BMCR 2009.07.53

Art, Myth, and Ritual in Classical Greece

, Art, Myth, and Ritual in Classical Greece. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xv, 267. ISBN 9780521646475. $27.99 (pb).


This book is a general introduction to the use of myth as the subject of Greek architectural sculpture during the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. It consists of chronologically arranged case studies about four monuments in Mainland Greece and one in Asia Minor: the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, the Parthenon, the Hephaisteion in the Athenian Agora, the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and the Heroon at Trysa. In each case, a presentation of the building and its topographical context is followed by a systematic description and iconographic analysis of its sculptural decoration. This approach leads to an iconological interpretation of the sculptures in relation to the original cultural, political, and social context of the building. It thus follows the model set by Heiner Knell in his 1990 important monograph on Greek architectural sculpture.1

In the Introduction (pp. 1-7) Barringer lays out the premises and objectives of her book. Her first premise is that the myths chosen for architectural sculpture were not randomly selected and that, rather than having a purely decorative function, they had meaning. Her second premise is that meaning, and consequently the interpretation of a given myth, depend on context. Both premises have guided the interpretation of Greek architectural sculpture over the past two decades and, from a methodological point of view are clearly sound. On this basis, Barringer explores how ancient viewers might have interpreted these mythological representations in their original cultural context.

Chapter 1 (pp. 8-58) views the sculptural decoration of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia in relation to the agonistic contexts of this Panhellenic sanctuary. Barringer explores the question of how the athletes who came to compete at the Olympic games were meant to understand the decoration of this building. Arguing against previous interpretations of the sculptures as an admonition against hubris, as a general vision of justice imposed by the gods, and as negative paradigms to the athletic competitors, Barringer suggests that the sculptures of the temple of Zeus instead offered “positive models of heroism, arete, and glory expressly aimed at the Olympic competitors, who were urged to emulate these examples in various areas of their lives” (pp. 18-20). According to Barringer, it was Nike, not dike, that was more prominent in the message of the sculptural decoration of the temple, and in the mind of the Eleans who commissioned the building (cf. p. 46). The metopes depicting the labors of Herakles accord well with this interpretation, as does the Centauromachy, although in this last case the behavior of the half-beasts must have also served as a negative, mythological exemplum for the athletes. In the case of the chariot race between Pelops and Oinomaos, this interpretation only works if, like Barringer, one excludes the possibility that this pediment featured the version of the myth in which Pelops cheated by bribing Oinomaos’ charioteer. This is an issue that cannot be resolved with the evidence at hand , Barringer’s main argument for discounting this version — that it “is implausible that the Eleans would have celebrated their hero and founder of the games, Pelops, with sculptures that depicted him as a cheat” (p. 35)— is, however, not particularly sound. To quote from a memorable discussion of Greek heroes by Angelo Brelich,2 “l’inganno è caratteristico di tutta la vita eroica” (p. 255). One may mention as an example heroes who were famous for their cunning, like Sisyphos and Tantalos, and still received heroic worship in their hometowns. As for Barringer’s central argument, one can only agree with her idea that the sculptures of the Temple of Zeus were particularly meaningful to athletes, and that in the imagery of this building one can find several elements that resonate with the athletic games. Both ideas are found frequently in previous literature (in Ashmole and Tersini, for example). But limiting the intended public of the sculptures of the Temple of Zeus to athletes is dangerously reductive, because one runs the risk of losing sight of the very Panhellenic nature of the Sanctuary at Olympia and its games, which attracted a large, varied crowd from all over the Greek world. In addition, one should not forget that the Olympic competitions were part of a cult festival. A contextual interpretation of the sculptures of the temple of Zeus in relation to the local ritual should have this cult festival as its background, rather than just the athletic games and the athletes.

Central to Chapter 2 (pp. 59-108) is the discussion of the sculptural decoration of the Parthenon, in which Barringer devotes particular attention to the role of women. Barringer focuses her analysis on the special links between the myths chosen for the decoration of the building and the myths and rituals of the Akropolis. Here the author’s main argument is that the representations of women on the Parthenon and other fifth-century monuments reveal much about the contemporary Athenian male view concerning women. This view was a dual one, that regarded women both as necessary to the survival of the city and capable of bringing disaster to their families and community if their seemingly irrational nature and sexuality were not kept in check. Thus, for Barringer—who argues against the traditional reading of the sculptures as visual metaphors for recent historical events, such as the Persian Wars—the Amazons on the west metopes offer the negative example of powerful and independent females who invade the heart of the patriarchal city and threaten its male populace. The androgynous female deity Athena triumphs on the west pediment over her male antagonist, Poseidon. On the east metopes, the same goddess is celebrated for her role in the defeat of the Giants by the Olympian gods. On the south metopes, the Lapith women embody female vulnerability and modesty. Finally, on the north metopes, the Ilioupersis presents the destruction and chaos wrought by the power of Helen. For Barringer, this emphasis on women could also reflect the concern of the Athenian state for legitimate citizenship and the family, the role of Athenian women, and the significance and benefits of Athenian marriage. Barringer extends this interpretation of the Parthenon sculptures to other fifth-century monuments on the Akropolis, such as the Erechtheion caryatids and the Prokne and Itys by Alkamenes. The author’s exploration of the Parthenon sculptures as a reflection of male views of women in contemporary Athenian society is persuasive and valuable. Yet the relation between the genders and the status of women were important subjects of Greek temple decoration well before the Parthenon: I need only mention, for the Archaic period, the first temple of Hera at Foce del Sele (not a treasury, as this building is still incorrectly referred to by Barringer at p. 189), and, for the Early Classical period, the metopes of the Heraion at Selinous. This insistence on gender relations and on the status of women, on public images that were meant to educate the polis, therefore does not come as a surprise. In the case of the Parthenon, however, this theme was only one of the multiple layers of meaning of the complex and sophisticated imagery of this building, and to turn it into the key to its interpretation would quickly lead to problems. I need mention only the east metopes, which are first and foremost celebrations of victory in war, like the Gigantomachy on the pediment of the Treasury of the Megarians at Olympia decades before. Finally given Barringer’s contextual approach and her interest in the relationship between images and ritual, I am surprised that she does not include the figural decoration of the temple of Athena Nike and its precinct in her discussion of the fifth-century Akropolis.

Chapter 3 (pp. 109-143) is dedicated to the sculptural decoration of the Hephaisteion. In keeping with a line of interpretation that can be found in previous literature on this building (e.g., Thompson and Knell), Barringer explores the potential meaning of its sculptural adornment in relation to both the other monuments of the west side of the Agora and the various activities that took place in the civic center of Athens. Barringer focuses her attention on the friezes (for the east frieze she suggests that it might feature the battle of Atlantis (Plato Timaeus 24e-25d) and the metopes (which feature the labors of Herakles and Theseus). Barringer’s conclusion is that the Hephaisteion’s sculptural themes resonated with monuments such as the Stoa Basileios and the Stoa Poikile, and offered models of heroic behavior to Athenian citizens, particularly young men, who would have been the primary intended public for the images. This suggestion is certainly appropriate in the case of Theseus, the founder of the Athenian state and the model ephebe. Unfortunately, we know too little about the decoration of the pediments (not to mention the akroteria) of the Hephaisteion to propose a comprehensive interpretation of its sculptural “program.” One last note: Barringer suggests that the association of Theseus with Herakles in the Hephaisteion would represent “the Greek ideal, the joining of brains, in the form of Theseus, and brawn, represented by the athletic Herakles (pp. 121-122; cf. also 128). This is certainly not what one sees on the metopes , given that their emphasis is on Theseus’ physical strength, which is paralleled visually to that of Herakles. It may be added that in the representation of Herakles on the east side, particular emphasis is given to the labor of the Golden Apples featured on the last metope (East X) of the series, near the north corner. It seems to show the hero-god who has successfully deceived Atlas (according to the version of this myth by Pherekydes) and is now proudly presenting the apples of the Hesperides to Athena. The labor of the Golden Apples is not only about brawn, but also about brains and the cunning of Herakles at the expense of Atlas.

Chapter 4 (pp. 144-170) is dedicated to the pediments of the fourth-century temple of Apollo at Delphi. The east pediment featured Apollo together with Artemis, Leto, and the Muses, and the west pediment featured Dionysos in the company of the Thyiades. Barringer observes that the two gables are remarkable in two respects. The combination of their subjects is radically new in Greek sculpture. At the same time, however, their composition looks strikingly old-fashioned for the fourth century. Barringer explains this peculiarity as a deliberate effort to echo the east pediment of the Late Archaic temple of Apollo, which was directly sponsored by the Athenian family of the Alkmeonids. According to Barringer, this effort was in turn part of an Athenian strategy to stress both its well-established, special relationship with Delphi and also its leadership in the Greek world, vis-à-vis the Macedonians. Athens had a say in the Amphictyony during the course of the fourth century, and—as pointed out by Croissant—with the precedent of the Alkmeonids, Athens could easily have had a say on the sculptural decoration of the temple. In fact, the commission was given to Athenian sculptors. Granted that the paratactic composition of the two pediments of the fourth-century temple of Apollo seems unconventional by contemporary standards (although we know little about the figural decoration of many temples built during this century), I am not convinced by Barringer’s suggestion that it was meant to quote the east pediment of its Late Archaic predecessor. In such a case, one would have expected the repetition of its central image: the epiphany of the god on a quadriga. Based on present knowledge, the composition of the fourth-century pediments of the temple of Apollo at Delphi remains without precedents. The possibility that the sculptures were carved in Athens and transported to Delphi may account for their paratactic character.

Chapter 5 (pp. 171-202) focuses on the fourth-century Heroon at Gjölbaschi-Trysa, and analyzes the rich imagery of the doorways and friezes of its peribolos wall. The identification of many of the scenes on the friezes is notoriously difficult. Moreover, there is a total absence of written documentation that could help to interpret the monument. Basing her interpretation on comparative evidence, Barringer draws a parallel between the Heroon at Trysa and the Throne of Apollo at Amyklai, which she proposes may have served as a model, in particular for the idea of a funerary monument decorated with a vast array of mythological scenes. Barringer concludes her analysis of the individual mythological themes, suggesting that monuments in Athens—in particular the Theseion—had an influence on the decoration of the heroon. In the decoration of the latter there are also elements of Lycian and Near Eastern derivation, including the blending of mythological and non-mythological themes. This association is seen by Barringer as part of a strategy of heroization of the deceased ruler through visual metaphor and juxtaposition. The final message of the Heroon was that the Lycian ruler had significant achievements, just as the heroes of Greek myth did. This is all very convincing. A similar line of interpretation of the imagery of the Heroon, and similar conclusions are to be found in an important essay by Claude Bérard,3 which is not mentioned by Barringer, but to which the reader of this chapter should be directed.

In the Conclusion (pp. 203-212) Barringer summarizes the main arguments of her book: context determines the selection and depiction of mythological scenes on Greek sacred buildings, and context determines their meaning to contemporary audiences.

The clarity of the exposition, the carefully designed structure, and the excellent collection of images make this book a valuable introduction to the study of fifth- and fourth-century Greek architectural sculpture, and for this the author and the publisher deserve to be congratulated. Barringer should also be praised for her contextual approach to this important subject.


1. Knell, H. Mythos und Polis. Bildprogramme griechischer Bauskulptur. (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1990).

2. Brelich, A. Gli eroi greci, un problema storico-religioso. (Roma: Ateneo, 1958).

3. Bérard, C., ‘La Grèce en barbarie: l’apostrophe et le bon usage des mythes’, in Métamorphoses du mythe en Grèce antique, ed. C. Calame, 187-199. (Genève: Labor et Fides, 1988).