A few days ago, the British Museum loaned one of the Parthenon Sculptures (aka the Elgin Marbles) to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.
Much has been written (by myself too) about the legitimacy of loaning the item, whose removal from the temple 200 years ago is hotly disputed by many and whose return Greece has been pursuing for decades.
In this post I’ll bypass the issue of the loan’s legitimacy, to discuss another, which to my mind is not without importance. I’m talking about the identity of the statue, which the press call “Ilissos” as if that were a proven fact (which I hope to prove is not).
The statue in question is known as figure A, the first from the left, on the Northern corner of the Western Pediment. It shows a naked male body turning to its left (south), obviously in order to see the action taking place in the middle of the pediment.
Figure A was not conceived and carved to stand alone, but was part of a sculptural composition depicting the contest between the gods Athena and Poseidon over Athens (as the ancient travel writer Pausanias, informs us). According to the legend, the contest took place on the Acropolis itself and, until late antiquity, Athenians would show the spot where the sea god’s trident struck and the very olive tree which the goddess of wisdom made sprout from the rock. The pediment showed the two gods with their chariots and retinue, the presents they offered Athens, as well as members of the city’s royal family who were appointed to serve as judges.
Who then is Figure A, on the far left corner? Since Pausanias’ description does not say and we have no other sources or inscriptions to identify the statues, we have to resort to archaeologists’ bread and butter, hypotheses (or, in layman’s terms, guesswork).
Some archaeologists believe that the person depicted is a figure from the city’s mythical past, probably one of its kings. If that is the case, then referring to the statue as the “Ilissos” (a local river) is obviously wrong.
The second hypothesis
Most researchers claim that the figure is a personification of a river. The theory is supported by the existence of similar figures on the Eastern pediment of the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, which depicts another contest, that of King Oinomaos with his daughter’s suitor, Pelops. According to Pausanias, who visited this temple too, the two figures at the corners of the pediment show the rivers Alpheios and Kladeos, which flow through Olympia’s valley, thus identifying the location where the contest took place. The theory’s supporters claim that the Parthenon figure’s ‘fluid’ body and supple folds of the himation over its shoulder were meant to bring to mind flowing water, and are further evidence that the figure is indeed the personification of a river. If so, which one?
The rivers of Athens
Three rivers flow in the plain of Athens: Kephissus, which is the largest, Eridanus, flowing through the city centre, and Ilissos. The first two are to the north of the Acropolis, the third to the south.
If we accept that Figure A is indeed a river god, then it would be logical to conclude that its place could reflect the position of the rivers in the city’s topography, in relation to the Acropolis. In this case, Figure A must stand for either Kephissus or Eridanus. This hypothesis is supported by the existence of two other figures on the other (southern corner) of the pediment, showing a male and a female figure, usually interpreted as the river Ilissos and the spring Kallirrhoe, both located to the south of the Acropolis.
Is it important?
It is not a mere technicality. These statues were placed at the corners of the pediment not only to frame the composition and fill an awkward space, but also to anchor the mythical event in the real world, by inferring its location. The figure’s position, its turn to the left, even its very existence, were dictated by where the statue stood and what was around it. It would not have the shape we see if it didn’t have to fit the space available at the pediment’s corners. Nor would it be turning as it does if it weren’t supposed to watch what was going on in the composition’s centre
This sculpture was never meant to stand alone; seeing it isolated deprives it of its meaning and background, reducing its interpretation to just an aesthetic appreciation of the sculptor’s art. That often happens to works of art whose provenance is unknown or which cannot be returned to the place they once belonged. This is not the case for Figure A. It can and should be exhibited together with the other sculptures of the scene it was part of, in the place where it was conceived and made, the location to which it owes both name and significance.
Note: Today, the rivers of Athens may be invisible to the average visitor, but they have not disappeared. For a large part of their course they flow underground, under the modern city. Eridanus, although smaller, is probably the most visible, flowing through the Monastiraki metro station. It is also the most famous, owing to a constellation of the same name (after a homonymous river in Italy, featuring in the legends of Hercules and Jason).