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The Cult of Athena Polias

The Porch of the Maidens of the temple known today as the Erechtheion is the only structure on the Acropolis that encroaches onto the groundplan of the Old Temple of Athena destroyed by the Persians. Its foundations rest on the foundations of the stylobate of the Old Temple, and are oriented at a slight angle to it. To understand why, we must first of all grasp the fact that both, the Old Temple of Athena and the so-called Erechtheion, to which the Porch of the Maidens is attached, were the temples of Athena Polias—although the new temple of Athena Polias also contained cult places dedicated to Erechtheus and to Poseidon. For the Greeks, a temple was first of all the home for a statue. The statue of Athena Polias was the most venerated object in Athens—according to Pausanias it was not the work of human hands, but had fallen from the sky (I.26). Before the Persian invasion the statue of Athena Polias was kept in the Old Temple of Athena. Herodotus reports (VIII.55) that the day following the Persian storming of the Acropolis the Persian commander ordered the Athenians to make sacrifices to their gods in the ruins of their temples. In reporting on the sacrifices actually performed, however, Herodotus mentions only the olive of Athena inside the sacred precinct of Erechtheus, next to the salt spring sacred to Poseidon. This indicates that the main object of religious veneration in Athens, the statue of Athena Polias, was no longer on the Acropolis. Pausanias mentions other ancient statues of Athena, blackened by the fire set by the Persians, as being located near the Temple of Athena Polias. The statue survived the Persian invasion only by virtue of the fact that the Athenians had taken it with them when they abandoned their city to the enemy in 480 B.C. This may be inferred from the statement of Herodotus that as the Persian host was drawing near, the priestess of Athena, in order to hasten the departure of the Athenians, convinced them that ”the goddess had already abandoned the citadel.” According to the prophecy the Athenians had received from the Delphic oracle, Zeus had relented to Athene’s prayers, granting the goddess and her children safety within the wooden wall (Herodotus VII. 141). The Athenian fleet was their “wooden wall” and the image was their protection. From the religious point of view, it was no accident that the city fell after the image was removed from it, and that the wooden walls, within which the image dwelt, withstood the Persian onslaught.

When the Athenians returned to the Acropolis following the victory at Salamis, the home of Athena Polias was badly damaged. For the time being the image retunred to its old place inside this ruined temple. The Parthenon, whose foundations were laid in the middle of the fifth century, was the temple of the splendid new gold and ivory statue of Athena made by Pheidias. After the Parthenon was completed, the Athenians turned to the task of building a new home for the old image of Athena Polias. Just as the Parthenon was built alongside the ruins of the Old Temple to the south, the new temple of Athena Polias was built to their north. The Athenians did not want to build on the ruins of the Old Temple—to artificially extend the Acropolis to the south was a difficult and expensive enterprise, but it was the only solution available if the Parthenon was not to encroach upon these ruins. How then to explain that to the north the Porch of the Maidens was built on top of the stylobate blocks of the Old Temple? If we look carefully at the ground plan of the Old Temple of Athena and at that of the newly built Temple of Athena Polias, we find that they are oriented at a slight angle to one another. Toward the east they almost converge. Yet at one particular spot, marked by the Porch of the Maidens, these two temples merge. The builders of the porch were evidently making a statement. It seems that they deliberately built its foundations on the remains of the stylobate of the Old Temple in order to physically link together the old and the new temples of Athena Polias. Furthermore, it is to be noticed that the entire Porch of the Maidens is oriented to the exact spot where the statue of Athena Polias used to be before the Persian invasion. The Maidens are part of the Panathenaic Procession, whose goal was this very statue. Aristotle in The Constitution of the Athenians, xviii.2 relates that Hipparchus, son of the tyrant Peisistratus, ”fell in love with Harmodius, and when his advances were continually unsuccessful he could not restrain his anger, but displayed it bitterly in various ways, and finally when Harmodius’ sister was going to be a Basket-carrier (kaneforein) in he procession at the Panathenaic festival, he prevented her by uttering some insult against Harmodius as being effeminate...” This passage shows that female basket-carriers were part of the Panathenaic procession, whose goal was the statue of Athena Polias.

Before the Persian Wars the goal of the Panathenaic Procession was the statue of Athena Polias inside the Old Temple. After the Persian Wars, the goal of the Panathenaic Procession was the same statue inside its new home. The Maidens as it were step out of the new home of the image to pay homage to the holy spot in its old home where this image used to stand.

As mentioned above, the Athenians believed that the image of Athena Polias had fallen from the sky. This suggests that this statutue was identified with the palladium of Troy, which was also a wooden statue of Athena that had fallen from the sky, and which was supposedly stolen by Odysseus and Diomedes. How it was supposed to have gotten to Athens, though, is not clear, but the story was apparently told in the metopes on the northern flank of the Parthenon, the one facing the ruins of the Old Temple. The image was taken by the Athenians aboard their ships when they fled from the Persians in 480 B.C. The ships were their “wooden walls” and the image was their protection. So from the religious point of view, it was no accident that the city fell after the image was removed, and that the wooden walls, within which the image dwelt, withstood the Persian onslaught. Herodotus reports that the Persians made their Athenian prisoners offer sacrifices on the Acropolis on the day after the sack of the Acropolis; he mentions the olive of Athena, which had been badly burned, as being inside a holy shrine, but doesn't refer to any statue. After the Athenians returned, they probably placed the statue inside the ruins of the Old Temple. Herodotus mentions a “megaron facing west” on the Acropolis ca. 440 B.C., which is almost certainly the remains of the western room of the Old Temple. It would appear that during the decades following the Persian invasion the Old Temple reverted to the form it had before the sixth century: a double temple in antis. The peristylar colonnade was removed, probably because it was the most seriously damaged, and also because it stood in the way of Pericles’ plan for the reconstruction of the Acropolis. There are inscriptions which describe the construction of the Erechtheion, from which we know that it was completed in the summer of 407 B.C. Now Xenophon reports (Hellenica I.6.1) that the Old Temple of Athena was destroyed in 406 B.C., the same year that a lunar eclipse occurred. It is usually assumed that this temple burned down accidentally. If so, it would be a mere coincidence that the old home of the image accidentally burned down the year following the completion of its new home. Xenophon uses the word eneprésthé, which is not the typical Greek word for an accidental fire, but should rather be understood in the sense that the remains of the Old Temple were demolished. This would mean that the megaron facing west, together the neos of Athena to the east of the separation wall, were pulled down by the Athenians after the old image of Athena Polias (palladium) was ceremoniously transferred to its new home in the new Temple of Athena Polias (the so-called Erechtheion). This ceremony evidently took place during the Great Panathenaic festival of 406 B.C. Although the Erechtheion had been completed the previous year, the Athenians waited for the Great Panathenaia in order to consecrate the new Temple of Athena Polias, a ceremony which involved the transfer of the statue of Athena Polias, the palladium of Athens, to its new home. At the same time, the remains of the Old Temple, bereft of its statue, were torn down. Hence we have here another link between the two temples, besides the physical connection by means of the location of the porch on the stylobate of the Old Temple and its orientation toward the place where the statue used to be. Theories that parts of the Old Temple remained standing into the fourth century I consider impossible, because of the proximity of the Erechtheion. Also, I don't believe in an older Erechtheion to the north of the Old Temple. Erechtheus was probably worshipped in the western part of the Old Temple, as quite a few scholars maintain (or used to maintain), e.g. Judeich in his Topographie, p. 242, n. 4. The new Temple of Athena Polias included not only the cults of Athena and Erechtheus, as did the Old Temple, but it came to embrace some of the older holy enclosures that used to be to the north of the Old Temple, such as the one enshrining the olive of Athena, as well as the one enclosing the salt spring and trident mark of Poseidon.

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The ideal groundplan of the stylobate of the Old Temple of Athena Polias was 70 x 140 geographic feet of 308.2765 mm., although in its final form the temple was made just slightly narrower and longer. The reason for these figures is that in laying out the foundations of a temple, the Greeks were most concerned with the corner angles--but a direct measurement of corner angles is difficult. The easiest way of getting a perfect right angle is to choose known values for the lengths of the sides and diagonal. A square with sides of 70 has a diagonal that for practical purposes can be considered equal to 99 (exactly 98.9949). All the ancient builders had to do in order to set the corners, was to mark out a distance of 99 feet, and from the two ends two lengths of 70 feet. The place where these two lengths meet is$necessarily a right angle. The stylobate of the Old Temple was planned as two such squares. Once the basic groundplan is in place, it is an easy matter to extend or shorten the length by fractions of the foot in order to accommodate the desired intercolumnations


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