CANVASES, CARATS AND CURIOSITIES

Going Greek: 10 of Mythology’s Most Inspiring Stories

Fascinated with Greek mythology sculptures and their history? Read on to learn about the stories behind the sculptures that have shaped the art history world for centuries.

 
Mythology has always gone hand in hand with humans and art. When Ancient Greece was met with confusing and often heartbreaking events like famine, pandemics and war, it found comfort in attributing these undefinable events as works of the gods. Ancient Greek myths full of intrigue, passion and heartbreak have truly stood the test of time. Serving as one of the most resilient sources of both ancient and modern artistic inspiration, myths remain essential tenants of our world and art history. Join us on this journey through some of the western world’s most timeless tales and their masterful artistic renderings.
 

1. Three Graces

As we uncover the world of Ancient Greek art, we will begin with the story of three powerful women who have impacted western civilization more than perhaps any other famous trio. Sometimes called the Charities, the Three Graces are three daughters of Zeus, each of whom are able to bestow a particular gift on humanity.
 
Euphrosyne gives mirth, or laughter and joy, Aglaia gives elegance and refinement and last but not least, Thalia gives youth and beauty. Their role was to attend to the other Olympians, particularly during feasts and dances by fixing their attire or ornamentations. They also danced with Apollo and the Muses.
 

Much like a modern aficionado for history and ancient civilizations, the Greeks could not imagine their impressive society without joy, elegance and youth. For centuries, artists have depicted the Three Graces in Greek sculpture, painting and through song.

 
Greek statue of The Three Graces by Antonio Frilli. Circa 1900. M.S. Rau
 
Greek statue of The Three Graces by Antonio Frilli. Circa 1900. M.S. Rau
 
The Three Graces Annular Clock. Circa 1880. M.S. Rau
 
The Three Graces Annular Clock. Circa 1880. M.S. Rau
 

2. Apollo

Although he’s no Zeus, some connoisseurs of Greek culture and mythology consider Apollo paramount as he is both important and incredibly complex. As Zeus' favorite son, Apollo had direct access to the mind of Zeus and was willing to reveal this knowledge to humans. Apollo, as many humans might with this power, used this knowledge in both evil and benevolent ways.

 

Apollo is the Greek god of archery, music and dance, truth and prophecy, healing and diseases, the Sun and light, poetry, and more.

 

Truly a god of the people, he delivered people from epidemics, yet he also brought about deadly plagues with his arrows.

 
Marble Bust of Apollo. Circa 1675. M.S. Rau
 
Marble Bust of Apollo. Circa 1675. M.S. Rau
 

3. Sirens

The sirens of Greek mythology first appeared in Homer's Odyssey, where Homer presented them as a dangerous temptation for Homer's men. Homer did not provide any physical descriptions, and their visual appearance was left to the readers' imagination. Throughout the centuries, sirens have been presented in many different forms, but they all have the same goal: tempt men with beautiful voices in order to destroy them.

 

Here are just a few of the many forms sirens have taken: human-headed birds, human-headed fish and mermaids. Endlessly enrapturing, sirens continue to entrance modern viewers with their beauty, power and mystery. Disney’s popular live action production of The Little Mermaid serves as a relevant example of the world’s seemingly endless fascination with these ancient world figures.

 
The Poet and the Siren by Émmanuel Hannaux. Circa 1903. M.S. Rau
 
The Poet and the Siren by Émmanuel Hannaux. Circa 1903. M.S. Rau
 
Dore Bronze Siren Figure. Circa 1900. M.S. Rau
 
Dore Bronze Siren Figure. Circa 1900. M.S. Rau
 

4. Clio

Perhaps the most studious, and some would argue most important, of the Muses is Clio, the Greek goddess of memory. Often represented with an open parchment scroll, a book or a set of tablets, Clio is beloved by academic institutions and scholars alike.

 

As the proclaimer, glorifier and celebrator of history, great deeds and accomplishments in the ancient world, Clio has been the chosen representation of accomplishments of the intellectual life. Famous historian Henry Charles Lee chose to have her bust atop his tomb, and she is the preeminent statue in the National Statutory Hall in Washington, D.C.

 
Clio by Studio of Romanelli. Circa early 20th century. M.S. Rau
 
Clio by Studio of Romanelli. Circa early 20th century. M.S. Rau
 

5. Hercules and the Lernaen Hydra

Although Greeks were studious and pensive, they were also known for their strength in combat. There’s no greater demonstration of Hercules’ might than his battle with the famed Lernean Hydra. From the quagmires near a region near Greece called Lerna, the hydra, a monstrous serpent with nine heads, viciously attacked villagers with its venom. Even for a warrior as great as Hercules, destroying this beast was no small feat.

 

Each time Hercules bashed one of the hydra's heads, the head would grow back. With the help of Lolaus, Hercules' friend, the men were able to burn the monster and destroy the beast. Unlike many statues showing Hercules in action, this statue represents a rare moment of pause after his incredible victory.

 
Flemish Hercules and the Lernaen Hydra Bronze. Circa early 17th century. M.S. Rau
 
Flemish Hercules and the Lernaen Hydra Bronze. Circa early 17th century. M.S. Rau 
 

6. Amphitrite

Amphitrite was far more than just Poseidon’s wife and Greek goddess of the sea; throughout literature and art, she is the singular personification of the sea. Her Roman name was Salacia, which means "the salty one." Not far from the common colloquial use of the term "salty," Amphitrite had a temper and knew when to use it.
 

Before they were married, Poseidon saw her dancing and fell in love with her. As many kings did, he assumed that he could just carry her off, but she escaped his clutches and swam away to the far island of Atlas. Later convinced to marry him, Amphitrite ruled the sea with a strong arm. Operating with a similar mindset as the sirens, she bred sea monsters and her great waves often put sailors in danger.

 
Lalique Amphytrite Perfume Bottle. Circa 1920. M.S. Rau
 
Lalique Amphytrite Perfume Bottle. Circa 1920. M.S. Rau
 
Bronze of Amphitrite after Michel Anguier. Circa 17th century. M.S. Rau
 
Bronze of Amphitrite after Michel Anguier. Circa 17th century. M.S. Rau
 

7. Proserpine

Another example of an unwanted marriage, unfortunately a common motif in Ancient mythology, is seen in this bronze statue showing the pivotal moment that Pluto, the Greek god of the underworld, abducted Proserpine, the beautiful daughter of Ceres. Consumed with grief, her mother Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, scorched the earth, stopping the growth of grain and fruit.
 
Proserpine’s ultimate journey back and forth from the underworld and outworld was an allegory for the changing seasons; when Proseperine is with her mother, the earth warms and provides bountiful harvests. Upon her annual return to the underworld, however, the earth once again becomes cold and barren.
 
This story of a mother’s mourning for her lost child was the basis of one of the mystery religions in Greece and so popular the Romans imported it, along with priestesses and some virgins, from Greece to Italy for political purposes. They made the Greek priestesses sign oaths of loyalty to the Roman government, and they changed the Greek goddesses Persephone and Demeter to Proserpine and Ceres. This tale, where the flowering of Spring represents the rejoicing of a mother whose child is returned to her, is compelling no matter the name it is given.
 
Bronze of Pluto Abducting Proserpine after François Girardon. Circa 1657. M.S. Rau
 
Bronze of Pluto Abducting Proserpine after François Girardon. Circa 1657. M.S. Rau
 

8. Centaurs

According to myth, people living on the island of Thessalians were the first in Greece to ride horses. A traveler, not used to the sight of a horse-rider, believed that a man on a horse was, in fact, a single creature they dubbed “centaur.” From there, the myth of the centaur half man and half horse appeared and took the world by storm.
 

As it was a centaur who ultimately killed Greece’s strongest warrior, Hercules, centaurs stand as some of the most powerful and interesting figures in mythology. Even in modern times, particular historians and scholars are creatively inspired by the myth of the centaurs. Anatomy researcher Dr. H.C. Reinhard V. Putz, published a farcical paper called Anatomy of the Centaur in 2005 at the Annals of Improbable Research wherein he used mythological mentions and images from ancient art to reconstruct the anatomy of centaurs as if they were real.

 
Italian Marble Furietti Centaurs. Circa 17th century. M.S. Rau
 
Italian Marble Furietti Centaurs. Circa 17th century. M.S. Rau
 

9. Cupid

We cannot forget the small cherub who has caused so much love and trouble throughout history. With his cherubic curls and youthful form often shown with roses and arrows, Cupid is often depicted as a vision of innocence as he dreams. Although often rendered as a small and soft child, there was great power behind Cupid’s gaze. According to myth, any person, even a deity, who was shot by Cupid's arrow was filled with uncontrollable desire.
 
This exceptional bronze statue by French sculptor Gaston Leroux brings to life history’s favorite charming winged musician. From the individual feathers in the putti's wings to the foliage-covered rock upon which he rests the cupid figure exhibits a high level of dynamism, detail and artistry. The violin adds a particular charm and completes the playful attitude.
 
Ange Jouant du Violin by Gaston Leroux. Circa 1900. M.S. Rau
 
Ange Jouant du Violin by Gaston Leroux. Circa 1900. M.S. Rau
 

10. Laocoön

Last but not least, the story of Laocoön is one of the most famous in all of literature. As told by the poet Virgil, after an unsuccessful ten-year siege on the city of Troy, the Greeks craftily left a giant wooden horse outside the gates of the city with a small contingency hidden inside. A cunning Greek soldier named Sinon was left to offer an explanation of this unusual gift. Laocoön, the Trojan high priest who questioned Sinon, was not persuaded and proclaimed the warning, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts!”
 
The Goddess Minerva, eager to protect her Greeks, immediately sent two sea serpents to kill Laocoön and his twin sons before they could warn more Trojans of this deception. Michelangelo declared the marble sculpture of Laocoön and His Sons, circa 35 BC, as the “greatest piece of art in the world.” This great Greek sculpture has captured the imaginations of both artists and connoisseurs since it was excavated in 1506.
 
Laocoön and His Sons. Circa 1590. M.S. Rau
 

 

Laocoön and His Sons. Circa 1590. M.S. Rau

 

 
Laocoön and His Sons Bronze Sculpture. Circa 1850. M.S. Rau.
 
Laocoön and His Sons Bronze Sculpture. Circa 1850. M.S. Rau.
 
 

Still want to learn more? From famous sculptors to different types of bronze, M.S. Rau has everything you need to learn about antique sculpture and art. Browse our collection of mythology-inspired sculptures, paintings, and more today.

 
 

Sources:

Harrison, Jane Ellen (1882). Myths of the Odyssey in Art and Literature. London: Rivingtons. pp. 169–170, Plate 47a.

Joseph Fontenrose, "Apollo and Sol in the Latin poets of the first century BC", Transactions of the American Philological Association 30 (1939).

Larson, Jennifer (2007). Ancient Greek Cults. New York, NY: Routledge.

Morford, Mark P. O.; Lenardon, Robert J. (1971). Classical Mythology. New York: David McKay Company. .

Price, Fred W. (1994). The Planet Observer's Handbook. New York City, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Ruck, Carl; Staples, Danny (1994). The World of Classical Myth.

William Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, Taylor and Walton, 1846.

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