Some years ago I saw a video about the emergence of Greek culture and the talking heads discussed the magnificent achievements of Greek drama. Before talking about the drama itself, they mentioned the origins of drama, though only very briefly. After all, Greek drama began in the worship of Dionysius, a confusing and strange subject for modern ears. I found it fascinating to watch the speakers deal with this aspect of Greek civilization. They hated being on unfamiliar territory — unfamiliar not so much intellectually, that is, but ideologically and experientially.
- Dionysian worship started with women sneaking off illegally, or at least shamefully, for their rites. Dionysius himself occupied, at minimum, the barest fringe of Greek religion. Some of the commentators latched onto this, for it promised a narrative we could identify with. “Aha! A sisterhood of oppressed women, sharing radical beliefs! And observe the vital contribution they made to their society and the world at large, etc.” But Dionysian rites also involved men, too, so they couldn’t press that narrative too far.
- The Dionysian rites for women also seemed to involve ecstatic experiences invoking bulls, snakes, wine, and so on. This too got the barest mention, for the “oppressed sisterhood” narrative didn’t really match the fact that Dionysius was a fertility god. So the women may have been praying and dancing furiously for the chance to have children, a very traditional “role” (ha!) for women to play.
- To add insult to injury, male Dionysian worship may have invoked blessings to “survive ordeals.” This got no mention at all. It appears that these “rebels” danced around madly and got drunk to attempt to fulfill the most prosaic of traditional gender roles of “tough guy,” and “nurturing mother.” This square peg had no place in their round hole interpretations.
So, after passing over all this in the quickest fashion, finally smiles came to their faces as they talked about the drama itself. Here they felt far more comfortable. Greek drama “allows for the community to come together and deal with issues of importance,” or something like that. Ah, yes, the “humanism” of the Greeks. This we understand, so this they talked about at length. Gone were any of the unusual religious associations involving Dionysius. The important thing to us is the emergence of drama, for without the emergence of drama, how could we watch Dumb and Dumber today instantly on Netflix?* And we very naturally assume that what is important to us must have been of prime importance to the Greeks. Dionysian worship, then, got relegated to a mere carrying device for what we understand and what we feel is important. As a friend of mine stated, whenever we use a word to describe an ancient people that they themselves did not use (in this case, the word “humanism”), we will likely reach false conclusions. The talking heads are not unusual. Most of us unfortunately avoid confrontations with the “other.”
I’m not an Alfred Lord Tennyson fan (to be fair I’ve read hardly anything he wrote), but his poem “The Lady of Shallot” intrigues me in one way. The Lady in question deals with a curse, and can only look at reflections in a mirror to ascertain reality. The mirror of course serves as a poor substitute of reality, and later cracks upon her sad and untimely death.
Out flew the web and floated wide-
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.
Tennyson’s work came from the same spiritual place as the dreaded pre-Raphaelites, whose paintings reveal an intense desire to recover something of antiquity. And yet the grossly over-dramatized version of the past in their eyes reveals far more about themselves, with their aspirations fit perhaps for the teenage soul more than an adult world (hence L.M. Montgomery has her young Anne of Green Gables grow fascinated with the “Lady of Shallot”).
All of us tend to distort reality to fit our own images of it, but the way the Parthenon has been interpreted over time stands as one of the more curious episodes of this typical human folly. Joan Breton Connelly chronicles this and gives her own interpretation of the architectural masterpiece in her recent book, The Parthenon Enigma. The building occupies pride of place in the history of western civilization. Its marble facade inspired those who saw it to grand notions of ideal beauty. The building’s perfect proportions inspired noble visions of clarity and a sense of true humanity. Certain technical achievements of the building are practically unparalleled.
But we made the building in our own image, and Connelly writes to set the record straight. Ever since the Enlightenment we have seen the Parthenon as reflecting the “humanism” of the Athenians. We have some justification for this. If you trace the religion of the Athenians one sees a clear descent from Aeschylus (who takes religion seriously) to Thucydides (who didn’t). The Athenians elected Pericles to multiple terms of their highest office, and he certainly fits the humanist mold. Observers therefore assumed, as the Parthenon was Pericles’ project that it would reflect his values. Then again, maybe not.
She has two main arguments, with the first drawn from the he Parthenon friezes, long thought to depict contemporary Athenians mingling with the gods. Connelly has an ironclad argument that Athens instead hearkens to not to its present but its mythological past. At Athens’ founding it had a king named Erechtheus, who had three daughters that sacrificed themselves that Athens might survive (images below on a Parthenon frieze). Athens makes an explicit statement, and explicit prayer of hope, that death might come from life with the Parthenon.
Amidst our wondering at the architectural genius of the building and the democratic (and therefore mostly familiar) practices of the Athenians, we forget that the Parthenon was a temple to Athena. Excavations show that they built the Parthenon on top of an older temple, so clearly the Parthenon was sacred space, and not merely civic space with a civic purpose.
Modern eyes miss many such death-life associations in Greece. For example, look up any article on Corinthian columns and you will likely see something about their fancy, or perhaps excessive, ornamentation. Certainly Corinthian columns do not fit with Enlightenment sensibilities about classical decorum and proportion — such people always prefer the Ionic column (I prefer the Ionic — to the right — as well so I don’t mean to cast stones). But Connelly points out that the plants in Corinthian columns hearken back to ancient myths about death and rebirth in their city. Articles may describe Corinthian columns as “one example of a Greek votive column” (as one site does) without paying any attention at all to the fact that “votive” columns, like votive candles, have a distinctly religious purpose. It’s almost as if they use the big words to obscure the meaning. We will have the Greeks be “humanists” by hook or crook.
A fascinating sub-plot is the length Victorian society went to deny that the Parthenon originally was painted. Evidence after evidence turned up, mostly brushed aside and denied with too much protest. A painted Parthenon would overturn all of their ideas of classical beauty and classical purity. Whole artistic theories got erected on an unpainted Parthenon, and they could not let it go. This in turn clouded their vision in other areas, and allowed false ideas about the Parthenon to persist well into the 20th century.
Did the Parthenon have no contemporary political meaning? Perhaps . . . perhaps Pericles wanted to heal the fractious wounds of a prosperous democracy. Success has never sat well with democracies, and it would make sense that Athens would want to go back to its founding and a story of sacrifice for the common good. All this rings partially true, but the bulk of the evidence makes the Parthenon an overtly religious shrine — one that seeks life from death. Plenty of evidence exists that Athenians saw it this way themselves. For example, during the plague that struck during the Peloponnesian War, sick Athenians came to the Parthenon for refuge, as well as for healing, and possibly, to die. It would be hard to imagine them doing so if the Parthenon was their equivalent of our Capitol or Washington Monument.
But this interpretation also challenges my own thoughts regarding the Parthenon. The “humanist” interpretation fit how I tended to see the late 5th century Athenians as essentially worshippers of themselves. This view gets lots of support from seeing contemporary Athenians mixed with gods on the Parthenon friezes. With the Parthenon cast in this new light, I think that interpretation gets challenged but not overthrown. I think other evidence exists for seeing the Athenians as self-worshippers, and perhaps the Parthenon itself still supports that view. But this will need rethinking on my part.
The lesson of this book is the peril of using history rather than receiving and letting it change you. Self-idolatry is alas, not only confined only to the Greeks, or the Enlightenment and Victorian eras.
*To be fair, this is actually a pretty good movie . . .