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‘The Parthenon Enigma’—An Exchange

In response to:

The Latest Scheme for the Parthenon from the March 6, 2014 issue

letters_1-052214.jpg
British Museum, London/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Detail of the Parthenon Frieze showing the figures identified by Joan Breton Connelly as King Erechtheus and his sacrificial daughter

To the Editors:

As Mary Beard reminds us, in an eminently clear and well-balanced review [“The Latest Scheme for the Parthenon,” NYR, March 6], Joan Breton Connelly’s interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze has been around for some time. It has always seemed to me a classic example of a thesis that is worked out with close attention to the immediate evidence, yet nevertheless contrives (mainly, as Beard’s review makes clear, through chancy speculation) to arrive at a conclusion totally irreconcilable with the mores of the society in which it is set. The frieze was, in an almost literal sense, the diadem of the Parthenon; and the Parthenon was planned and executed as the emblem of Periclean Athens’s civic and intellectual ideals. Yet we are asked to believe that the chief message it carried was centered on human sacrifice, to exemplify the desirability in this society of submitting one’s own desires to that society’s greater good.

Never mind that human sacrifice was so abhorrent to fifth-century Athenians that an exactly parallel myth, that of the sacrifice of Iphigeneia at Aulis to win a favorable sailing wind to Troy, was already being euphemized by the substitution of a sacrificial deer on the altar; or that in both cases the alleged self-sacrifice involved the murder of an underage innocent who had no say in the matter; or that when we do hear a contemporary allegation of human sacrifice it is a desperate political attempt to smear Themistocles; or that the one instance recorded by Homer, that of Achilles at the funeral of Patroclus, was universally regarded as a serious blot on his character. Why, then, should the Parthenon Frieze choose to perpetuate just such an incident?

One minor point about Mary Beard’s review: while I much appreciate her generous effort to bolster my reputation for heterodoxy, I have to confess that both the “bloody Parthenon” ejaculation and the choice of the Eleusis cement works as a preferable object of contemplation were the choice of my lunch companion, not my own. Even at the time, my own attitude was traditional enough to write an admiring book about the Parthenon: not the one, by the way, from which Mary Beard culled her anecdote.

Peter Green
Department of Classics
University of Iowa Iowa City, Iowa

To the Editors:

Mary Beard cast well-conceived doubts on the Joan Connelly interpretation of the Parthenon—that it is all about the founding myth of Erechtheus. She might have added another argument. If the Erechtheus myth defined the spirit of fifth-century Athens, why is it never referred to in that century’s main expression of Athenian identity, the funeral oration Thucydides confected for Pericles? Even in the fourth-century funeral orations, celebrating the Athenian past, there are only a couple of passing references to Erechtheus. It seems doubtful that Erechtheus could be everywhere on the Parthenon and practically invisible elsewhere in Athenian political life and propaganda. We cannot trust Euripides to be a booster of Athens on the basis of one play’s fragments.

Garry Wills
Evanston, Illinois

To the Editors:

In reviewing The Parthenon Enigma, Mary Beard does not seem to understand that in her brilliant and eloquent study, Joan Connelly’s interpretation of the peplos scene invests the frieze with a depth that enriches and elevates it into the ranks of art suggestive of Aeschylus’ trilogy, The Oresteia, in which the murders of blood revenge committed in the first two plays culminate in the redemptive epilogue of The Eumenides. One would not expect to see a sacrificial scene represented on the frieze any more than it would be in a Greek tragedy.

Indeed, even in the preliminaries to the sacrifice that Connelly maintains are represented in the peplos scene, terror would not have to be inscribed on the faces of the principals, who like some of heroes and heroines in Greek tragedy remain composed as they learn their horrible fate. An Apollonian veneer is also reflected by the dedication of the temple adjacent to the Parthenon—though not to Erechtheus’ daughter but to Erechtheus himself. (Her name is not known.) Feelings of loss over her death could have overshadowed the joy experienced with Athens saved from destruction, and a dirge for women could have been a threat to patriarchy.

The story of this ancient sacrifice becomes especially dramatic by recalling details not mentioned by either Beard or Connelly and infrequently recorded in studies of the earliest period of Greek mythical history. The first mythical king of Athens, Kekrops, who is almost identical to Erechtheus, banned human and animal sacrifice in introducing civilization to the Athenians. Later Erechtheus violated this law to save Athens. Was Erechtheus imagined to soften the bitter irony that the king who violated the law banning sacrifice was the very same king who decreed it?

Sybil Wuletich-Brinberg
English Department
Hunter College of the City University of New York
New York City

To the Editors:

In her wide-ranging discussion of The Parthenon Enigma, Mary Beard observes that the controversy over the Elgin/Parthenon Marbles has “complexity, at many different levels, and at every period.” This was brought home to me on a visit to the new Acropolis Museum, where the frieze blocks brought down from the Parthenon have been mounted at eye-level. The originals are interpolated with casts of the blocks now in the British Museum: the casts were a gift from the museum to Greece a century or so ago, and were painted to look like the original sculptures. This meant that they recorded the sculptured surfaces prior to the disastrous attempt at “cleaning” undertaken at Lord Duveen’s instigation in the 1930s, and were an invaluable art-historical document. Unfortunately, to make the political point that they are only casts, the Acropolis Museum has painted them all in a flat light shade, and thus erased the evidence as surely as the lime-burners of Athens were doing with fallen originals when Lord Elgin happened along and took some of them away to London.

Norman Hammond
Professor of Archaeology Emeritus
Boston University
Boston, Massachusetts

Mary Beard replies:

My apologies to Peter Green for my loose phrasing, which made it appear that he was the author (rather than the reporter) of the phrase “the bloody Parthenon”; and my thanks to both him and Garry Wills for casting further doubts on the idea that human sacrifice and the myth of Erechtheus were central to the culture of classical Athens.

Norman Hammond raises an important question on the role of plaster casts in the story of the Parthenon sculptures, which goes beyond the Acropolis Museum. One of the controversies surrounding the display of the “Elgin Marbles” in the British Museum (hinting at wider and changing views on “authenticity” and “originality”) has been how far casts have a part to play. In the late nineteenth century the marbles were displayed alongside casts, which stood in for the sculptures (or parts of sculptures) remaining in Athens. But in 1928 a committee established to reconsider the display reversed that policy, recommending that the originals—however fragmentary—be shown without their plaster supplements. “The juxtaposition of marble and plaster is bound to be inharmonious,” they wrote.

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