Hardscrabble #9--April 1994

Letter from Hardscrabble Creek: "A Pilgrimage to the Parthenon"


Starting out on an empty stomach was appropriate. I had gorged the night before anyway: blackened catfish, fried potatoes, corn cakes, ice cream, and several bottles of Market Street, a local beer. I could wait to eat until after I had visited Athena's temple.

My hotel was in the downtown financial and governmental district. I allowed myself a cup of coffee, carried in a styrofoam cup, and walked through the plate-glass doors into the spring morning. At 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday, Nashville's center was quiet: offices closed, the massive bank-like churches slumbering one more day, the doors of the Castner Knott department store still locked.

The way led over a viaduct that crossed railroad tracks, freight yards, and Interstate 40, then became a nondescript commercial street. An array of businesses lined it: wholesalers, office supply stores, an Oriental market, a guitar store (this is Nashville, after all), an Indian market with its windows filled by sun-faded Hindi-language movie posters, florists, liquor stores. Two huge reinforced-concrete buildings dominated the hilltop ahead, both marked "Baptist" in giant letters. I knew the Southern Baptists' publishing complex lay in another direction, so they puzzled me. But as I came closer, I saw a woman in a white uniform waiting at a bus stop: the edifice was a hospital--hence the number of florists' shops.

Urban birds chattered and flew overhead: robins, starlings, grackles.

The street's character began to change. Music stores, bars, used-book stores, pizza shops, apartments--all the necessities of an urban university district cluster around Vanderbilt University. A Virginia custom license plate reads "VANDY 95," and I hear two women's voices coming up fast behind me; they overtake me and continue jogging into Centennial Park.

Further ahead, the two joggers flicker among the park's tree trunks as they move on its winding roads, pink shirt and white shirt. And behind them is a tan glow in the sunlight, the honey-colored concrete columns of the Parthenon.

No matter how often you see something in pictures, seeing the real thing requires a mental adjustment. For one thing, it is usually larger or smaller than you imagined. This time, it is larger than expected, even though it stands on a modest rise of ground, nothing like the hill of the Acropolis in Athens.

Nashville built its Parthenon for an 1897 exposition celebrating Tennessee's first century of statehood, setting aside for the moment some unpleasantness a generation earlier about whether it would actually stay in the Union. (The obligatory monument to the Confederate dead was erected not far away, a seated, weary bronze soldier with his musket propped against his knee.) The Parthenon was a quick-built part of the exposition grounds, housing an art exhibit and playing on the city's self-bestowed motto of "Athens of the South" (not to be confused with Athens, Georgia, also a university town).

When the other exposition pavilions were torn down, the full-scale replica Parthenon was saved by popular demand, but by the 1920s the brick-and-plaster edifice was crumbling. Money was raised locally to rebuild it in concrete, with the main floor replicating the original Greek floor plan, complete with giant bronze doors at either end, and the basement turned into a permanent art gallery. Reopened in 1931, it was renovated in the late 1980s. But although the gods and heroes of the original Greek pediment were duplicated, the "naos," the main hall, stood empty.

Everyone knew the original Parthenon once housed a large gold and ivory image of the goddess Athena, created by the sculptor Phidias in the fifth century B.C.E. and commemorating victory over the Persians. In the fifth or sixth century C.E. the original Parthenon was consecrated as a Christian church; at some time the statue was destroyed. Nashville's Parthenon, however, received its statue of Athena a century after it was first constructed.

Political enemies accused Phidias of embezzling some of the gold intended for Athena's statue; I do not know if any similar scandal accompanied the work of Alan LeQuire, the Nashville sculptor who designed the statue placed in the Nashville Parthenon in 1990.

The new Athena stands 42 feet (13 meters) tall on a five-foot pedestal. Her toes are at a visitor's eye level.

"She expects you to bring Her something," a Nashville Witch told me when I arrived in town. Even a shiny dime would do, she said, adding that she sometimes paid the $2.50 admission fee entirely in quarters because coins felt more appropriate than paper money. The museum guards have gotten used to seeing flowers and other offerings on the pedestal, she said. In Washington, D.C., the National Park Service collects and saves the many items left along "The Wall," the Vietnam War memorial; perhaps someday Nashville's Metropolitan Board of Parks and Recreation will do likewise.

The big bronze doors do not swing open at nine o'clock. Instead, small doors on the lower gallery level are unlocked. I paid the fee with paper money and went in. Ramps lead past showcases with photos and relics of the building's past; then, from the art gallery's anteroom, you can climb either of two stairways. Each was marked with a sign reading "Athena" and an arrow pointing up.

My pulse quickened. The university had paid my way to Nashville so that I could appear on a panel at an academic convention, but as far as I was concerned, this was why I had come. Having missed the Panathenaia Festival held in August 1993 (see Gnosis #30 or Green Egg #104 for photos and description), I was simply glad that this opportunity had manifested.

With the bronze doors closed, as they were that day, the naos is a forest of columns dimly lit by skylights and a couple of spotlights pointed down onto the statue of Athena. LeQuire created a solid and severe figure, holding a smaller statue of Nike (Victory) on her uplifted right palm. Her left arm cradles a spear with the hand resting on a shield; behind the shield rises a large snake, which the plaque nearby says symbolizes the people of Athens. (The idea of snake as house guardian was widespread in the ancient world, surviving the rise of Christianity, and Athena herself is connected with older Mykenaean snake goddesses.)

I have brought neither flowers nor shiny dimes but a small bag of barley, another traditional offering, partly on my own behalf and partly for a writer friend, who shared its small cost at the natural-foods grocery we had walked past a few days earlier. The naos is empty, but footsteps are coming up the stairs. I toss a few grains at Athena's feet with a short invocation; the rest will be sprinkled outdoors, and perhaps the pigeons roosting on the temple roof will find it.

Temple, yes. I have no opinion on the aesthetic worth of LeQuire's statue. It is stern and majestic, but not everyone likes it. (The fashion designer Bill Blass pronounced it to be "the biggest goddamn fake job I've ever seen.") Perhaps you have to be a little more than a casual tourist to feel the presence, but it is there. As far as I can tell, the parks board is violating the separation of church and state more now than when they erected a nativity scene beside the Parthenon in years past. But let's not tell them so just yet.

Chas S. Clifton lives in the Wet Mountains of southern Colorado. He edited Llewellyn Publications' Witchcraft Today series, which included The Modern Craft Movement (1992), Modern Rites of Passage (1993), Witchcraft & Shamanism (1994), and Living Between Two Worlds (1996) and was the co-author with Evan John Jones of Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance. He is now writing a history of American Paganism tentatively titled Her Hidden Children for AltaMira Press.


"Letter from Hardscrabble Creek" is a self-syndicated column furnished on a non-exclusive basis and copyright © 1994 by Chas S. Clifton. E-mail: chasclifton@earthlink.net


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