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Problem of Interpretation:
What is Represented in the Parthenon Frieze?
Discussion by Dr. Frances Van Keuren
University of Georgia
The northwest corner of the Parthenon, showing the exterior colonnade, and the walls and columns of the interior treasury and west porch. The frieze was located along the wall tops and over the columns of the interior chambers and porches. Photo courtesy of Virginia Suzanne Brown.
Of all the series of architectural sculptures from ancient Greek temples, the continuous frieze from the Parthenon is perhaps the most difficult to interpret. Scholars long maintained that this frieze, from Athena's temple and treasury on the Athenian Acropolis, represents both the procession and the final ceremony from the festival honoring Athena called the Great Panathenaea. The culminating ceremony of the Panathenaea was the presentation of a new woolen robe, the peplos, to an ancient and revered olive-wood statue of Athena, located in the Erechtheion (click here) on the Acropolis.
The Erechtheion on the north side of the Athenian Acropolis, where the olive-wood statue of Athena was located. Photo courtesy of the author.
The Statue of Athena and the Panathenaea
The Original Position of the Frieze
The Frieze in the British Museum
The Panathenaic interpretation of the frieze was first proposed by the eighteenth-century architects and travelers to Greece, James Stuart and Nicholas Revett. However, Joan Breton Connelly of New York University has recently challenged this traditional reading, suggesting that the culminating event represented is not a peplos ceremony, but rather the preparation for a human sacrifice.
The most crucial part of the frieze for either interpretation is the central section of the east side (see illustration), which was located over the pronaos, or front porch, of the Parthenon. According to the traditional interpretation, the two figures on the right are the Archon Basileus, that is the chief magistrate of Athens, and a child; these figures have been understood to be folding either the old peplos from the previous year or the new peplos which was to be worn by Athena's statue for the following year. Scholars are uncertain as to whether the child is a girl or a boy. The central woman in the scene has been understood to be a priestess of Athena and possibly the wife of the Archon Basileus. The two girls on the left, with indecipherable burdens on their heads, have been identified as Arrephoroi (which means literally "Bearers of the Sacred Offerings"), that is Athenian girls who served Athena for a year, and helped weave the new peplos.
Connelly suggests that all five figures in the scene are members of the family of Athenian King Erechtheus. Read a summary of her arguments regarding the re-interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze She proposes that the child on the right should be identified as the youngest daughter of Erechtheus. According to Connelly, the girl's garment is open on the side because she is in the process of changing into the dress she will wear when she is sacrificed in order to save Athens from the threat of an invading army. The Delphic oracle had prophesied that once she had been sacrificed, Erechtheus' army would be victorious in battle against the invading forces. Following Connelly's hypothesis, the folded fabric that was previously thought to be a peplos for Athena should be identified as the girl's funerary dress. Connelly believes that the figure who hands the dress to the girl is her father King Erechtheus, who is shown wearing the ungirt tunic appropriate for his priestly office. To the viewer's left of Erechtheus would be his wife, Queen Praxithea, here acting in her office of priestess. Connelly proposes further that the two girls on the left are Praxithea's other two daughters, who bear stools with their funerary dresses placed on top. According to Euripides' partially-reserved play called the Erechtheus, all three daughters died to save their homeland. Thus, Connelly's interpretation would be consistent with the surviving fragments of the Euripidean play.
In spite of the apparent concurrence between Euripides' account of the saving of Athens and the narrative content of the central section of the east frieze, Connelly's revolutionary new theory has not been universally accepted. The strongest challenge to Connelly's theory has come from the Greek scholar Olga Palagia at the University of Athens. Palagia insists: "Connelly's contention that it [the Parthenon frieze] shows the imminent sacrifice of King Erechtheus' daughters is not borne out by the iconography. Scenes of sacrifice in both Attic [i.e. Athenian] vase-painting and votive reliefs invariably include an altar and a knife (held by a priest or a temple assistant); neither is visible on the Parthenon frieze" (TLSTimes Literary Supplement, April 28, 1995, No 4804, p. 19; click here for a vase with a sacrifice scene).
R. Ross Holloway at Brown University is equally sceptical about Connelly's theory. He is not convinced that the two girls in the left part of the scene are bearing stools on their heads. In fact, there are only clear traces of one possible leg for such stoolsthis is visible on the viewer's right side of the right girl. According to Holloway and following the research of Burkhardt Wesenberg, this so-called "leg" of a stool can better be interpreted as some kind of light, possibly a small oil lamp supported by a lamp stand. A lamp would identify the girls as Arrephoroi, for one of their duties was to perform a mysterious nocturnal rite of bearing to Aphrodite's sanctuary some secret objects, and then returning to Athena's sanctuary on the Acropolis with other secret burdens. Pausanias tells us that during their nocturnal journey, which may have taken place on the night before the Panathenaic procession, they placed these items on their heads (click here to read his account of the rite). If the girls are Arrephoroi, then the woman in the center who receives them would be Athena's priestess, and the peplos on the right would be for Athena.
However, even if the peplos is for Athena, there is no way of determining if the scene depicted is the culminating event of the Panathenaic procession, that is the presentation of the robe to the ancient wooden statue; for the identities of the man who holds the peplos up and of the child who assists him are not certain. The traditional identification of the adult male figure as the Archon Basileus is problematic. While Aristotle tells us (click here for a link to the text) that this highest Athenian official was in charge of the torch race that took place on the evening before the Panathenaic procession, there is no evidence that he was involved in the preparation or presentation of Athena's peplos.
Following a study of A.G. Mantis, Holloway proposes an alternate possible identification for this adult figure with the peplos, that he may be the priest of Poseidon; the god of the sea was the second major divinity besides Athena who was worshipped on the Acropolis. Yet this identification, like that of the Archon Basileus, finds no support in textual evidence relating to the roles of Poseidon's priest. Furthermore, as already indicated, the problem of suggesting some ritual context for the peplos scene meets with the additional difficulty of the uncertain gender of the child who assists the adult. It can only be hoped that future discoveries of pertinent textual evidence and/or visual representations of comparable scenes will shed new light on the problem of what ritual or rituals the Parthenon frieze might depict.
Other Parts of the Frieze
Summary of Interpretations
Bibliography on the Frieze
THE STATUE OF ATHENA AND THE PANATHENAEA
The ancient traveler Pausanias, who visited Athens in the second century C.E., had the following to say about the city's patron goddess Athena, and her revered olive-wood statue in the goddess' sacred precinct on the Acropolis:
Both the city and the whole of the land are alike sacred to Athena; for even those who in their parishes have an established worship of other gods nevertheless hold Athena in honor. But the most holy symbol, that was so considered by all many years before the unification of the parishes, is the image of Athena which is on what is now called the Acropolis, but in early days the Polis (City). A legend concerning it says that it fell from heaven; whether this is true or not I shall not discuss [Pausanias 1.26.6, translated by W.H.S. Jones].
In Pausanias' time and earlier in antiquity, this old-fashioned wooden image of Athena (click here) stood in the Erectheion, a temple on the north side of the Acropolis (click here). Every year during the Panathenaea, a festival which was held in the summer, the statue received a new woolen gown called a peplos; this was the culminating event in a great procession of citizens through the city and up to the Acropolis. Every fourth year an especially elaborate Panathenaic festival was held in Athens, called the Great Panathenaea; in addition to the procession and peplos presentation, the Great Panathenaea is believed to have included competitions in honor of Athena of athletes and musicians.
THE ORIGINAL POSITION OF THE FRIEZE
It's important to understand exactly where on the Parthenon the frieze is located. Select this link, and roll over the button that says "Ionic frieze". It will overlay a rectangle on the plan that indicates the entire extent of the frieze we are considering. Note that the rectangle follows the exterior face of the temple's inner chambers and the entrances to its two porches. The actual frieze is at the tops of these walls and over the porch columns, facing outwards. Thus, the ancient viewer would have seen the frieze when walking close to the temple or just inside its exterior ring of columns. The length of the Pentelic marble frieze is 550 feet, and its height is about 43 inches. Traces of the original pigments tell us that the background of the frieze was painted blue; the figures themselves were also painted.
The west facade of the Parthenon, showing the exterior columns of the colonnade, and the interior columns of the west porch. When the entire frieze was in its original position, it extended over the columns of both the west and east porches, and along the wall tops of the interior chambers. Photo courtesy of Virginia Suzanne Brown.
Now locate the frieze in this elevation drawing. It is over one of the Parthenon's columned porches. To find it, click on the button labeled "Ionic frieze"; it will indicate in an overlay the frieze's exact position. Note that the carved reliefs constituting the frieze are continuous, i.e. unbroken by any non-sculptural panels. This continuous design is a feature of the Ionic architectural order. Look at the drawing of the Ionic order. Compare the columns in this drawing with those in the Parthenon's porch. Clearly, the porch columns are not of the Ionic order. Instead, they have the simpler design of the Doric order, as is readily apparent when they are compared with the columns in the drawing of the Doric order.
Compare the mixture of architectural orders in the Parthenon's porch with the strictly Doric handling of the temple's exterior facade (to the right of the porch in the elevation drawing).
Detail of the entablature of the Parthenon's west facade, showing the sculptured metopes and the triglyphs, and north corner of the sculptured pediment. Photo courtesy of Virginia Suzanne Brown.
THE FRIEZE IN THE BRITISH MUSEUM
Today most of the architectural sculptures from the Parthenon reside in the British Museum in London (click here). They were acquired in the early nineteenth century through the efforts of Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to Constantinople. Armed with official permission from the Turkish Sultan, Lord Elgin removed the sculptures beginning in 1801, and sold them at a loss to the British Museum in 1816. The engraving below, executed in 1810 after an earlier drawing by Pars, shows the Parthenon with the sculptures of the east pediment still in place, before they were hoisted down and shipped to England. Today, while the British Museum considers that it has played a positive role by ensuring that the sculptures "are preserved for the benefit of international scholarship and the enjoyment of the general public", the Hellenic Ministry of Culture considers that they were stolen or looted from their rightful owners, and wants them back. Read about the pros and cons of whether the Elgin marbles should be returned to Greece.
OTHER PARTS OF THE FRIEZE
Photographs of the west frieze in situ show how an unobstructed view of the horsemen was impossible.
The Parthenon viewed from the west, from the entrance to the Athenian Acropolis. Photo courtesy of the author.
When the blocks from the continuous frieze were in their original positions, the first portion that you saw as you approached the Parthenon was over the west porch. The west was the back side of the temple, which you saw first because the entrance to the Acropolis was on the west side (click here for a model). The west porch led to the chamber marked "treasury" on your plan of the Parthenon (go to The Original Position of the Frieze). The west frieze features preparations of horsemen. Photographs of the west frieze in situ show how an unobstructed view of the horsemen was impossible (click here). R. Ross Holloway from Brown University has suggested that because it was so difficult to view, the Ionic frieze was intended to serve as a figural backdrop for the completely-visible architectural sculptures over the temple's exterior Doric columns.
The northwest corner and long north side of the Parthenon. The usual approach to the temple's east entrance is along the north side. Photo courtesy of Virginia Suzanne Brown.
After approaching the Parthenon from the west, the ancient viewer proceeded towards the front of the temple by either walking from west to east along the north side of the building, or by walking along the less-traveled south side. The Ionic frieze on both the long north and south sides contained parallel elements, in that on both sides mounted horsemen were shown galloping in formation, and afterwards there were speeding chariots with warriors on them (click here for a plan of the entire frieze). Groups of walking men, possibly originally holding olive branches, were next, and then came musicians and sacrificial animals. The two halves of the procession continued on the frieze's east side, the side of the frieze that was once positioned over the Parthenon's east entrance porch. From each corner of the east frieze, parallel groups of figures moved toward the central event. On the left and right corners of the east frieze were groups of Athenian girls. Beyond each group of girls and towards the center of the side were groups of males figures who have been interpreted as local heroes. Beyond each of these two groups and flanking the central scene (discussed on the Main Page) were groups of seated gods and goddesses.
According to the traditional interpretation of the frieze, its four sides depict participants in a Panathenaic procession and the presentation of the peplos to Athena's wooden statue. Holloway, however, observes that "even if the horsemen and chariots of the frieze were intended to summarize the competitions of the Panathenaic Games, they had no part in the procession." Connelly has identified the horsemen and chariots as contestants in funeral games honoring the sacrificed daughters of Erechtheus and Erectheus himself, who according to Euripides died by being swallowed up in a chasm. John Boardman of Oxford University suggested that the horsemen and the warriors on the chariots represented the heroized soldiers who died on the plain of Marathon, while successfully defending the city of Athens during the first Persian invasion of 490 B.C. Holloway also recognizes heroic status in the horsemen and warriors on the chariots, but he proposes that because of their nudity, they should be understood as belonging to the more remote mythical past of Athens, to the time of the city's greatest hero, Theseus.
The Greek heroes were thought of as continuing to defend their cities of origin, even long after their deaths. Plutarch, for instance, tells us that "the Athenians were moved to honor Theseus as a demigod, especially by the fact that many of those who fought at Marathon against the Medes [i.e. the Persians] thought they saw an apparition of Theseus in arms rushing on in front of them against the Barbarians" (Theseus, 35.5, translated by Bernadotte Perrin).
SUMMARY OF INTERPRETATIONS
One way of understanding the whole Parthenon frieze would be to deny any thematic unity for its four sides, and to suggest instead that a composite of acts of piety intended to preserve Athens is represented. The horsemen and warriors in their chariots, depicted on the west, north and south sides, would be heroes thundering off to defend the city. The musicians and sacrificial animals on the north and south sides would allude to the musical contests and the sacrifices that were components of the Panathenaic festivals. Although Holloway does not agree on this point, it seems possible that the south and north portions of the east frieze might show, in the groups of girls, parts of the Panathenaic procession, with local heroes and gods in attendance. The east frieze's central scene would depict both the mysterious activities of the Arrephoroi and the peplos which they have woven for Athena's statue.
Alternatively, Connelly's theory allows for some thematic unity in the frieze, in the sense that that all its parts may may be understood as depictions of events from the time of King Erectheus, one of the mythical founders and defenders of Athens. Yet other difficulties, particularly the absence of the sacrificial elements of a knife and an altar in the central scene of the east frieze, are serious impediments to a ready acceptance of her theory.
BIBLIOGRAPHY ON THE FRIEZE
(click here for additional bibliography).
John Boardman, "The Parthenon Frieze Another View," Festschrift für Frank Brommer, Mainz/Rhein, 1977, pp. 39-49.
Joan B. Connelly, "Parthenon and Parthenoi: A Mythological Interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze," American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 100, 1996, pp. 53-80.
R. Ross Holloway, "The Parthenon Frieze Again," forthcoming in Numismatica e Antichità Classiche, vol. 29, 2000.
Olga Palagia, "Through a glass darkly II: misconceptions about the study of Greek sculpture," in Proceedings of the XVth International Congress of Classical Archaeology, Amsterdam July 12-17, 1998: Classical Archaeology towards the Third Millenium: Reflections and Perspectives, Allard Pierson Series, vol. 12, Amsterdam, 2000, pp. 296-299.
Worshipping Athena: Panathenaia and Parthenon, ed. by Jenifer Neils, Madison, Wisconsin, 1996.