Donald Munro

At the Parthenon, a glimpse of a building far beyond the secular

The Parthenon in Athens, Greece.
The Parthenon in Athens, Greece. The Fresno Bee

The Parthenon is a part of you, even when you haven’t seen it in person. It’s the quintessential Greek temple. Think how much this famed 2,500-year-old building, the ruins of which still tower over Athens, has come to mean in our visual culture. It symbolizes strength and sturdiness.

The architecture is referenced in our government buildings and libraries. It is the First National Bank of Whatever Older City You’re In, all in glistening white marble, an illustration of secular solidity and the rationality of Greek thought.

Yet as I climb to the Acropolis, the ancient citadel on which the Parthenon is perched, I’m thinking of more than just architecture and science. I’m attuned to the spirituality of the place. And thus my love of reading and travel combine once again.

On a trip to Greece last January – which can be a wonderful time to travel, with few tourists and a good chance for mild weather – two special books are downloaded on my Kindle. One is William J. Broad’s “The Oracle: Ancient Delphi and the Science Behind its Lost Secrets,” which adds immensely to my appreciation for that memorable site.

And for my visit to the Parthenon, I have been reading Joan Breton Connelly’s “The Parthenon Enigma,” which offers an intriguing hypothesis on why the Athenians built this structure.

Once again, a book can make a place come alive in a way that no blurb in a travel paperback or short spiel from a guide can.

Spirit-saturated world

Somewhere along the line, Connelly writes, we’ve come to think of the ancient Greeks in an emphatically secular way. Yes, they worshipped their ancient gods, but our image of them is of a supremely rational society, lounging about in tunics debating philosophy and making scientific advances.

But the author suggests that we look at the Parthenon and the Athens that built it in a slightly different way: as a hyper-religious culture so steeped in spirituality that its citizens couldn’t even fathom a secular society. She writes: “In fact, Athenians were a far more foreign people than most feel comfortable acknowledging today. Theirs was a spirit-saturated, anxious world dominated by an egocentric sense of themselves and an overwhelming urgency to keep things right with the gods.”

To bolster her view, Connelly uses a new interpretation of a portion of the frieze that ran around the top of the Parthenon (and that was spirited away by Lord Elgin to the British Museum, still a sore point in Greece today). For centuries, scholars have thought that the scenes depict the Panathenaia, the annual procession in which the citizens of Athens climb the Acropolis.

Connelly counters, though, that one particular scene depicts not a current-events portrayal of the procession but part of the founding myth of Athens.

She uses a fragment of a lost play by Euripides titled “Erechtheus,” which was discovered in the 20th century as a fragment of papyrus wrapped around an Egyptian mummy, to bolster her argument. The story of Erechtheus, the founder king of Athens, includes a somewhat discomfiting plot element. The Delphi Oracle tells him that in order to save the city in a war with a rival king, he has to sacrifice his daughter. Connelly’s thesis is that a young woman depicted in the frieze is destined for human sacrifice.

Teaching tool

On a January morning, there aren’t many people on the Acropolis – certainly not the hordes disgorged by tour buses in the summer. I’m able, even, to find a moment of solitude. And as I walk around the magnificent structure of the Parthenon, I ponder what it must have been like as an Athenian saturated in the religion of the time.

In a time before mass communication, Connelly writes, the Parthenon served as a teaching tool for Athenians. “This great billboard … held up a constant reminder of just who the Athenians were and where they came from,” she writes.

In other words, the Parthenon was more than just a dispassionate recitation of history or an innocuous reminder of a founding myth. It was a bigger-than-life Sunday school lesson constantly reminding Athenians of who they were and how they were expected to live.

As I stand there, I’m intrigued, too, that our concept of Greek classical architecture for such secular buildings as the U.S. Supreme Court and the Capitol turns out to be inspired by a building that (possibly) celebrates human sacrifice. Pretty wild, eh?

Connelly’s viewpoint is one more in a host of scholarly ideas, of course.

The most important point for a traveler, though, is this: Reading Connelly’s book gave me something intellectually to chew on as I did the “tourist thing.” It helped make the place come alive. When confronted with ancient ruins, sometimes you have to dig a little.

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