Ancient Athens Acropolis

In the area between the Propylea and the Parthenon, a good many monuments attracted the attention of Pausanias, who was always ready to describe and repeat what he had heard about them, mainly about the votive offerings of the Athenians to gods and heroes and about the small shrines which emphasized the significance of the main temple.

This ancient traveller mentioned the building dedicated to Artemis Brauron, the foundations of which, together with some stairs, can be seen carved into the rock to the right as one emerges from the Propylaea. The worship of this goddess was conducted solely by women, and her priestesses were preadolescent girls. Artemis, an unrepentant virgin, wanted to be served by pure creatures who had to wear tunics similar to the skin of a bear, an animal sacred to her; hence the little priestesses were called arktoi (bears). One impressive monument within the enclosure of the shrine was a bronze replica of the Trojan Horse. Centuries later, the Franks used the debris from the Brauronion to construct the fortification tower on the outer southern corner of the Propylaea. The marks of this building can still be seen on the marble wall. Behind the sanctuary of Artemis, adjacent to the wall, there was a long building called the Chalcotheke, in which the bronze votive offerings brought to the Parthenon were kept. In ancient times, it was the custom for warriors to dedicate their helmets, shields and weapons to the gods, while the citizens offered statuettes and utensils made of the same material. Seven rows of narrow steps were hewn out of the natural rock, right in front of the western side of the Parthenon, and were used by the faithful to place their gifts to the goddess Athena.

Of all the monuments expressing the piety of the Athenians, the colossal bronze statue of Athena Promachos was the most outstanding, as it stood right opposite the eastern door of the Propylea opening onto the Acropolis. Standing on a marble pedestal, the goddess’ statue, armed to recall her descent from a very ancient deity of war, would flash and shine in the Attic sun. It was visible from the Bay of Phaleron, and must have looked as though she were showing travelers that this was her City, bearing her name. The Athenians called her Promachos in gratitude for her help in the battle of Marathon. This was one of the three statues of the goddess created by Phidias, the second being the gold and ivory one inside the Parthenon, and the third one commissioned by the Athenians living on the island of Lemnos, which portrayed the goddess as lithe and beautiful, holding her helmet rather than wearing it, with the sweetness of a girl. There is a Roman copy of this Lemnia Athena in Bologna, Italy, which has astonishing delicacy of feature.

Even though the Romans may have neglected the original Greek sculptures during their years in power, at least they have left behind echoes of their lost perfection.

Alongside the northern wall, between the Propylea and the Erechtheion, was the dwelling of the arrephoroi, two girls who conducted a secret nighttime ceremony at about the time of the summer solstice. No one knew the precise date of this ceremony, nor was anyone allowed to see the very young priestesses carrying out the ritual. Silently, they would carry the goddess’ sacred objects, covered so that not even they themselves knew what they were, and then they would slip out by a secret stairway outside the wall to the foot of the rock. They followed a path to the sanctuary of Aphrodite to the east, and after handing over the covered symbols, they took others, also covered, which they would then bring back over the same secret path through the night. It seems that all this was part of some fertility rite, which had survived from the years in which some great female divinity was dominant.

There were other sanctuaries on this outer side of the north wall, something like chapels dedicated to major divinities whose temples were in the city. Thus, apart from the sanctuary of Agrotiki Aphrodite, where the secret ritual of the arrephoroi would take place, there was an altar dedicated to Olympian Zeus and Pythian Apollo. In addition, the goat-footed god Pan was worshipped in one of the natural caves in the rock. It is said that the Athenians venerated him in particular after the battle of Marathon, because they believed that his appearance on the battlefield terrified the Persians and created what we have ever since then called panic. Beside the cave of Pan was the Klepsydra spring, with access from the Propyla through stairs carved out of the rock. Klepsydra was a natural spring with an irregular flow of water, which nonetheless assured the Acropolis a supply of water in times of emergency.

The area between the house of the arrephoroi and the Erechtheion was probably studded with statues and altars dedicated by the Athenians. When, earlier this century, the archaeologists began clearing away the remains of later buildings, they were dazzled by the number of sculptures they found, primarily statues of young women (kores), beautiful but truncated, each of which was garbed differently, with a different hairstyle, and above all with a different expression on each one’s face. Clothed in colors which withstood being buried for 2300 years, these portraits of noble Athenian women brought to life a period of the highest art, which ended abruptly after the attack by the Persians. These same archaic statues witnessed the burning of the temples and the desperation of the people who sought refuge in their sanctuaries. They saw the Attic plain in flames and felt the force of the barbarians casting them down from their pedestals and smashing them.

After the battle of Salamis, the Athenians returned to their devastated town and began rebuilding their ruined temples on the sacred rock. They gathered up all the broken votive offerings and damaged statues and used them to enlarge the surface needed to build other shrines, larger and more beautiful, to make up for the disaster. This was how all these marvelous examples of Archaic art survived which can be seen today in the Acropolis Museum radiating their message of vitality and beauty down through the ages. It was also in the 5th century, when the marble beauties were covered over and fell into oblivion, that the wall which is still visible was built, incorporating enormous column drums into it. This northern wall, as it looks down over the little houses in the Plaka, bears its own testament to history.

In the middle of the north side of the Acropolis, where there is a natural eastward outcropping of the rock, is a cluster of buildings called the Erechtheion. Its strategic position overlooking eastern and northern Attica was perhaps the reason why there have been significant buildings on this site from the most ancient times. One of them was the city’s Mycenaean palace. The Athenians believed that the enchantress Medea fled down the steps in the rock to escape the wrath of King Aegeus after she tried to poison the newly-arrived Theseus.

The Erechtheion has always been the site of many different myths. Here Kekrops built the first temple to Athena, when he selected her to be the protector of his city and worshipped her as Polias, dedicating to her an idol made of wood which had fallen from the sky. The Athenians believed that Kekrops, the local serpent-man who conducted the first census in the history of the world, was buried on this site. It was said that he made each inhabitant throw a stone on a pile and then counted the pieces. From the word las (stone) comes the word laos (people) in Greek.

Kekrops had three daughters whose names indicate the agrarian form of the society at that time: Agravlos (agros=field, avlos=flute) Ersi (dew) and Pandrosos (all dew). Athena gave these three girls a closed cask containing Erichthonios, whose lower limbs were also serpentine in form, like a genuine child of the Earth. The goddess had commanded that the cask not be opened, but two of the sisters succumbed to their curiosity. When they saw the strange shape of the infant emerging from the cask, they lost their minds and threw themselves off the cliff. At the point where Agravlos fell, a sanctuary was established where Athenian youths took the oath of manhood at the age of 18. Pandrosos, who had obeyed the divine command, became the first priestess of Athena. In times of drought, Pandrosos was invoked as Aid-giver together with the seasons, Thallo (spring) and Karpo (summer), since her name identified her as the most welcome life-giving dew. She was honoured with her own precinct (temenos) in the vicinity of the sacred olive tree, which had been a gift from Athena to the inhabitants of the city. Erichthonios sought refuge in the temple and remained there, eternal testimony to the Athenians’ descent from a divine race. It was from this myth that the custom grew of offering little golden snakes as charms to newborn babes.

It seems that there was always a serpent kept in the Erechtheion: it was considered to be the perpetuation of Erichthonios as well as a spirit protecting the city. Herodotus wrote in his History that when the Persians arrived, the sacred snake went to Salamis, sweeping the Athenians along with it and transforming their misfortune into a brilliant victory. All this was of course the result of the political genius of Themistocles, who believed strongly in the maxim “The end justifies the means”. Aristophanes mentioned the Erechtheion snake in his Lysistrata. This devotion to the household reptile still exists in many of our villages where large harmless snakes are allowed to curl up in the rafters or the basements of houses.

The ruins of an Archaic temple from the 6th century BC occupy the area between the Parthenon and the Erechtheion. It had six Doric columns on its east and west facades, 12 along its sides, and was also dedicated to the goddess Athena. The huge pediments seen in the Acropolis Museum come from this temple, i.e. the armed goddess vanquishing the hostile Giants, the groups of lions devouring animals and the wonderful three-bodied semi-human snake with the sensuous expression on its face. All these were carved from soft poros stone and painted bright colours. After the Persian attack, the
ancient temple was abandoned and fragments of its broken sculpted decoration were used to build up the retaining walls. In this way, a plateau was created which, when the Parthenon was completed, was used to build the Erechtheion in the form in which we can see it today. The uneven ground in front of the northern wall built by Kimon, as well the sacredness of the old shrine containing the grave of Kekrops and the sanctuary of Pandrosos with the goddess’ olive tree dictated the complex design of the Erechtheion. These factors provided an opportunity for Philocles of Acharnes to astonish the people of the 5th century with his inventive architectural solutions. For this is not just a temple, but a site full of revered memories, with three different sanctuaries that co-exist harmoniously among themselves and with the rest of the site.

The eastern section, which covers almost half the surface of the whole, is believed to have been the new temple of Athena Polias. An interior wall separated it from the other chamber which was dedicated to Erechtheas-Poseidon; its entrance is through a magnificent porch on the north side. The west side of the building presented a strange aspect with four halfcolumns, the bases of which were three and a half metres lower than the eastern side. On a slant, at the westernmost point was the ancient Pandroseio precinct with its sacred olive tree. In harmonic balance with the columns of the north side is the porch of the Caryatids on the south, which also breaks up the long marble wall. In this way, the long surfaces were never monotonous. Each section was built on a different level, with a different roof, creating an aesthetically superb grouping with a symmetry born of the most asymmetric elements.

The Erechtheion, temple of Athena Polias, was thus the primary sanctuary built to house the most sacred idol of the goddess, replacing the ancient temple which had been destroyed by the Persians. Its entrance was through a porch of six Ionic columns which, after the visit of Lord Elgin to Ottoman-held Athens in 1801, were but five. The sixth, together with one of the Caryatids, was transported to the British Museum in London to draw the admiring gazes of visitors from all over the world. The sides are walls built of white marble blocks of equal size, without columns, but adorned by a delicately carved cornice with sculpted anthemia over which, instead of a frieze, was a band of dark marble.

At the southwest edge of the building is the porch of the Caryatids, built on the ruined colonnade of the ancient temple in the 5th century BC, perhaps to encompass Kekrops’ grave. The heavy ceiling of the porch was held up by six marble maidens with part of their hair braided around their heads, and the rest of it left to hang loose to the shoulders thus strengthening the support of the ceiling. Perhaps they portrayed the basket-bearing priestesses who during the solemn rituals would bring the sacred casks to the goddess.
Let us not forget that the myth of Erichthonios, with the closed casket and the secrecy demanded by Athena, may have been part of the ritual of the Arrephoroi, the importance of which lay in the silence and the covered symbols. Still others believe that these maidens were from Caryes, a region between Sparta and Arcadia where girls were famed for the dance they executed at local feasts. In any event, the word “caryatids” has passed into architecture as a term used to denote the supporting of a roof with statues of female figures instead of columns. The Greek people see the Caryatids as marble maidens who, on nights with a full moon, lament the loss of their exiled sister. The back of the temple served the needs of the gods to whom altars had been dedicated; it was divided into two sections. Here Erechtheas-Erichthonios, age-old protector of the Attic earth, was worshipped. Later came Poseidon, after the myth of his contest with Athena. Somewhere there was also an altar to Hephaistos, recalling the peculiar ancestry of the earthlings. The Athenians, ever superstitious as St Paul would later call them, worshipped all the gods and embellished their temples with valuable votive offerings. In the section dedicated to Athena Polias there was the marvellous golden lamp of Kallimachos with its eternal flame, due to the unburning asbestos wick from Karpasia in Cyprus, as reported by Pausanias. He also wrote that in another part of the temple, there was a well with sea water, undoubtedly testimony to the presence of the earth-rending Poseidon: the well showed traces of the god’s trident, and frequently echoed the slapping of waves. This was called “the sea of Erechtheas”, in a charming example of Attic hyperbole.

The entrance to this part of the temple used to be from the north. Even today one can still see the monumental porch in almost perfect condition, with its Ionic columns about eight metres high, and the magnificent, elaborately decorated entranceway which looks even more majestic owing to its proximity to the heavy northern wall. The Ionic grace of this porch was admired by the Roman architect Vitruvius upon his visit during the rule of Augustus. The sculpted ornamentation of the bases, the capitals and the architrave justified the fame of this order as being symbolic of wisdom and grace.

The western wall of the temple is the most unusual in the eyes of modern scholars. Perhaps its current form, with its half-columns and the windows between them, was not the initial one and it may have been built in this way to accommodate certain cult needs. It may also be related to the adjacent and most ancient precinct of the Pandroseio. Here one can still see an olive tree struggling to survive in the polluted atmosphere of modern Athens. Its distant ancestor was a miraculous tree, as it was planted by the divine hand of the protectress: and it provided nourishment and light in the darkness of mortal night, ever-green and eternal. But the sacred tree was destroyed in the fury of the Persian war. Despite this, the embittered Athenians saw the presence of their goddess in the Pandroseio when the sacred olive tree sprouted again overnight.

During the Byzantine years, in keeping with the general fanaticism toward purging whatever was regarded as being tainted by idolatry, the Erechtheion was converted into a Christian church, at which point it lost its initial interior layout. With the advent of the Franks, it was used as a residence for the dukes of Athens and during the period of Turkish rule it provided housing to the garrison commander’s family, very possibly to his harem.

Laden with myths, mystery and beauty, with memories of the barbarian’s touch, bearing the vestiges of many different alterations, the Erechtheion has come down to us as a characteristic product of the rich creativity possessed by the ancient inhabitants of the Polis.

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