When is the burden of the gods lighter than air? Six stately young women stand like sentinels on a marble parapet atop the Athenian Acropolis. They are gazing at the Parthenon, the great temple of Athena that, even in its present ruin, is one of the marvels of the world.
Casual and relaxed, the women balance a heavy stone roof on their heads. It is a remarkable display of female power: voluptuous curves combined with massive, muscular strength.
Since the Roman era, columns shaped like women have been called caryatids. The word comes from the Spartan city of Caryae, where young women did a ring dance around an open-air statue of the goddess Artemis, locally identified with a walnut tree. Antiquity’s most famous caryatids were these six of the Acropolis. The Athenians, however, called them korai (maidens), their term for votive images that were female counterparts to the athletic kouros statues of Archaic art.
Each Acropolis caryatid may once have held an offering plate or vessel in her outstretched hand (none of the fragile forearms survive). The young women are dressed in a fine peplos, a tunic doubled back at the bodice in a bottom-heavy arc and pinned at the shoulders with a brooch. Their long hair, falling in a loose braid down the back, presumably signals their unmarried status, since contemporary Greek matrons wore a chignon. The caryatids’ fleshy physique is distinctly revealed by their “wet look” robes (also worn by goddesses on a Parthenon pediment). These pensive girls with their broad, ripe, thrusting breasts seem eagerly poised for marriage.
The Porch of the Maidens, as it came to be called, was a closed side chapel of the Erechtheum, a jammed, multilevel amalgam of three small temples named for Erechtheus, an early king of Athens. The inaccessibility of the porch may have symbolized the maidens’ protected virginity. With pointed emphasis, the porch rests on stepped platform blocks of the old temple of Athena, which was destroyed by the invading Persians in 480 B.C.
Stored in the Erechtheum was Athens’s most sacred object, the Palladium, a primitive, life-size wooden statue of Athena Polias, protector of the city. Also inside was a rock cleft said to have been made by the trident of the sea god Poseidon when he fought Athena for ownership of the new city. A hole in the roof marked where his trident had shot to earth and created a salt spring; when the wind was right, the cistern roared like the surf.
The caryatids overlooked a walled garden harboring an ancient olive tree, Athena’s gift to the city when it was named in her honor. Burned by the Persians, the tree miraculously sprouted again and reportedly lived for centuries. Off the garden lay a den for snakes, honored as guardian spirits of the hill.
Every year the great Panathenaic procession passed by on its path to the outdoor altar of Athena Polias, just beyond the Parthenon. Its purpose was to bring a new peplos, woven by the women of Athens, to adorn the old statue of Athena Polias in the Erechtheum. Displayed on a cart drawn through the city from the Dipylon Gate, the garment was hung on a mast like a sail on a ship. Thus the caryatids seemed to join the procession as it neared its goal.
The six living pillars of the Porch of the Maidens recall the distant organic origin of all architectural columns -- bundled reeds or tree trunks. The women resemble a grove of trees, with the stone roof as their shady canopy. The sculptors (possibly Alkamenes and Agorakritos, students of Pheidias) have given the caryatids a dynamic contrapposto stance -- one leg engaged and the other free, so that a draped thigh juts provocatively forward. Vertical folds of fabric carry visual energy up like a fountain to the women’s faces, where it spills back down their bodies.
The capital, where each statue’s head meets the block, consists of a cushioned crown sculpted with an egg-and-dart pattern, its fat ovals bulging from the imagined pressure. These crowns may in fact be baskets, such as those filled with barley and sacrificial ribbons and carried by young noblewomen in the Panathenaic procession. Women also bore baskets on their heads during secret rites of the mother goddess Demeter at her shrine in Eleusis, near Athens. The Eleusinian baskets contained mysterious ritual objects, possibly including phallic fetishes. In a parallel ceremony on the Acropolis, two young girls with covered baskets on their heads descended through a secret rock staircase near the Erechtheum to the Gardens of Aphrodite below: The baskets held holy objects known only to the priestess of Athena.
Both the Parthenon and the Erechtheum remained relatively well preserved for a thousand years until they were caught up in war. Under the Ottoman Empire, the Parthenon became a mosque and the Acropolis a fortress torn by gun battles between the Turks and the invading Venetians. Munitions stored in the Parthenon blew up in 1687, severely damaging the temple and sending debris flying against the Erechtheum. After more violence during the Greek war of independence in the early nineteenth century, the Erechtheum collapsed, leaving the Porch of the Maidens standing. Travelers reported flecks of dazzling white marble exposed where bullets had hit the caryatids and chipped off their patina.
One of the statues was among the Acropolis sculptures removed by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to Constantinople. Now in the British Museum, along with the other “Elgin Marbles” whose return has been demanded by Greek patriots, that caryatid is in better condition than its five companions, who were eroded by acid pollution in modern Athens. In 1979, they were moved to the Acropolis Museum, with fiberglass replicas put in their place.
In his famous manifesto on architecture, the Roman writer Vitruvius propagated an error about the Acropolis caryatids: they depict, he claimed, the humiliated and enslaved matrons of Caryae, punished by fellow Greeks because of its treacherous defection to the Persians. But it is unlikely that the Athenians would have devoted such a monumental and sensitively placed statement to that remote event.
Furthermore, the entire power of the caryatids comes from our sense that the women’s subordination is not imposed but freely chosen. Spaced at a generous distance, they seem like confidently complete individuals who belong to a dedicated cohort. They are a sisterhood with one thing weighing on their minds -- service to the gods. The air around them is transparent yet highly charged with religious feeling.
By one of those optical illusions for which the architects of the restored Acropolis were renowned, the two central statues (their knees in mirror-image reversal) seem to carry the brunt of the roof. Its rectangular corners fall over the weight- bearing but recessive legs of their outlying sisters. Hence the roof seems to float, as if the women were supporting it by thought alone. Their dignity shows how the Greeks honored their gods -- not through genuflection or self-abuse but through assertions of human value and pride.
(Camille Paglia, university professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, is the author of “Sexual Personae,” “Sex, Art and American Culture” and “Vamps & Tramps,” among other books. This is the first in a series of four excerpts from her new book, “Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars,” which will be published by Pantheon Books on Oct. 16. The opinions expressed are her own. Read Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.)
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