Making their Manitoba debut at the Winnipeg Art Gallery are the darling deities of Olympus: The Greco-Roman Collections of Berlin. On display for a whole year, this impressive collection of statues, vases, jewelry, and more dates from the 5th century BC to the 2nd century AD (in other words, super old). The stars of the show are the 12 Olympian gods and goddesses who are part of an impressive family tree. Get to know these mythological personalities before you meet them in the flesh – or rather in the marble, bronze, and terracotta.
(Greek names are first, followed by Roman names).
This impressive Titan overthrew his father (Kronos/Saturn) to rise to absolute power, ruling from Mount Olympus. This king of gods and mortals controlled thunder, lightening, rain, and wind and bore an impressive brood of children. The first piece you’ll see as you enter the exhibition is a marble head of Zeus dating from the 2nd century AD, likely from Italy. Zeus can be found many times throughout the exhibit, including a bronze statuette dating from 480 BC.
Demeter, sister of Zeus, Hera and Poseidon, was the goddess of grain, the giver of good gifts, and the bringer of seasons including winter, which reflected her grief after losing her daughter to Hades, the god of the underworld. A sarcophagus fragment shows Demeter holding a torch and riding a wagon carried by flying serpents – according to the legend, she searched for her daughter day and night.
3. Hera (Juno)
Zeus’s sister, wife, and queen, Hera was a mother to both gods and mortals. She was the protector of marriage, women, and childbirth. A beautiful head of Hera can be seen in the exhibit’s Gods of Olympus gallery, a rotunda that echoes the one found at the Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, the museum that loaned these pieces to the WAG.
Brother of Zeus and Hera, Poseidon was god of the seas and earthquakes, and he was also associated with bulls and horses. He carried a trident, which he wasn’t afraid to use – just ask Athena about their mythical battle for control of the city of Athens. See a piece of a pinax – or a religious offering – that features Poseidon.
Often shown wearing a helmet or crown and carrying a shield and spear, Athena was the goddess of war, civilization, wisdom, and law and justice. She was Zeus’s favourite child and myths say she was born fully grown and armed from his head. Among the many pieces that feature Athena is this head with a Corinthian type helmet pushed back on her head which comes from Rome in the 2nd century AD.
6. Ares (Mars)
This god of war enjoyed conflict and violence, but he was not clever in battle like Athena. Aphrodite fell for his good looks and brute strength, but he was hated by other gods for his savage character. He was on the losing end of the Trojan War, sparked by the Judgement of Paris, a scene depicted several times throughout the exhibit, including on a vivid painting on the exterior of a terracotta cup.
Born from his father Zeus’s thigh, Dionysos was raised by mountain nymphs. He discovered how to make wine from grapes and was, unsurprisingly, god of wine, vegetation, pleasure, theatre, and festivity. A terracotta vessel shows a fun-loving Dionysos riding a panther while holding a drinking cup. He is portrayed both as youthful and as an older man with a beard.
The god of fire, Hephaestos was exiled from Mount Olympus by his mother, Hera, because of his unsightly appearance at birth. Zeus arranged his marriage to Aphrodite to prevent fighting among the male gods. He worked underground forging metal into armour, and was responsible for crafting most of the gods’ equipment, including Hermes’s winged helmet and sandals, Aphrodite’s girdle, as well as the sun god Helios’s chariot and Eros’s (Cupid’s) bow and arrows.
Known for his knowledge, beauty, and perfection, this much loved figure was the god of music, poetry, archery, prophecy, and healing. Apollo’s life is illustrated with red figures on the black background of a terracotta water jar from 450 BC. His head is also found perched on a herm, a squared stone pillar, which usually featured the god Hermes (hence its name).
10. Artemis (Diana)
The goddess of hunting, the wilderness, and young animals, Artemis was a free spirit. She protected the fruit of the earth as well as women in childbirth. The exhibit includes a miniature bronze figure of this goddess reaching for an arrow in a quiver, which was at one time on her back. The Romans would often have had small-scale statues in their homes so the goddess would protect them.
This goddess of beauty, procreation, and gardens excited passion in the hearts of men and gods alike. She was born out of the foam in the sea. The exhibit shows Aphrodite in her more common poses – dressing, washing, or wringing out her hair.
12. Hermes (Mercury)
This messenger of the gods moved easily between the world of man and the world of gods. He was the god of travel, trade, and hospitality. Manitoba’s own Golden Boy is modelled after this god, and you’re likely to see the resemblances with the pieces in the exhibit – a youthful figure wearing a winged cap and carrying a messenger’s staff and a purse for money.
Bonus! Herakles (Hercules) & Triton (Triton)
While these are not Olympian gods, both have extraordinary pieces found in the collection.
Herakles, both a hero and a god, was known for his strength, courage, and ingenuity. His far-ranging adventures saw him conquer dangerous forces, but he was still seen as a playful figure who liked to relax. He is depicted on many painted vessels and there is bronze statuette of Herakles from the 2nd century BC.
Triton was Poseidon’s son and the messenger of the sea. He carried a trident like his father as well as conch shell which he blew like a trumpet to rise or calm the waves. He is often represented as a merman – with the body of a man and the tail of a fish.
Now that you know more about the gods of Olympus, take the quiz to find out which god you are before you head over to the WAG to check out this extraordinary exhibit.