Troy: Power of the image, triumph of the word

Troy: Power of the image, triumph of the word

In the beginning was the wind. The wind that precedes humanity and will survive us. The wind that brought the Achaeans and Danaans and other Greek warriors to the shore of Asia Minor to conquer Troy, the wind that obstructed their campaign until their lead king sacrificed a daughter to the cause. Without the wind turning there would have been no war, there would be no poem. Without the poem, the wind would be meaningless – eternal and all-powerful, but ephemeral, insignificant.

Without the word there would be – at the beginning of the exhibition – no image of Achilles falling in love with the Amazon queen Penthesilea the moment that he runs her through with his spear in battle, as the Athenian Exekias depicts them on a black-figure vase. Nor would there be the contemporary work by Anthony Caro imagining one of Troy’s gates, the figure of Priam and the death of Hector. The objects – whether works of art or architectural fragments, from the Bronze Age or today – are hung on the lace of the most ephemeral, most powerful of human achievements, the word.

Homer’s poetry is what links the world of the British Museum’s current major exhibition, “Troy: Myth and Reality.” It is a world not limited to the geography of the Iliad and the Odyssey, nor to the time of Homer and Virgil’s tragic heroes. Without Homer there would be no Virgil; there would be no framework of consciousness and behavior that shaped the ancient Greek world, that provided Rome’s founding myth, that served as a guide for noble behavior in the Christian era, up to our days. And the works and words combine to show the uninterrupted links between the awesome and the familiar that the poems inspire, the reality that they reflect, between the world that gave them birth and our own.

Without the narrative of the battles, the loves, the hatred and betrayals that seeded the imagination of every generation, the archaeological finds of the late 19th century at Troy would not have attracted greater attention than those of countless digs across the world. Without the poetic surge and superb narrative artistry, without the truth forged in the human psyche, these words would be “words with wings,” as Homer puts it – words dependent on the wind, meaningless, lost. But, despite the incessant interference of the gods in the action, Homer’s words are built of human flesh and blood, desire and jealousy, love and hate, hope and lamentation. They take life from the flame that burns in the human heart, they give shape to the fatal instant when the mist of passion blinds the lover, the warrior, the murderer.

For all their aspirations, Homer’s heroes are depicted as men are, not as they wish to be. With this profound sincerity, Homer presents the enemy – the Trojans – with the same virtues (sometimes, as in Hector’s case, with more) and the same vices of the Greeks. The Homeric ethos – help friends, harm enemies – is still valid today, despite the efforts of Christianity and the Enlightenment to instil a collective acceptance of the rule of law. Not only is it still valid, it provides the basis for the swelling tide of populist nationalism – because, very simply, it is at the nucleus of human behavior.

Homer, or the rhapsodes who shaped the Iliad and the Odyssey, has endured because he gave shape, color and depth to each of our innermost thoughts, experiences and emotions. Homer’s war is every war, as is confirmed by the words of soldiers of current wars, whose comments on leaving, fighting and returning, are displayed on posters at the exhibition (an inspired and fruitful decision by the curators). This is humankind’s eternal effort to deal with violence, with forces beyond its control. As Constantine Cavafy put it: “Our efforts are those of the lost; our efforts are those of the Trojans.” Odysseus is the human form of the fight for survival, for the return to the familiar, to the homeland, however much that may change in our absence. Odysseus’ homecoming, his killing of the suitors, his embrace with Penelope, signify a return to order; but time has passed, Athena is obliged to make the hero’s father, Laertes, young again. Argos, the faithful hound, dies.

The curators have assembled many major works from the British Museum’s own collections and from other museums. These include finds from Troy, papyri with fragments of Homeric poetry and works of art inspired by the epics, from every age since then, up to our own – from classical culture to Hollywood extravaganzas.

However great the works and objects might be, though, it is the word that triumphs: from fragments of the poems displayed on posters, to the recorded readings in ancient Greek and English, to the video of Syrian refugees reciting words of the enslaved Trojan Women as imagined by Euripides, to the words of modern-day soldiers.

In moments of silence, the sound of the wind carries across from the first gallery. Eternal, voiceless, as if still waiting for its poet.

“Troy: Myth and Reality” at the British Museum runs until March 3, 2020.

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