Gods Versus Giants: Scenes From Gigantomachy, the Pergamon Altar at Berlin’s Museum Island

The Pergamon Altar,also called the Zeus Altar, in Pergamon Museum on Berlin’s Museum Island, is a must see for anyone serious about understanding the ancient world. The scenes of the ‘Gigantomachy’, depicting the battle of the Greek gods against the giants is one of the most spectacular examples of Hellenic art and is presented in an impressive quasi-reconstruction.

The backstory of how the the Pergamon Altar is even in Berlin is also a great drama – a drama that bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the Elgin Marbles.

The Pergamon Altar was originally from Bergama, Turkey, where remains of the Pergamon Acropolis still can be seen. In 1864/65 Carl Humann, a german engineer, first visited the site noting: “to the casual observer it looks like one big field of rubble covered with grass and low bushes.”

Beneath the dirt, though, lay the ruins of what Lucius Ampelius, the roman teacher/historian called in his Liber Memorialis‘a great marble altar, 40 feet high, with remarkable statues, and the entire is surrounded by a Battle of the Giants’. In 1878 the then Prussians, having declared the German Empire in 1871, paid 20,000 marks for permission from the Ottomans to excavate the site and take the discovery back to Berlin.

The Prussians viewed the Pergamon Altar as an opportunity to prove their status on the world stage with a major cultural trophy. When it first opened to visitors in the 1900’s it did impress the world. Later, Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, took inspiration from the Altar for the design of his Zeppelintribne (featured in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will) which took the architectural elements and exploded them onto an even larger scale (read more about Nazi Archaeology).

Was it also a key reference for Lenin’s Masoleum? It is a bit hard to see the direct references. Nonetheless, in 1948 the Soviets took the Pergamon Altar, according to the Berlin Museum, “along with thousands of other objects”. Ten years later, the USSR returned the Altar to East Berlin. Now the Pergamon Altar is a key part of the new Berlin Museum Island 233 million renovation project, which will challenge the British Museum as a top Ancient World visitor destination.

Scenes from “Gigantomachy” the Battle of the Gods and Giants

“Gigantomachy” – The Epic Battle Between the Gods and Giants

The battle between the gods and giants is sort of the sequel to the how the Greek gods vanquished the Titans. Cronus, who had killed his own father, learned of the prophecy that he himself would be over-thrown by his child. So, he ate all his children. Rhea, the mother of Demeter, Hera, Hades, Hestia and Poseidon begged Gaia, Cronus’s mother, for help and specifically to protect Zeus who had just been secretly born in Crete. Rhea gave Cronus a stone, the Omphalos Stone according to legend, wrapped in linens and convinced Cronus is has another baby. When Zeus was older he led the revolt against his father, the “Titanomachy”, first giving Cronus a poison supplied by Gaia that forced Cronus to vomit up all the children. But the political structure of the greek gods remained unstable and later Gaia, Zeus’ grandmother, supported the giants, also her children, in yet another fierce battle for supremacy.

However, Hercules had discovered a magical herb that gave the Olympian gods strength/immortality. Aided with this force the gods engaged the giants and ultimately defeated them, sending them into the earth. So Hercules shares the center of the Pergamon Eastern Frieze in honor of his key role in victory.

– The Eastern Frieze

The Eastern Frieze would have been at the rear of the structure, first to see the sun in the morning. Visitors to Pergamon in 2nd Century BC would have entered from the West. Standing at the Altar around sunset would have been amazing as the glow of the sun radiated through all the columns and covered the marble in rich golden colors.

The intensity of the epic fight is overwhelming – even in the partial fragments that can be seen today. (See slideshow by clicking here) Imagine what it would have been like complete and in color! It must have been a breath-taking sight for the people of the day.

The first scene on the Eastern Frieze shows us Hekate, the triple-bodied Titan, goddes of witchcraft and magic, along with her Molossian dog, battling the giant Klytios, who although out-armed against Hekate’s combined parry of torch, sword and lance attempts to hurl a rock. I love the giant’s legs being made of huge snakes, that are concurrently attacking back.

Toward the center of the Eastern Frieze is Hera (mainly in fragments) driving the winged horses Notos, Boreas, Zephyros and Euros over the top of flailing giants, crushing them. In the original Hercules would have had the center stage as, according to the legend, he was key in helping the gods claim victory for the battle. All that we can see are the paws from his lion skin. But there is a fantastic torso of Zeus and his eagle fighting the leader of the giants Poryphyrion.

On the Eastern Frieze toward the right hand side, we can see Athena firmly holding the hair of the muscle-clad giant Alkyoneus. It looks as if she is within seconds of snapping his neck as his mother Gaia watches helplessly, herself caught in the fray and pushed down to the ground. In contrast, behind them is Athena’s form as Nike, Winged Victory lifting off into flight.

– The ‘Laokoon’

Laokoon Group - Vatican Collection

This scene depicted in ‘Laokoon’ was a major part of the discovery for Humann’s team. There is a famous roman copy of this statue which is now in the Vatican Museum. Laokoon was a Trojan priest, who tried to warn his people that the legendary Trojan Horse – a gift from the Greeks – was a trick. Nobody believed him, and he was eventually killed by serpents.

– The Northern Frieze

On the Northern Frieze the engagement between the forces is equally ferocious. The Moirea – the goddesses who decide the destiny of man – smash down giants, again over-powering even their snapping snake-legs.

Toward the end of the Northern Frieze, Keto, the lion goddess, sets her creatures into the mix. Ketos (greek for whale) is also the mother of sea monsters. Posiedon would have been to her right, riding a set of sea horses one of which is partically present.

The watery action wraps around to the North Projecting stairway where Triton, son of Posiedon, and Amphrite Triton’s mother vanquish giants.