Friday 15 September 2023

The Caryatids: The (Ancient) History Girls by Caroline K. Mackenzie

The ascent to the Athenian Acropolis.
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

If you have ever climbed the steep steps up to the Acropolis in Athens, you will hopefully agree that the arduous ascent is worth every breath, as you reach the stunning collection of 5th century BC temples built as a celebration of Athens’ might and power. An earlier temple housed on the Acropolis had been destroyed in 480BC when the Persians invaded Attica. The story goes that following this destruction, the Athenians swore the oath of Plataea, vowing never to rebuild the Acropolis so that it would serve as a permanent reminder of barbaric impiety. However, under Pericles, general and statesman, an ambitious building programme resulted in the magnificent monuments which still stand today; a giant pro-Athenian billboard, you may say.

Even if you haven’t visited, you might have seen the Acropolis on the news this summer. Hoards of overheated tourists, panting and sweating, were adamant that the soaring temperatures and fierce sun would not prevent their pilgrimage to the Parthenon. The Parthenon is the most famous of all the temples on the Acropolis but just to its north, in its shadow, is a temple which has long intrigued me, not least because of the statues of women in its south porch.

The Parthenon (right) and the Erechtheion (left).
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

This temple is known as the Erechtheion and was a replacement for the old temple to Athene Polias (‘Protectress of the City’) destroyed by the Persians. The building was started in 421 BC but most of it was completed between 409 and 406 BC. It probably housed the old cult statue of Athene, but it was also a temple for the cults of Erechtheus (hence its name) and Poseidon. Erechtheus, the only semi-offspring of Athene, was an Athenian hero and all Athenians claimed to be descended from him.

The breath-taking view across Athens with the Erechtheion in the foreground.
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

The Erechtheion was the most sacred spot on the Acropolis, and indeed in Athens as a whole. It recalled the complete history of the city. Here, according to myth, Athene and Poseidon competed with each other to become patron of the city. The location preserved the sacred proofs ('martyria') of the contest: the olive tree bestowed on the city by Athene (an olive tree still stands there today) and the marks from Poseidon’s hurled trident and the saltwater spring that sprung up after he struck the rock of the Acropolis. This competition is depicted on the west pediment of the Parthenon.

The uneven terrain on which the Erechtheion was built.
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

The temple also housed the grave of King Kekrops, a mythical king of Athens who had the head of a man and the body of a snake. Due to the various sacred sites, as well as the uneven terrain, the architecture of the Erechtheion is unlike any other. It had to incorporate space for each deity and hero (including altars for each) and this determined the layout and size of all its rooms. It is unusual as it has an asymmetric shape and is built on different levels.

The olive tree beside the Erechtheion. 
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

The south porch faces the Parthenon and here stand six Caryatids, statues of females acting as columns. The Caryatids are massive figures (appropriate to their function). They have clinging drapery, a feature of much Greek sculpture, known as ‘diaphanous’ drapery (or, to quote one of my former lecturers, ‘The wet T-shirt competition’ look). Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology, Sir John Boardman, describes the Caryatids as having an ‘emphatic set of hips and legs that look forward to the yet richer styles of the later century’.

The caryatid porch of the Erechtheion, on the Acropolis, Athens.
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

‘Architects should inform themselves about history’ according to Roman architect and writer, Vitruvius, in his De Architectura (1.1.5). He goes on to say that someone might ask why an architect has replaced columns with ‘marble statues of long-robed women, which are called Caryatids’. Vitruvius explains that Caryatids are so called because during the Persian wars, the Laconian city of Caryae was one of those Greek states which sided with the Persians. After defeating the Persians, the Greek allies turned on Caryae. They murdered the men; and enslaved all the women, regardless of individual women’s social background. The architects of the time symbolised their shame by creating ‘Caryatids’: statues of the women bearing their heavy load. Thus, their punishment was to be publicised forever.

The Erechtheion in the shadow of the Parthenon.
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

Vitruvius’ theory, however, has not always received support among scholars. Some point out that the Erechtheion is not the first building to use female figures as columns: the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi (late sixth century BC) also has them. However, this doesn’t prevent the possibility that the meaning of their use was ‘reinvented’ in the fifth century. At the time, it could have been seen as a modern twist on an old custom. Vitruvius also tells us that the Spartans built similar statues as supporting columns in their ‘Persian Stoa’ (a roofed colonnade). The statues were dressed in Persian clothing. Thus, these were architectural victory trophies as Sparta had defeated Persia at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC.

Another interpretation of the Caryatids is that they are carrying the baskets used in the Panathenaia and are part of the procession. The Panathenaia was a festival celebrated annually in honour of the patron goddess of Athens, Athene. Every four years the Great Panathenaia was held, a grander version of the annual festival, and included an elaborate procession. The Caryatids, therefore, could be standing in readiness to serve the goddess. During the Panathenaia, the Erechtheion was the where the procession reached its grand finale and here the peplos was presented to the olive wood statue of Athene. The peplos is a rectangular piece of clothing worn by women, folded down from the neck and belted and tied or won at the shoulder but sleeveless. The presentation of the peplos to Athene is believed to be represented on the Parthenon frieze, on the central part of the eastern side, the side from which one enters the Parthenon.

Part of the Parthenon frieze (British Museum): the gods frame the presentation of the peplos scene.
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

The capitals of the columns placed on the heads of the women ensure the weight of the roof and its forces are directed downwards. Their dresses are peploi (Greek plural of peplos), the vertical folds of which recall the flutes of columns. Their hair is thick and plaited and rests on their shoulders and back, which cleverly provides further strength to the structural weak point of the neck. We do not know the name of the sculptor but believe they are from the workshop of Alkamenes, pupil of Pheidias. Pheidias was the artistic director of the construction of the Parthenon and also the sculptor of Athene Parthenos (‘Maiden’) on the Acropolis and of Olympian Zeus at Olympia. This chryselephantine statue of Zeus was regarded by the later Greeks as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Other scholars believe that, as they stand above the grace of Kekrops, they represent mourners for this ancestral figure. If they do represent an above-ground monument for the tomb of Kekrops ('the Kekropeion') located directly below, then they were ‘choephoroi’: devotees who offered libations to the dead hero-king using the 'phialai' (shallow libation vessels) they once held in their hands, as known from ancient copies of these statues. In the building inscription for the temple, the statues are simply called ‘Korai’ (maidens). Caryatids was a name given to them in later years.

The Erechtheion was repaired shortly after 21 BC following a destruction by fire. In the 7th century AD, it was converted into a church, while under Ottoman rule (1458-1833) it hosted the harem of the Turkish commander. In 1803 the column at the northeast corner and one of the Caryatids (known as 'Kore C') were removed by Lord Elgin (of the 'Elgin Marbles' notoriety). The Museum Guide to the Acropolis Museum has something to say about this:

‘The abduction of the Kore, who was replaced by a pilaster, made such an impression on the enslaved Athenian people that they claimed thereafter they could hear the lamenting of the remaining maidens mourning the loss of their sister at night. However, this was not the end. In 1827 during the Greek struggle for liberation, the building was struck by a Turkish bomb that destroyed Kore F. The five remaining Karyatid [sic] statues (Korai A, B, D, F and F, the last having been restored from fragments, are today exhibited in the Acropolis Museum, while the sixth (Kore C) is in the British Museum.’


Kore C currently in the British Museum (left) and a cast of one of her 'sisters' in the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge (right).
© Caroline K. Mackenzie.

If you are wondering who the imposters are in situ on the Erechtheion today, they are simply replicas made from stone. The originals are made from the superior Pentelic marble. Versions of them can be seen as far afield as Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli and, in terracotta, in the porch of St Pancras New Church in Euston Road, London. The Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge houses a cast of one in the Acropolis Museum in Athens, removed from the temple in 1979. If you would like to get up close and personal with one of the originals, the Caryatid in the British Museum is tucked away in a rather modest location and is quite separate from the Parthenon Gallery. Whenever I have visited her, I have had her all to myself. The debate about the Parthenon sculptures and their possible return to Athens rages on and the British Museum has been in the news rather a lot recently. As to whether Kore C will be in London for much longer, who knows. I am taking some students to the British Museum later this month to introduce her to them, while I still can.

The porch of St Pancras New Church in Euston Road, London.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.


Boardman, J. (1985) Greek Sculpture: The Classical Period. Thames and Hudson.

Mitropoulos, A. (2017) Morrison T., Renshaw J. and Steinhauer J. Greek Religion and Democracy and The Athenians. Bloomsbury.

Pandermalis, D., Eleftheratou S., Vlassopoulou C. (2016) Acropolis Museum Guide. Acropolis Museum Editions.

Spivey, N. (1996) Understanding Greek Sculpture: Ancient Meanings, Modern Readings. Thames and Hudson

Caroline K. Mackenzie is the author of three books and is a private tutor in Greek, Latin, and Classical Civilisation. Caroline's online Classics Club meets weekly during term-time and is currently studying Virgil's Aeneid in translation. 'Learn Latin' meets fortnightly on Zoom.


Mary Hoffman said...

Fascinating! We saw some hilarious painted "caryatids" on the wall of aTodor house in Conwy, Wales. I'll see if I can find a picture.

Mary Hoffman said...

Tudor! I've found a photo online but don't see how to add it to a comment. Basically, they were painting by someone who had seen b & w engravings of them without knowing their purpose.They have brown curly hair and lipstick!

Caroline K. Mackenzie said...

Thank you, Mary. The wall painting versions sound as if they are definitely worth a visit! I'll see if I can find the photo of them online.
By the way, thank you for pointing me in the direction of the photo of the St Pancras Caryatids. I still can't find the photo I took of them when I was last there but will be revisiting soon so will be sure to get some good close-ups!