Artists and writers have been looking back to the ancient world for hundreds of years. The colourful stories have inspired countless works of art and literature, but these depictions have perhaps tended to show only a limited perspective on the mythology. Of the translations, art, poetry and literature we're most familiar with, the creators tend to be pretty un-diverse – being largely white, male and typically middle class. The works accentuated the heroic and powerful while downplaying other elements of ancient Greek society such as homosexuality, gender imbalances and slavery.

In some ways, this reflects the patriarchal society of ancient Greece, where women typically didn't seem to have had many rights – they weren't able to own property, vote or inherit land. This is mirrored in the stories and mythology. For example, in Homer's Odyssey, the female characters tend to get a bit of a rough deal. They're typically cast as scheming witches, malevolent monsters, cunning temptresses or powerless victims and – excepting Athena – always lose out to men. From sirens to sea monsters, the female characters are limited to performing archetypal roles: their positions are always secondary to men.

Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses

Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses 1891

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917)

Gallery Oldham

Take Circe the witch, for example. When Odysseus and his crew wash up on her island, she uses her seductive charms and magical powers to outwit most of the men – turning them into pigs – but her attempts to overcome Odysseus are foiled by a tip-off from the god Hermes. She subjects herself to Odysseus's will, turning the crew back to humans and hosting them all for nearly a year. Circe bears his child before he leaves, homeward bound (or so he thinks) back to his wife and family in Ithaca. She's typically portrayed as mysterious, manipulative and is often thought to act as a warning to men against the dangers of seductive women.

In John William Waterhouse's painting Circe at Gallery Oldham, she's shown with a placid, welcoming expression and in a nearly transparent dress, offering a cup of wine to her guest Odysseus (seen in the mirror). Viewers familiar with the poem will know that Odysseus needs to be careful! The wine is laced with a magic potion, the results of which can be seen at her feet – one of Odysseus's crew turned into a pig. 'Beware of seductive women' is the clear message here.

Penelope with the Suitors

Penelope with the Suitors about 1509

Bernardino Pinturicchio (c.1454–1513)

The National Gallery, London

Or take Odysseus's wife, Penelope, who patiently and loyally waits for 20 years for her husband to return home from the Trojan wars. Her agency is limited to stoically enduring the difficulties of having an absent husband/king, forced to put up with the suitors vying to take Odysseus's place. She's often celebrated for her chasteness and loyalty to her husband. She spends the two decades at home rejecting the advances of other men, and finding ways to protect Odysseus's home while he's off on his epic adventure.

In this painting by Pinturicchio she's shown at her loom, where she labours at a funeral shroud for Odysseus's father, weaving by day and unpicking by night in an attempt to hold off the suitors – she won't marry again until it is complete. Her expression is weary and shows the burden she endures. She is valued for her patience and fidelity but is also pitied. She's too weak to fully resist the suitors and throw them out. Her story is about enduring hardship and remaining loyal but Penelope doesn't get any of her husband's glory.

Achilles and Briseis

Achilles and Briseis c.1858–1860

George Frederic Watts (1817–1904)

Watts Gallery – Artists' Village

This gender imbalance plays out in many stories from the ancient world and reflects the patriarchal society which produced them. Slavery, too, played a major part in the economy of the ancient Greeks. In the Iliad, Briseis – the former queen of a conquered city – is treated as a possession who can be passed from one owner to the next.

In this George Frederick Watts painting, she's shown being led away from one master, Achilles, to her new owner, Agamemnon. The artist portrays Briseis looking back at Achilles longingly. Watts is more concerned about the romantic tragedy and ignores the fact that Achilles actually owns Briseis and was probably more upset about being publicly disrespected by Agamemnon than losing his concubine.

The versions of the stories which we have received, translations from Greek, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew and then into English and other modern languages have recurring themes of treating women and other social groups poorly. These patriarchal societies interpreted the stories from their own perspectives and produced works which showed women and other peoples as inferior and propagated values of 'otherness'. By heralding figures from classical mythology, artists and writers from the Renaissance onwards gave justification to the violent acts being committed on those 'lesser' or 'other' in their own times. Europe was going through huge changes, developing empires, conquering and enslaving other peoples – much as the Greeks and Romans did.

The Judgement of Paris

The Judgement of Paris c.1450–1455

Master of the Judgement of Paris (active mid-15th C)

Glasgow Life Museums

The Judgement of Paris

The Judgement of Paris 1930

Ithell Colquhoun (1906–1988)

Brighton & Hove Museums

There are, however, some voices which question the traditional representation of the Greek myths. Artists like Ithell Colquhoun have also been drawn to the rich and fascinating ancient Greek world but have chosen to show it in a different way. If you compare her painting The Judgment of Paris with a fifteenth-century example from The Burrell Collection on the same topic, you can see that in Colquhoun's version the three goddesses – Athena, Aphrodite and Hera – are presented in all their divine glory with Paris, who sits head bowed and humbled. The power dynamic in the work by the Master of the Judgement of Paris, on the other hand, is quite different. Here the three goddesses are meek and vulnerable in front of a mere mortal such as Paris. Colquhoun's are much more muscular, powerful and assertive, if a little haughty and vain. Her goddesses are definitely not to be messed with.

Her Scylla too represents a figure from antiquity. In the Odyssey, Scylla is a ferocious sea monster who prowls a narrow cliff-sided strait, pouncing on unwary sailors and eating them whole. Colquhoun's version becomes almost a self portrait, looking down on herself whilst in the bath. The original classical Scylla is often read as a warning to men against the dangers of female sexuality. Colquhoun's painting reclaims this female power in a humorous way.


Scylla 1938

Ithell Colquhoun (1906–1988)


Elisabeth Frink's 'Riace' warriors highlight a darker side to the ancient Greek notion of masculinity. Her brutish bronze men have some similarities to the typical representation of beautiful Greek young men – they're naked and muscular but hers are also bulky and intimidating, and seem to me to be much more representative of the warriors they depict. Odysseus, Achilles, et al. were, of course, not averse to a bit of pillage, slaughter, rape and kidnapping – often overlooked in the artworks with which we're most familiar. By showing a truer representation of Greek heroes she questions the type of man that society has historically championed.

Hannibal's Sister

Hannibal's Sister 1989

Lubaina Himid (b.1954)

Harris Museum, Art Gallery & Library

Lubaina Himid's painting Hannibal's Sister draws attention to the lack of representations of both powerful women and people of colour from art depicting the classical world. The Greeks and Romans were Mediterranean powers after all, with North Africa just being a boat ride away. People of colour were certainly present in the stories – the Egyptians, Ethiopians and Carthaginians being obvious examples – but why are so few represented in the art produced to depict this mythology? Himid's imagined sister to the great North African king may well have had glorious adventures but her story was not recorded.

Figure Throwing at a Wave

Figure Throwing at a Wave 1950

John Keith Vaughan (1912–1977)

The Ingram Collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art

The Townley Discobolus

The Townley Discobolus

2nd century AD marble copy of a 1st century BC bronze original by Myron

Whilst same-sex relationships have been present in the Greek myths (see Achilles and Patroclus, or Apollo and Cyparissus), artworks and translations often skipped over the nature of these relationships. Pylades becomes Orestes' 'friend' or the erotic nature of Zeus' infatuation with Ganymede was omitted. Many gay male artists have reclaimed stories from ancient Greece and Rome, highlighting how same-sex relationships were visible and respected in ancient Greece. Keith Vaughan's depictions of naked men have a clear heritage in the athletic sculpture of Greece and Rome. In his humorous and erotic drawing Minotaur and Man, the Minotaur, often seen as a symbol of male sexuality, is shown in the middle of an act that men in the ancient Greek world would have probably been very familiar with.

Two Figures

Two Figures 1966

John Keith Vaughan (1912–1977)

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

490 BC, marble by Greek School

The Strangford Apollo

490 BC, marble by Greek School

Perhaps the art made by Colquhoun, Frink, Himid and Vaughan reflect the societal values of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the same way that Waterhouse, Pinturicchio and the Master of the Judgement of Paris reflect theirs. The stories and characters of Greek and Roman mythology remain relevant to each generation seeing them from a new perspective. The captivating stories offer great insight into human nature and will continue to be of value. Perhaps we're now able to see the stories in a broader context, assessing Greek and Roman mythology more thoroughly – celebrating the good and acknowledging the bad. We're better able to reflect on what is worth emulating and what we should reject.

Iain Calderwood, Image Officer at Art UK