Troy: Myth and Reality @ the British Museum

What Troy means to me

For me the Iliad will always be the greatest story ever told. The Christian story is hugely more rich and complicated and influential and subtle, but the tale of Troy is, for me, more true.

It is, for me, a description and investigation and celebration and commiseration of masculinity. It starts with two men fighting over a woman (Agamemnon and Achilles fall out over who should possess the slave girl Briseis, captured in a small Greek raid on an outlying Trojan temple), it climaxes in two tragic, avoidable deaths (Patroclus of the Greeks, Hector of the Trojans), and leads up to the most moving scene in all literature, when King Priam of Troy sneaks by night into the Greek camp and confronts Achilles in his tent, falling to his knees and weepingly imploring the mightiest warrior of the age to give him back the battered body of his dead son (Hector). And instead of slaughtering him on the spot and bringing the war to a swift end, Achilles also falls to his knees and both men weep unappeasable anguish at the loss of their beloved ones.

From a thousand years BC right up to the present day, how many parents and lovers have wept unassuageable tears of grief and anguish over the pointless deaths of their loved ones in pointless wars. That agony has been repeated over and over again hundreds of millions of times.

For me Achilles’ great scream of anguish when he learns that his lover Patroclus is dead and that it was he, Achilles, who sent him to his death, his huge superhuman cry of pain which rings out over the battlefield and brings the fighting to a terrified halt, is the cry of all men against a cruel, uncaring universe, the agony of realising we are our own worst enemies, the tormented howl of someone who has understood human nature to its bitterest depths.

The Iliad is truer than the Christian story because there is no redemption and no comfort anywhere. The human condition is endless conflict and the relentless death of the people we love most. Men are compelled to fight, they don’t know why, and then bewail the devastation they have caused and the lives they have pointlessly destroyed. Nothing changes and no-one can be saved. Syria. Yemen. Libya. Myanmar. Congo.

Achilles kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea, Athenian amphora (530 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition

1. Long gallery of ancient artifacts

This epic blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum brings together over 300 objects to give a comprehensive overview of the myths and legends and long legacy surrounding the siege of Troy. It is, like most recent BM exhibitions, beautifully staged, with the wall of the long gallery painted black and evocatively decorated with archaic Greek patterns, while half way along the gallery the wooden ribs of enormous horse arch up over the visitor, obviously referencing the famous wooden horse.

Although it’s divided into lots of sections, Troy is essentially in two halves. The first, long narrow gallery displays umpteen red-figure vases, statues, sarcophagi, carved reliefs and so on from the era of the Athenian empire (5th century BC) onwards including and later Roman efforts, depicting numerous episodes from the long series of myths and legends connected with the epic story.

Roman sarcophagus lid including detail of the Trojan horse (late 2nd century AD) Photograph © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The curators increase the size of their subject matter by including the legends surrounding Odysseus and his ten-year-long journey back from the war to be reunited with his brave long-suffering wife Penelope. Homer’s Odyssey is very different in tone and subject matter from the Iliad. It is more full of fairy stories and legends about the Sirens or Calypso or the one-eyed Cyclops or Scylla and Charybdis.

And they also devote some sections to Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, which follows the adventures of Aeneas, a minor character in the Iliad, who is promoted by Virgil to become a semi-Odysseus in his own right, fleeing burning Troy to wander the Mediterranean, have a long love affair with Dido Queen of Carthage, before being compelled to fulfil his duty which is to sail to Italy and found the precursor of Rome.

Including Odysseus, Virgil and all their related stories in the exhibition gives the curators more subject matter but, in my purist eyes, weakens the impact of the Iliad material, the material solely about the war, which focuses on battle, conflict, male anger and destruction only.

There are informative sections about the Greek gods, the geography of the Homeric world, how the Romans co-opted the Greek legends for their own purposes, if you didn’t already know.

And then the first gallery comes to an end and you turn the corner and come back on yourself along a narrow gallery running parallel to the first one.

2. Archaeology and Schliemann

At this turning point is a section devoted to the excavations carried out on the coast of modern-day Turkey by a series of Victorian archaeologists, which climaxed in the German excavator Heinrich Schliemann who loudly claimed to have uncovered the true site of Troy in 1873.

Display of objects found by Schliemann at Troy along with books describing his excavations. Photo by the author

3. Troy in European art

And when you progress beyond Schliemann and turn the corner you discover that the second long corridor is – rather surprisingly – an art gallery.

If the first half of the exhibition shows how the legends of Troy were depicted in ancient Greek art and sculpture, this second gallery shows how the same legends were depicted by European artists from the Middle Ages onwards.

I enjoyed this second half more, partly because it was so unexpected. So, for example, there’s a section devoted to European literature on Troy which contains some marvellous medieval illuminated books. We see a copy of John Lydgate’s Troy Book (1420), learn that the first book printed in England by William Caxton was a translation of a French account of Troy. There are first editions of Chapman’s complete translation of Homer (1616), Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid (1697) and Pope’s translation of The Iliad (1715-20).

A page of a 1485 manuscript of Virgil’s works showing the wooden horse being taken into Troy, and Aeneas carrying his father on his back

But most of the space in the gallery is devoted to paintings, drawings and a handful of sculptures, of which the standout example is this masterpiece of sensuality by Filippo Albacini, a portrait of the wounded Achilles (apparently, the gilded arrow in the heel of this sculpture has been restored especially for this exhibition).

The Wounded Achilles (1825) by Filippo Albacini. Photograph © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth

But the main impression is of a long, narrow gallery space hung with lots of paintings and drawings and prints.

As well as surprise, another reason for enjoying this part of the exhibition more was that it was far less crowded: I arrived fifteen minutes after opening time but already the first, more archaeological half of the exhibition was packed with crowds of people shuffling very slowly past each red-figure vase and fragment of stone relief – and because the exhibit labels were at knee height almost all of them were completely unreadable, concealed by people packed as tight as commuters on a tube train.

By contrast, for the hour or more that I was there, the second half, the long gallery of paintings, stayed almost empty, with only a dozen or so people drifting through it – which meant that you could enjoy the paintings (or prints or drawings) and read the wall labels, at your leisure. Works on display include:

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

It’s amazing to learn that this is the first full-scale exhibition about Troy ever held in the UK. Among other treasures it features, at the very end, the gold jewelry Schliemann found buried deep in the ruins of the city he excavated on the Turkish coast and which he declared to the world must be the jewelry of Helen herself, a preposterous claim he sought to back up by getting his wife to pose for photos wearing them.

Sophia Schliemann wearing the ‘Jewels of Helen’ excavated by her husband, Heinrich Schliemann, in Hisarlik (photograph taken c. 1874)

Modern art interpretations

Right at the start of the show visitors are surprised by two big artifacts which are not at all historic, a vast painting, Vengeance of Achilles (1962) by American artist Cy Twombly and an assemblage of forty or so objects by British sculptor Anthony Caro which he titled The Trojan War.

Dominating the section about medieval manuscripts of Troy, rather jarringly some might feel, is a video screen showing an adaptation of Euripides’ play The Trojan Women acted by Syrian refugee women, whose wailing voices can be heard echoing across the second half of the exhibition.

And the show ends with a spectacular wall-sized creation of fluorescent tubes radiating out from a central point and named The Shield of Achilles by British artist Spencer Finch.

The Shield of Achilles by Spencer Finch (2019)

My point being that this is a very wide-ranging idea of what an exhibition about Troy should look and feel like, spilling out from the narrow fields of archaeology and ancient artifacts to encompass scores of works of European art, and even – as indicated here – up-to-the-minute contemporary art.

Feminist interpretations

The people who wrote the press release have just discovered that there are women (yes, women!) in this 3,000-year-old story, and are breathlessly excited to share this new discovery with us:

The cause of the Trojan War was a woman, Helen who was taken to Troy by Paris, This exhibition presents a chance to re-examine Helen, not just as a beautiful victim or a feared seductress, but as her own woman.

Artist Eleanor Antin (b. 1935) explores history and its characters as a way to examine issues in the present. In 2007 Antin created the photographic series Helen’s Odyssey. Here, Helen of Troy is allowed to speak for herself in a series of imagined scenes from her life. This exhibition will feature Judgment of Paris (after Rubens) – Dark Helen from this series, where Helen is pictured looking unhappy to be used as a bribe, prompting visitors to re-examine the representations of Helen that have gone before.

Judgement of Paris (after Reubens) – Dark/Light Helen by Eleanor Antin (2007)

And the wall label introducing the section on ‘Women of the Trojan War’ shares their discovery that:

Helen and other women play central roles in the story of Troy.

Helen is a pawn in a divine quarrel. Iphigeneia is sacrificed for a fair wind to Troy. Cassandra and the other surviving Trojan women are enslaved when Troy falls. Queen Clytemnestra acts fearlessly in taking revenge on Agamemnon, but pays for it with her life.

Unusual in having a happier ending, Helen has fascinated artists through the ages. Many have attempted to capture her irresistible beauty, while questioning whether she is an innocent victim or knowing seductress.

It’s no surprise that the curators disapprove of the whole idea of the Judgement of Paris, the first ever beauty parade. As the introduction to the feminist section laconically points out:

Even the powerful goddesses are subject to male judgement.

Yes, but you could also point out that the goddesses murder and doom men for their sport. But that central element of the story doesn’t fit the feminist women-are-always-victims paradigm and so is glossed over in preference for yet another condemnation of the male gaze. If only all men were blinded like Oedipus, what a better place the world would be for feminist academics 🙂

BP

Meanwhile, the exhibition is sponsored by BP, one of the world’s biggest producers and refiners of fossil fuels, the burning of which is propelling the earth and all its life forms towards a global warming disaster.

To me it is typical and symptomatic that a handful of fine art paintings of an ancient Greek myth get feminist curators and artists hot and bothered enough to criticise them and parody them – but destroying the planet and exterminating all the life forms on it… they’re happy to go along with that. After all, the profits from poisoning the planet pay their wages and sponsor their exhibitions.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

The Flies by Jean-Paul Sartre (1943)

Sartre had been interned in a German prisoner of war camp (Stalag 12D) immediately after the fall of France, in the summer of 1940. There he wrote and staged a play (with a surprisingly Christian theme, set on Christmas Eve and titled Bariona, or the son of thunder).

After nine months he was released in April 1941 and returned to his job in Paris, teaching philosophy while also writing fiction and essays, but he had caught the theatre bug. More precisely, he had seen how theatre could dramatise a plight shared by the author and audience. However, no play which even remotely criticised the German occupation could get past the censors, so he had to look for a subject which would be officially acceptable, but still provide a vehicle for his sentiments.

Historical subjects were safe, the classics even more so. Sartre settled on the ancient Greek legend of Orestes, the centre of a cycle of stories which had been dealt with in plays by the famous ancient Greek playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

The original myth

The Trojan prince Paris is asked to judge which of the three great goddesses is most beautiful. Hera (goddess of power) promises him kingdoms and empire, Athena (goddess of wisdom) promises him wisdom and Aphrodite (goddess of beauty) offers him the most beautiful woman in the world.

He gives the award to Aphrodite who then helps him undertake a friendly tour of the Greek kingdoms. In In Sparta he is entertained by the city’s king, Menelaus, whose wife, Helen, just happens to be the most beautiful woman in the world. That night Paris, with Aphrodite’s divine aid, steals Helen down to the ship and he and his comrades sail back to Troy.

Next morning Menelaus is outraged and contacts his brother, Agamemnon, chief among Greek kings. Agamemnon calls for an alliance of all the Greeks to sail 1,000 ships to Troy and besiege it till the Trojans return Helen.

The entire fleet is assembled and ready to sail but there is no wind. A soothsayer tells Agamemnon he must sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, to please the gods and so – shockingly – Agamemnon does, a wind arises and the fleet sails to Troy, which they besiege for ten long years.

The Greeks eventually win the war due to Odysseus’s clever ruse of the Trojan Horse and Agamemnon returns to Mycenae. But his wife, Clytemnestra has never forgiven the murder of her daughter and so, along with the lover she has taken in Agamemnon’s absence – Aegistheus – she murders Agamemnon.

Before he left for the war, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra had had three children. Iphigenia was, as we saw, sacrificed. Electra has stayed with her mother. But their son, Orestes, by now a young man, was not present in Mycenae for the murder of his father. When Orestes does return some years later, he avenges his father by killing his mother and Aegistheus. He is then pursued by the Furies, who hound all evil-doers.

In the last of the trilogy of plays on the subject by Aeschylus, the goddess Athena intervenes between Orestes and the Furies to institute the first ever trial, in which Orestes is spared. It is a fascinating text in which the playwright uses the story to examine and defend the social structures of his day.

Sartre’s play

The outline of the plot is the same. Orestes turns up in the city ruled by Aegistheus and Clytemnestra 15 years to the day after Agamemnon’s murder. He quickly bumps into his sister, Electra, who is fed up with being forced to skivvy for the raddled and haunted queen. After initial hesitations Orestes proceeds to kill Aegistheus and Clytemnestra, then flees with Electra to seek sanctuary in the temple of Apollo.

There are two key differences: the city has been plagued by an infestation of flies ever since the murder; and Aegistheus has instituted a religious festival, the Day of the Dead, in which the town’s dead are meant to rise from their graves and haunt the living for 24 hours. This encourages the living to fall on their knees and acknowledge all their crimes and sins. Act two takes place at the mouth of the cave where these dead ghosts appear, in a ceremony overseen by king Aegistheus in his pomp, to which a reluctant Electra has to be dragged.

That’s the action, but the play actually consists of a lot of dialogue and discussion between the characters, thus:

  • Zeus king of the gods is a leading character (unlike the ancient versions) who introduces himself as ‘Demetrios’ to both Orestes and Aegistheus, before dropping his disguise and speaking openly about the nature of kingship and rule.
  • Orestes’ slave is also his tutor, meaning the pair can be left alone to have philosophical dialogues, allowing Orestes to speak his thoughts out loud – the same function as Horatio to the prince in Hamlet.
  • Electra is initially reluctant to acknowledge Orestes as her brother, then becomes keen to kill the king and queen, then suffers fierce remorse, ageing overnight.
  • In the final and third act the Furies appear and speak, as in the original plays, explaining their role and the punishments they have in store for the errant children.

Issues

There’s a lot of words about murder, killing, justice, revenge, retribution and so on, which could keep moralists talking for days.

But the central ‘existentialist’ message seems relatively straightforward. Orestes ‘develops’, ‘evolves’, ‘changes’ from a hesitant and curious visitor to his home town, to a man reluctant (in conversation with Zeus or Electra) to intervene, into his final position of a free man who Strikes For Justice.

In a pivotal scene between Zeus and Aegistheus, the god explains what they both know, that the great secret of kingship is that men are free but are frightened of their freedom. This is just as well as he and Aegistheus both like Order. It explains why Aegistheus has instituted the utterly bogus Day of the Dead – it helps weight people down with their guilt, it makes them look backward, it makes them feel in thrall to their past actions and incapable of breaking free.

Zeus also offers another vision of unfree human nature to Orestes when he paints himself as the god of Nature and Good. Orestes defies him, in a sequence of speeches which, I think, we can be confident are the Author’s Message:

Neither slave nor master. I am my freedom.

Suddenly, out of the blue, freedom crashed down on me and swept me off my feet. Nature sprang back, my youth went with the wind, and I knew myself alone, utterly alone in the midst of this well-meaning universe of yours. I was like a man who’s lost his shadow. And there was nothing left in heaven, no right or wrong, nor anyone to give me orders.

Zeus tempts him: come back to me, believe in me, I will give you peace and forgetfulness. But Orestes is having none of it.

Outside nature, against nature, without excuse, beyond remedy, except what remedy I find within myself. But I shall not return under your law; I am doomed to have no other law but mine. Nor shall I come back to nature, the nature you found good; in it are a thousand beaten paths all leading up to you – but I must blaze my trail. For I, Zeus, am a man, and every man must find out his own way. (p.119)

That’s the existentialist message: man is hopelessly, irredeemably, unavoidably free. He has no excuses but bears full responsibility for all his actions. Full acceptance of  this crushing weight is the only authenticity.

Zeus says, ‘tut tut I won’t give up without a fight,’ and exits. Electra is distraught at the plight her brother has thrown her into, and runs after Zeus begging his forgiveness i.e. she gives in to religious belief.

The slave enters to tell Orestes that the mob is at the door baying for his blood. Orestes heroically declares that he murdered Clytemnestra and Aegistheus to set them free, to abolish silly superstitions like the Day of the Dead which are meant only to keep them in their place. Orestes confronts the mob and says he will willingly, consciously bear the responsibility and the guilt of the deaths and take away the punishment, the ghosts and the flies. And so Orestes exits pursued by the Furies.

That’s the end, so we never find out what the reaction of the puzzled populace is.

You can see how, not far at all beneath the superficial classical storyline, is the narrative of a man who freely and fully accepts the responsibility for committing murder in order to free his people.

On a philosophical level, it is about a man who rejects all the consolations of false beliefs and ‘bad faith’ in order to act out his freedom.

And, on a political level, about a man who is a Resistance fighter prepared to accept the guilt of murder in order to free his people from the plague of flies i.e. the German occupation.

The diagrammatic nature of Sartre’s intent explains his changes to the traditional story, the most obvious of which is the downplaying of Clytemnestra’s role; in the myths she is the prime mover for the murder of Agamemnon and it is her murder – the terrible crime of matricide – which triggers the advent of the Furies to torment Orestes. But Sartre has no interest in the ‘crime’ of matricide which carries with it a huge freight of basic emotional, let alone Freudian, overtones.

He is more interested in political philosophy and so Aegistheus – a shadowy figure in the myths – is much more prominent in this play: as the figure of the (Nazi) tyrant, as the figure of the man imposing a spurious superstition on the people (the Day of the Dead), as the king Zeus debates the arts of kingship with, and then as the representative of all the repressive forces in the play (and occupied France) which Orestes must slay.

Thus Orestes kills Aegistheus onstage and it takes several blows with a sword during which they continue to have a philosophical dialogue; whereas Clytemnestra is slain off-stage: we only hear her piercing screams while Electra gives us a running commentary on her own feelings.

I’m no feminist but Sartre’s play is much more masculine that the original. In the Aeschylus plays, Clytemnestra, the Furies and the goddess Athena all play key roles in a text which explores femininity, law and society. Two and a half thousand years later, for Sartre, justice and freedom are essentially men’s talk.

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra [having just murdered Agamemnon] (1882) by John Collier. Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London


Credit

Les Mouches was first performed in Paris in 1943. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published in Britain in 1946. All references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

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