2015

Myths + Heroes

Cincinnati Art Museum

Classroom Experience from the Cincinnati Art Museum

Myths + Heroes will introduce viewers to a variety of mythological stories and folklore from across the globe. We have provided a few facts about each object to get you started. We encourage you to look closely, listen intently and inquire often.

As you go through the exhibition, click on objects or captions to see them in higher detail.

Falcon-Headed God in Pose of "Soul of Pe"

The falcon-headed deity represents the soul of Pe Dep, the double mounds of the city of Buto in Northern Egypt. This represents the souls of the ancient pre-dynastic rulers of Lower (Northern) Egypt from whom the kings of Egypt were descended. The Soul of Pe is complemented by its counterpart in Upper (Southern) Egypt, the Soul of Nekhen, represented by a jackal-headed god. 

What does a raised fist represent today? Do you think there are any parallels to this ancient hand gesture?

Mithras Slaying the Bull

The myth of the Roman deity Mithras does not survive in its entirety in any written documents. Our only knowledge of this figure comes from reliefs like the one depicted above and mentions in other partial texts. Temples dedicated to Mithras were always underground and all featured a relief of Mithras killing the bull, known as the “tauroctony.” 

Why would killing a bull be seen as an important feat?

The Fisherman Unable to Hold the Giant Fish

The Gulistan of Sa'di, written in 1259 AD, is a collection of poems and stories intended as a source of wisdom. This story is from Chapter 3, Story 24:

“A weak fisherman caught a strong fish in his net and not being able to retain it the fish overcame him and pulled the net from his hand.

A boy went to bring water from the torrent.

The torrent came and took the boy away.

The net brought every time a fish.

This time the fish went and carried off the net.

The other fishermen were sorry and blamed him for not being able to retain such a fish which had fallen into his net. He replied: 'O brothers, what can be done? My day was not lucky but the fish had yet one remaining.' Moral: A fisherman cannot catch a fish in the Tigris without a day of luck and a fish cannot die on dry ground without the decree of fate.”

Is there another modern proverb or story you can think of involving fish? How do the lessons in these stories compare?

Strozzi: David with the Head of Goliath

From the Bible's Book of Samuel, the story is told as the Israelites are battling the Philistines, victory to be determined by a single one-on-one combat. While the vulnerable Israelites are scared, David accepts the challenge with only his slingshots and stones from a nearby brook. The great (in strength and height) Philistine warrior, Goliath, is taken down by a single shot to his forehead by David, who subsequently beheads the giant. The story is said to assert David's righteous place as the true king of Israel, simultaneously defeating the godlessness of the Philistines. 

What symbols do you see in this painting?

In Roman mythology, Cupid is the god of desire, affection and attraction. He is the son of Venus (goddess of love), and Mars (god of war), pictured here. Mars is identified by his helmet, sword and shield, symbolic of his warrior status. Cupid, often seen as a symbol of love, is distinguished by his chubby physique, wings and the heart grasped in his hand, soon to be pierced by his arrow. The arrow was seen as Cupid's source of power, for it was the instrument by which unsuspecting individuals were pierced, literally struck with desire.

What iconographic elements would be included in a portrait of you?

Guercino: Mars with Cupid
Boucher: Mercury Entrusting the Infant Bacchus to the Nymphs

LEFT: This mythological story originates in Ovid's book of poetry, “Metamorphoses”. Jupiter (king of the gods), bore a child (Bacchus) with his mistress, the princess Semele. Understandably, Jupiter's wife, Juno, went into a rage. To keep his infant son safe, Jupiter sent Mercury (messenger of the gods), to deliver Bacchus to the nymphs for safekeeping. Bacchus later becomes known as the Greek god of wine, ritual madness and indulgence.

What do you see that may allude to Bacchus' future role?

RIGHT: The adult Bacchus became known in Roman culture as the god of wine, indulgence, intoxication and ecstasy (the Greek Dionysus). He is often represented by grape leaves, wine goblets and figs. Followers of Bacchus were labeled “bacchants,” a group whose feverish dancing to loud music was intended to transport them from their earthly bodies to an other-worldly state in which they were able to communicate directly with Bacchus, glimpsing at what could one day be their lavish afterlife.

How does the body language of these figures relate to the cult of Bacchus?

Clodion: Bacchant and Bacchante with a Cupid
Read: The Harp of Erin

Irish mythology attributes the deity Canola with the invention of the harp. Following an argument with her lover, Canola retreated to the beach where she became entranced by music being played nearby and fell asleep. When she awoke in the morning, she discovered the sound had come from the wind passing through the remnants of a whale carcass. She designed the harp to emulate this enchanting sound, an instrument which would eventually become a symbol of Ireland and its people. 

In this allegorical painting, Ireland is symbolized by “Erin,” a beautiful young woman with shamrocks in her hair, who is chained to the unyielding rock that is England, longing for her freedom. 

Challenge: do some quick searches online for Irish folk songs on the subject of freedom (bonus points if a harp is used).

Aladdin Vase
Aladdin detail

At the time of the Aladdin Vase's creation, Maria Longworth Nichols Storer's longtime rival, Mary Louise McLaughlin had just created her largest vase to-date, called the “Ali Baba” vase, inspired by the story “Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp” from the Arabic book “One Thousand and One Nights,” composed during the Islamic Golden Age and translated into English in the 18th century (often translated into English as “Arabian Nights”). 

Not one to be outdone, Storer responded with her own large-scale vase, named after another story from the book, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”. Both stories feature fantastical tales of adventure, revenge, magic, secrets and treasure.

The Queen of Sheba is mentioned in several cultural texts and is referred to by many different names: Sheba (Hebrew); Bilkis (Arabic); Makeda (Ethiopian); Oloye Bilikisu Sungbo (Nigerian).

These varied accounts describe her interaction with King Solomon of Israel, who was believed to be a man of great wisdom. Sheba was inspired by Solomon's wisdom and traveled to Israel from her African kingdom to meet with him (the two are pictured seated beside one another here).

While her legacy is disputed, Ethiopians folklore holds that the Queen returned to Ethiopia expecting King Solomon's child. This son, Menelik, was the first in a long, unbroken line of Ethiopian monarchs.

J&L Lobmeyr: Queen of Sheba Vase
Vase detail
Credits: Story

Gulistan of Sa'di Translation — http://classics.mit.edu/sadi/gulistan.4.iii.html
Author — Nicole Kroger, Web + Digital Media Manager, Cincinnati Art Museum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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