The Aesthetic ExperienceGreat nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts - the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last.
Anybody who spends much time around horses becomes familiar with the wild eyed look horses have when spooked or when otherwise excited. The marble head from the east pediment of the Parthenon perfectly captures the very essence of frenzied horseyness. When I came upon the twenty five hundred year old piece of sculpture, unlike my friend, I did not break out in tears, but I did realize the power of art. By encountering a hunk of banged-about marble, bleached by age, I was hooked and had to know more.
The pedimental figures on the east end of the Parthenon celebrate the miraculous birth of Athena, patron deity of Athens, from the head of Zeus. Zeus was seated in the center with Athena standing on his left reaching up to touch his head, as if to indicate her original home. Her birth announces a new dawn for Athens ... and for the world. After her miraculous birth she requested to be allowed to forever remain a virgin; a request that Zeus granted. Thus the Athenians called the temple "parthenos", virgin. In mythology, or with the chakra, a god emerging from the genital region, such as Dionysus from the thigh of Zeus, will be associated with the life force. A goddess emerging from the head indicates wisdom, which was one of Athena's role. She was also patron deity of techne or technology, which is also associated with the head. The other ten Olympians were probably scattered about on either side of the central figures. I say probably, because the figures were mostly destroyed in an explosion in 1687. The remains of the pediment are now in the British Museum. The Greeks seek their return, but to no avail...yet.
The Parthenon was not only a sacred building, but also served as the treasury and indicated special occasions. Even structures as crude as Stonehenge, served as celestial observatories and calendars. Greek temples, although more sophisticated in design, retained the original celestial observatory and calendar functions. Although both old and new temples dedicated to Athena faced the east, the older temple is oriented a bit more to the north. This is probably because the Attic Greeks used a lunar calendar and the old temple was oriented to a certain moon rising. The year began with the first sighting of the new moon after the summer solstice. However, there is a big problem with a lunar calendar; it must periodically be reset. To make matters more confusing the Athens had two calendars, a festival calendar and a political calendar. (actually there was a third calendar, which I will not even mention) Of course, an accurate solar calendar of 365 days, even without a leap year, is more accurate than a lunar one. When the Athenians planned the new temple, they changed the orientation to face the rising sun, rather than a rising new moon. The new building was laid out to face the east on the day the sun rose on Athena's birthday. This new orientation would mark not only the conclusion of her birthday celebration, the Panathenaia, but also a new year on the festival calendar. The obvious question arises: what date was Athena's birthday celebrated? All one has to do is to determine the azimuth of the Parthenon orientation and calculate where on the horizon the sun was rising in Athens in the middle of the 5th century BC. So, to determine the azimuth of the temple, I used an aerial photo of the acropolis that indicated north and found the azimuth. Next, I gave that figure to an astronomer friend and asked him to date the rising of the sun in that point on the horizon in the middle of the 5th century BC at Athens. The astronomer ran a computer program and the answer he arrived at was: August 4th. This date is midsummer: exactly half way between the first day of summer (June 21st or thereabout) and the first day of fall (September 21st or thereabout). So, the pedimental sculptures not only commemorate the birth of Athena, but also indicate with the declining moon goddess and the rising sun god, a change in the festival calendar. The lunar calendar, however, was not discarded; but the Athenians were forced to tinker with the dates of other festivals. This situation is mentioned in Aroistophanes' play, Clouds, which contains a complaint brought from the moon, Selena: the Athenians have been playing round with the months, "running them up and down" so that human activity and the divine order are completely out of kilter. "When you should be holding sacrifices, instead you are torturing and judging."
But at least they established one firm festival date, midsummer, and a firm date for their major festival. To learn how medieval cathedrals also used the heavens to regulate religious festivals, visit Chartres.
In addition to the athletic games, musical and rhapsodic contests there were other ceremonies, including, the hekatombe ("sacrifice of a hundred steers") and a subsequent banquet on the final night of the festival, the pannychis ("all-nighter"). The climax of the festival was the procession to the Acropolis, which is the probable theme of the Parthenon Frieze. Although the Parthenon is architecturally a temple and is usually called so, the Parthenon never hosted the cult statue of Athena Polias, patron of Athens. A specially woven veil was presented to the olive-wood, life-size cult statue of Athena Polias located in or near the Erechtheum. Athena Polias was the most ancient and sacred object on the Acropolis. In addition to the veil ceremony the cult statue was carried down from the Acropolis and bathed in the sea earlier in the festival.
At the conclusion of the Great Panathenaia festival, just before before dawn, the peplos was carried in a procession to the Acropolis, transported to the Parthenon as the sail of a ship and placed, not on the golden statue, but hung on the wall of the Parthenon.
Finally, as the sun rose in the east the doors were opened and the light came streaming into the temple illuminating the gold and ivory statue. Some think there was a pool in front of the statue which reflected the sun rays off water and onto the statue. We can imagine the leading officials of Athens and the winners of the games crowded around outside the east door gazing as the morning sun slowly illuminated their golden goddess.
Here is a description of the statue created by the artist Phidias by the 2nd century geographer, Pausanias.
"Their ritual, then, is such as I have described. As you enter the temple that they name the Parthenon, all the sculptures you see on what is called the pediment refer to the birth of Athena, those on the rear pediment represent the contest for the land between Athena and Poseidon. The statue itself is made of ivory and gold. On the middle of her helmet is placed a likeness of the Sphinx--the tale of the Sphinx I will give when I come to my description of Boeotia--and on either side of the helmet are griffins in relief.[1.24.6] These griffins, Aristeas1 of Proconnesus says in his poem, fight for the gold with the Arimaspi beyond the Issedones. The gold which the griffins guard, he says, comes out of the earth; the Arimaspi are men all born with one eye; griffins are beasts like lions, but with the beak and wings of an eagle. I will say no more about the griffins.[1.24.7] The statue of Athena is upright, with a tunic reaching to the feet, and on her breast the head of Medusa is worked in ivory. She holds a statue of Victory about four cubits high, and in the other hand a spear; at her feet lies a shield and near the spear is a serpent. This serpent would be Erichthonius. On the pedestal is the birth of Pandora in relief. Hesiod and others have sung how this Pandora was the first woman; before Pandora was born there was as yet no womankind. The only portrait statue I remember seeing here is one of the emperor Hadrian, and at the entrance one of Iphicrates,1 who accomplished many remarkable achievements."
The Acropolis Restoration Project Below is an artist concept of the original Acropolis.
The Acropolis Restoration Project
Below is an artist concept of the original Acropolis.
Even though the Ring is populated with gods, the cycle is is very much of this world. However, when listening to Glenn Gould play Bach's Art of the Fugue we are moved to a place connecting the human with, perhaps, a divine mind. Whether that divine mind belongs to Bach or to some god, I could not say.
Coda to the coda:Today, July 4, 2012, scientist announced the finding of the Higgs boson particle. I was just listing to Glenn Gould's rerecording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, consisting of an aria and a set of 30 variations. Gould originally recorded the Variations in 1955 and rerecorded them again 20 or so years later. At the beginning of the youtube piece an interviewer asked Gould, since he seldom rerecords pieces, why did he decide to do this? Gould mentioned technical improvements in the recording industry, then almost reluctantly said when he first recorded the Variations he did it as 30 separate pieces, but later discovered 'they are connected at the bass line. Maybe Bach was closer to the divine than we imagine. Does that make Glenn Gould or J.S.Bach the Higgs Boson of music?