Poseidon was one busy god.
In the ancient world, he was in charge of the seas and natural disasters, especially earthquakes. Poseidon was also, like his fellow gods and goddesses, a lusty soul, racking up dozens of liaisons that ranged from romance to rape, leading to many progeny. We see his story told in "Poseidon and the Sea: Myth, Cult and Daily Life" at the Tampa Museum of Art in 125 objects dating from 800 B.C. to 400 A.D. and encompassing the Greek, Etruscan and Roman cultures.
The best antiquities exhibitions tell stories through things that were usually utilitarian in their time. In this case, the utility is often of a high decorative order though there are many humble objects, such as fish hooks, as well. The subtitle, "Myth, Cult and Daily Life," describes the organization of the show with objects illustrating the Poseidon myth, those used to honor and worship him and those reflecting his influence day to day in people's lives.
Today, the lives of the Olympic deities are just fascinating, fantastic old tales for most of us. To people who lived during those times, Poseidon was a real presence in their world, sending lashing storms when angry, calm waters when appeased, watching in his great home beneath the sea. So they acknowledged his authority with statues large and small for their homes and public places, especially temples. An example greets us at the entrance to the show, an almost life-size marble beauty with his signature curly mane and beard. A dolphin perches beside him on the crest of a wave. It's the largest and best-preserved statue of him in the United States, a prized part of the Tampa Museum of Art's collection and the inspiration for the exhibition. You can see where restoration efforts, probably in the 18th or 19th century, added holes that would affix his signature trident to his body. The object came to the museum as part of the Joseph Veach Noble Collection, which the museum purchased in 1986. Its 150 works form the core of what is today the finest assembly of antiquities in the Southeast.
Nearby, a 14-foot, 200-pound bronze trident, probably once part of an enormous Poseidon sculpture, reminds us of the power he wielded. Its presence in the show is serendipitous. Seth D. Pevnick, the museum's chief curator and the Richard E. Perry curator of Greek and Roman art, was formerly a curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in California before coming to Tampa.
"I had seen many times this huge crate with 'Trident' stenciled on it. Only colleagues who had worked there a very long time knew anything about it. It hadn't been on view since the early 1980s. I got someone to open it up so I could look at it," he said.
That was when the idea of a themed show took hold. When he interviewed for the curatorial position at the Tampa museum in 2009, knowing about its superb statue, he laid out a plan for a Poseidon exhibition. He got the job and, eventually, the trident for the show, along with about 100 more choice objects on loan from major museums.
One of the earliest is a ceramic alabastron, a small carafe used to hold cosmetic oil, from around 580 B.C., adorned with an image of Poseidon (always with his trident) riding a hippocamp, a water creature that was part horse and part fish, a reference to his dominion over the sea and horses.
Poseidon was one of 12 Olympian gods who, according to legend, defeated the Giants, a race said to be of human proportions but with inordinate strength. Two amphorae (a decorated amphora was usually used to hold wine during meals) illustrate the moment in the epic battle, known as the Gigantomachy, when Poseidon broke off part of an island and crushed Polybotes, burying him beneath the earth. The rumbles of earthquakes were believed to be his moans.
Many more figured exploits scroll across the surfaces of the black and red vessels — the enormous kraters used for mixing wine and water, the drinking cups, the pitchers. Poseidon pursues women, wades into battles, socializes with fellow gods, mortals and his own offspring, including the immortal winged horse Pegasus (spelled using the alternate Pegasos in this show), born from a union with Medusa, a Gorgon with live snakes for hair and a gaze that turned people to stone.
During times of great import, live horses were said to be thrown into the sea as sacrificial offerings to Poseidon, but more often, votives were used. Among those in this show are dozens of tiny lead fish, arranged in a frame as if swarming in the water. A lovely mosaic, once inlaid in a Roman villa, is a scene made from small pieces of stone and glass. In the foreground fishermen are hauling in nets at water's edge while farther ashore, people offer obeisance to Poseidon at a small outdoor shrine. Small boats were placed in tombs and carved onto marble sarcophagi to connect the dead with the divine Poseidon.
Poseidon's presence in people's daily lives was more by association, though. In ancient Greece and Italy, the sea was an important form of transportation and source of food, and household items were constant reminders of its importance. Plates, flasks and other containers are decorated with specific fish indigenous to the Mediterranean. An askos, a small clay vessel used to pour oil, is fashioned in the shape of a lobster claw, and glass flasks are blown into fish shapes. One of the most charming objects in the exhibition is a fish-shaped askos that has, in addition to a spout, a small handle and lip for drinking. Pevnick speculates (and with antiquities, so much is speculation) that, given its proportions, it was the ancient version of a child's sippy cup.
Because water routes were usually faster than land ones, ports in Greece and Italy were important trade hubs and a lot of money changed hands in cities lining the coasts. Poseidon's visage was stamped into many coins not only because he was a famous figure but also as another form of tribute in hopes he would provide safe passage for ships. There are many examples here and they do have a sameness, but Pevnick presents some of them in a novel and creative way with a terrific map of the area represented in this show dotted with coins associated with particular cities and regions.
The exhibition catalog ($49.95, plus tax) is an important companion to "Poseidon and the Sea: Myth, Cult and Daily Life," with handsome photographs and illustrations as well as essays on the show's three subtitles, including one titled "Fish to Fish Sauce," a culinary chapter for artful foodies! And we learn that Neptune isn't simply the Roman version of Poseidon as we have come to believe.
The objects and what they represent are indeed very old and seemingly foreign to us. But look at them the way Pevnick does. We live in a coastal area where the Gulf of Mexico is both a recreational and commercial feature. We love seafood. We have a healthy respect for the power of storms. And many of us believe in and worship a higher being without ever having seen that being. We are not so far apart from the ancients.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.