The meaning of the Parthenon

A walk along the Parthenon’s thematic layers
A three-dimensional map displayed at the top of the city for everyone

This video is available in English, Greek and Italian on the AcropolisofAthens.gr YouTube channel (the language version provided on this page is English). It presents the elements described in the following article.

The meaning of the Parthenon: a city’s, a person’s map to wisdom

What message could a citizen read in the Parthenon, seeing it at the top of the city?

How do you interpret the Parthenon today, realising the intended thematic layout of its sculptures?

Outer layer (unit 1): the pediments

Eastern pediment: Goddess Athena is born coming out of the forehead of her father Zeus. It is the beginning of the day: this is the pediment that faces the sun when it rises. These temporal coordinates are also sculpturally shown as Athena is born while the chariot of Helios, the sun, comes into the scene from the left and the chariot of Selene, the moon, is leaving the scene on the right. Wisdom arises with light.

Western pediment: the competition between Athena and Poseidon ends, a moment of reconciliation, in the plain of Attiki, as sculpturally presented between rivers Ilissos and Kifissos and spring Kalliroi (geographic coordinates). There are hints of sculpted waves that could signify a flood caused by Poseidon (sound of waves in the video at 1 min 21 s). The Athenians have decided that goddess Athena will be the patron goddess of the city, the city takes the name of the goddess, her symbol is the olive tree, a millennial tree: king Cecrops, the state, the citizens, choose to seek wisdom in eternity. A choice.

Outer layer (unit 2): the metopes

The human struggle (ο αγών). On each of the four sides of the temple, the metopes are grouped representing: a) the Battle of Centaurs and Lapiths (the battle between barbaric instincts and human values), b) the battle of Amazons and ancient Greeks (the battle for power between men and women), c) the Trojan war (the political battle), and d) the battle of Giants and Olympian gods (the battle of forces in a belief system).

Inner layer: the frieze

The frieze runs in a specific, common direction, starting at one point (southwestern) and leading to the point above the entrance of the temple in the middle of the eastern side (the frieze direction is shown in the video at 2 min 45 s). The city, men and women, (animals are also presented in parts of the sequence) are moving in the same direction, it is a procession, to eventually meet their heroes and gods, all together, to know (συν-ειδέναι, con-scire). It is a citizen’s conscience, the conscience of a state, seeking, moving to wisdom. Depicting the common direction of every person, the city, and thus representing movement with a common purpose, in city and personal terms, the frieze could also mean reform.

The procession leads to one point where a robe is handed over to a child that is right above the entrance of the Parthenon’s main chamber where goddess Athena is. Viewing the child as a symbol of innocence, this could mean that only as a child, via innocence, one can find wisdom. [Interestingly, other religions/philosophies also report this concept: “Whoever does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will certainly not enter it” (Christianity) and only with an innocent mind you can be in the Tao (Taoism).]

The core: the nave

In the nave, the main chamber of the temple, there is the statue of Goddess Athena, the goddess of wisdom. In the innermost layer, in the core, you find wisdom.

Further remarks

The map can be viewed as bidirectional, as it presents the layers to be crossed to reach wisdom (struggle – reform – innocence – inner core), and the same layers to be crossed to disseminate wisdom (inner core – innocence – reform – struggle), as, for example, for the dissemination of a new political system.

The Parthenon, as a three-dimensional thematic layout, is presented at the tip of a city (άκρο+πόλις, acro+polis), to be seen by everyone. It is a message for everyone, with reference to humans, individually and as a group (democracy). It constitutes a reference, a guide to the progression of a person, as a participant in the city, a citizen, and the city as an entity.

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Text and video editing by Nikolaos Chatziandreou (theme researched from 2004 to 2013; video created in 2015, text posted on AcropolisofAthens.gr in 2019). The thematic references to the sculptural elements of the temple are based on common bibliographical sources that report the same sculptural identities. The proposed meaning of the sculptures, as thematic subunits and a complete set, is a result of the author’s free interpretation.

Parthenon plan
2D architectural plan of the Parthenon (top view)

The Parthenon sculptures
3D representation of the top part of the Parthenon
Image source: USC Institute for Creative technologies
Schematic overview of the frieze and metopes of the Parthenon, indicating the parts that are missing from Athens. Note that this schematic does not show the pedimental sculptures, almost all of which were also removed from the temple. [Image source: Mantis, 2000. "Disjecta Membra. The Plunder & Dispersion of the Antiquities of the Acropolis". Available online: http://odysseus.culture.gr/a/1/12/ea122.html]
Schematic overview of the frieze and metopes of the Parthenon, indicating the parts that are missing from Athens. Note that this schematic does not show the pedimental sculptures, almost all of which were also removed from the temple. Image source: Mantis, 2000. “Disjecta Membra. The Plunder & Dispersion of the Antiquities of the Acropolis”; available online: http://odysseus.culture.gr/a/1/12/ea122.html

Further reading: Reuniting the Sculptures

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