The Parthenon Enigma: A New Understanding of the West’s Most Iconic Building and the People Who Made It

Joan Breton Connelly. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 485 pages. $35.00.

Winner of the 2015 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award

By Indira Ganesan

“The easiest thing to do is walk right into the stream; this way, we’ll also get our feet wet, which is very pleasant.” These are the words that open the The Parthenon Enigma. Plato is recounting a walk taken by the speaker, Phaedrus, and Socrates. It is a good sentence to lead with, as this book invites us to step into the stream of Hellenic thought and life that composed the Parthenon. 

In The Parthenon Enigma, Joan Breton Connelly offers a study of “the landscape that so shaped Athenian consciousness of place and time, of reality itself” and “the forces of nature and divinity, of human drama and history” that issued from Attica, the areas surrounding the city.

Early on Connelly tells us how closely myth and history are linked, “inscribed in epic and genealogical narratives” in the Athenian view, since the world was created literally out of Chaos, as described by Hesiod. Out of Chaos emerged Earth, who created Sky, and together they produced, among other children, the Titans and the Cyclops, and Kronos, who in turn produced the Olympian gods.

In between the births in both generations was patriarchal fear of usurpment, leading to swallowed children (“the accustomed remedy for uneasy fathers”) and castration by the matriarch, which only resulted in more children. Connelly reminds us that at the “very core of Athenian solidarity and civic devotion was a sense of a shared past,” which included the notion, for some, of being born out of Gaia. All Athenians understood that they “descended from Mother Earth herself,” directly from the lineage of Erectheus, born of a failed attempt by Hephaistos to seduce Athena, with his seed landing inside the Earth instead.  

For those who cut their milk teeth on the wonderfully illustrated D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths or memorized Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Connelly offers tantalizing tales of the gods and goddesses. The one of prime interest here is that of this Erectheus, early king of Athens, who forms the core of Connelly’s argument regarding the Parthenon frieze. The frieze is generally thought to depict a procession in honor of Athena, including a sacrifice of animals and a presentation of cloth to the goddess, but Connelly says that, in fact, it is a human sacrifice that is depicted, one King Erectheus makes in order to win a war against a neighboring state.

Erectheus sacrifices his daughter, and as Euripides writes, his wife Praxithea fiercely makes the case that the love a mother bears for a child cannot be greater than the love she bears a city. Thus, what is celebrated in often gorgeously rendered detail by at least 50 different sculptors in the Parthenon frieze is the Athenian’s love of state—a love that was not only tied in with a devotion to the gods, but one that willingly and favorably incorporated human sacrifice. The Parthenon is Athena’s, as attested by the 130-foot bronze statue created by Pheidias, won in a battle with Poseidon.  

Other archeologists hotly debate this interpretation, citing the public softening of the Homeric story of Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia by the time the Parthenon is constructed, arguing that the Athenians of the 5th century would deplore human sacrifice, much less celebrate it on the entrance of the revered building. But Connelly insists that a human sacrifice is depicted, with a bare-bottomed young girl (not a boy as generally assumed) readying to change into a funeral shroud. It is a convincing enough argument and, at the very least, a great story as the author retells the myth.

Connelly writes of her excitement in learning about King Erectheus in 1991 in an article on the early myths of Athens and of her photocopying the recovered portions of Euripides’ Erectheus, which had itself been found in the early 1960s wrapped around a mummy. This occurs in the middle of the book, acting as climax. Previously, Connolly has carefully researched and written about how the Parthenon was constructed, how influential Perikles was in getting the funding (about $281 million in today’s currency) for the construction, and how the roots of Athenian democracy were being created. It is a democracy that is not based as much on individual freedom as on the common good, a democracy that asks its citizens not only to care for one another, but also to sacrifice for the sake of the ideal.    

We see how the marble is procured locally, creating long-term employment for thousands of laborers, and “thus, all citizens share in the prosperity of the city.”  Connelly guides us through the construction, always interweaving mythology and meaning into a building that “tips, slants, recedes, inclines, and bows, all the while transmitting an overwhelming sense of harmony and balance.” She notes that the frieze could not really be easily seen from the ground, thus raising the notion that the sculptures were in fact created for the eyes of the Olympians themselves. 

Her enthusiasm is infectious, which makes the insults carried out by Lord Elgin in the 19th century all the more odious. Generously, she concedes that once the Parthenon was photographed and copied, built up as a peerless example of Western ideals, it was only natural that 19th century Europeans would want a piece of it. Literally. So, in goes Lord Elgin and his wife, hacking and hauling away statues, bits of the frieze, half a breast here, a leg there, carting it all away to England. There, under the auspices of an art dealer named Joseph Duveen, who gave a large donation to the British Museum (which houses the Elgin marbles), the marbles that had once been vividly painted and decorated were made white. Using wire brushes, silicon carbide, and copper chisels, all traces of the former color were removed.

It was a hideous endeavor, which reeked of imperial bombast, not unnoticed, it seems, by the museum trustees who took pains to question Elgin on the authenticity of the “permission” he received to remove the marbles from England’s ally, a Turkish sultan (permission rather liberally interpreted by the Elgins). One trustee remarked that Duveen “had destroyed more old masters by over-cleaning than anybody else.” The damage done, the Duveen Wing carries on, with numerous requests that Britain return the Elgin marbles to Greece, or even lend them to the Acropolis museum in Athens where one can at least see the rest of the building. In 2009, a British team recovered some faint traces of color from the west pediment, colors that were duly noted as those of the Union Jack, and as Connelly archly adds, “shooting a little cannonball of British nationalism toward the happy party gathered at the foot of the acropolis.”

Whether you agree or not with Connelly’s hypothesis about the raison d’etre for the Parthenon, the book is, if not a romp, a well-paced walk through antiquity, with the idea above all to see the Parthenon and democracy as the Athenians might have. It is the kind of book you dip into, sometimes to muse over the photographs (132 black and white and, with an air of a surprise gift in the midst of the prose, a centerpiece of eight pages of color) and to pick out sections to reread. The end pieces feature illustrations of the frieze, and there are 81 pages of notes. As with the best of books, you close the volume with the distinct urge to pick it up again, and yes, go visit the site for yourself. 

Novelist Indira Ganesan was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa at Vassar College in 1982. Her books include The Journey (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), Inheritance (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998) and As Sweet As Honey (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).