“Goddesses and Consorts. Women in Ancient Myth“ until March 15, 2025 im Alten Museum in Berlin

Statue of Artemis, late 2nd century AD. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Antikensammlung / Johannes Laurentius

The famous ladies were ambiguous figures back then and only later got their current roles

Monstrous like Medusa, beautiful like Aphrodite, faithful like Penelope – many women from ancient mythology are known primarily as stereotypes of traditional female roles. But today, the retelling of their stories is popular in the form of novels for adolescents and adults. However, the figures were already ambiguous in antiquity:
* Medusa, who turned everyone who looked at her to stone, was actually a young and beautiful girl who had been raped by the sea god Poseidon – Athena, in whose temple it happened, was so angry that she turned the girl (!) into the evil monster;
* Aphrodite was regarded by the ancients as a great beauty and above all as the protector of sexuality and procreation in marriage – however, although being married to the blacksmith god Hephaestus, she had sex with other partners (and even bore a sword), and in Roman times even married couples liked to be portrayed as Aphrodite and her husband;
* Penelope was not only the faithful wife who waited for 20 years for her husband Odysseus to find his way home after the Trojan War – but at the same time she acted as a successful manager at home and confidently kept other men at bay with a ruse.

Head of Penelope, 1st century AD. (Roman copy of a Greek original from around 470/60 BC). Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Collection of Classical Antiquities / Johannes Laurentius

The exhibition “Goddesses and Consorts. Women in Ancient Myth“ until March 15, 2025, in the Altes Museum, Berlin, explores the ancient myths from two perspectives: the ancient and the modern. Twelve female figures take center stage, from the most famous goddesses, such as Aphrodite, to lesser-known heroines, such as Atalante. Life-size statues, detailed vase paintings and small pieces of jewelry reveal how these women were portrayed in antiquity and what stories their images have to tell.

Today we find these goddesses and heroines everywhere. Mostly, however, only clichéd images are shown. The exhibition paints a more diverse picture. Many of the women only became the stereotypes we know today in the last few centuries – determined by the male interpretation of their stories. The tide is currently turning again.

Finger ring with cameo: Head of Medusa. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Collection of Classical Antiquities / Johannes Laurentius

Oh yes, Penelope‘s ruse: she pretended to be busy working on a burial shroud for someone from the family and therefore unable to emotionally engage with a new partner – in reality, she split up the daytime sewing work with the servants at night. But again, this is interpretation expressed in modern language.

Even the early Greek texts described Penelope as faithful and wise and sensible, as the museum’s press documents state.

Altes Museum, Berlin, until March 15, 2025

(28.05.2024, USA: 05.28.2024)