Saturday 13 September 2014


"Who am I? Why am I here?"

 This week has brought a flood of enquiries about caryatids resulting from the photos from the tomb near Amphipolis. What are caryatids and why should the relatives of a rich dead Macedonian choose caryatids to hold up a lintel on the tomb?

Persian Bull
Figures of animals and humans had been used earlier by Egyptian and Persian architects to support imperial roofs. I personally would rather have a bull on my tomb, please, like this one from Darius' building project at Susa, than a caryatid. When Persian art used human figures to do load-bearing work, they were people who had been subjected to the Persian empire. 

Down-at-heel Caryatids at home in Karyes 
Caryatids take their name from the town of Karyai (now Karyes), in the central Peloponnese, which featured a sanctuary and famous statue of Artemis. Karyai means Nuts, or sometimes specifically walnuts or hazelnuts. A Karyatis (plural Karyatides) means 'maiden dancing the nut-tree dance' or a 'nut-tree priestess'.  They did a special dance for Artemis with baskets of nuts on their heads, which may have given an architect the idea to put roofs on their heads instead. But you can dance with a basket on your head. A temple roof is a different matter.

The Roman architect Vitruvius said the origin of the caryatids was much more tragic. The people of Karyai had treacherously sided with the Persians when they invaded. So after the war the other Greeks punished them by executing the men and enslaving the women. The Women of Karyai are not dancing maidens but matrons, he says, doomed to perpetual labour and unfreedom.

Artemis is often associated with death rites and mysteries, which might illuminate her priestesses' presence in funerary art. The most famous caryatids are those in the porch of the Athenian Erectheion, the shrine housing the dead hero-king Erechtheus (five are in Athens; one stands in lonely isolation from her sisters far away in the British Museum). They have inspired countless imitations and adaptations the world over from ancient times, often rather uncomfortably expressing pride in imperialist ventures.

Hans Walther's sad Caryatids, Oppressed by Capital, in Erfurt
My own favourite are the saddest of all.  Their hunched bodies support the entire weight of the capital accumulated in the Savings Bank in Erfurt, central Germany. They are the work of the sculptor Hans Walther, in the idiom of the ‘New Objectivity’ or ‘New Resignation’ (Neue Sachlichkeit) which had been developed in the Weimar Republic: Erfurt is only a few kilometres from Weimar itself. One well-fed capitalist on the left feeds himself from his well-loaded plate, while the other worker–women and men, young and old, are dejected, worn down, and hungry.

So are the new Amphipolis caryatids joyous maidens performing a dance in celebration of the nut harvest, enslaved traitors of their nation, symbols of Macedonian imperialism, ostentation and greed, or simply conventional stone guardians of the dead available for commission in any ancient funeral parlour?  This is what makes antiquity fun: it's up to each one of us to decide.

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