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Troy: myth and reality - British Museum

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Did Troy ever exist? Has the Trojan horse been the trick Greeks used to enter the city and did this war take place for the shake of the most beautiful woman?



The British Museum offers a special exhibition on ''Troy: Myth and Reality'' narrating step by step Homer's Greek epic poems, Iliad and Odyssey as well as Virgil's Latin national epic, Aeneid, which links the foundation of Rome to the fall of Troy. Heroes and Gods star in legends of love and conflict while archaeological evidence suggests the existence of Troy, turning parts of the myth into reality. The first section of the exhibition is dedicated in the ancient Troy: the Trojan War, the stories of Helen, Paris, Achilles, Hector and Odysseus.

At a wedding party, the goddess of discord throws a golden apple among the guests. It bears the inscription 'for the most beautiful' and three goddesses claim it. Zeus asks the Trojan prince Paris to act as judge. Each goddess offers Paris a bribe. He chooses Aphrodite, who promises the love of the world's most beautiful woman. She is Helen, married to Greek king Menelaus. Paris steals her away across the sea to Troy. The Greeks assemble a large fleet commanded by King Agamemnon [I]of Mycenae and lay siege to Troy for many years. Homer, Iliad, about 700 BC
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It is the tenth year of the war. Agamemnon and Achilles quarrel, with tragic consequences. Achilles, the greatest Greek hero, angrily refuses to fight because King Agamemnon has taken his captive Trojan woman, Briseis. The Trojans advance. In desperation, Achilles' comrade Patroclus takes Achilles' armour and goes into battle. Patroclus fights heroically but is killed by Trojan prince Hector. In a fury of grief, Achilles re-enters the fight and kills Hector. He desecrates Hector's corpse. The distraught Trojan king Priam visits the Greek camp to beg for his son's body. Moved by pity, Achilles' anger subsides. Homer, Iliad, about 700 BC
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The Greeks have won the war and yearn for home, but the gods have other plans. Angry at the Greeks' horrific deeds during the war, the gods punish their heroes. Some die, others reach Greece only after many years. The most adventurous journey is that of wily Odysseus, king of Ithaca. Waylaid by storms and shipwreck, sea-monsters and sorceresses, his ten-year odyssey takes him to the furthest reaches of the Mediterranean. He finally returns to Ithaca, where he finds his house taken over by suitors for his wife's hand. Odysseus kills them and is reunited with Penelope. Homer, Odyssey, about 700 BC


All these stories are part of controversial interpretations and perspectives. For instance, let's look at the case of Helen. It is a mystery if Helen fell in love with Paris and decided to willingly leave Sparta or was abducted by the Trojan prince. Others also claim that this was the result of Gods' influence on Helen and Paris while it is also suggested that Helen never actually went to Troy but rather a ''shadow'' was taken by Paris and thus a war was caused in vain. However, even for those who accept that Helen went to Troy it still remains questionable whether the war took place for Menelaus to take back his wife or for the Greeks to restore their pride and take advantage of Troy's strategic location, wealth and glory. Others believe that Zeus, king of the gods, planned a great war to reduce the earth's population…





The second part of the exhibition is focusing on archaeological research and discoveries that suggest the existence of Troy. The investigations have taken place over centuries but have we got enough evidence to claim that this city is part of history?

"There can remain no doubt whatever that this is the very city sung by Homer, that this is the very city destroyed by the Greeks, that this is the Ilium of eternal glory''. Heinrich Schliemann, 1875

Finally, the last section of the exhibition is offering modern perspectives and artistic inspirations of the Trojan War. From Shakespeare to the famous painter Peter Paul Rubens we discover the ways Homer's and Virgil's myths have inspired poets, painters and other artists around the world. Some embrace the legends drawing on Achilles' vengeance, Hector's dramatic death and Odysseus' nostos while others suggest an alternative portrayal of peace versus war and a critical perspective on the role of women in the ancient world.

''Women are often used by men. Men come to rescue you but they have their own agenda. Helen and Cassandra are beautiful and well-dressed, but they represent how women are often the pawns of men and suffer hugely in times of war. Like many women in these situations today, they have no say in their own fate. Taken advantage of by men, they are not part of the conversation. They have no voice and little power. Helen is not given any choices, while Cassandra speaks the truth but the gods make sure that no-one will believe her. Look beyond your first impressions of these paintings – the hardship behind the beauty, the suffering behind the mask of beautiful faces''. Written by members of Crisis, a national charity for homeless people, British Museum, based on ''Helen of Troy'' and ''Cassandra'' paintings by Evelyn De Morgan 1898.

Find out more about Troy, the myth of the Trojan War and its legacy in art and literature in the BP exhibition Troy: myth and reality from 21 November 2019 – 8 March 2020 (adults from 20£).

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When: Exhibition / 21 Nov 2019 - 8 Mar 2020
Where: The Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery
Cost: Adults – £20
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