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Browsing Posts published in February, 2014

Joan Breton Connelly rightly admonishes the British and other despoilers of the Parthenon to return their loot to Greece. She says that

“the deliberate and sustained dismemberment of what are some of the most sublime images ever carved by humankind brings shame on those who work to uphold this state of affairs.”

PARTHENON ENIGMA by Joan Breton Connelly

 
Book Review by Evaggelos Vallianatos – Scholar; Author

The polytheistic, scientific and technological culture of the Greeks culminated in an extremely sophisticated form of sculpture and architecture and city planning of the classical age, filling poleis with thousands of statues and dozens of great temples, including the Parthenon in Athens honoring the virgin goddess Athena.

Building the Parthenon was, first of all, a massive public works project. Plutarch, priest of Apollo and philosopher, writing almost six centuries after the Athenians built the Parthenon in the fifth century BCE, left a few valuable clues on the history of the Parthenon.

He reported that the materials used for its construction included marble, bronze, ivory, gold, ebony and cypress-wood. Some 200 craftsmen and 50 sculptors did the lions’ work in constructing the temple of the virgin goddess Athena.

Plutarch praised Perikles under whose leadership Parthenon came into being. The works of Perikles, he said, were done “in a short time for all time.”

William Martin Leake, a British traveler and philhellene, visited Athens in the 1810s. In 1821, he extolled the “magnificent” Parthenon, “which, by its united excellences of materials, design and decorations, was the most perfect ever executed.”

Another philhellene, the French philosopher Ernest Renan, visited the Acropolis in 1865 and fell in love with the beauty and sacredness of the Parthenon. He admitted that, “Greece had created science, art, philosophy and civilization; but the scale failed me. When I saw the Acropolis, I have had the revelation of the divine.” In addition, Renan equated the beauty of the Parthenon with “absolute honesty,” reason and the respect Greeks had towards their gods. He said the hours he spent on the Acropolis were “hours of prayer” to Pallas Athena.

A 20th-century student of ancient Athens, R. E. Wycherley, noted that the Parthenon was the

culmination of Greek architecture… The temple dominated the Acropolis and was the crowning glory of the city… It was elaborately designed, and… worthy offering to Athena and a splendid symbol of the power and achievement of Athens.

E. Guhl and W. Koner, German scholars, also of the 20th century, documented that works of architecture “produce the grandest and most powerful impression and give the most distinguishable character to the life of a nation.” This was particularly true with the Greeks who “were enabled and gifted more than any other nation” in rendering “the innermost nature of their genius in external works of art.”

Just like the Greeks designed the world’s first computer 2,200 years ago in order to unite the heavens and Earth, they also brought together the celestial and temporal in their temples. According to Guhl and Koner, “the temple became the rallying-point of everything good, noble and beautiful, which we still consider as the glory of Greek culture and refinement.”

The American classics scholar, Jon D. Mikalson, agrees. He speaks of the divine origins in Greek architecture, the “inclination” of the Greeks “to give to their gods only what was beautiful.” The result of this piety, he says, “filled their cities and villages… with temples, statues and dedications of unsurpassed beauty.”

According to Mikalson:

Most of what we think of as characteristically Greek in architecture, sculpture, mythology, lyric poetry, tragedy, and comedy owned its origins and, especially in the Classical period, its development to the religious institutions and practices of the Greek people. The cultural environment in which the Greek individual lived, whether in Athens or Sparta or Thebes, was significantly determined by his religion and that of his ancestors.

The Parthenon was the jewel of Greek religion. Like an ageless celestial mirror, it also reflected the power, patriotism, democracy and artistic and technical achievements of Athens, the premier Greek polis in the fifth century BCE.

The Parthenon Enigma (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) highlights this refreshing interpretation of Greek history. Its author, the American classics scholar Joan Breton Connelly, is admirable because she sees the Greeks mostly as the Greeks saw themselves. This is no small achievement in an age that is fashionable even for classical scholars to hate the Greeks.

In her 2007 book, Portrait of a Priestess, Connelly argued convincingly women in ancient Greece were not second-class citizens, especially in religious practices. Now in her masterful story, The Parthenon Enigma, she breaks new ground once again — explaining the Greeks in terms of their relationships with their gods. Yes, Athens had plenty of philosophers and radical democrats, but above all else Athens had people pious to the gods and Athena in particular.

The Parthenon, Connelly says, was “first and foremost a religious building,” a “supernal” temple that facilitated beliefs and rituals at the “very fabric of [Athenian] life.” It wedded metaphysical understanding and civic solidarity among citizens who knew they were autochthonous Greeks. The Parthenon told them to protect their polis from “exotic, barbaric outsiders.” This made the Parthenon an “epitome of Athenian self-awareness.”

Christians and, eventually, Moslems desecrated, plundered, bombed and wrecked the Parthenon. But, like Plutarch said, the Parthenon remains untouched by time.

Read The Parthenon Enigma. It is a very important book: thoroughly researched and written for the intelligent reader. It is original, insightful and convincing.

Despite the ceaseless barbarities against Greece, including the unforgivable and atrocious colonialism of the European Union and America in Greece since 2009, Greek values are at the foundation of the West. Connelly’s book reminds us of that.

Connelly rightly admonishes the British and other despoilers of the Parthenon to return their loot to Greece. She says that the “deliberate and sustained dismemberment of what are some of the most sublime images ever carved by humankind brings shame on those who work to uphold this state of affairs.”

JOAN BRETON CONNELLY: “The Parthenon sculptures were not made as stand-alone objects. They were made as part of a building, a building that still stands in the middle of Athens today.

They reflect a people. They reflect a very ancient history. They reflect a religion that can only be understood when put together as a coherent whole. There is a narrative there. It is a story. The story, to be understood deeply and completely, must be brought together again.”
(Partial Transcript from PBS Newshour interview with JOAN BRETON CONNELLY, author of the new book “The Parthenon Enigma.”)

See the 6 minutes video.

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Taking a fresh look at a timeless treasure.

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s perhaps the most famous building in the world, the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. Built in the fifth century B.C., it’s become a symbol of the very idea of democracy in Western civilization, as well as an architectural model for other important structures, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

A new book, “The Parthenon Enigma,” tells the story of the people who built it and how it’s been understood, rightly and wrongly, to our own day.

Author Joan Breton Connelly is a classical archaeologist and professor at New York University.

And welcome to you.

JOAN BRETON CONNELLY, “The Parthenon Enigma”: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your subtitle refers to the Parthenon as the world’s most iconic building. Ionic in what sense?  How do you define what it’s come to mean?

JOAN BRETON CONNELLY: It stands for so much to so many generations of people.

It is a building that is instantly recognizable. It is a building that is endowed with meeting, the birthplace of democracy in particular over the ages, especially the Enlightenment onwards.

It sets the stage for everything that we regard as our highest ideals, perfection in proportion and aesthetics.

JEFFREY BROWN: But your — but your — then your argument is that, in taking all that in, from the enlightenment on, we have somehow missed something. We have missed the Greeks themselves

JOAN BRETON CONNELLY: We got it wrong.

When you’re confronted with an object of beauty, we like to see ourselves in it, reflected glory. But when we try to look at it through ancient eyes, we see a very different reality, a spiritual reality, one with a deep, dark myth behind it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, explain that. I mean, first of all, we think of it as a temple of democracy, but what we’re missing is the temple — it was really a religious temple, right?

JOAN BRETON CONNELLY: It involves the foundation myth of Athens itself, the first king and queen of Athens and how, when the first barbarian hordes came and surrounded the Acropolis, they went to the Delphic oracle and they said, how can we save our army?

And the oracle demands that their virgin daughter be sacrificed. And so they give the ultimate sacrifice for the saving of the city. This is extraordinary against the backdrop of their own times. That is the notion that the most elite people in the city, the royal family itself, would make the sacrifice, so that their people could survive.

JEFFREY BROWN: So human sacrifice, of course, doesn’t go very well with contemporary values.

JOAN BRETON CONNELLY: Absolutely.

And it’s disarming to see that what we look to as the icon of democracy might have above its door a scene of human sacrifice. But this is a metaphor for what the Athenians valued most. And what is important here is that their notion of democracy had at its core the idea of the common good.

Individual interests were fine. We talk about them a lot today, but the building blocks, the spiritual core of Athenian democracy was this notion of a common good.

JEFFREY BROWN: Scholars like yourself have been looking at this for a long, long time, right?  What’s interesting in reading here is that it’s always interpreted through our own time, anybody’s contemporary time.

JOAN BRETON CONNELLY: This is very understandable. It’s completely human to see yourselves in the past.

The most basic human question is, where do I come from?  And you want to find yourself the past. So I don’t have a problem with that. It’s just that we have got new data. And when new data emerges, this data changes our old ideas and assumptions.

JEFFREY BROWN: What has changed in the last decades that we know more now?

JOAN BRETON CONNELLY: Well, for starters, for the past 30 years, the Acropolis restoration program has undertaken this complete renewal of the Acropolis, taking down the building block by block, cleaning, laser-scanning, looking at every angle of the blocks, and then putting them back up together.

So this has given us an enormous amount of new information about how the building was built. Secondly, we have the new papyrus that I set forth this book that is a lost play by Euripides, which was known, but for which we had very few lines, until the 1960s, when a mummy in Paris that had been excavated in Egypt in 1901 finally…

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s quite a detective story, actually, isn’t it?

JOAN BRETON CONNELLY: It is a real detective story…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

JOAN BRETON CONNELLY: … building on one discovery, the discovery of a French archaeologist in 1901, and then the breakthrough of a French papyrologist in the 1960s of how to peel the layers of papyrus off of the mummy, cartonnage, that is the hard papier-mache casing around the mummy itself.

This yielded new texts. This text tells us the story of the first king of Athens and his family.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s an ongoing debate, of course, about whether the friezes, the sculptures that are in the British museum and elsewhere should be returned to Athens, where there’s been a new museum built for them. You think they should be. Why is that important?

JOAN BRETON CONNELLY: The Parthenon sculptures were not made as stand-alone objects. They were made as part of a building, a building that still stands in the middle of Athens today.

They reflect a people. They reflect a very ancient history. They reflect a religion that can only be understood when put together as a coherent whole. There is a narrative there. It is a story. The story, to be understood deeply and completely, must be brought together again.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. The new book is “The Parthenon Enigma.”

Joan Connelly, thanks so much.

JOAN BRETON CONNELLY: Thank you.

(source: PBS Newshour 06February 2014)

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