Five Myths That Have Inspired Art Through the Ages

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Self-Portrait as Achilles, 2015Andrea Mary Marshall. Courtesy of Andrea Mary Marshall

A new book pinpoints the ancient stories and classical characters that continue to capture the imaginations of artists

For over three thousand years, Greek and Roman mythology has given us a distinct cast of heroes, monsters, villains, gods and goddesses who have shaped popular culture. Flying Too Close to the Sun, a new book published by Phaidon, looks at how artists both old and new have interpreted these myths. Despite their fantastic nature, classical myths continue to capture our imaginations because the themes they explore are universal and timeless; love, heroism, ambition, betrayal and family are the foundations of storytelling as we know it. There are few happy endings in mythology, and yet its stories endure because they lend themselves so well to allegory. Whether it’s the boy who fell in love with his own reflection or the god who gave us fire, here are five myths that have inspired art, from the Renaissance to now.

1. Achilles

Achilles, said to be the greatest of the Greek heroes, is the protagonist of Homer’s epic, the Iliad. After his mother bathed him in the River Styx as a baby, his heel, which did not touch the water, was the only part of his body that remained mortal. Towards the end of the Trojan War, Achilles dies from an arrow to that very spot –the origin of the proverbial ‘Achilles heel’.

In her Goddess series, New York artist Andrea Mary Marshall uses photography, large-scale drawings and sculpture to explore elements of mythology from a feminist perspective. She casts herself as Achilles in one self-portrait, sitting naked with her back to the camera holding an arrow in her ankle. Marshall has referred to her self-portraits as alter egos. “I’m exploring the parts of myself that women tend to suppress,” she said in a 2013 interview.

2. Narcissus

The myth of Narcissus has filtered through art, literature, philosophy and psychology, even giving us the term ‘narcissism’. In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a young hunter known for his exceptional beauty. When drinking from a pool of water, he caught his reflection and fell in love with it. Unable to tear himself away from his own image, he died there and a flower – the springtime narcissus – grew in his place.

Caravaggio’s painting is by far the most famous depiction, and presents the boy staring at his double in the dark, glassy water, as if looking at a picture. The painter’s dramatic lighting is offset by his stark realism, with Narcissus’ forearms forming a frame around his face above and his reflection below. Lucien Freud, Salvador Dalí and Mat Collishaw have all reimagined the self-obsessed youth in different ways.

3. Medea

Ancient stories tend to have multiple versions. Euripides’ retelling of Medea, who appears in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, describes how the princess of Colchis was betrayed by her lover and killed their children in revenge. Now the most famous part of the Greek tragedy, this chilling turn of events was Euripides’ twist on earlier versions, where Medea protects her children.

In Austrian artist Ursula Mayer’s 2013 film work, Medea, queer icon J. D. Samson plays the roles of both Jason and Medea. Inspired by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 film of the myth, Mayer presents an experimental play of light, sound and colour, with Samson appearing alternately in a suit and in a long robe, jewellery and heavy make-up. As it explores the conflict between Medea as both a mother and a murderer, the film also questions binary definitions of male and female, gay and straight, and past and present.

4. Daedalus and Icarus

The story of Daedalus and his son, Icarus, is one of most widely known Greek myths. After finding themselves imprisoned on the island of Crete, Daedalus made wings from feathers and wax as a means of escape. Exhilarated by his newfound freedom, Icarus ignored his father’s warnings, flying higher and higher until the sun's heat melted the wax and he fell to his death. Icarus has since become a cautionary tale of the dangers of ambition and recklessness.

Frederic Leighton’s painting from 1869 is a good example of the way artists in the nineteenth century used mythology to code and express queer desire. The Victorian painter presents Icarus as triumphant and god-like as Daedalus fixes a pair of wings to his back. Here, classicism meets camp excess. Just over 100 years later, in a more rugged interpretation, American conceptual artist Chris Burden lay naked between two flaming ‘wings’ of sheet glass, splashed with petrol, for his 1973 performance, Icarus.

5. Prometheus

Prometheus famously stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to man. In some versions of the myth, the Titan also made the first man from clay and gave him the skill of metalwork. As punishment for stealing fire, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock for eternity, where an eagle would return daily to eat his liver, only for it to grow back each night. 

Roger Hiorns’ Untitled (2005-2010) suggests a minimal staging of the creation myth in the modern world. Part of the Turner Prize-nominated artist’s Youth series, the work consists of a metal bench, a small fire and a live sequence of simple actions carried out by a young man without clothes. While it doesn’t directly re-enact the story of Prometheus, it alludes to it. The combination of nudity and fire suggests a return to something primitive, while the bench – the kind you might see on a train platform – speaks of the present day.

Flying Too Close to the Sun is out May 18, 2018, published by Phaidon.