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Exhibition Explores Need for Superhuman and Mortal Heroes in Society
"Medallion with bust of Alexander the Great", ca. 218–235 CE. Gold, diameter: 6 7/8 in. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore 59.1

NASHVILLE, TN.- Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece, an exhibition exploring the human need for heroes through the arts of one of the oldest and most influential cultures in history, will open in the Frist Center’s Upper-Level Galleries January 29, 2010, and remain on view through April 25, 2010.

More than 100 works, including statues, reliefs, vases, bronzes and jewelry made between the sixth and first centuries BCE and drawn from prestigious U.S. and European museums illustrate the lives of Greek heroes including their tasks, adversaries, challenges, failures and private moments. Heroes are sometimes portrayed as superhuman protagonists while at other times as average people who rise above the ordinary. Included are both mythological heroes, among them Herakles, Achilles, Odysseus and Helen, and mortal heroes, including warriors, athletes and rulers.

The exhibition comes to the Frist Center from the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece demonstrates how the term “hero” applied to a broad array of figures for the ancient Greeks. The lives—and deaths—of individual Greek heroes and heroines could be quite different from one another, but all were believed to have supernatural powers they could use for good or evil after their deaths. This belief inspired Greeks to worship them through rituals and offerings.

In contemporary society, the word “hero” means something quite different than it did in ancient times. Altruism, self-sacrifice, disregard for danger and a willingness to sacrifice oneself for a great cause are hallmarks of the modern day hero. These traits might be possessed by ancient heroes in their mortal lives; however, they were understood as heroic only in terms of their death—as people who continued to exist and served as objects of worship.

“Whether in ancient Greece or in modern times, heroes help define and shape the values and goals of a society,” said Frist Center Executive Director Susan H. Edwards, Ph.D. “With this exhibition, we are able to explore the roles heroes have played in creating society’s norms and influencing behavior. This exhibition allows us to go back to the seminal notion of hero to help understand how our current heroes relate to heroes in ancient times. In antiquity, for example, heroes were celebrated with offerings, rituals and monuments. Today, our own contemporary heroes are acknowledged and many times created by the mass media, a kind of latter-day monument.

“There is wonderful interactivity with this exhibition and the programs planned over the course of this exhibition will invite people to examine and discuss our own heroes, from superhuman to the everyday,” she concluded.

Exhibition Overview
Heroes is divided into three sections. The first, Mythological Heroes, presents the lifecycles of four major heroes: Achilles, Herakles, Odysseus and Helen. Each had distinctive characteristics and unique tales. Greek artists humanized these figures through depictions of their parentage, birth, education, marriages, exploits and deaths. Their triumphs and setbacks are shown, revealing both their glory and their vulnerabilities. The four epic heroes do not share a common mold and illustrate how different the qualities of a hero could be.

The second section, Worship of Heroes, explores the worship of heroes as practiced in communities throughout ancient Greece. After their deaths, heroes were thought to live on with powers they could use for good or evil. Thus, they needed to be venerated in order to be appeased. Hero worship was highly ritualized, and many of the images in this section provide visual illustration of how heroes were honored through the offerings left and the banquets that were held.

Here, a site of hero worship will be reproduced using special installations. A large-scale photo mural of Messene will allow visitors to experience the sites and monuments where devotees placed offerings and said prayers in honor of a hero or heroine, enlisting their support or expressing gratitude for help received.

The final section, Emulation: Heroes as Role Models, considers heroes and heroines as role models for the ancient Greeks, in particular warriors, athletes, women and rulers. While an ancient Greek could not become a hero until death, heroes and heroines provided a means by which they could measure their achievements and a way of distinguishing heroic from non-heroic behavior. Like Achilles, a Greek soldier knew he had to risk his life for honor and glory. The strength and prowess of Herakles served as a paradigm for Greek athletes in training and competition. Odysseus exemplifies a hero who used his intellect, not his strength, to achieve success. Finally, Helen, though an ambiguous heroine, was revered for her remarkable beauty and divine birth. She was emulated in particular by brides depicted in wedding scenes.

With the rise of Alexander the Great during the Hellenistic period, we see leaders appropriating Greek heroes for their own veneration and propaganda. Alexander likened himself to Achilles and Herakles, and various types of heroic representations were developed for Hellenistic rulers based on existing models from the Archaic and Classical periods.

Many other heroes, only some of whom are known to us through art and literary sources, were venerated in ancient Greece. Prominent poets, physicians and others whose names are now lost were worshiped as heroes.

Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece will be accompanied by an adult gallery guide and an MP3 iPod audio tour available to rent at Visitor Services or download at no charge from the Frist Center Web site, The exhibition is also accompanied by a catalog featuring essays by leading scholars in the field. The book draws on recent archaeological, literary and art historical research to explore such issues as gender, cult and iconography, as well as overlooked aspects of familiar and unfamiliar heroes.

The Visitor Experience
At the beginning of the exhibition, computers will be set up and visitors will be able to take a “personality quiz” to discover which hero or monster they are most like. Icons on labels will help visitors follow their hero throughout the exhibition.

After an examination of the Greek concept of a hero, visitors can then reflect on who we make heroes and how we define heroism within the context of our own society. In the galleries, there will be several areas where visitors can make a personal connection to the exhibition by responding to questions. In the hero worship section, visitors will be asked what they would ask of their hero. Then, at the end of the exhibition, visitors can write who their modern day heroes are.

Frist Center | Heroes | Ancient Greece | Susan H. Edwards |

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