The Erechtheion

cariátides 1

The Erechtheion, though not the most interesting of the building complex in the Acropolis, is a remarkable world-famous impressive construction for its Porch of the Caryatids. Nowadays, it remains as one of the most distinctive buildings from antiquity that we can still see, though thoroughly renovated and with important changes.

The Erechtheion (also indistinctively found as Erechtheum) has a linguistic origin (Ἐρέχθειον) that, perhaps, got to do with the Ionic styled temple being dedicated –among others– to a legendary mythological hero called Erechthonius.

The construction of this marble temple is thought to have taken place between 421 –started by (probably) Mnesicles– and 406 BC, being its last architect, Philocles, and it is situated on the north side of the Acropolis. The other deities the building was dedicated to were Athena, patron goddess of ancient Athens, and Poseidon, god of the sea. The temple faces east and its entrance is lined with six long Ionic columns. To the north and west the wall of the temple drops dramatically to almost twice the altitude of the front and south sides.

Part of the functions to which this temple was designed were to help accommodate some of the religious ceremonies taking place at the Acropolis, such as those connected with the Panathenaic Procession. Originally planned so as not to disturb other altars on the area such as the sacred shrine of Poseidon (Erechtheus) and Hephaestus/Hephaistos; other shrines (to hold holy relics) that needed to be accommodated included the the Palladion, which was a xoanon or wooden effigy of Pallas Athena, fallen from heaven – not man-made- that Odysseus and Diomedes stole from Troy, sacred olive tree, the Erechtheian Sea, the tomb of another legendary character, Kekrops, whose tomb is under the south porch, that is to say, the Porch of the Caryatids, and finally the sanctuary of Pandrosus, Herse and Aglarus, daughters of the mythical king Kekrops.

The Porch of the Caryatids

Six Ionic columns on the eastern facade (6.58 m tall including base and capital) present the principal entrance (4.88 m x 2.42 m). The temple is unusual in that it incorporates two porches; one at the northwest corner which is supported by six Ionic columns, while below its floor the Athenians pointed at the mark of the thunderbolt sent by Zeus to kill the legendary King Erechteus; and one at the south-west corner which is supported by six massive female statues, the famous Caryatids (Korai or maidens) that are represented in this blog in many different places. It goes without saying that such beautiful pictures as those of the Porch of the Caryatids remind us of the powerful gorgeous looking similar statues that we have since been seeing in lots of museum throughout the world, contemplating their beauty and stylish shapes that represent the proportions of man according to the minds of the ancient Greeks, which has pervade our own western taste when comparing what is beautiful and elegant with that which is not.  Its casual standing supporting on their heads the weight of the porch is simply perfect.  Adding to this magnificent view that we can contemplate when walking through the Acropolis, it is fair to say that none of the present statues are originals but replicas; those original Caryatids –save but one which is in the British Museum- were removed to the newly open Acropolis Museum to be exhibited and protected from the wear of time. (As an afterthought, why then do the Greeks want the Elgin Marbles back? To exhibit them in their museum, as the English do in theirs, or to put them back in place in their original places in the Parthenon? It’s a rhetorical question).

Their clinging Doric clothes (peplos, himation) and intricately plaited hair are rendered in fine detail. Their bold stance and the firm set of the straight standing leg give the impression that the task of bearing the weight of the porch entablature and roof is effortless. Rather cleverly, the straight leg also creates folds in their clothing remarkably similar to the flutes on an ordinary Ionic column. Originally, the figures raised slightly their robe with one hand and held shallow libation vessels (phialai) with the other. Several interpretations about the Caryatids have been put forth. The most convincing one supports the view that they constituted the visible portion of the grave of Kekrops and were the choephoroi who paid tribute to the glorious dead.

The precise original plan of the building has been difficult to reconstruct due to the changes made to it over the centuries. In any case, the asymmetrical nature of the building also presents a rather confused architectural assembly in stark contrast to the precise symmetry of its neighbor, the Parthenon. The situation is not helped by the markedly uneven slope of the foundation rock; indeed the floor of the building is over three metres lower at the northern end in respect to the eastern side.  However, certain elements are agreed upon by scholars. The cella measures some 22.22 m x 11.16 m and is divided into four chambers, of which the most eastern and largest chamber housed the diiepetes, the olivewood statue of Athena Polias, clothed in the specially woven robe which was carried in the Panathenaic procession, held in the city every four years. In front of the statue stood a gold lamp designed by Kallimachos which had a bronze palm shaped chimney and an asbestos wick which burned continuously. The sacred serpent (oikouros ophis), which was believed to be an incarnation of Erechtheus, dwelt in one of the western chambers and acted as guardian to the city. Well looked after, it was regularly fed with honey cakes.

The exterior of the temple incorporated a continuous 63 cm high Ionic frieze decorated (presumably) with images of mythological characters and gods, as well as heroes and mortals, representing scenes of both the ancient cults and ancient mythology, as did the north prostasis. The theme of the frieze is not known, but its form was unusual in that white Parian marble figures, separately carved in relief were attached to a flat background of dark gray Eleusinian limestone. Traditionally, a frieze would present vividly painted figures on a monochrome painted background. From ancient accounting inscriptions, and testimonies from Plutarch we can safely deduce that the entire building was lavishly decorated with wall frescoes, gilded rosettes, and an array of colored features and low relief sculptures.  It is believed that, as in the case of the Parthenon, Phidias was in charge of the sculptures of the temple and frieze.

The eastern part of the Temple was dedicated to Athena, whilst the western part was dedicated to local hero Boutes, Hephaistos and other gods and heroes. Thus, the Erechtheion was a temple with multiple functions, housing older and newer cults, and the site of the ‘Sacred Tokens’, the marks made by Poseidon’s trident when he struck with his trident during his contest with Athena, and the olive tree, the gift of Athena to the city of Athens.

As a final point to bear in mind, we can add that its later history –like that of similar classical buildings- has seen many changes, some fortunate and most of them, an unsolicited outcome from its original design and purpose. We’ll see more of it in future posts.

Jesús L. Vieites


On the Parthenon (2)

Acropolis_5 It is due to the fact that the Parthenon was dedicated to the goddess Athena that it has sometimes been referred to as the Temple of Minerva, i.e. the Roman counterpart for Athena, particularly during the Romanticism.

The real use of the Parthenon was not that of a temple proper but of a treasury, in which the riches, offerings and gold of the Delian League were stored (even Thucydides reported Pericles’ words talking about the statue as a gold reserve that was easily removable) The Parthenon never hosted the cult of Athena Polias, yet the colossal statute of the goddess, which was bathed in the sea and to which was presented the peplos, was an olivewood xoanon, located at an older altar on the northern side of the Acropolis. After all it was normal to use the ancient Greek temples as store houses to keep treasures got in war against hostile peoples.

As been previously mentioned, in mid-5th century BC, when the Acropolis became the seat of the Delian League and Athens was the true representative of what democracy and politics of its time were, Pericles was the mastermind behind a far-reaching building project that would last the entire second half of the century. The most important buildings visible on the Acropolis today — the Parthenon, the Propylaia, the Erechtheion and the temple of Athena Nike— were erected during this period.

Being the architects Ictinos and Callicrates the engineering heads in the construction of the Parthenon, the general supervision work was put in Phidias’ hands, a famous, talented, and skilled sculptor who took the responsibility to create the greatest sculptures that were to awe the whole world. Though works began in 447 BC, and the building was substantially completed by 432, but work on the decorations continued until at least 431.  A great amount of the budget would be dedicated to pay for the costs of purchasing and moving the pentelic marble from its original site at Mt Pentelicus, 16 km from Athens, to the building site in the Acropolis.

The Parthenon survived as a temple dedicated to Athena for nearly one thousand years until Theodosius II decreed in 435 AD that all pagan temples in the Byzantine Empire be closed.

On the rest of the history of the Parthenon, we will be looking at it through different aspects and posts.

On the Parthenon (1)

The Parthenon (Παρθενών), the most magnificent and finest of the buildings in the Acropolis, dedicated to the goddess Athena Parthenos, the patron of Athenas, was a temple of classical characteristics and one that represented best, both aesthetically and socially the Classical Greece conception of democracy in the times of Pericles.  Built between 447 –when Athenas was at the peak of its power- and 438 BC, as part of the greater Periclean building project boosted by this Greek politician, this so-called Periclean Parthenon (Parthenon III) replaced an earlier marble temple (Parthenon II), begun after the victory at the battle of Marathon at approximately 490 BC and destroyed by the Persians in 480 BC. This temple had replaced the very first Parthenon (Parthenon I) of c. 570 BC. The Periklean Parthenon was designed by architects Ictinos and Callicrates, while the sculptor Pheidias supervised the entire building program and conceived the temple’s sculptural decoration and chryselephantine statue of Athena. For a time, it served as the treasury of the Delian League, which later became the Athenian Empire.

The first instance in which Parthenon definitely refers to the entire building is found in the writings of the 4th century BC orator Demosthenes. In 5th-century building accounts, the structure is simply called ho naos (“the temple”). The architects Ictinos and Callicrates  are said to have called the building Hekatompedos (“the hundred footer”) in their lost treatise on Athenian architecture, and, in the 4th century and later, the building was referred to as the Hekatompedos or the Hekatompedon as well as the Parthenon; the 1st-century-AD writer Plutarch referred to the building as the Hekatompedon Parthenon.


The Parthenon, thought to be the zenith of the Doric order, is a double peripteral temple with several unique and innovative architectural features. The temple proper is divided into pronaos, cella and opisthodomos, with a separate room at the west end, and is surrounded by a pteron with eight columns on each of the short sides and seventeen columns on the long ones. The columns had the same width as those of Parthenon II, so that use was made of the material prepared for it, even though the new temple was much broader than its predecessor. The interior demonstrates an innovative approach to both new and old elements: inside the cella a double pi-shaped colonnade established a background for the gold and ivory statue of Athena Parthenos, which showed the goddess in full armour carrying Nike to the Athenians in her right hand. The west room, where the city’s treasures were kept, had four Ionic columns. The two-sloped wooden roof had marble tiles, marble palmette-shaped false antefixes along the edge of its long sides and false spouts in the shape of lion heads at the corners. Its decorative sculptures are considered some of the high points of Greek art. These marble statues adorned the corners of the pediments and large, ornate palmettes their apex. The pediments were decorated with sculptural compositions inspired from the life of the goddess Athena. The east pediment depicted the birth of the goddess, who sprang from the head of her father, Zeus, before an assembly of the Olympian gods, while the west pediment showed Athena and Poseidon disputing for the possession of the city of Athens before the gods, heroes and mythical kings of Attica. Ninety-two metopes alternating with triglyphs were placed above the epistyle of the outer colonnade and under the architrave. All of them were adorned with reliefs, the earliest sculptures of the Parthenon. Their themes were derived from legendary battles: the Gigantomachy was depicted on the eastern side, the Trojan War on the northern side, the Amazonomachy on the western side and the Centauromachy on the southern side. The frieze, an element of the Ionic order, brilliantly added to this Doric temple along the top of the cella, pronaos and opisthodomos, depicted the splendid procession of the Panathenaia, the greatest socio-religious festival of Athens in honour of her goddess patron.

Without any doubt, it is one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments and one that is surrounded by controversial issues nowadays.

Did you know…?

Did you know that…


Looting of the Old Summer Palace by Anglo-French forces in 1860 during the Second Opium War.


…the Old Summer Palace in Beijing (Yuanming Yuan (“Gardens of Perfect Brightness”) was totally destroyed by Anglo-French troops in 1860, and although the French commander C. Cousin-Montauban assured his British counterpart, James Hope Grant, that “nothing had been touched”, there was extensive looting by French and British soldiers on October 18, following instructions by Lord Elgin,  the British High Commissioner to China  during the Second Opium War and son of the famous Lord Elgin who took and brought to England of the Parthenon Sculptures?

Major General Charles G. Gordon (later known as Chinese Gordon, Gordon Pasha, and Gordon of Khartoum), who was then a 27 year old captain in the Anglo-French expeditionary force commented that,

‘You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one’s heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully’

The Panathenaic Festival



The great civic festival of Athens in honour of its patron goddess Athena, [she was thought to have leaped from Zeus’ head, if we trust myths!] celebrated in Hekatombaion (roughly final days of July- beginning of August). Since Athena Polias (‘Athena of the city’) was the city’s divinity and protector, the whole festivity had great religious and political significance and its influence extended far beyond Greece.

Its core was the great procession, evoked on the Parthenon frieze, in which representatives of different sections of Athenian society and even metics marched or rode from the Ceramicus through the agora to the acropolis.  There followed large sacrifices, the meat from which was publicly distributed.  The night before, choirs of boys and maidens had celebrated a ‘night festival’ (pannychis). Under Peisistratus (566 B.C.) the festival was extended to include a number of athletic competitions and musical performances. The ‘Greater Panathenaia’ would start to celebrate every four years since then.

Only then, probably, did the procession bring to Athens the famous Panathenaitic robe, embroidered with scenes from the battle of Gods and Giants.  Every year this special robe (peplos) was woven and decorated, as a gift for Athena, by working maidens (ergastinai) carefully chosen from Athenian aristocratic families. Being selected to work on the cloth was an important civic honour and one held in high regard by the Athenians.

Winners received money prizes and amphoras, filled with olive oil, since olive trees were especially sacred to the goddess Athena. However, the winning athletes normally sold their prize oil for cash. Besides the everyday usefulness of olive oil in the Ancient World, it was also in great demand by administrators of the numerous athletic festivals throughout the Greek world.  Athletes rubbed themselves with olive oil before competition and scraped it off afterwards with a metal device called a stlengis.

As has been mentioned above, the games were added to the Panathenaea in the 6th century (in or near 566), doubtless to set it on a par with other recently founded panhellenic athletic festivals (Pythia, Isthmia, Nemeia).  In the 5th century Athens’ allies were required to participate in the procession, which thus became a symbol of imperial power.

Please note that the discussion of the Panathenaic procession which I will summarily describe below is based on the premise that the Parthenon frieze depicts this event.  There are, however, some problems with this assumption and not all pundits agree to its interpretation (see J. Connelly’s Parthenon and Parthenoi: A Mythological Interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze,” in which the author claims that the frieze represented the sacrifice of one of Erechtheus’ daughters instead).

Athletic contests included both individual and team activities, in which participants from all over the Greek world could take part: foot races, wrestling, boxing, pankration (a combination of wrestling and boxing), pentathlon (five-event contest: stade race, javelin-throw, discus throw, long jump, and wrestling), four-horse chariot and two-horse chariot races, horseback race, javelin-throw from horseback, apobatês (i.e. hoplites jumping from chariots) race, pyrrhic military dancing, euandria (physical fitness or beauty contest), a mock combat with cavalry (anthippasia), torch relay race, and boat race.  All these events, except for the torch and boat races, were held in each of three age categories: boys (12-16), ageneios (16-20), and men (20+) and took place in the agora until 330 B.C. when a stadium was built in the outskirts of Athens.

The two-mile torch relay race (lampadephoria) with four runners from each of the ten Athenian tribes was run from the altar of Eros outside the Dipylon gate to the Acropolis.  The object was to win the race without causing the torch to go out.  The winning tribe received a bull and 100 drachmas.  The fire of the winning torch was used to light the sacrificial fire on the great altar of Athena on the Acropolis.  The torch race was part of an all-night (pannychos) celebration also involving music and dancing on the night before the most important day of the festival when the procession and sacrifice took place. The apobatês race and the boat race closed out the festival contests.

Boat races were not typically part of Greek athletic festivals, but they may have found a place in the Panathenaic festival because of Athena’s connection with boat-building. Pyrrhic dancing, physical fitness, torch relay race, and boat races were tribal competitions restricted to Athenian citizens, whereas even non-Athenians took part in the track and field and equestrian events.

The festival also included poetic and musical contest, open to participants from all over Greece. There was a rhapsodic contest on recitation of Homeric texts and other poems belonging to the Epic Cycle, in which the rhapsodes performed without musical accompaniment. Several prizes were offered for the best singers and players of instrumental music (on the kithara and aulos).

              The Panathenaic procession, which was organized the following day, was one of the most distinctive aspects of the festival, and its origin could perhaps date from the seventh century BC.

The procession made its way on the Kerameikos (Ceramicus) –in the northern part of the city– through the Agora towards the Acropolis. Some sacrifices were offered on the Areopagus and in front of the temple of Athena Nikê next to the Propylaea (‘Gateway’).  Only Athenian citizens were allowed to pass through the Propylaea and enter the Acropolis. The procession passed the Parthenon and stopped at the great altar of Athena in front of the Erechtheum. Each year a newly woven peplos, dyed in saffron, was taken by the ergastinai (craftswomen) into the Erechtheum and placed on a life-size old wooden statue of Athena Polias (‘Guardian of the City’), while every four years in the Great Panathenaea, an enormous peplos was taken to the Acropolis for Athena Parthenos (‘virgin’) in the Parthenon.

Since it would have been virtually impossible to put this peplos on a 39 ft. high statue, perhaps the dress was merely hung in the Parthenon.  This peplos was so large that it was carried on the mast of a ship on wheels (like a float in a modern parade).  The connection between the ship and Athena is unknown, but the use of a ship to carry the peplos must have seem appropriate in the fifth century after Athens had built the great fleet with which it dominated a large part of the Aegean world.

Maidens with head baskets (kanephoroi), the ergastinai, and several men from all ages and classes took part in the procession as well. Even metics (residents of Attica who were not properly citizens) joined the procession, serving as skaphephoroi and carrying offerings, such as cakes and honeycombs.

However, they could not follow the whole parade up to the Acropolis, as they had to stay at the gateway, or propylaia. A large hecatomb was made afterward upon the altar of Athena, and meat from sacrificed cows and sheep was used in a ritual meal at the end of the festival. Attendance to the banquet was proportionally distributed on the basis of demes (local districts of Attica).

So, we might safely conclude that the representation on the Parthenon frieze may –if not entirely, in great part, be related to some episodes that took place during the Panathenaic procession described.