The Caryatids of the Erechtheion, by Natalie Landau

After the completion of the Parthenon in 432 BCE and the death of Pericles the following year, the Athenians felt it was time to create a new temple for their patron deity, Athena Polias. Begun around 421 BCE and for the most part complete by 409 BCE, The new Temple of Athena Polias (the Erechtheum) was dedicated to Athena and other local Attic traditional cult figures. Needing to be crammed into the empty spaces between the remains of the Old Temple and the northern wall of the Acropolis, the standard architectural temple plan was formatted to fit the area, with certain elements slightly moved and rearranged. While the Temple of Athena Polias did have the usual six column prostyle in the east, it would have been impractical and impossible to build the matching six column prostyle in the west. Instead, the porch that should have been on the west side was placed on the north side, therefore technically fulfilling the standard temple requirements, just in a new way. Then, to compensate for not having real columns on the western side, the architect added four half columns for aesthetic value. However, even as these half columns completed the symmetry of the east and west sides of the temple, the north side needed to be balanced out by something on the south side, and this is where we find the small porch with six caryatids.

When the Temple of Athena Polias was being planned, it was agreed that no part of the new building would trespass into an area of another shrine, or be built over the remains of the Old Temple. Nonetheless, when the caryatid porch was completed, it sat directly over the foundation of the Old Temple. It has been interpreted that this was done intentionally as a way to connect the past and present and act as a sort of a tribute to what was once there, but the biggest question regarding the caryatid porch is that of simply, what was the significance of the caryatids? Female figures doubling as columns had been done before, but in the context of the history of the Acropolis and both the Old and New Temples of Athena, visitors might have approached the kore columns with questions and their own evaluations. Perhaps part of the point of the caryatid figures was to make the people who viewed them think about their purpose. Such responses might have resembled this excerpt from Pindar of Thebes’ Pythian:

We are things of a day. What are we? What are we not? The dream of a shadow is man, no more. But what when brightness comes, and the gods give it, there is a shining light on man, and his life is sweet. (8.95-98)

Pindar’s questions here of  “What are we?” and “What are we not?” can both be interpreted as either coming from an individual, questioning their own existence and purpose, or even from one of the caryatids. Because these ladies are not identified as distinct individuals or even as a specific group of women, perhaps they simply stand for all of the Greek women who would have come to the Acropolis and to the new Temple of Athena Polias. Additionally, perhaps the caryatids are really saying that as they look out over the old remains of the former temple and gaze at the newly finished Parthenon, they, as representatives of the Greek people as a whole, are content with where they have been, where they are going, and the legacy of the accomplishments that are being left behind. In this way, the gods truly have shone their light on man, and “life is sweet”.

Lewis, David. “Celebrating Athena’s Birthday.” A World History of Architecture. London: Laurence King, 2003. 54-57. Google Books. Web. 06 Mar. 2012. <http://books.google.com/books?id=IFMohetegAcC&gt;.

Neer, Richard T. Greek Art and Archaeology: A New History, C. 2500-c. 150 BCE. New York:

Thames & Hudson, 2012. 283-87. Print.

“The Erechtheum.” The Shrine of the Goddess Athena. Web. 06 Mar. 2012. <http://www.goddess-athena.org/Museum/Temples/Erechtheum.htm&gt;.