The Parthenon Enigma
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46 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on March 11, 2014
This was an amazingly good book. I am a fan of Classical Greek culture with some background, having taught an interdisciplinary course on The Classical Age 9 times over a period of 20 years at Virginia Tech. I know a good deal about Classical sculpture and architecture, and was pleased to find that I haven't been misleading my students about anything, except...the Parthenon frieze. While this book is incredibly wide-ranging, its real contribution to scholarship is a reinterpretation of the frieze. It is traditionally thought to represent the Panathenaic Procession, an annual event (though more significant every 4 years) staged for several centuries from the 5th Century BCE until a Roman emperor outlawed pagan celebrations in the 4th Century CE. The author does a very respectable job of questioning and marshaling evidence for interpretations. Her theory is that the frieze represents the sacrifice of the daughter of Erechtheus, required by the Oracle at Delphi for an Athenian victory pitting Athena and her allies against Poseidon and his allies (who had wanted to be the local god). This general conflict between Athena and Poseidon is known from the West Pediment. The story of the family of Erechtheus and his daughters is only known from a fragmentary play by Euripides named "Erechtheus." She apparently first put forward this hypothesis over 20 years ago, and has been building her case ever since. That mythical event was apparently the origin of the Panathenaic Procession, so the traditional interpretation is not wildly off. But she argues, for instance, that the Procession was a contemporary event, and no other art on the Parthenon (or really anywhere on temples) depicted contemporary events. I had always assumed (because tradition had always assumed) that the Parthenon was so named after the Virgin (Parthenos) Athena. But it turns out that Parthenon is plural, meaning of the Virgins. In the story the sacrificed daughter had 2 sisters and they had once agreed that if one had to die, all would die, so it is really 3 virgins who are commemorated by the building and in the frieze. There is a lot in the book, covering broad sweeps of Greek history and culture. (The 80 pages of end notes insure that this is not meant as a popularization, but a scholarly work. Yet it does not read like a scholarly work.)
Not being an expert on these matters, I'll be interested to know what the scholarly reaction is. She marshals considerable evidence for all her claims, but I can't really know if she is "cherry-picking" evidence, and ignoring counter-evidence. It does seem odd (here is one objection) that the mythical story behind the frieze could be so little-known that it appears in only one fragmentary play. It seems that something so important to the Athenians would have had wider distribution. We, eons later, are of course at the mercy of historical contingencies that affect what documents and artifacts from the ancient world survive to our times. But it just seems surprising that it could have worked out this way and been so hard to discover. Another issue (perhaps another objection) is her use of the term "democracy." She takes the frieze and much of Athenian culture to reinforce the democratic spirit of self-sacrifice for the good of the whole community. This is a fine goal, but it is not specifically democratic. In the late 5th Century there was an on-going political conflict between democratic and oligarchic rule in Athens. Plato specifically enrolled himself among the enemies of democracy. But that in no way undermined his support for self-sacrifice for the good of the community. So I'd say her use of democracy is misleading.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2014
A breakthrough book by one of the finest authors working today in the archeology field. Connelly is also author of "Portrait of a Priestess"--if you don't already have it, find a copy, as it similarly reevaluates an area of ancient studies that was in need of a thoroughly unique analysis. Connelly, in both of these texts, reinterprets long-standing beliefs about Athenian thought. In addition to the "Parthenon Enigma" being an engrossing read, it becomes a sweeping look at the ancient Mediterranean world.

I read it front to back in about 10 days, finishing it would a small "Wow." I'm currently rereading the book. Highly recommended.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on April 2, 2014
A total eye-opener, this book brings ancient Athenian spirituality back to life in a way I haven't experienced since Roger Lipsey's "Have You Been to Delphi?" Connelly writes so lucidly, you can vividly feel yourself strolling through the Parthenon 2500 years ago. (Such skill in taking readers on a journey into the past is regrettably rare in archeological writing!) Connelly's insights into the foundation myth of Athens are amazing and thoroughly convincing. Fascinating, readable, revelatory.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on December 30, 2014
Kudos to Ms. Connelly for pursuing her thesis with such ardor. Unfortunately her evidence for that thesis comes primarily from history and literature. Visually the Parthenon frieze itself tells a different story. Try reading the image of the central scene as it appears to your eyes. At the right a man takes a large, folded cloth from a boy. [The idea that this boy might be a girl contradicts three centuries of Greek sculpture]. At the left a woman accepts both a basket and a large, vertical object from a younger female. Behind this girl another walks forward carrying a similar basket; what she carries in her left hand is unclear. This reading of the image completely supports the traditional idea that the entire Parthenon frieze depicts a Panathenaic procession. The human figures at the center of the action are priest and priestess. The priest is shown receiving the peplos of Athena -- crucial to the festival's central rites. The priestess is shown receiving the sacrificial knife, or short sword, in its scabbard -- for the bull sacrifice, also a central rite. The two younger women are the "kanephoroi" or "basket-bearers," who traditionally led the procession carrying baskets, along with the knife, just as they do here. [Much of the "enigma" pertaining to this central group arose from an early misreading of the baskets as "stools," upon which the priest and priestess would eventually sit for the rites. Why would these stools figure so prominently in the frieze? Why were no basket-bearers leading the procession? Once one realizes that the "stools" show the cross-hatching of woven baskets, and that the ONE "stool leg" supposedly depicted is actually a knife or short sword in its scabbard, there is no longer any puzzle, any "enigma." Every item in the scene supports the traditional interpretation of the frieze.]
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on March 4, 2014
As someone who has read multiple sources and, indeed, spoken occasionally on the Parthenon sculptures, I found this book to be a revelation. Truly it stands in a class by itself. While the author brilliantly explains the complexity of historical myth development, she manages to provide interpretive clarity based on deeply researched relationships that exist across multiple shrines and local mythic traditions. I can certainly believe, as Mary Beard asserts in her New York Review of Books article and the author confirms, that her thesis has been in development for more than twenty years, A book of this interpretive power is the project of a lifetime.
For modern democracies, individual sacrifice for the common good may come in more ways than were available to the ancient Athenians, but it is a requirement for their survival none the less. This is a realization brought home by the powerful imagery of the Parthenon itself as explained so beautifully by Joan Breton Connelly. Her interpretation only enhances the Parthenon as the archetypal symbol of democracy.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 15, 2014
A bit slow here and there but ESSENTIAL for anyone going to Athens (as I was when I read this) who intends to go to the Parthenon and the new and fabulous Parthenon museum.The subject is the meaning of the band of decorative sculpture that used to surround the building -- so high up it was not easily visible from the ground. But that set of sculptural panels is now wonderfully displayed in the museum and you can look at it and really consider Connelly's argument. Her view is that it depicts the preparations for the sacrifice of the young daughter of an early (and possibly mythical) king of Athens--to ensure victory in a critical battle. This is not how we like to think of the "rational" Greeks but she persuasively argues they were a far more superstitious and "Gods-fearing" people than we learn about in middle school. Friends in the field tell me her view is still very controversial but it really made my visit much more interesting.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on March 10, 2014
Delightfully researched. Many insights I have not read about to this date. Lots of History and detail. Worth your time and interest..
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2014
A book overturning centuries of orthodoxy about one of the great works of Greek art was, for me, also a great introduction to how to see and understand Greek Sculpture generally. I am not an academic or an art or ancient history scholar but they are not the primary audience for this book. I don't know what they made of it, but I feel like I have a much more accurate understanding of how and why Greek and Roman sculpture far beyond just the Parthenon looks the way they do.

I knew very little about the subject before this book, but Connelly writes clearly and directly. She gives enough history and context to root her story in something solid, but she is remarkable making the importance of historical detail clear. She never once goes off on a digression into the minutiae that makes scholars' hearts palpitate but leaves non-specialists at a total loss that ruin books of this sort.

What I liked most is that it never felt like she was making an argument against an orthodox position. It was not strident nor contentious. Nor was she stacking facts into straight rows and dry, tidy piles.

She was telling a story, and telling it well and I am leaping deeper into the academic murk, more confident having read this first.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 5, 2015
I loved this book. The pages of my copy are now filled with penciled notes and every other page sent me 'googling' on my phone to learn - just what the heck Dr. Connelly was talking about. The story of Pierre Jouquet's findings at Medinet-Ghoran and later interpretations of papyrus scraps by Colin Austin of the lost play by Euripides, alone, is worth the price of the book. As an architect, I think this should be required reading for all architecture students - we've all loved and studied the FORM of the Parthenon....but the meaning and the connections it makes to the culture, history, art, even the the cosmos, etc., makes it so much richer as a masterpiece of architecture.....I see another trip to Athens in my future. :-)
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 17, 2014
The Parthenon Enigma provides a cogent explanation interpreting the depictions in the frieze of the Parthenon. Joan Breton Connelly lays out her argument in a manner that is easy to follow. Her repeated references to the pages where pertinent photographs, drawings, and maps are found help the reader understand the text.
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