What does Athena have in common with Dolly Parton? Several years ago I agreed to review the book
, pictured here, for the Times Higher
by the classical scholar Helen Morales. On receiving the book I realised it was about the author's pilgrimage to the home state of her idol, Dolly Parton and to other celebrity theme parks of Tennessee. At first I thought that I ought to let the Higher
know that I might not be the most suitable person to review the book. Then I began to read it and came to a different conclusion - when I reached Morales' account of another visit she made while in Nashville, to the reconstructed Parthenon and to its full-scale colossal Athena Parthenos statue by Alan LeQuire. It was that same connection between an ancient deity and contemporary idol that I found myself making in class today.
The class was taught by a guest lecturer, Geoff Stone, himself an Athena scholar, who wrote a master's thesis on Athena, especially the Athena Parthenos in fact, in the early 1990s. In order to convey the impact that the original, huge, colourful statue by Pheidias would have had on ancient viewers, Geoff showed LeQuire's statue. And in support of his point, I mentioned the impact that the statue had on Morales.
In the book, Morales recounts how she was struck by the interplay between artificiality and authenticity in the sites she visited, where the borders between what is real and what is imaginary are never quite clear. For instance when she gets to Dollywood, a high point of her trip, she talks about how the workers play “versions of themselves.” She finds Parton’s childhood home to be a duplicate of the real thing, frozen in time. On the other hand, the coat of many colours, made by Parton’s mother and immortalised in song, is the genuine article.
On a few occasions, Morales experienced entirely unexpected
moments of revelation. And this is where Athena comes in. The most unexpected of all was when she visited the Nashville Parthenon. This is a highlight for many tourists but it was not in her original itinerary. She tells how she added it for the sake of her fellow travellers, her daughter and husband - so that her daughter, named Athena, could visit her namesake and so that Tony could visit one tourist location in Tennessee with “no twanging.” At first, when entering the Parthenon, Morales was unenthusiastic. She recalls how she saw it through the lens of Plato and his distrust for “poor copies.” Then she entered the inner sanctum, found herself in the presence of the colossal statue of the goddess, and experienced what the original “ruin overrun with tourists” cannot. She says that: “the hairs on the back of my neck stood up; I almost wet myself; I was rooted to the spot and stood there gap-mouthed.”
Thus Morales found herself - totally unexpectedly - glimpsing something that might be comparable to the experience of ancient viewers of the Athena Parthenos, an epiphany, where normal experiences of time and space are put on hold. I did indeed review the book: here