A Review of the Hood’s “Poseidon”

A snapshot of the Hood's Poseidon exhibit featuring the collection's marquee item, a Roman statue of the god from the 1st century, AD

A snapshot of the Hood’s Poseidon exhibit featuring the collection’s marquee item, a Roman statue of the god from the 1st century, AD

The image of a Greek god is one familiar to practically all Western-educated individuals; many are familiar with the intricate mythology of classical culture, its iconic pantheon of gods and goddesses interplaying with the men and women of Greece. The Hood Museum of Art’s new exhibit from Tampa, Poseidon and the Sea: Myth, Cult, and Daily Life, successfully captures a unique snapshot of the famous sea god as depicted in both Greek and early Roman culture.

According to the Hood’s website, the traveling exhibit “offers an intimate look not only at the mysteries of the ancient world, but also at the timeless beauty and wonder of the sea that continues to resonate with us in the present day.” Upon ascending the stairs to the display room, one is immediately greeted with a life-size marble statue of Neptune from the days of the Roman Empire. Poseidon is unique in the fact that devotion to him transcended cultures; the sea culture of the Greeks was carried on in the high Roman period. The classical whitewashed form of marble statue is the perfect introduction to the collection, enticing the viewer with the familiar image of the god of the sea.

Adjacent to the solitary statue stands a sizeable collection of Greek urns and vessels. The utilitarian artwork of yesteryear contrasts significantly when one imagines modern pottery; today’s ornamental ceramic work lacks the intricacy and devotion to detail which the ancient Greeks applied. Images of sea culture and Poseidon himself adorn the sides of the black and orange vases, offering a unique snapshot into the Aegeans’ way of life. A map of the Greek isles (displaying a collection of ancient currency) is emblazoned with a defining quote from the great Socrates, which humbly portrays the position of the Greeks in the ancient world: “I believe that the Earth is very large and that we who dwell between the Pillars of Heracles and the river Phasis live in a small part of it about the sea, like ants or frogs about a pond.”

The cult of Poseidon was important because of the prominence of the sea in the life of the ancient Greeks. Scattered across a plethora of islands, isthmuses, and peninsulas around the Aegean Sea, the disjoint culture of the Greeks found some unity in the common pantheon of gods and goddesses. Greek religion was based on the idea that men need to appease the gods in order to avoid misfortune in their lives. Different communities were forced to trade with one another across the sea, and many communities settled near the water to make this trading as easy as possible. The sea played such an integral role in the subsistence (fishing) and economy (trade between different islands) of Greeks. Thus, maintaining a good relationship with the god of the sea was of the utmost importance.

A large image in the second room of the exhibit displays the temple of Poseidon located on a peninsula at Cape Sounion, where Aegeus of Athens allegedly leapt to his death after he believed his son had been slain by a Minotaur (which ultimately led to the naming of the Aegean Sea itself after the king). The same room is also dominated by a massive, 14-foot-long bronze trident, which was allegedly wielded by an equally sizeable statue of Poseidon, likely for the purposes of the cult. The classic image of the trident evokes many different visions of the god, and leaves the mind to wonder in awe of how the full piece must have appeared in its prime.

Moving through the exhibit, the viewer begins to see the contrast of Greek art with the slightly more recent art of the Romans. Both are equally utilitarian, yet Roman art depicting the adapted god Neptune takes a more creative edge than the Greek artwork. Whereas the Greeks primarily stuck to depictions on essential items such as vessels and coin, Roman art expands into different realms of adornment. Perhaps most notable are the fish-shaped glass flasks meant for holding liquid. Though not depicting an image of the god himself, these flasks still represent an important commodity for the ever-important sea culture that persisted through the Roman Empire in devotion to Neptune. The fishing industry was obviously of the utmost importance for both subsistence and trade, and these flasks represent the ubiquity of the most common sea creature. Neptune-related images also adorned ornamental pieces and trinkets, in addition to a bronze helmet, which bore an icon on the forehead. These pieces clearly communicate the major devotion to the god felt in sea-oriented cultures of the ancient Mediterranean.

At the back of the exhibit lies a large image of a classic trireme ship, propelled by both oar and wind power. The ship formed the backbone of the maritime trade between Aegean islands and the Greek/Italian mainland; its ubiquity and importance to these cultures cannot be overstated. This piece’s position as a backdrop to the exhibit rounds things out by displaying the traveloriented foundation of these societies, which effectively enabled their existence as a network of communities across the Aegean and Mediterranean seas.

Ultimately, the Poseidon exhibit at the Hood Museum of Art does a fine job of portraying the relevance of the cult of the sea god to the seaside communities of the ancient world. Though the layout is awkward in certain places, lacking linearity and a definite progression, the overall message is clear. The contrast between the Greek and Roman representations of Poseidon is concretely established, and likewise, the parallels are highlighted. I have long held the belief that modern art cannot compare to ancient or primitive art, as modern art directly seeks to captivate the viewer, whereas true art was created for more reflective and utilitarian purposes; it is not extraneous. This traveling exhibit’s informative look at classical Western art succeeds in supporting that viewpoint. This art offers a glimpse at some of the most ancient yet important foundations of Western society; the exhibit’s look at the legendary sea god Poseidon is truly an intriguing study.