New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Joan Breton Connelly’s The Parthenon Enigma (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) is a thrilling piece of detective work that unravels what at first seems to be an impossibly complicated mystery: the meaning of the depiction of five figures on the east frieze of the Parthenon in which two of the figures, a young girl and a man, are holding between them what has been thought to be the new peplos delivered to the statue of Athena in the Parthenon in the Panathenaic Procession.
Connelly’s reading of this scene, her revelation about Athens’ mythic founding, gives the Parthenon another meaning.
In the tradition of not giving the plot away, we say only this: sacrifice and democracy. Connelly writes, “At the heart of Athenian democracy lies the conviction that no single life, even a royal one should be set above the lives of the many…” Democracy was, in fact, she writes, “a kind of religion for the Athenian citizens, an all-encompassing faith that required total commitment to ideals that were worth dying for.”
Connelly knows how to communicate her deep capture of the beauty of the ancient past and the complexities of the civilization from which we in the West claim cultural descent. Her lucid and elegant writing style includes light repetition of key points that keep the reader effortlessly on track even through dense material. And in the midst of a breathtakingly exhausting schedule, Connelly answered the GN’s unfairly large-in-scope interview questions (“like writing another book!” she said) with the same clarity.
GN: How did you get the idea for your investigation of the Parthenon’s east frieze?
JBC: I didn’t set out to write a book on the Parthenon. I was working a wholly different project – the book on Greek Priestesses (Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece, Princeton University Press, 2007) — when two pieces of evidence intersected and led me on a path to reinterpreting the central scene of the Parthenon frieze. I soon realized that there was a huge amount of work to be done here and that this could lead us to a very different understanding of the Parthenon as a whole. The Parthenon Enigma is the result of eighteen subsequent years of careful thought and research.
I honestly think that had I embarked on a mission to figure out the meaning of the Parthenon I would never have made it. Discoveries like this one are generally the bi-products of intense work on something else — as was the discovery of penicillin – an accidental breakthrough made while trying to figure out a wholly different problem.
GN: You really convey the excitement of your “aha” revelations about the figures depicted on the east frieze. Please talk about the “two pieces of evidence” that took you on a path to reinterpreting the central scene of the Parthenon frieze.
JBC: At the center of the frieze above the door of the Parthenon, stands a woman who for over 200 years has been identified as a fifth century B.C. priestess of Athena. Trouble is that she lacks the signifier of female priesthood, the identifying attribute that priestesses always carry: the temple key. While researching my book Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece, I came to grips with this anomaly.
At the same time, I tackled a newly discovered text from a long lost play by Euripides. The collision of these two pieces of evidence enabled me to see what has been hidden since antiquity. Suddenly, I realized that text and image were telling the same story, that of Erechtheus, early king of Athens, and how, by mandate of the Delphic Oracle he sacrificed his youngest daughter to save the city.
The fact that the story is an especially beautiful myth, one that speaks to the core values of Athenian society, which placed the common good above self-interest, is both stirring and enlightening. In the end, it teaches us something new about the ancient Athenian’s understanding of their greatest creation: the democratic system of government.
GN: What else did you observe that led to your new reading of the east frieze?
JBC: One fundamental point was that Greek architectural sculpture never shows scenes of actual, historic ritual. Therefore, the Parthenon frieze cannot represent what for the past 230 years it has been believed to represent: a Panathenaic procession set in the fifth century B.C. By engaging with a wholly new paradigm, one based on myth and not reality, we arrive at a deeper, more profound understanding of what the Parthenon meant to those who built it.
GN: What myth is represented in the frieze?
JBC: We see that the frieze shows the foundation myth of Athens in which King Erechtheus and his family make the ultimate sacrifice to save their city. When Athens was threatened by a barbarian siege, the oracle at Delphi demanded that the king sacrifice his youngest daughter to save the city.
GN: What is shown there?
JBC: The central panel of the Parthenon’s east frieze shows a portrait of the royal family: King Erechtheus stands at right with his youngest daughter preparing her for sacrifice. They display the funerary dress she is about to put on. Queen Praxithea stands at the center of the composition, turning the other way to assist her two older daughters, who plan to die in solidarity with their sister… in a suicide pact they leap from the Acropolis. King Erechtheus himself is killed in the ensuing battle but, as promised by the oracle, the Athenian people are saved.
The Athenian royal family thus makes a tremendous sacrifice to save Athens. All of them die except for Queen Praxithea who goes on to become the first priestess of the temple complex on the Acropolis [being the first priestess she is depicted without the temple key]. Athena instructs her to look after her husband’s tomb, which rests beneath the Erechtheion, and to look after the tomb of her three daughters which, I argue, was believed to rest beneath the Parthenon.
There are two temples that stand to this day on the Acropolis, one is named Erechtheion, “of Erechtheus,” and the other is named Parthenon, “of the Maidens.” It is so simple. We can now understand how these buildings got their names, directly drawn from the Athenian foundation myth in which the royal family makes the ultimate sacrifice and is forever honored through cult ritual at these holy shrines.
GN: I think you have said that views of the past are filtered through the philosophy and beliefs of the people interpreting them, or something along those lines.
JBC: Let’s compare the conventional, orthodox view – that the Parthenon frieze shows a parade of citizens presenting a birthday dress to Athena – with the new reading of the frieze as a deeply moving foundation narrative reflecting the core values of the city. What becomes clear is that the conventional reading has more in common with the 18th century western interpreters who projected themselves onto the frieze then it has to do with the ancient Greeks themselves.
A reading of the frieze as an historical snapshot of a sort of 4th of July parade — focusing on a new birthday dress — is more aligned with modern, western interests than ancient Greek ones, which focused firmly on genealogy and story-telling. Greeks were always deeply concerned with these central questions: Where do I come from? Who were my great, great, great grandfather and grandmother? How did they live? What were their values?
The powerful myth so prominently displayed on the Parthenon frieze forefronts the importance of voluntary sacrifice for the democratic state. At Athens, everyone must be willing to do their part — no exceptions, not even among the elite. Willingness to sacrifice lies at the very heart of this first democracy.
GN: You explain so well how Athenian ideals–which in the oldest stories included sacrifice of one for the good of all– developed into democracy, a totally new social idea.
JBC: We are so accustomed to our contemporary understanding of modern democracy that it is easy to lose sight of just how radical this political system was when Athenians embraced it in 508 B.C. By gathering the extraordinary body of evidence for Athenian awareness of the role self sacrifice in enabling democracy to function, we can understand that sacrifice, trust, and ritual were the backbone of the entire system.
The delicate balance between personal sacrifice and the common good hinged on the trust Athenians had in their fellow citizens and in the system itself. They so trusted in the process of open debate that, when they lost in one instance, they firmly believed that would win in the next political argument.
GN: How was that trust established?
JBC: Athenian freedom had been hard won in the democratic revolution over the tyrants of the sixth century B.C., and vigorously defended in the face of the Persian invasions (490-479 B.C.). Having triumphed over such adversities, Athenians considered themselves superior to all others. They might never have accomplished what they did without this robust confidence in themselves. It cheered them on to greatness, not only in devising an ingenious political system but also in art, architecture, literature, drama, science, mathematics, philosophy, and free enterprise.
GN: What are your basic conclusions?
JBC: When Athenians looked at their Parthenon they saw a tragic tale of doomed girls; but even more, they saw the heart of a democratic system in which sacrifice and trust were paramount. Without these ideals passed down through generations, their democracy could not have survived.
At the heart of Athenian democracy lies the conviction that no single life, even a royal one should be set above the lives of the many. John’s gospel defines the zenith of love in this way: “Greater love has no one but this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
That this notion of self-sacrifice as love, which sounds so familiar to us, should have been subscribed to at Athens 450 years before Christ is hugely significant, revealing how a trust in one’s fellow citizens allowed rule by the people to endure, even through terrible crises.
Democracy in all its various forms has ever since remained a balance between the individual’s obligations to the community and the community’s responsibilities toward the individual.
We cannot understand the Parthenon outside the sphere of religion. This is true of the birth of democracy too. The novelty of democracy would not have been conceivable without the intense awareness of the common bond forged by shared genealogy and fostered by religion. Democracy was, in fact, a kind of religion for the Athenian citizens, an all-encompassing faith that required total commitment to ideals that were worth dying for.
GN: Is your conclusion complete, or do you intend to investigate/discover more evidence to back up your new reading of the east frieze?
JBC: I still work on the Parthenon every day! If one engages with the new paradigm I propose, it keeps opening doors for further research and sheds new light on old questions: the relationship of tombs and temples, of landscape and memory, ritual and paideia, performance and religion. It also leads to a host of new questions concerning the intersection of Greek drama, foundation myth, history, religion, social order and values. This is a deeply fascinating and extraordinarily rewarding line of inquiry that keeps one searching for more.
Author of Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece and Votive Sculpture of Hellenistic Cyprus, Joan Breton Connelly has excavated throughout Greece, Kuwait, and Cyprus, where she has directed the Yeronisos Island Excavations since 1990.