In 1996 Joan Connelly published an article in the American Journal of Archaeology in which she argued that the frieze of the Parthenon represented the sacrifice of the daughters of Erechtheus and Praxithea (the king and queen of primeval Athens) and its ritual consequences.1 This sacrifice, Connelly argues, became a symbol of the kind of unwavering devotion to the welfare of the city that later political leaders, like Pericles, wanted to instill into the Athenian citizenry. Hence, it was not simply an appropriate subject for the Parthenon frieze; it was an essential one. Although this reading of the frieze has its adherents among Classical scholars, doubters seem to outnumber the believers, and in the present book Connelly’s intention is clearly to reopen the battle by expanding and rearguing her ideas not only about the frieze but about all of the Parthenon sculptures. She succeeds in this goal remarkably well. The Parthenon Enigma is a gracefully written, informative, and, for the most part, plausible book. Although Connelly would obviously like to win over more of her fellow classicists to her point of view, the book is clearly aimed at persuading a wider, non-specialist audience to see things as she does. With this goal in mind, she takes particular pains throughout the book to evoke a vivid historical context for her readers, and compensates for occasional heavy doses of archaeological and historical detail with wryly amusing historical digressions. The result is an entertaining read, and anyone who is interested in the subject should have no difficulty following her arguments.

In the introductory chapters leading up to her main topic, Connelly sets out to immerse her readers in what she understands to have been the cultural atmosphere that pervaded Athens around the time when the Parthenon was constructed, an atmosphere in which “cosmology, landscape, and tradition bound ancient Athenians together within an ordered cycle of religious observance, remembrance, and ritual practice.” She begins with a review of the various myths about how the world had come into being; how the Olympian gods had prevailed over monstrous rivals; and how the Athenians themselves had sprung from the very land where they now lived, formed a covenant with their eponymous goddess, and, guided by ancient kings like Kekrops and Erechtheus, prevailed against their enemies. Perhaps the most striking part of these chapters is her evocation of the benign landscape of ancient Athens. To those who are familiar with the over-built and polluted modern city of Athens, in which famous rivers like the Ilissos have become subterranean sewers, the picture of the classical landscape that emerges, with its thriving vegetation, shady groves, copious springs, and free-flowing streams, may come as a revelation. It was a landscape that, with its river gods, nymphs, and shrines, “brimmed with divine presence,” and it was filled with reminders of how the Athenians and the gods had interacted from time immemorial. The atmosphere that Connelly thus evokes is, of course, more than a simple exercise in nostalgia. She sees it as intensely relevant to the goal of her book, because “this overwhelming suggestiveness of myth and place would literally be carved in stone on the ultimate place of memory and sanctity, the Acropolis and its supreme temple.”

To set the stage for the “supreme temple,” we are next taken on an archaeological tour of the early Acropolis (late Neolithic and the end of the sixth century B.C.), first following an ancient peripatos around the slopes to look at its caves, shrines, wells, and early public buildings and then proceeding to the summit in order to review the complex evidence for temples and temple sculptures dating from before the sack of the Acropolis by the Persians in 480 B.C. Specialists in Athenian archaeology will not find anything entirely new in this crisp and up-to-date archaeological review, but Connelly is once again aiming at a broader audience, and the ultimate point that she is intent on making is that the cosmic conflicts of Titans, Giants, and gods depicted in the early temple sculptures confirm that “the Acropolis was ever a place of memory, bearing palpable witness to earlier eras, past struggles against deadly enemies, and the victories that defeated them.”

Once the reader has been duly immersed in what Connelly sees as the physical and mental environment in which the Parthenon was created, she proceeds to the heart of the book: her fervent but controversial reading of the Parthenon frieze. The key to it is the central scene on the east side of the frieze. This shows, standing from right to left, a child and a man who hold the edges of a large folded piece of cloth. Whether the child is presenting it to the man, or receiving it from him is unclear. To the left of the man is a woman who faces two girls, each of whom carries on her head a folding stool surmounted by something that looks like a cushion. In the most commonly accepted interpretation of the frieze as a kind of panoramic snapshot of the procession and rituals that were part of the Panathenaic festival, this panel has always been a conundrum. The cloth is usually seen as the peplos that was ritually presented to Athena during the festival. The adult male is usually taken to be a magistrate or ceremonial official of some sort, and the woman is identified as the chief priestess of Athena who presided over rituals in the goddess’s honor on the Acropolis. The stools carried by the two girls are puzzling but are often taken to be honorific seats for the priestess and the official. Who the child is has confounded most interpreters. Even its gender is disputed.

Joan Connelly proposes an entirely different reading of this scene. It does not, she insists, depict muddled excerpts from a festival in the Periclean era. Rather, it presents us with Athens’ “foundational myth”: the sacrifice of the daughters of Erechtheus in order to save the city. The man holding the cloth is Erechtheus himself, and the girl he presents it to is his younger daughter, whom he will sacrifice. The cloth is her wedding dress, which will become her funeral shroud. (Connelly provides both literary evidence and images from vase painting to support the fact that Greek girls and women who died before they could be married were routinely buried in their wedding regalia.) The woman is Queen Praxithea, who was soon to become the chief priestess of Athena, and the two girls carrying stools are her other two daughters, who will also willingly sacrifice their lives to ensure the survival of Athens. The objects carried on the stools are not cushions but rather wedding dresses which, like that of their younger sister, will become funeral shrouds.

In the interpretive side of classical archaeology scarcely anything can be said to be proven beyond all doubt. What we have to look for in deciding to accept (or reject) an idea is coherence and plausibility, and I think it is fair to say that Connelly’s reading of the central scene of the east frieze is certainly more coherent and, if not entirely conclusive, at least more plausible than the interpretation which sees the frieze as an extended portrayal of the components of the Panathenaic procession as it would have appeared around the time when the Parthenon was constructed. In the chapters preceding and succeeding her discussion of the frieze, moreover, she offers additional arguments that bolster this plausibility. One of these takes the form of a personal reminiscence in which she describes how the inspiration for her interpretation began to take shape when she first came upon the fragments of Euripides’ Erechtheus (a conversion experience that she describes with a fervor which calls to mind St. Augustine’s tolle lege moment). This play, first performed in Athens in 422 B.C., dramatized the story of the sacrifice of the daughters of Erechtheus and its implications for the Athenian citizenry. Euripides’ intention, Connelly argues, was clearly to instill into his fellow Athenians, who had enjoyed the bounty of the Periclean heyday and were now faced with the burdens of the Peloponnesian War, the same spirit of sacrifice that had been displayed by the daughters of Erechtheus. Only about a fifth of the text of the Erechtheus survives, but Connelly finds in one of its major fragments a speech that contains traditions and sentiments that the designers of the Parthenon frieze may have had in mind in the previous decade. It is a speech that Athena delivers to Queen Praxithea after her daughters have been sacrificed, the army of Eumolpos has been defeated, and Erechtheus has been killed. In it the goddess instructs Praxithea to bury her daughters in a tomb on the Acropolis and construct a sanctuary over it in which sacred rites in the daughters’ honor can be performed. A separate tomb and sanctuary, the goddess continues, should be constructed for Erechtheus; and she, Praxithea, should become the chief priestess who oversees the rites in both shrines.

There can be little doubt that Euripides is referring in this speech to institutions that existed in his own time. Other ancient sources tell us that there was a chief priestess who oversaw the rites in the two major temples in the middle of the Acropolis and that there was a tomb of Erechtheus which was incorporated into the building that we today usually refer to as the Erechtheion. The existence of a tomb-shrine of the parthenoi (“maidens” or “virgins”), as the daughters of Erechtheus came to be called, is more of a problem, but Connelly offers a speculative yet persuasive proposal for its location: It must have been situated beneath the west chamber of the cella of the Parthenon, a chamber that in Athenian inventory inscriptions is regularly referred to as the parthen?n. This term appears to be derived from a genitive plural, and its basic meaning would thus be “the chamber or shrine of the parthenoi.” It was probably owing to the importance of its west chamber that the temple which we now call “the Parthenon” got its name; and the same reasoning may also explain why the goddess who was worshipped in the temple was called Athena Parthenos: the epithet meant not that she was the “virgin goddess,” as is commonly supposed, but rather that she was “the goddess who is associated with the parthenoi.

Having done justice, I hope, to Connelly’s reading of the central panel of the east frieze, I now turn to her reading of the Parthenon frieze as a whole. The first fact to note is that the central scene functions in the frieze’s design as a kind of emblem, framed by the backs of two groups of Olympian gods, who are clearly looking at something else. It may have a spiritual connection with the rest of the frieze, but as a narrative unit it is independent of it. Connelly, needless to say, sees the central scene as the key to the whole frieze, but in fact, its relationship to the remainder of the frieze, amounting to more than 500 feet of complex imagery, is highly problematical.

What the gods are looking at is, of course, a vast procession which moves from west to east. Connelly sees it as a part of the first Panathenaic festival, which both celebrated the victory over Eumolpos and also instituted the first sacrificial offerings, as prescribed in Euripides’ Erechtheus, to the deceased king and his daughters. The adult male and female figures who approach the Olympian gods on the east frieze are not, as others have proposed, heroes, public officials, and the holders of ceremonial offices. Rather they are “generic Athenians,” the fathers and mothers of early Athens who echo the role of Erechtheus and his family. The water and tray bearers at the eastern end of the long north and south friezes are carrying special offerings and libations to the daughters of Erechtheus, and the musicians who follow them must be connected with the performers of choral songs cited in Euripides’ Erechtheus. The armed warriors in chariots evoke not an exotic contest dating to Classical times but rather real warriors in fighting chariots, fresh from the victory over Eumolpos, heroic figures that serve to remind us that the inventor of the chariot in Athenian legend was none other than Erechtheus. And the great cavalcade that follows the chariots and, in fact, occupies approximately 47 percent of the entire Parthenon frieze, is simply, to Connelly, “the heroic cavalry of Erechtheus.”

It is when the discussion turns to these famous riders of the Parthenon, however, that the smooth and reassuring feeling of everything falling into place, which Connelly does her best to evoke, runs into trouble. Close examination of the cavalcade on the north and south friezes, an effort inaugurated by the late Evelyn Harrison and refined most recently by the Japanese scholar Toshihiro Osada, has made a persuasive case that the riders on each frieze can be separated into ten distinct groups and that the ten groups most probably correlate with the ten tribes (phylai) into which the population of Athens was divided when the democratic constitution devised by Kleisthenes was adopted in 508/507 B.C. This idea, if correct, can only mean that the riders depicted on the frieze represent tribal squadrons of cavalry as they appeared when the Parthenon was being constructed, i.e., in the time of Pericles. Although Connelly cites Harrison’s and Osada’s work in her footnotes and refers to it briefly in her text, she does not seem to have fully faced the implications of their argument. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the horsemen on the frieze trouble her.

This is, in fact, the only point in the book where her zealous and seemingly unshakable faith in the total truth of her reading of the Parthenon frieze seems to waver, and she is led to speculate on something that has hitherto been unthinkable: “to see in the imagery a fifth-century Athenian army taking part in the Panathenaic procession may inevitably oblige one to ascribe to these mounted figures multiple levels of meaning at once.” By the very next page, however, she has recovered her faith, is confident once again that the riders represent “the heroic cavalry of Erechtheus” and dismisses the idea of Kleisthenean tribal squadrons as “anachronistic.” Part of Connelly’s resistance to this idea derives from her conviction that Greek friezes always represented myths. The line between myth and history, however, was not as clear-cut to the Greeks as it is for us, and there is some evidence to suggest that in classical Athens recent events had become an acceptable subject for representation in sculpture, just as they are known to have been in painting. In any case, the Parthenon frieze defies conventional rules and is a unique monument. Its scale and the complexity of its subject matter are unparalleled, and it would not be surprising to find that this is also true of its conception of narrative time.

Some readers, like this reviewer, may therefore find it regrettable that Connelly chose not to listen to the doubting muse who was whispering in her ear about “multiple levels of meaning,” because the possibility that the Parthenon sculptures use multiple levels of meaning to celebrate the achievements of Athenian culture over time, from its misty beginnings to its Periclean flowering, has much to recommend it. The fact is, although there are good reasons for concluding that the Parthenon frieze does not represent a Panathenaic procession in the fifth century B.C., there is nothing in the frieze that could not represent, in a more general way, the social, military, and religious institutions of classical (rather than primeval and mythical) Athens. And, as I have indicated, the evidence that its cavalrymen do reflect a fifth-century institution is quite strong. Furthermore, I suspect that the obsession with the remote past that Connelly attributes to the Athenians of the fifth century B.C. is exaggerated. The great funeral oration that Thucydides attributes to Pericles, I would note, devotes only three sentences to the remote ancestors of the Athenians but celebrates the virtues and cultural accomplishments of mid-fifth-century Athens at great length. That allusions to these virtues and accomplishments would find a place in the Parthenon frieze is certainly not unthinkable. It is even plausible.

Scholarly dialogue about the meaning of the Parthenon frieze will no doubt continue, and it seems unlikely that this engaging and intensely interesting book will be universally hailed for having altogether solved “the Parthenon enigma.” Nevertheless, it does make a thoughtful, stimulating, and unquestionably valuable contribution to our understanding of the sculptures of the Parthenon.

1 During the reign of King Erechtheus, Athens was threatened with attack by the combined forces of the neighboring town of Eleusis and a contingent of Thracian mercenaries. The leader of the invading army was a Thracian named Eumolpos, who was a son of, and had the support of, the god Poseidon. Faced with the possibility of the total destruction of Athens, Erechtheus asked the oracle at Delphi if there was any way to save the city. The oracle responded that Athens could be saved if Erechtheus and his queen, Praxithea, sacrificed their youngest daughter or, in some variants of the story, all three of their daughters. (In one version, the two older daughters swear an oath to kill themselves once their sister dies.) The sacrifice, to which the daughter (or daughters) went willingly, was duly performed. In the ensuing battle, both Eumolpos and Erechtheus were killed, but Athens emerged victorious, and Praxithea, following the injunctions of Athena, established tomb-shrines on the Acropolis to commemorate her daughters and her husband.

A Message from the Editors

As a reader of our efforts, you have stood with us on the front lines in the battle for culture. Learn how your support contributes to our continued defense of truth.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 7, on page 66
Copyright © 2021 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now