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Caryatids of Erechtheion

Updated: Aug 24, 2023


Caryatids of Erechtheion
Caryatids of Erechtheion

I recently visited the Caryatids of the Erechtheion in Athens, Greece. The Caryatids are stunning female sculptures that act as pillars. They are also known as “Korai,” a word meaning “maiden” in Greek, and the name “caryatids” were given in a later period. After hiking up to the top of Acropolis Hill, you will see six women supporting part of the Erechtheion. The Erechtheion is a temple on the North side of the Acropolis built to worship Athena and Poseidon. In 1978, they were replaced with replicas due to the poor condition of the originals affected by pollution. Five original columns stand in the Acropolis Museum and one in the British Museum.

The word “caryatides” translates into “maidens of Caryae.” Caryae was a town of ancient Laconia that stood on the frontiers of Arcadia. In the town, there was a sanctuary dedicated to Artemis Caryatis and an image of the goddess standing in the open air. The people would celebrate Artemis yearly. At the annual festival, women often danced, balancing baskets on their heads, which is why many believe the statues represent the town’s young women.

A Roman interpretation claims the caryatids reflect the torture women went through in Caryae, who were enslaved after the Greeks defeated the Peloponnesian city. It was done as punishment for their betrayal in the Persian wars and as a reminder of the military power of Athens. The Roman interpretation also argues that the pillars portray Athenian parthenoi, meant to be role models of chastity, obedience, and religious observance. At the time, society believed these were the qualities of a perfect woman, and the statues would encourage Athenian girls to become like them.

In Greek mythology, the temple of Athena Polias is connected to King Erechtheus. The Illiad states, “settled the king in Athens, in her own rich shrine, where sons of Athens worship him with bulls and goats.” This describes Athena’s role in bringing Erechtheus to the Acropolis and proposes the idea of Erechtheus possibly having a shrine in the Archiac Temple. Since the Athena Polias was built above the mythical tomb of King Kekrops, many are reminded of the birth of Erichthonios. After Erichthonios was born, Athena placed him in a basket and gave it to King Kekrop’s daughters. The daughters were told not to open the basket, but could not restrain themselves. This causes them to suffer the curse of Athena and commited suicide. Giving maidens a secret basket is part of a ritual practiced the night before the Panatheniac procession. The maidens would have to hold the baskets over their head without looking into them until reaching the city.

The beauty of art is that it is not limited to only paintings. Art gives you the flexibility and freedom to not only create for creation’s sake, but to have a meaning. Art can be anything.

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