Percy Jackson and the Parthenon Diaspora

At the request of Leah and Connor, last week I took a break from my summer reading agenda—L’Ecume des Jours (Boris Vian), Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (Mindy Kaling), About a Boy (Nick Hornby)—to plunge into the world of Percy Jackson.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a five-book series and two-film movie franchise (with more films in the works) that makes ancient Greek mythology accessible to the average kid, parent or nanny. The titular Percy is a demigod, the son of Poseidon and a mortal woman. In book one, he ends up at Half-Blood Hill, a sort of summer/training camp for children of the Olympians, where he makes some friends (and some enemies) and learns to wield a sword before setting out on a quest to retrieve Zeus’ missing master lightning bolt. The series is set in modern-day America because, through the ages, the gods have supposedly relocated, following the seat of Western civilization. Olympus is currently to be found hovering atop the Empire State Building in New York City. And the entrance to the underworld? In Los Angeles, of course.

Problematic America-centric undertones aside, Percy Jackson is a pretty decent read, as far as children’s books go, though I won’t be racing out to Powell’s to purchase the four other installments anytime soon.

One of Percy’s friends is a fellow camper/demigod named Annabeth. Their friendship is strained at first because Annabeth is fiercely loyal to her mother Athena, Poseidon’s long-time rival.

When I visited Athens in May, I got a refresher on the competition between Athena and Poseidon for patronage of the city. Each god offered the city a gift. Poseidon created a saltwater spring (symbolizing naval power) by striking his trident on the Acropolis. Athena created the olive tree (symbolizing peace and prosperity). According to the myth, the ancient Greeks accepted the olive tree, choosing Athena as their patron goddess.

In her honor they erected the Parthenon and took the competition between the two gods as the theme for the west pediment sculpture.

Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens

While the feud between Athena and Poseidon may not be as topical today as Percy Jackson would lead us to believe, the Arcopolis finds itself at the heart of a modern-day standoff between the Greeks and the Brits for rights to the Parthenon Marbles.

Since it’s completion in 432 BC, the Parthenon has suffered damage from fire, looting, regime changes, religious upheaval (it was repurposed as both a church and mosque at different moments in history), warfare, and Lord Elgin’s infamous removal of much of the remaining sculptural work from 1801 to 1812.

Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens

Today, the New Acropolis Museum in Athens holds the majority of the pieces (a few even remain on the monument itself), but thanks to Lord Elgin, the British Museum in London has the highest quality sculptures. Athens wants them back, along with all the other disparate pieces of the structure that exist in the world (there are some in Paris and Copenhagen, too).

This is the Parthenon diaspora.

Pieces of the Parthenon in the Louvre in Paris

Fragments of the Parthenon in the Louvre in Paris

The issue really boils down to Elgin’s acquisition of the pieces. Was he a looter? A self-interested collector? Someone with a passion for archaeology and a drive to save these sculptures from further damage? It really depends on who you ask…

During the period in question, Elgin served as the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, the ruling power in Greece at the time. Elgin allegedly acquired permission from the reigning Sultan (the original document is lost and thus its veracity is debated), but was unable to get financial support from the British government. Ultimately, Elgin decided to carry out the work at his own expense. Removal and transportation of the sculptures to London cost him around £70,000. He ended up selling the pieces to the British government for considerably less money than he had invested in the project, even turning down higher offers from buyers like Napoleon. Today, England’s official stance is that Elgin heroically “rescued” these priceless artifacts and that the British Museum’s ownership of the pieces is legitimate.

Text relating to Elgin's preservation of the marbles at the British Museum.

Text detailing Elgin’s preservation of the marbles. British Museum, London.

But according to Athens, Elgin had no right to the sculptures because the Ottomans had no right to authorize his project: The Greeks don’t view the period of Ottoman rule as legitimate. At the New Acropolis Museum in Athens, Elgin is thus branded a looter and a thief whose removal of the pieces left significant structural damage to the monument.

"This is the third block of the south frieze, from which Elgin's crew detached the sculptured surface, as testified by the traces." — Acropolis Museum, Athens

“This is the third block of the south frieze, from which Elgin’s crew detached the sculptured surface, as testified by the traces.” New Acropolis Museum, Athens.

Since 1983, the Greek government has actively campaigned for the return of the Parthenon Marbles with hopes of one day reuniting all elements for display at the New Acropolis Museum (itself a key player in the campaign). One of Athens’ most compelling arguments is that the Parthenon frieze, metopes, and pediments constitute a unified work of art and that their separation detracts from a complete viewing experience: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The original Parthenon comprises an inner arrangement of columns (joined and embellished at the top by the frieze), surrounded by an outer arrangement of columns (joined and embellished by the metopes). The pediments are the sculptural elements in each triangular gable beneath the roof and above the metopes.

Parthenon Cross-section

The New Acropolis Museum’s exhibit replicates this structure; the viewer really gets a sense of the layout of the pieces relative to one another and to the greater structure of the original Parthenon (which can be seen through the glass walls of the gallery and whose orientation the gallery parallels).

Parthenon Gallery, New Acropolis Museum Parthenon Gallery, New Acropolis Museum

While the original pieces at the British Museum are more intact, they are displayed along the inner walls of a room—facing each other—rather than along an outer edge, as they originally appeared. In this way the presentation at the British Museum falls short.

Parthenon Galleries, British Museum, London

The legality of his actions notwithstanding, Elgin’s removal of the sculptures and their subsequent housing in London did save the elements from further decay. Ironically, this is made blatantly evident in the New Acropolis Museum’s gallery, where Athens’ salvaged fragments are juxtaposed with indignant plaster casts of the British Museum’s Elgin Marbles. It turns out a couple extra centuries of poor air quality and acid rain really does a number on exposed marble…

Juxtaposed frieze elements, New Acropolis Museum, Athens

While I don’t think the two rivals will settle their differences anytime soon, it would be wonderful to someday have all the pieces on display together in one place. I was able to travel to Athens, London and Paris within the span of a few weeks, but few people are so lucky.

Due to gallery layout and the ability of the museum-goer to interact with the original Parthenon and its sculptures, my vote is for a reunification in Athens—but only if they agree to cut “the looter Elgin” some slack.

Click here for more photos of the Parthenon Marbles in Athens, London and Paris.

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3 comments

  1. Jamie · · Reply

    What a great comparative analysis! I agree with you – with the additional proviso that the Greek museum keep the returned marbles within the climate-controlled museum (which I assume would be the plan). And that the British Museum be allowed to make replicas or plaster casts or whatever of the pieces they have before returning them. And there should probably be some payment made, from Greece to the UK, in recognition of the preservation of the marbles and the fact that they were, at the time, legitimately obtained with permission of the ruling power.

  2. […] Percy Jackson and the Parthenon Diaspora, Rondelet by Cara, 23 August 2013 […]

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