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The Relationship Between Art and Myth

Updated on June 23, 2020

For my final paper I chose to trace the theme of betrayal throughout various cultures. I found my theme was the most easily shown in the art work that focused on Greek myths. One of the myths I am using in my final paper is the myth surrounding the Trojan War, Paris, and Helen. I found the theme of betrayal displayed in The Abduction of Helen created by Giuseppe Salviati. Giuseppe Salviati used pen and brown ink to create an image of Helen being taken from away from Sparta and her husband Menelaus by Paris and a group of unknown sailors. In the myth it is believed that Paris was promised Helen by Aphrodite when she awards her the title fairest of them all. From there it is believed that Paris travels to the court of Sparta where he stays as a guest of King Menelaus until he falls in love with Helen.

The Abduction of Helen shows Helen fighting against her captors, but in the myths it is unclear whether Helen went with Paris by choice or not. In one version of the myth Aphrodite makes Helen fall in love with Paris, in another Helen falls in love with Paris on her own, and in another Paris falls in love with Helen and takes her to Troy against her will. If Helen was abducted against her will by Paris as this piece of art depicts that in itself is a set of betrayals. Paris would have betrayed Helen’s trust, Menelaus’ goodwill, and Greek hospitality. In my final paper the betrayal I plan to focus on from this myth is the betrayal of hospitality. Hospitality was a very important part of Greek culture; it is what allowed people to be a guest is someone else’s home without worry about conflict and hostility no matter the home owner. The laws of hospitality in Greek culture were founded upon ambivalence; these laws impose order through an appeal to the sacred, make the unknown knowable, and replace conflict with reciprocal honor (Pitt-Rivers 513). The Abduction of Helen showcases Paris breaking the rules of hospitality by usurping the role of his host, King Menelaus. Paris usurps the role of his host by taking “what is not offered”, in this case Menelaus’ wife, Helen (Pitt-Rivers 515).

Works Cited

Pitt-Rivers, Julian. "The Law of Hospitality." HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory (2012): 501–517. Print.

Salviati, Giuseppe. The Abduction of Helen. Mid-16th Century. Pen and brown ink, brown wash,heightened with white (partly oxidized), over traces of black chalk, on light blue paper. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Online Collection, n.p.

Art as Insight to a Culture

Looking at the art produced by various cultures gives valuable insight as to what that culture valued, or even feared. The ancient Greeks made art a priority. In doing so, they captured and immortalized the values they held as a society. When scholars study the art of a culture, they can draw conclusions about how that society lived and what it valued. Many cultures shared values, and in turn the art of one culture may mimic that of another. For instance, the Greeks focused on depicting their gods and goddesses in their art, thus revealing their strong belief in how those deities represented man’s place in the universe. However, other cultures (even modern American culture) may also use the same content but in a different context. This may represent a resounding value or may indicate some other type of commentary. The Greeks were prolific in their artistic representations of the society, especially its gods and goddesses. Though many of the sculptures depicted gods, this did not detract in the slightest from their humanistic quality. The Greek deities existed for the benefit of man, so that in glorifying them he glorified himself. Certainly there was nothing mystical or otherworldly in the religious aspects of Greek art. Both architecture and sculpture embodied the ideals of balance, harmony, order, and moderation. Anarchy and excess were abhorrent to the minds of the Greek, but so was absolute repression. Consequently, their art exhibited qualities of simplicity and dignified restraint—free from decorative extravagance on the one hand and from restrictive conventions on the other (Whitley 17). Moreover, Greek art was an expression of the national life. Its purpose was not merely aesthetic but political: to symbolize the pride of the people in their city and to enhance their consciousness of unity. The Parthenon at Athens, for example, was the temple of Athena, the protecting goddess who presided over the corporate life of the state. In providing her with a beautiful shrine that she might frequently visit, the Athenians were giving evidence of their love for their city and their hope for its continuing welfare. The art of the Hellenes differed from that of nearly every people since their time in an interesting variety of ways. Like most of the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles, the art was universal. It included few portraits of personalities either in sculpture or in painting. The human beings depicted were generally types, not individuals.Again, Greek art differed from that of other cultures in its ethical purpose. It was not art for the sake of mere decoration or for the expression of the artist's individual philosophy, but a medium for the ennoblement of man. The art was supposed to exemplify qualities of living. Greek art may be contrasted with other cultures in the fact that it was not “naturalistic.” Although the utmost attention was given to the depiction of beautiful bodies, this had nothing to do with fidelity to nature (James and Strudwick 567). The Greek was not interested in interpreting nature for its own sake, but in expressing human ideals. Scholars can learn a lot about a culture in comparing as well as contrasting the subject of art within and between cultures. For instance, the art preserved by ancient Egyptian culture was quite different from that of the ancient Greeks. Scholars can also draw conclusions about what each culture valued and revered by categorizing and cataloguing the subject matter immortalized as well as the mediums artists chose to do so. In 2007, John Baines set out to categorize and explain many of the images used throughout Egyptian art, many of which originated in the mythology of Egypt. Students can use his model, outlined in the book Visual and Written Culture in Ancient Egypt, as a way of interpreting what a culture considers valuable. He asserts that the interpretation of the images collected by a culture cannot be deemed definitive, but rather representative. The images created and collected throughout a culture suggest various values and principles. These obviously change depending on the culture and who is interpreting the idea. For instance, an artist from the Renaissance of Europe and an artist from twentieth-century America might use the same myth for a subject, yet throughout their composition and content, the overall message might be quite different.

Works Cited

Baines, John. Visual and Written Culture in Ancient Egypt. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.
James, N., and Helen Strudwick. “The Earliest Prehistory of Cyprus/Greece Before History/Labyrinth Revisited... (Book).” Antiquity 76.292 (2002): 567. Academic Search Premier. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.
Whitley, James. The Archaeology of Ancient Greece. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.


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