Kallos Gallery

25th July 2014

Wrestling with ancient problems

Kallos Gallery’s Dr. Liz Sawyer reflects on the enduring appeal of the legends of ancient Greece.

Today sees the premier of the second of 2014’s movies about Hercules. Hercules, starring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson and based on the graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars, follows hot on the heels of the box office flop The Legend of Hercules (released in January).

Like good science fiction, Greek mythology explores what it means to be human through characters who are on the very borderline of humanity themselves: Hercules is a prime example. The sheer power and passion that make him a superhero and the most loyal of friends also push him beyond the normal bounds of human behavior and into horrendous crimes, such as killing his own children as well as his enemies. The Kallos amphora highlights this transgressive aspect of Hercules’ character. Wearing the skin of the Nemean Lion, the first victory in his Labours, Hercules appears almost bestial with the lion’s jaws framing his face as he delivers the death blow to Hippolyta – but his supposedly barbarian opponents, the exotic race of Amazon women warriors, are depicted as conventionally Greek in their hoplite armour and neat battle-line, courageously holding a protective shield over their queen.

Hercules’ extraordinary power meant that he could wrestle lions, giants, rivers, and even Death himself, but in the end he met his own end tragically by accidental poisoning at the hands of his wife. The vulnerability of the exceedingly powerful is a trope that returns again and again in Greek mythology – and one which is ever more pertinent in today’s world. Through technology, we are stronger than Hercules, faster than Achilles, and smarter than Odysseus. But the dangers that vanquished these early superheroes still plague us too: the inevitability of human error, lapses in judgment, and injustice leading to uncontrolled rage. These ancient figures remain charismatic and alluring to us today because we recognize the choices that they had to make, and share the same responsibilities that they bore.

It remains to be seen whether tonight’s modern audiences will more impressed by Dwayne Johnson with his extremely apt wrestling credentials than by Kellan Lutz. But I expect that the story of the demi-god beefcake is more than enduring and powerful enough to overcome the hurdle of one Hollywood flop, and it will still come back fighting.