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Heracles and Atlas As Prime Male Specimens: Analytical Essay

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Introduction :

Mythology is used as a base of education to allow an understanding of natural phenomena. Cartwright in 2012 suggested there is a clear synergy with the myth and religion of the time, morals are woven into these teachings of heroes as well as the harsh reality of punishment for those who are disobedient (Cartwright, 2012). Through mythological teachings used to educate and control we are then able to understand the thought processes of the era. This allows a greater understanding of the laws and societal boundaries of the time.

Focussing on Atlas, Heracles and Aphrodite statues the dissertation will make a comparison between the genders using Greek mythology, pop culture and art. Other mythological gender stereotypes, Zeus, Hephaestus and Pygmalion will be discussed in order to outline the mythological challenges, some which remain relevant today. Mythological teachings will be used to identify current injustices looking at how art addresses these contemporary concerns in a unique and maverick way by ensuring the issues are clear and culturally relevant. Reference will be given to artistic examples, particularly pop culture and will consider how certain groups within artistic society challenge existing boundaries. Using current visual media as a framework, the seventeen stages of the monomyth will be reviewed to ascertain whether the individuation of the hero journey described in this model is still applied to current the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

Greek antiquity and sculpture are woven into the rich tapestry that has created a footing for art in the modern world. The profound impact of such tapestry has helped two contemporary issues which will be discussed further in this dissertation, male mental health and discrimination of women within the art world. The creed of man in the western world has not changed over time, however if the mindset during Greek time remained the same, we would certainty still be embroiled in a predominantly sexiest culture (Cahill, 2018). Heracles, an Olympian emulates the masculine ‘Gold Standard’ with a dominant, well defined physique demonstrating power and invincibility. Looking at modern day Olympians to identify if the labours of man have changed from the physical to the emotional and if so to what extent and whether art tackles these modern issues.

Recent statistics on male and female mental health disorders and suicide rates will be investigated to outline the complexity of the issue and how art plays a part in addressing these issues.

It is known that the representation of females artists in the art world is limited, historically art was for men by men. Men dominated art in society and perhaps still do; this links back to Ancient Greece and the enforced dominance of the male patriarchy at the exclusion of women. This has led to self-segregation, for example the A.I.R Gallery an art institution for women.

A modern artistic example of representing mental health issues through art can be seen in the Project 84 which visualised male suicide rates in a very unique and hard hitting way. Comparisons will be made between this project and the Greek classical statues on demeanour and physical presence. The facelessness of the modern statues and the installations impact on the viewer and the wider audience.

Traditionally women were excluded, this dissertation will review whether there has been any improvements in this position and what methods were implemented to gain recognition in a predominantly male environment. By focussing on the Guerrilla Girls, a female art collective of 30 years who use a variety of techniques to raise awareness of gender inequality we will look at the techniques demonstrated in their art to deliver the message.

These modern artistic examples of Project 84 and the Guerrilla Girls will be considered with reference to the triangular interplay between Greek mythology, pop culture and art. The interpretive nature of Greek mythology considers the similarity between historic morals and those that are the foundation of our current society. With current thinking on mythology we can deconstruct contemporary issues and investigate the impact art has in the modern era.

Chapter 1 – Atlas

This dissertation is inspired by Greek mythology and the interconnection of the key figures. This interconnection can make it difficult to focus on the background of one specific God or Goddess. However, Atlas the Titan, the god of endurance and astronomy stands out as a dominant male figure in Greek mythology. (Blake & Flammarion, 2009). He leads the titans into battle for control of the heavens against the gods of Olympus namely Zeus, the father of Heracles and many more. This is referred to as Titanomachy.

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Following the loss of the Titans to Zeus and his forces, many Titans were condemned to Tartarus but Atlas was condemned to stand on the western edge of Gaia (the earth) and tasked with carrying Uranus (the sky) (Taft & Croce, 2014). The purpose was to separate Uranus and Gaia so they could not conceive any more children to challenge Zeus’s supremacy. This idea is further agreed with when Bremmer, J. and Erskine, A. in 2010 state that “Kronos castrates Ouranos with a sickle and swallows his own children to stay in power, only to be dethroned ultimately by Zeus, who then rules supreme as “the most powerful of the gods” (Bremmer & Erskine, 2010, p. 36) Mythology favours those who persevere and endure, however there is a certain irony to this as Atlas is the Titan of astronomy and endurance but is condemned for his sins.

Classical male sculptures give an insight into how the male form was idolised by men during the ancient Greek era. Their physical presence emulated athletes and gods; within this dissertation these are represented by Atlas (Titan) and Heracles (Demi God).These male forms were sought after and idolised by the Olympians of the time. Meehan,D.2017 notes male dominance was also embedded in the teachings of the era. Women were made to be subservient in the presence of man and this tainted treatment of women stems from men’s belief that women are deceitful, manipulative and lusting.

The nude form in Roman culture has similarities to those embedded in Greek Culture. For example the Demi God Hercules is a Roman representation of Heracles, they are recognised by the same nemean lion. Hercules simulates strength and the numerous adventures of Heracles. Greeks were recognised as the innovators and the Romans would apply Greek methods. Greeks would use marble to create the sculptures, Romans had concrete and other materials available but preferred to work in marble. Even with advancements in the materials. Romans followed the classic and traditional methods of the Greeks. Although the sculptures represented the male form in the nude, there are differences between the two cultures. It is worth noting in the context of training that the word gymnasium comes from the Greek ‘gymnos’, meaning ‘naked’ (Miller, 2004). In Greek culture only adult males were eligible to enter the gymnasium and would be naked while training to compete. The naked form was admired by the Greeks, almost as a combatant’s uniform for stepping into the arena – a coat of righteousness. However in Roman culture this was considered a public disgrace.

Scholars of the time were in disagreement about whether the first cervical vertebrae should be named Atlas or Heracles. It was believed that Heracles was also able to support the weight of the world, however it was named after Atlas. Laiho et al 2005 speculated that this was incorrect based on the idea that Hercules in his 11th labour chose to support the weight of the world in place of Atlas, who stole the golden apples of Hesperides. On his return Atlas refused to retake the burden, Hercules asked Atlas to hold it for an moment so that he could readjust. In this instant, the weight shifted from Hercules to Atlas, Hercules then ran with the apples (Grafton & Most, 2010). Atlas was condemned to do this and had no choice, a penalty for defying Zeus.

Both Heracles and Atlas are portrayed as prime male specimens, with a dominant, sculptured and well defined physique. Even in modern times art is derived from this perception of the male. It can be seen in pop culture and directly referenced in film and the visual arts. This is supported by Sanday P 1981 p.16 who states in order to understand female power and male dominance you need to clarify at the outset the interconnection between supernatural power and sex-role plans.

The Farnese Atlas

The National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy houses the great Titan Atlas. Due to the immense burden of the celestial spheres Atlas is seen in a crouched position giving insight into the Roman and Greek astrological understandings (Moore, 2005). Atlas had autonomy for astronomy, constellations and endurance. The sculpture does not represent Hercules in a heroic form on the celestial sphere, he is one of the 41 within the sphere of 48 classical Greek constellations of Ptolemy (Ridpath, 1988, p. 13). He battles with the giants Albion and Bergion, both sons of Poseidon however their strength dominated. Hercules was forced to kneel in prayer to his father Zeus to seek assistance; following Zeus’s divine intervention Hercules persevered and overcame the giants. This demonstrates that although Hercules represents a heroic figure in Greek culture, he is a demi- god and technically still a mortal. It shows his character is fallible as he is forced to admit defeat and feelings of shame. Atlas at this point uses this weakness to his advantage aiming to cause humiliation on the surface of the celestial sphere. Rieu 1945 recognises this theory is supported by Homer in his ‘Odyssey’.

This statue is not just a representation of the Titan, but man’s understanding of a higher power. It is the oldest original western representation of the constellations and is a 2nd century Roman copy of a Greek sculpture which dates back to before the birth of Christ. (National Museum of Archeology, Naples)

The Farnese Hercules

There are multiple sculptures of Hercules, however, the one which will be focused on is the Farnese. This is key, as the story of the 11th Labour, completed by Hercules, shows how Atlas assisted him so he could complete the tasks set by Eurystheus to retrieve the Golden Apples of Hesperides (Grafton & Most, 2010). Atlas retrieved the apples for Hercules as he did not wish to take the heavens back and offered to deliver the apples to reduce his burden. However, both were deceitful in this act as Atlas did not wish to return to his sentence of carrying the celestial sphere and Hercules tricked Atlas by indicating he would continue to carry the world if he gave him the facility to adjust his cloak. Atlas held the apples whilst Hercules readjusted; this meant that the weight shifted from Hercules to Atlas, in that time Hercules reneged on his promise stealing the apples.

There are multiple sculptures of Hercules in existence, often being tied to physical strength and male prowess. The sculpture being discussed shows Hercules as weary. He has downcast eyes but the facial demeanour is dominant. The cause of this weariness becomes clear on further examination, his weight is cushioned by the skin of the Nemean lion skin on top of the club. This is the rewards of his first labour, the sculpture shows Hercules as the pinnacle of heroism, which is interesting as the form he has is leaning exhausted through mental and physical efforts with his entire body weight against the club propped up under his arm also giving an indication that he is in between his labours verifying his exhausted state. (Tate, 2015, p. 2). There is a certain level of contrast with his well-defined muscles which juxtaposes the fluidity of his posture. Equally, the irony in the brute strength of his articulated muscles contrasts with having superb muscular tone the sculpture still gives the impression of weariness and the battle of his inner demons. He thrusts his right hip out so he can fully lean on his left side. The attention is brought onto the left hand which lies open whereas the right is tucked behind his back; this draws in the viewer to really look at the work within the space. It leads us to believe that he is beaten down and worn out from his trials however if you look behind his back there are the apples clutched in his right hand. You can see that he has acquired the golden apples of Hesperides continuing the links between Atlas and Hercules through the 11th Labour. Hercules embodies a classical view of how the male body should look, it was an ideal goal for Olympians of the era and is still true in the present day.1

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Heracles and Atlas As Prime Male Specimens: Analytical Essay [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jul 14 [cited 2022 Sept 29]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/heracles-and-atlas-as-prime-male-specimens-analytical-essay/
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