhoff is a journalist, author and speaker from Uruguay who has lived and worked in Europe and the US for over 20 years. Her work as a foreign correspondent has appeared in several international media outlets, including radio and TV.