Athens, Greece


The parthenon as it existed in classical Greece.  Athena Parthenos is seen with a serpent, a large shield, and a winged being held on a pillar next to her.  Pillars are thought to evoke the trees of the earliest outdoor temples.  This Athena was about 42 feet high; the experience of seeing the huge Goddess surrounded by these enormous pillars must have been awe-inspiring to pilgrims.  Adding to the sight was a water pool at her feet, reflecting her image.  The statue was made of wood covered with bronze, with gold plates (weighing about 2,500 pounds) for her clothing and ivory for her skin.  The figure she held on her right was a Winged Nike, symbolizing victory, which held forth a laurel crown.  Athena may have also held a spear under her right arm.

An upright serpent stood behind her shield, which is understood to represent Ericthonius.  He was a man who emerged directly out of Gaia, the earth, without human birth.  Athena's chiton (Greek robe) was cinched by a pair of serpents whose tails intertwined behind her.  In ancient times, serpents were often associated with the wisdom of the earth; they are by nature close to the earth, and they periodically renew themselves by shedding their skin.  Much has been made too of their similarity in shape to the human spinal nerves.  For more on serpent symbolism, click here.  (This will take you off-site, use your back arrow to return.)   Athena had a sphinx on her headdress, with griffons  on either side. On her breast was an ivory representation of the snake-covered head of Medusa, again referring to the wisdom of snakes.  This beautiful statue was the center of Athenian religion for almost 1,000 years, from 450 BCE to the fifth century, CE.