The Parthenon Enigma Unravels The Past

The title of the book demands attention and presages controversy – everything a scholar dreams of: The Parthenon Enigma: A New Understanding of The World’s Most Iconic Building and the People Who Made It.

The jacket for the book written by the NYU Professor of Classics and Art History prepares the reader for a fascinating intellectual journey: “In this revolutionary book, Joan Breton Connelly challenges our most basic assumptions about the Parthenon and the ancient Athenians.”

Connelly focuses on the magnificent 525-foot long Parthenon frieze, part of which can be seen in the Acropolis Museum and the rest of which was famously abducted by Lord Elgin and now resides in the British museum in London.

One the most important messages in the book is that the Parthenon’s full significance has been obscured as a result of the frieze’s dismemberment. Connelly urges that the pieces be reunited “in order that what is perhaps the greatest single work of art surviving from antiquity may be viewed more nearly as its makers intended.”

When something is labeled “iconic” the implication is that members of society, regardless of their level of education, know what it represents.

The Fifth Century B.C. building “has been venerated for more than two millennia as the West’s ultimate paragon of beauty and proportion… Since the Enlightenment, it has also come to represent our political ideals, the lavish temple to the goddess Athena serving as the model for our most hallowed civic architecture,” the jacket notes continue.

Democracy, the rule of law, art and literature and science, the power of reason, and the notion that man is the master of his fate, in summary, all the achievements of the Ancient Greeks and their legacy to mankind come to mind when one encounters the image of the Temple of Athena, whether it is seen in a text book or in a Greek diner, and yet, there may be a darker side.

“How much do the values of those who built the Parthenon truly correspond with our own? And apart from the significance with which we have invested it, what exactly did this marvel of human hands mean to those who made it?” Connelly asks.

She is a field archaeologist who has worked at Corinth, Athens and Nemea in Greece, at Paphos, Kourion and Ancient Marion in Cyprus, and on the island of Falaka off the coast of Kuwait. Since 1990 she has directed the Yeronisos Island excavations and Field School in Cyprus.

According to her NYU biography, “In 1996 Professor Connelly published Parthenon and Parthenoi: A Mythical Interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze offering a new reading of the Parthenon frieze within the full context of Athenian myth, topography, visual culture and ritual,” whose implications have been integrated into The Parthenon Enigma.

Connelly challenges the most basic assumptions about the Parthenon and the ancient Athenians. She focused on the frieze that depicts a “vast enigmatic procession—a dazzling pageant of cavalrymen and elders, musicians and maidens— that has for more than two hundred years been thought to represent a scene of annual civic celebration in the birthplace of democracy.”

It was believed that the frieze depicted the Panathenaic festival that every four years marked the birthday of the goddess Athena. At the conclusion of the ritual, her statue received a new peplos – robe.

The discovery of fragments of a lost play by Euripides a few decades ago shed new and darker light on the revered images of the frieze. The texts were found on papyrus in the wrapping of an Egyptian mummy.

Connelly now believes the frieze does not depict a Fifth-Century procession but rather the myth of the founding of Athens and King Erectheus’ sacrifice when it was threatened by defeat.

In 1995 the New York Times wrote about Connelly’s work: “In a close reading of the legend of Erechtheus, Dr. Joan Breton Connelly…came to realize that the peplos scene in the frieze could represent the sacrifice of the young daughters of the king. This was the price required of him by the oracle of Delphi if Athens was to be saved from its besieging foes.”

Connelly said at the time that this “has far-reaching implications for our understanding of the role of women in Greek myth and culture,” and the Times noted that “Greek writings of the time were making much of the sentiment attributed to Praxithea that just as boys go to war, girls go to sacrifice — both for the good of the polis, the city-state. Another famous example was Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia, which enabled the Greek fleet to set sail for war against the Trojans.”

Connelly told the Times in 1995 that the new interpretation “encourages us to re-evaluate our current understanding of the Panathenaic festival itself, an event which may have been more than just the celebration of Athena’s birthday.”

The new book’s jacket notes say “Connelly reveals a world that beggars our popular notions of Athens as a city of staid philosophers, rationalists, and rhetoricians, a world in which our modern secular conception of democracy would have been simply incomprehensible.”

While devotees of Greek history – presumably including America’s Founding Fathers – could put the juxtaposition of bloody ritual and reason into perspective, and students have long been exposed to E. R. Dodds’ classic book The Greeks and the Irrational, the jacket notes correctly declare that “The Parthenon Enigma is sure to become a landmark in our understanding of the civilization from which we claim cultural descent.”