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Collecting guide: The classical myths behind ancient treasures

Antiquities specialist Alexandra Olsman recounts the legends of the sky god who lost an eye, the unborn child who was sewn into a thigh, and more — illustrated with works from the Antiquities auction on 25 October 2016 in New York

  • 1
  • Helen and Paris

An attic red-figured squat lekythos. Attributed to the Circle of The Meidias Painter. 5 516 in (13.4 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $32,500

An attic red-figured squat lekythos. Attributed to the Circle of The Meidias Painter. 5 5/16 in (13.4 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $32,500

On this squat lekythos, an ancient Greek vessel for storing oil, Eros, the winged god of desire, interacts with a young human couple, presumably Paris and Helen, the mythological lovers whose illicit liaison sparked the Trojan War.

According to legend, the Olympian gods had been invited to attend the wedding celebration of Peleus, King of Pithia, to the sea goddess Thetis. The one exception was Eris, the goddess of discord. In retribution for this slight, Eris inscribed a golden apple with the words ‘To the fairest’ and rolled the apple into the ceremony, knowing that more than one goddess would want the title. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and Hera, the goddess of women and the wife of Zeus, king of the gods, each claimed the apple as rightfully hers.

To settle the dispute, Zeus chose the mortal Paris, the son of the Trojan king Priam, to make the judgement. Although each goddess tried to bribe Paris with favours, he chose Aphrodite, who promised him the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world. Unfortunately, the most beautiful woman, Helen, was already married. The 12-year Trojan War erupted after Paris abducted Helen and her husband, King Menelaus of Sparta, attempted to reclaim her. 

  • 2
  • Horus

An Egyptian bronze falcon. Late period to Ptolemaic Period, 664-30 BC. 4⅞ in (12.4 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $75,000

An Egyptian bronze falcon. Late period to Ptolemaic Period, 664-30 BC. 4⅞ in (12.4 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $75,000

An Egyptian faience Wadjet Eye finger ring. New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, 1550-1295 BC. 1116 in (1.7 cm) wide. This lot was offered in Storied Treasures Antiquities from the Toledo Museum of Art, 19-26 October 2016, Online

An Egyptian faience Wadjet Eye finger ring. New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, 1550-1295 BC. 11/16 in (1.7 cm) wide. This lot was offered in Storied Treasures: Antiquities from the Toledo Museum of Art, 19-26 October 2016, Online

This Egyptian bronze falcon and faience ring relate to a significant foundation myth. The ancient Egyptians believed that their Pharaoh was the incarnation of the sky god Horus, son of Osiris and Isis, the king and queen of the gods.

When Horus’s uncle Seth killed Osiris in a fit of jealousy, Horus, often represented as a falcon, avenged his father’s death by battling for the throne. Although Horus initially lost one of his eyes in the fight, the eye was later restored, and subsequently became a protective symbol for the ancient Egyptians. 

  • 3
  • Sekhmet

An Egyptian bronze Sekhmet. Third Intermediate Period, c.  1069-664. 10¾ in (27.3 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $247,500

An Egyptian bronze Sekhmet. Third Intermediate Period, c. 1069-664. 10¾ in (27.3 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $247,500

The above representation of Sekhmet, the lion-headed Egyptian goddess of pestilence and war — and daughter of the sun god Ra — speaks to the power of women in the Egyptian pantheon.

Concerned about conspirators plotting against him, Ra sent his daughters Hathor and Sekhmet to Earth in order to destroy any mortal who might challenge his reign. Sekhmet took readily to the task, nearly exterminating the human race. To stem the rampage of his murderous daughter, Ra poured out beer that he had dyed red, which Sekhmet then mistook for blood. Sekhmet became so drunk that she ended her killing spree and returned peacefully to the heavens. 

  • 4
  • Dionysus

A Roman marble Bacchus. C. 2nd century AD. 23¼ in (59 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York

A Roman marble Bacchus. C. 2nd century AD. 23¼ in (59 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York

Dionysus, a particularly popular Olympian ­­— perhaps because his domain included spirited activities and objects such as wine, theatre, fertility and ritual madness — was the offspring of an affair between Zeus, king of the gods, and the mortal Semele, a princess of Thebes. Tricked by Zeus’s jealous wife Hera into requesting to gaze upon Zeus in all of his glory, Semele was overwhelmed at the sight and subsequently perished.

However, Zeus chose to save his unborn son Dionysus by sewing him into his thigh. Dionysus has since been referred to as ‘born of two mothers’ and, perhaps because of this unconventional birth, often assumes androgynous features, such as those seen in the Roman marble of Bacchus (the name given to the god by the Romans) above.

An Attic red-figured column krater. Attributed to The Marlay Painter, c.  450 B.C. 14½ in (36.9 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $100,000

An Attic red-figured column krater. Attributed to The Marlay Painter, c. 450 B.C. 14½ in (36.9 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $100,000

A Roman marble head of Bacchus. Circa 2nd century AD. 4⅜ in (11.1 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York

A Roman marble head of Bacchus. Circa 2nd century AD. 4⅜ in (11.1 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York

Symbols associated with Dionysus include grape vines, leaves and berries, ivy, and serpents or bulls, which were a nod to his status as a fertility god.

A Greek marble head of a ruler. Hellenistic Period, c.  3rd-2nd century. 15 916 in (39.5 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $68,750

A Greek marble head of a ruler. Hellenistic Period, c. 3rd-2nd century. 15 9/16 in (39.5 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $68,750

  • 5
  • Athena

Athena, goddess of wisdom, warfare and domestic crafts, was the patron deity of the city-state of Athens, and the daughter of Zeus and the titaness Metis. The Roman marble below originates from a sculptural group that would have also included the satyr Marsyas.  

A Roman marble Athena. C. 1st century AD. 54 in (137 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York

A Roman marble Athena. C. 1st century AD. 54 in (137 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York

According to myth, Athena invented the aulos, or double flute, and had held a concert for other Olympians to showcase her new creation. However, when the gods mocked how her cheeks bulged as she played, she threw the instrument away in anger, cursing whoever should pick it up next. That unlucky fate fell on the satyr Marsyas, whom Athena then struck for daring to use the cursed instrument.  

Pliny the Elder and Pausanias attribute the marble connecting the two figures to the sculptor Myron, giving historical weight to the piece by referencing the statue group in their writings. 

  • 6
  • Asclepius

Asclepius, son of Apollo by the mortal Coronis, has come to symbolise the medicinal arts. While pregnant with Apollo’s son, Coronis had an affair with the human Ischys. On learning of the liaison, Apollo sent his twin sister Artemis, goddess of the hunt, to kill Coronis. Apollo, subsequently riddled with guilt at the prospective death of his unborn son, then saved the child by cutting open Coronis’s womb as she burned on a funeral pyre, essentially performing the first ‘caesarean section’.  

A Roman marble head of Asclepius. C. late 1st-early 2nd century AD. 8⅜ in (21.3 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $30,000

A Roman marble head of Asclepius. C. late 1st-early 2nd century AD. 8⅜ in (21.3 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $30,000

Apollo then entrusted the care of his young son to the centaur Chiron, who trained Asclepius in the medical arts. Almost always depicted as a middle-aged man with a thick head of hair and full, curling beard, Asclepius typically holds the caduceus, a rod wrapped with a serpent, which has become the universal symbol of physicians and medicine. 

  • 7
  • Venus

Of all the Olympic gods, Aphrodite, the goddess of love who set the cultural standard for femininity, is perhaps the most frequently represented in ancient art. Known as Venus to the Romans, she emerged from the sea foam produced when Cronus, father of Zeus, castrated his own father, Uranus, and threw his severed genitals into the water. 

A Roman marble head of Venus. C. 1st century AD. 8 in (20.3 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $87,500

A Roman marble head of Venus. C. 1st century AD. 8 in (20.3 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $87,500

Her beauty became a source of tension among the gods, all of whom wanted to take her as his wife. To calm matters, Zeus decided that Aphrodite would marry Hephaestus, the crippled smith god. Hephaestus treasured his wife and fashioned for her a magic girdle to ensure her fidelity. However, she proved unfaithful and had multiple affairs with both mortals and gods.

The Roman marble head of Venus above models an idealised image of the goddess, while the Roman terracotta Venus below offers the goddess at her toilette, sporting the hairstyle popularised by the Roman empress Julia Domna. 

A Roman terracotta Venus. C. late 2nd century AD. 20 in (50.8 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $10,000

A Roman terracotta Venus. C. late 2nd century AD. 20 in (50.8 cm) high. This lot was offered in Antiquities on 25 October 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $10,000