The Greeks, and the Romans after them, established cults to honor their heroes, and the exhibition includes votive objects found at ceremonial sites and in worshippers’ tombs. Only aristocratic, well-to-do citizens could afford to keep horses, and the most breath-stopping object in the show is a sleek, streamlined 8th-century bronze horse with a herringboned mane. The scariest object is a sculpture of one of Odysseus’s sailors, under the curse of the sorceress Kirke, changing into a pig. The swinish head and hackles smooth out, with unnerving transformative fluidity, into the finer shape of the human form that’s being lost.
Heroes also showcases the Sphinx, the Centaurs, the Sirens, and other familiar motifs, but I don’t want to leave the impression that the exhibition is a stuffy lesson in Greek culture. It wakens us to life as it was once experienced and imagined and so re-wakens us to life. There are marvelous things that surprise and delight, like the statuette of a child training to be a boxer. Its meaning deepens when we remember how honored and enriched athletes were, not to speak of the sport of boxing in antiquity, when fighters wrapped their forearms and fists with extremely thick strips of cowhide that, depending on the punch, could dent an opponent’s skull, rip off an ear, or righteously rearrange a nose. Then there’s this: Greeks had their sense of tragedy, of course, but they also celebrated and respected the obscene and the comic. One vase hilariously burlesques the sack of Troy. It depicts the mighty Ajax, about to rape Kassandra, carrying, along with his sword, a mighty erection, while Menelaus in the same scene, grabbing Helen, dangles a sadder-looking item. A very different, gorgeous painting shows Menelaus so hot in pursuit of Helen that he’s dropped his sword and looks a little gaga while the great beauty’s gown flies open to reveal a hint of breast and a lot of leg.
The most mysterious image in this fine exhibition is a vase painting of Achilles and Ajax at leisure, playing a board game of some kind. Their armor lies close at hand, as if to suggest both the proximity and moral distance between warfare and play. But the mystery is this: the scene was a great favorite among the artists of ancient Greece — it appears on over 150 vases — and yet in the Homeric literature this placid scene is mentioned nowhere.
Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece
San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park
Through Sunday, September 5. For additional information, call 619-232-7931.