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"Heroes" brings mythological Greece to San Diego

A trip to Greece and back will likely be a four-figure expense. A trip to ancient Greece will also require a time machine. And unless you hold pagan religious beliefs, even a time machine won’t provide you the experience of mythological Greek characters aided by the gods.

Transportation to the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park along with admission to the “Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece” exhibit is a two-figure expense. It does not require a time machine and about the only adjustment you’ll have to make from your own religious beliefs is using “Before Common Era” rather than “Before Christ” and “Common Era” rather than “Anno Domini” - which is just as well even if you are a Christian, since temporarily taking on a pre-Christian Greek mindset will augment enjoyment of relics representing the Trojan War and Herakles’ twelve labors.

That’s another adjustment you might have to make. Hercules is the Roman version of the Greek hero Herakles. The other three heroes featured are Achilles, Helen, and Odysseus.

Each hero has his or her unique attributes among the four. Helen is the only woman as well as the only one who married royalty (her husband, Menalaus, was the brother of King Agamemnon). Herakles was the only one of the four not involved in the Trojan War. Achilles was the only one killed in battle and the only one who never married. Odysseus was the only one without divine ancestry and the only one for whom no childhood accounts exist.

The terracotta pottery, jewelry, bronze and marble statues, and reliefs date from the eighth century B.C.E. to the third century C.E. (Approximately 20 pieces from the Baltimore-based exhibit were too fragile to travel and were not included in the loan to the San Diego Museum of Art.) The exhibit consists of three sections: Heroes in Myths focuses on the lives of the four featured heroes, Heroes in Cult addresses the worship of the heroes after their deaths, and Heroes as Role Models notes how subsequent Greek culture adopted athletics, weddings, warfare, and other ways of life based on their heroes.

The various relief sculptings include document relief (public record), banquet relief, votive (offering) relief, and grave stele (marker) relief examples. The bronze includes an armor Corinthian helmet from between 700 and 500 B.C.E. and a protective leg plate.

While much of Greek mythology espoused Greek superiority, the Amazons were enemies of the Greeks but were actually worshipped in many parts of Greece. The drawings on the terracotta gave these women warriors Persian garments, creating the likelihood that they were Persian. The mythological history of the Amazons also demonstrates the Greek notion of a flawed hero. Herakles, driven to madness by a jealous Hera, killed his first wife, Megara, and their children, and was assigned the twelve labors as atonement. The ninth labor was to capture the belt of the Amazon queen Hippolyta. He charmed Hippolyta to the point where she willingly gave him her belt, but other Amazons feared a kidnap attempt and attacked Herakles, who in the process killed Hippolyta - at least giving her the honor of dying in battle.

Then again, the displays also include the human side of heroes in comical moments or in advanced age after their famous acts had been completed. And since Odysseus’ journey took ten years to complete, he encountered plenty of enemies along the way and the cyclops and siren are also represented in the artwork as are the Trojans he and others encountered during the previous ten years.

Alexander the Great was a mortal Greek, but he claimed to be descended from Zeus on one side of his family and Herakles on the other. A handful of Alexander the Great relics are in the Heroes as Role Models section along with wedding, military, and athletic artifacts.

Quite fittingly, the Heroes exhibit abuts Asian art rooms. Alexander the Great would have appreciated that.

“Heroes: Mortals and Myths in Ancient Greece” opened May 22 and is scheduled to run through September 5.

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