What I’m reading: Things about the Parthenon YOU WON’T BELIEVE!!

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.


It turns out that Joan Connelly partnered with an architect to enter the competition for a monument at Ground Zero. A classical theatre with 3,016 seats – one for each victim. As will be clear to those of you who’ve seen the thunderous iconography of the monument that did get built there, she was not successful. But it’s a compelling idea. From the proposal:

By reaching back to the classical form of the open air theater, we embrace the roots of democracy itself. Among the very highest honours awarded to an ancient Athenian citizen was the right to have his or her name inscribed upon a seat in the city’s theater. To this day, we can see the names of those who died over two thousand years ago remembered across the ages. So too, should our dead be commemorated with seats in which their descendants can gather generation upon generation …. The background of our theater’s stage is the great slurry wall. Those who come to contemplate the tragedy can thus look upon the foundations of the ruin while seated in an ancient architectural form given to us by the inventors of democracy. Our theater will thus provide an enduring and universal symbol of freedom, understanding and the open exchange of ideas.


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David Walker
6 years ago

Coincidentally, I was thinking the same thing last night in relation to the Egyptians and Karnak, an even more colossal investment, around 250,000 square metres in size and holding an astonishing amount of expensive architecture. And yet it’s only the second-largest ancient religious site in the world; Angkor Wat is larger.

This seems to be telling us something about the powerful hold religions can take over our minds. What it is telling us, I on’t know. (Does anyone have a good run-down of the theoretical work on the psychology of religion?)

As for strangeness though, a lot of it has to be familiarity. Step back a bit and “he died for our sins” is a very peculiar proposition to anyone not brought up with it. The story of Noah’s Ark is weirder still. How did these come to be the foundational religious stories of the powerful civilisation that is and was Western Europe?

And do people today believe them as actual fact or as metaphor? I frequently cannot tell for friends, let alone making similar findings about ancient Athenians.

John walker
6 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

David I am currently traveling, it will have to wait , ‘strangeness’ is everything.

paul frijters
paul frijters
6 years ago

nice. Never heard of this interpretation of the Parthenon!

One of the ‘strange’ aspects of Athens I read about is the way it raised taxes: they ran state brothels, even going so far as to hand out ‘freebies’ on special days, such as for military victories. The Romans seem to have done the same. Seen from their point of view, our current materialistic notions of ‘basic needs’ and our prudishness must seem mighty strange.

6 years ago

“this city with fewer citizens than Albury-Woodonga ”
Well, yes: but that’s pretty loaded. Total population A-W 90G; total pop Athens 250G. The fact that not many inhabitants were citizens doesn’t affect the comparison of strength or riches. The odd thing, if anything, is that A/W has probably a G times as much resources per citizen and still doesn’t build anything remotely comparable. We’re pretty well incapable of managing civic display; our only modern boast buildings are commercial or individual – variants on Trump Tower.