The gods of ancient Greece and Rome were not paragons of virtue – rather, their legends are filled with all-too-relatable rivalries, petty spite, and capriciousness that would be at home in any soap opera. Yet they were nonetheless an indelible part of everyday life, revered, appeased, and solicited by generations of devoted followers – as a new exhibition at Liverpool’s World Museum explores.
The most arresting aspect of the displays are the gods themselves, represented by towering, dramatically lit statues drawn from the collections of a local 18th-century antiquarian, Henry Blundell of Sefton. The largest is a 2.27m-high sculpture of Zeus weighing an imposing 1,200kg, but visitors encounter a diverse range of deities, including Apollo, Artemis, Athena, Ares, and Dionysus, as well as some who were adopted from abroad, such as the Egyptian goddess Isis, and Kybele from Phrygia in what is now Turkey. Accompanying information boards snappily summarise the gods’ key myths; their lively design, resembling captions from graphic novels, will surely appeal to younger visitors, but they do not skimp on detail.
The impressive statues are complemented by a host of smaller, more personal artefacts, which offer tangible traces of ancient religious beliefs and practices, among them intaglios, figurines depicting various deities and legendary heroes, strikingly decorated amphorae that were presented as prizes during the Panathenaic Games (a series of sporting and cultural competitions held to honour Athena), and tiny lead votive objects from the temple of Artemis in Sparta.
Remaining in the mortal realm (albeit a distinctly elite aspect of it), visitors also learn how some Roman emperors and members of the imperial family were revered as divine after their death, with temples constructed in their honour. These themes are displayed within a section recreating the sumptuous surroundings of a Roman villa, populated by busts of numerous high-ranking individuals and complemented by a range of objects illustrating themes of feasting and luxurious living.
Finally, visitors are led away from the land of the living to learn more about Hades, the realm of the Classical dead, and funerary traditions of the period. There we find elaborately decorated pieces of sarcophagi, marble ash chests and glass urns that once held cremated remains, and grave altars, alongside an exploration of the story of Persephone. This combination provides a poignant reminder that the ways in which humans have processed loss, and hoped for reconciliation, have much in common even over the space of millennia.
Image Credit: Pete Carr Photography