What is the meaning of the relief sculpture above?
I recall when I was last on the Athenian Acropolis just over a year ago marvelling at the Parthenon, not just its emphatic and sublime beauty but also its strangeness. It’s so big and so magnificent. What the hell did this city with fewer citizens than Albury-Woodonga think it was doing? It’s easy to understand the economics of cathedrals of Europe as expressions of the power of feudal lords (of the spiritual, rather than the temporal realm) and the power of such systems to alienate ‘the people’ from their own material interests. But Athens was a democracy. The Ecclesia had to regularly authorise the massive funds necessary to keep going. Tons and tons of silver hoarded from Athens’ post Persian invasion empire were expended year after year. Sometimes Perekles had to do some persuading, but on each occasion he suceeded in securing ghe funds.
Which always brings me back to the strangeness – which we should expect to be barely fathomable – of the Ancient Athenians. What was their relationship to their Gods? Hard to say. Plato writes about the Gods in a way that’s proto-Christian and easily absorbed into mono-theism. (It’s a long time since I read him, but I think he even refers to ‘God’ quite often though that might be the work of the translator). Anyway, this temple is dedicated to Athena. Who the hell is Athena to the Athenians? Do they take her story and the story of her founding Athens with the planting of a spear from an olive branch seriously? As metaphor? And her enemy Poseidon in matters Athenian? And all the others? Our own experience is so far removed from the Athenians, and the myth of Athens and its remaining artefacts are so entrancing to our imagination that it’s almost impossible not to read our world back on them – there they were just trying to give birth to our modern world – Thomas Jefferson, Coca-Cola, holiday packages, a secure retirement income package – that kind of thing.
So coming across Joan Connelly’s very substantial book for academics and interested lay readers alike – The Parthenon Enigma – was a great thing. That sculpture you see above is a key part of the Parthenon Frieze, sitting immediately over the Eastern Entrance. (At the other end from the grand entrance to the Acropolis – the Propylaea group of buildings. The traditional interpretation is that the girl on the right is receiving the peplos – a cloth honouring Athena in a contemporary festival of thanks for Athena. There are problems with this interpretation – most particularly that other Greek temple friezes depict age-old mythic, not contemporary events. Anyway Joan Connelly has an alternative proposal. The sculpture celebrates Athens’ founding human sacrifice. Yes, you read correctly – human sacrifice.
While she was researching the role of women in the Ancient Greek world, she came across some newly discovered lines of Euripides lost play Erechtheus. Erechteheus is Athens’ first king and, having consulted the oracle at Delphi, is told that he can save Athens from defeat in battle at the hands of its enemies by sacrificing his daughter. Erechtheus’s wife and his daughter think it’s a great idea. Indeed the Erechtheus’s other two daughters think it’s such a great idea that they swear to kill themseles once their sister is sacrificed. (They seem to be in the sculpture as the left two figures, each older than the sacrificial daughter and each carrying on their head cushions that contain their funeral shroud.) The new Euripides fragment, deciphered in 1967 from the wrappings of an ancient Egyptian mummy contains a powerful speech by Erechtheus’s wife Praxithea. (That’s one of the things about the ethos of Athens – they’re really big on sacrifice for the common good – they think of that as the very foundation of democracy – the only way in which it can hope to fend off oligarchy. Just read the magnificent Athenian Oath to see what I mean.)
Anyway, that is the kind of interpretation that captures the strangeness of Ancient Athens. And, particularly in the midst of lots of reviews saying that Connolly’s interpretation seems quite compelling (though there’s been no lay down misère within the academy which is not a surprise), it seems more compelling to my very inexpert brain than the alternative.
Anyway it’s a thick book, much preoccupied with its thesis – and I’ll probably skim much of the second half – as it reinterprets the entire frieze around the Pathenon according to this new key. But at $10 at your local book grocer, I’m loving its embrace of the strangeness of Ancient Athens.
And I like someone whose energies radiate out from their central preoccupations. Continue reading