Thursday, December 12, 2013

Reverie at the Parthenon

By Glenn Juday
Note: In October/November 2012 Professor of Forest Ecology Glenn Juday participated a private trip (pilgrimage) following the route of St. Paul, through Turkey, mainland Greece, Aegean islands and Rome. As time permits he will post some sketches of the history, geography and natural history and contemporary observations of this route.

PART 1 of a 3-part series

The setting and origin of the Parthenon
The Parthenon (in Greek: Παρθενων) is one of the most famous buildings in the world. It’s situated in a spectacular setting, and is a tangible part of ancient Greece that allows a visitor of today an immersion experience in a long lost time. The Parthenon sits atop the Acropolis (in Greek: Ακρόπολις), a term compounded from the Greek acro = upper/edge or extremity, and polis = city. Many larger Greek cities in classical antiquity had an acropolis. Originally such a district served as a defensive fortification to which the population could retreat during a raid or attack. Over time, the acropolis of a city often assumed political/religious significance as an expression of power, sovereignty, and social ideals.

North side of the Acropolis of Athens, October 2012. The forest here is made up of pine, olive and cypress.
The Parthenon was ordered constructed by the Athenian leader Pericles beginning in 447 B.C. The structure was built to commemorate the defeat of the Persian invasion of the Greek lands, including Athens, in 480 B.C., and specifically to replace an older temple destroyed by the Persians. The Parthenon that sits on top of the Acropolis of Athens was built as a temple to the mythical virgin (parthenos in Greek) goddess Athena, at least nominally. There is little evidence that the Parthenon generated, or was fully meant to generate, the cultic following easily identified at other ancient religious temple structures. In Greek mythology, Athena contested with Poseidon for the right to be the patron god/goddess for the city-state. Athena won the contest, and the city adopted her name, Athens. She was the goddess of intellectual insight and disciplined spiritual development, and her temple was designed to stimulate these qualities in its visitors. In an important sense the Parthenon might be thought of as a celebration in art and architecture of the emerging cultural vitality, political/military power, and artistic prowess of Athens. Of course it is a modern mistake to try to fully separate religious, civic and political ideals in the minds of ancient people – they did no such thing. The Parthenon was probably/apparently built for all of these reasons.

The replacement temple structure built to commemorate victory over the Persians, the Parthenon, was designed to house a 40-foot tall of “Athena Parthenos” (literally Athena the Virgin) and to surpass previous structures on the site. The names of the architects of the project are known to us today - Iktinos and Kallikrates, as is the name of the sculptor of the giant statue of Athena, Pheidias. The proportions of the Parthenon are considered the definitive expression of the Doric order, and its construction signaled the rise of a talented, confident, and powerful society in its golden age that rightly is identified as making a foundational contribution to western civilization.

 A small (about 1/12th scale) marble replica of the great Chryselephantine (gold-encrusted ivory) stature of Athena that formerly occupied the Parthenon of Athens. This replica was produced at the Varvakeion School (an art training center) during the Roman era in the first half of the 3rd century A.D. Source:éna_Varvakeion.jpg (National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Photo by Marsyas, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).

The flowering of ideas and material culture in classical antiquity that produced the Parthenon has maintained a powerful hold on the imagination of the world for nearly 2,500 years. Although the Parthenon began its long life as a Greek temple, as the parade of history passed through it also has been a treasury (for money), a church, and a mosque. Today, the Parthenon is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world and a major income producer for Greece, a country struggling with a crippled economy, as was painfully obvious on my visit.

A personal encounter with the Parthenon
This Alaskan’s expectation for early November weather in Athens was for moderate – even pleasant – fall temperatures. But the Greek sun that was piercing a well-entrenched high-pressure system over Athens was delivering summer-like conditions. It was another warm temperature anomaly like we had experienced for the week we had been following the route of an ancient Jewish tentmaker and pivotal religious scholar, Saul of Tarsus, also known as St. Paul. After several days of pilgrimage excursions along the shore of the Aegean Sea and inland I had learned my lesson for dealing with this heat. On midday walks, I would dispense with the backpack if possible. So when the pilgrimage group arrived at the base of the Acropolis of Athens and was preparing to hike the path up to the Parthenon on top, I left most gear behind on the coach where it would be secured by the driver.

But in my concern to travel light in the heat, I suddenly discovered that I had left my camera on the bus. Here I was at an icon of western civilization and one of the highlights of the trip, and I had left my camera behind! I sprinted from the ticket entrance back to the bus staging area, and saw the bus in motion already well beyond the exit. But rather that continue the sprint down the street to catch it, something prompted me to just relax (somewhat uncharacteristically, my students and colleagues might say) and go back to rejoin the pilgrimage group. And so I did.

Up the steep incline the group walked, rewarded with a spectacular view of Athens and the Aegean shore. Our guide’s commentary began to fill in the skeleton of information my wife and I had picked up a few days before at the New Acropolis Museum just below us in a hasty tour of with a group of early arrivals for the pilgrimage. Now, here at the Parthenon I simply engaged the moment, trying not to think about the camera. And then my wife had an idea.

Following our tour of the Parthenon, which was at midday, the pilgrimage group had a brief (and welcome) afternoon break before a late afternoon lecture back at the hotel. She suggested that during the lecture I take a taxi back to the Parthenon and wander about on my own until the early evening closing time. And in doing so I was richly rewarded.

The Propylaea (Greek: pro =in front, pylon = gate) at the entrance to the Acropolis of Athens, November, 2012. Scaffolding on the right is part of the process of continuous repair that is carried out on the structure.

I arrived back at the Acropolis just 30 minutes before the last entrants were allowed to start into the site for the day. Logically enough, the crowds were dramatically thinned out in comparison to midday. Who would choose to pay the full entrance fee only to be herded out before sunset - not all that much later? Not many, it turned out. It was as if I had much of the place to myself.

And instead of the harsh vertical midday sun glinting off the marble of the columns, stones and statues and washing out their features, the slanting rays of the late afternoon light worked a kind of magic on the lifeless rock, breathing new depth and texture and color into everything. As the background sky assumed a deeper azure blue with the declining sun angle, the marble began to glow in pigments of cream, yellow, tan, tawny. The evening breezes cooled the Acropolis that sits so commandingly above the city. I could imagine many ancient Athenians would have found it their favorite time of the day on the sacred site.

All the day’s lessons came back to me as I slowly walked about photographing, finding scene after scene essentially framing my thoughts. After a while I had the pictures I wanted. I found an ancient marble bench and sat to pray the Rosary in the dimming light before the site guards began herding stragglers back to the exit (“exodus” in Greek).

Later, I discovered I sat at a place that, in the long and varied history of the site, had been an Eastern Christian church, then Catholic cathedral. History and continuity combine in a complex, and significant, way in this part of the world.

The Propylaea on the west side of the Acropolis of Athens, October 2012. Horizontal lines or breaks in the fluted or grooved columns mark the stacked sections of “drums” that form the tall columns, indicating how these tall pillars were constructed in ancient Greco-Roman architecture.

Power versus Wisdom

People are predisposed, of course, to read the past in terms they are familiar with from the present. From today’s perspective, many assume that the cultural peaks in Athenian democracy (from the Greek demos = people, and kratos = power) represented by the construction of the Parthenon were bright markers on a straight path to secular American and western democracy, a path that broke decisively at its origins from the myths and superstitions of primitive religions. But the past was a different place and the story was not that simple. The starting point on that path was perhaps not where some today may suppose.

The mythos (μθος; Greek = word, speech, tale, saying) behind the Parthenon operates at many levels. In any event, the story is instructive, as it was intended to be. The Athenians at the time of the construction of the Parthenon looked to mythic King Cecrops (Κέκροψ) as a founder Athens. He was supposed to have introduced Athenians to the institution of marriage (as contrasted to promiscuous coupling that occurred before), reading and writing, and dignified ceremonial burial of their dead. It was clear to Athenians that these civilizational traits were foundational to their power and success, especially in comparison to surrounding peoples. Also, according to the mythos, Cecrops was said to have been the first to set up altars and statues to the gods, and offered them sacrifices, although he was said to have forbidden the sacrifice of any living creatures. King Cecrops was said to have taught his subjects the art of navigation, so useful to a people inhabiting a peninsula. Some stories make him the founder of the areopagus. Areopagus, is the composite form of the Greek words Areios Pagos, or the Rock of Ares (Greek: Ἄρειος Πάγος). It is located north-west of the Acropolis of Athens, and was the final court of appeal for criminal and civil cases.

Areopagus, or the Rock of Ares, also known from the Latin as “Mars Hill,” north-west of the Acropolis of Athens, October 2012. This was a place where arguments were presented in legal appeals. This was the location of the scene involving St. Paul as described in the Book of Act, Chapter 17.

King Cecrops, a demi-god himself, called upon Athena and Poseidon to see which of them would become protector/patron god of the city. Athena and Poseidon developed an intense rivalry over this honor and were about to attack each other – always an occasion for otherwise inexplicable human suffering in the form of earthquakes, storms, volcanoes, floods and other disasters. But Athena, with her characteristic wisdom, suggested instead that they should stage a contest for the city, with King Cecrops as the judge. Whoever provided the best gift to the city would gain the reward of the city itself as the prize. 

As a huge crowd of citizens of Athens watched, the two gods went up to the Acropolis to present their gifts. Poseidon, the god of the sea (and sometimes of earthquakes) went first. He lifted his three-pointed spear (trident) and struck the ground, causing the earth to tremble. A spring burst forth and produced a sea. The people were delighted, until they went close to it and found the water salty – an inevitable consequence of a gift from the god of the sea.

 Plaster reconstruction of the sculptures that formed the apex of the west pediment of the Parthenon, New Acropolis Museum, Athens. Athena (with spear and shield, left) and Poseidon (with trident, right) are contesting for the patronage of the city of Athens. The gift of Athena that determined the outcome, the olive tree, is seen between and behind the two contesting deities. The Parthenon was a tangible reminder and exhortation to the citizens of Athens, built at the very height of its golden age, to value wisdom over raw power, however, superficially attractive the latter.

Athena, on the other hand, was far less dramatic. Armed with a spear, she quietly knelt on the ground and either inserted the spear into the rock or buried something. It grew to be an olive tree. The people of Athens gained olives to eat, olive oil for lamps and to cook food, and wood for their houses and boats. They saw her gifts as much more useful. Cecrops declared her the winner and patron goddess of Athens. As a final act of rage for his loss, supposedly Poseidon cursed the city with a lack of fresh water, which continues to this day. In this way, quiet wisdom defeated the superficial attraction of raw power.

At the most fundamental level, this origin mythos poses the idea that it is better for a people to grow their own food (and thus take control of their own fate) than to seek even unstoppable power to plunder neighbors for what they need. The basis for making this distinction is not as far-fetched as it may at first seem to a modern reader. The neighboring Greek city-state of Sparta was built on military power, institutionalized slave labor, and political power monopolized by a highly restricted elite. Taken further, the Golden Age of Athens (sometimes called the Age of Pericles) was built on civic wisdom, literary and artistic works, many of which survive to this day, and the strength that comes from civic pride. The people of Athens were reminded, in a particularly visible way by the Parthenon, to take this lesson to heart, and it became part of the civic cult of Athenian, western, and world civilization.

The temple building known as the Erectheum, at the Acropolis of Athens, October 2012. The Erectheum was built between 421 and 406 B.C. and held some of the most ancient and holy relics of the Athenians, including (1) the supposed marks from Poseidon’s trident and the salt water well or salty sea that sprang up from Poseidon's strike, (2) the claimed sacred olive tree that sprouted when Athena struck the rock of the Acropolis with her spear and (3) the supposed burial places of the mythical kings Cecrops and Erechtheus.

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