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Caryatids, Supportive Goddesses

The dictionary defines a caryatid as a sculpture of a woman that serves as a supporting column. The derivation of this term is related to the priestesses of Artemis at Karuai, a village in Laconia. Caryae has the approximate east longitude 22.50 and north latitude 37.30. Probably Karuai is the modern city of Arahova, Laconia.

A caryatid holding up a porch

Dorothy King has written an article that refers to the Caryatids that hold up the porch of the Erechtheion. ( She points out that these were not probably refered to as caryatids in ancient times but that this naming is a result of a missreading of Vitruvius. Vitruvius refers to caryatids as figures ” ‘burdened’ and physically supporting the superstructure, presumably with their arms, atoning for their sins and that they were not being honoured.” But Ms. King points out that “The young women represented on the Erechtheion appear to be being honoured – some even interpret them as priestesses of Athena or the daughters of Erechtheus – and they don’t appear to be too burdened by their task.”

An analysis of the garments of the figures reveals a unique feature. On the head of each figure is a polos (plural poloi). By classical Greek times this is invariably the headress of a goddess as so defined in Liddell and Scott. The gowns on these figures are probably peploi which is not inconsistent with images of goddesses of the time the Erechtheion was built. But the polos headress is more consistent with Archaic images. The Acropolis Museum has a marble kore of 510 BCE with such a headdress. The Kore (Phrasikleia) by Ariston of Paros of 550 BC has such a headdress. The Agia Triada Fresco on the limestone sarcophagus (1450-1400 BC) has a queen who seems to be wearing a polos headdress. Many of the so-called Psi and Phi Mycenaean figurines from the 13th century BCE are described as wearing a polos.

What the ancients said about the carytids is somewhat a mystery because Pausanias describes the Erechtheion but he fails to mention the caryatids.

The references to caryatids in the literature is presented with some authority. The Caryatids are statues of young women clad in peplos. They supported the roof of the south porch of the Erechtheion, and probably were the work of Alkamenes, a student of the great sculptor Pheidias. Dated to c. 420 B.C. The explanation of how they came to be called caryatids varies. One story claims “Caryae, in Laconia, sided with the Persians at Thermopylae. As a result the Greeks destroyed the city, killed the men and enslaved the women. To perpetuate the disgrace, Praxiteles used figures of these women in lieu of columns.” Another story claims “The Caryatids were sculpted after some beautiful young models that were women from Karyes, a village of Lakonia.” Of Caryae little is known but in ancient times it was the location of a temple of Artmis. Here Artemis has a surname of CARYA?TIS (Karuatis), derived from the name of the town. Here the statue of the goddess stood in the open air, and maidens (caryatids) celebrated a festival to her every year with dances. (Paus. iii. 10. § 8, iv. 16. § 5 ; Serv. ad Virg. Eclog. viii. 30.) But if this is true why would a temple to Athena have statues to priestesses of Artemis?

In Crete at Gortyn (modern Gortys) a temple to Athena Poliouchos has been excavated. In this temple a number of interesting artifacts from the early iron age have been discovered. In addition to a number of votives that have a columnar shape and a polos hat there are relief plates which depict females that are columnar in their design. These seem the more likely antecedents of the porch of the Erechtheon.

Caryatids, Supportive Goddesses

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