The first time I became aware of the Caryatids was in the aftermath of reading the myth of Atlas, to whom I was convinced a historical injustice had taken place. Choosing the wrong side in the war between the old gods and the new, he was condemned to stand at the western edge of the earth and hold up the sky on his shoulders.

Similarly the Caryatids, who I encountered in my youth on a postcard sent by a friend holidaying in the motherland, stand upon the high stylobate of the south porch of the Erechtheion, six solemn maidens, who take the place of columns in supporting the entablature. One of the maidens is missing, the one second from the left in the front row of four, as she was appropriated by Lord Elgin, when he purloined the Parthenon Marbles and remains in captivity in the British Museum, where, even though she was scrubbed by masons who wishes to render her “white” enough to be attractive to British sensitivities, is in better condition than her sisters upon the building, given that she has avoided two centuries of weathering.

From time to time, I see pictures of her bearing the caption: “I am Greek, and I want to go home.” When I visited her in person some years ago, my involuntarily sympathy for her plight was tempered by conflicting emotions. On the one hand, she remains an enigmatic, sombre figure, gazing at the viewer pensively, with an indeterminate expression that could be anguish, could be stoicism, or indeed could be utter detachment. She exists out of context, far removed from her sisters, and worst of all, utterly devoid of purpose, since even though she is no longer holding up the Erechtheion, she is still defined or framed by the capital for which she forms the chief support. Simultaneously awesomely beautiful as well as well as vulnerable and pathetic, she holds up nothing at all.

On the other hand, away from her sisters, she is no longer just one in a herd of identical architectural features but rather a distinct person with its own character, its own set of circumstances and its own sense of identity. This Caryatid for me, created as an Atlas to submit to and support an edifice not of her making, personifies the quintessence of the human condition: free and enslaved, captive and untethered at the same time, removed from her place of servitude and yet forever bound by the primary purpose she was designed for, wherever she may be.

The context of the original positioning of all of the Caryatids is also problematic, not in the least because we are still unaware as to the precise purpose of the Erechtheion, unique in the corpus of Greek temples in that its asymmetrical composition does not conform to the canon of Greek classical architecture. Installed in a building which possibly housed the statue of Athena Polias, and featuring friezes that depict the sacrifice of Erectheus’ daughters to save Athens, the symbolism of the Caryatids elude us. Most importantly, their arms, which could convey clues as to their original function, have been lost. Ancient copies excavated in Tivoli have that the korai carried phiale, suggesting that they might be either the arrephoroi, young female acolytes of Athena who lived for a year on the Acropolis and concluded their term with a mystery rite called the Arrhephoria, whereby they carried unknown objects into a cavern, and there exchanged them for other unknown objects, as well as being responsible for weaving the peplos for the statue of Athena, or kanephoroi, unmarried young women who were awarded the privilege of leading the procession to sacrifice at festivals. Now, instead of being in servitude to the various mysteries surrounding the worship of the gods, they constitute a mystery in themselves.

If the ancient architect Vitruvius is to be believed, the complexity of the ontopathology of the Caryatids can be explained by their back history, which he mentions in his work: “De Architectura.” According to him, their presence on the Erechtheion has nothing to do with worship of the gods but rather, evidences deeds dark and nefarious. In his work De Architectura, he writes:

“should any one wish for information on the origin of those draped matronal figures crowned with a mutulus and cornice, called Caryatides, he will explain it by the following history. Carya, a city of Peloponnesus, joined the Persians in their war against the Greeks. These in return for the treachery, after having freed themselves by a most glorious victory from the intended Persian yoke, unanimously resolved to levy war against the Caryans. Carya was, in consequence, taken and destroyed, its male population extinguished, and its matrons carried into slavery. That these circumstances might be better remembered, and the nature of the triumph perpetuated, the victors represented them draped, and apparently suffering under the burthen with which they were loaded, to expiate the crime of their native city. Thus, in their edifices, did the antient architects, by the use of these statues, hand down to posterity a memorial of the crime of the Caryans.”

Consequently the presence of the Caryatids has to do with their ritual humiliation and abasement, in a manner which we would find most confronting today. It would have been the menfolk that would have taken the conscious decision to ally themselves with the Persians, the women of Carya having no say in the matter. And yet it is the most vulnerable of those women, young unmarried girls who have no one to protect or defend them and who have lost absolutely everything, their country, their loved ones and their very freedom, who are being made to suffer for the crimes of others. Viewed from this perspective, the Caryatids are not a mere decorative motif but rather symbols of sexualised violence against women, their abject dehumanisation personified in their transformation into architectural elements, like Atlas, doomed to hold up the constructs, whether physical or ideological, of their captors and oppressors. Viewed from this perspective, their gaze, serene and aloof is either one of suffering or contempt.

Despite such dehumanisation though, the six Caryatids of the Erechtheion are not all identical. Their faces and hair, the draping of the clothes and the manner in which they stand differ from each other, some supporting their weight on the right foot, the others on their left as if shifting their feet in order to bear their burden more easily. This, in my view, heightens their tragedy. They are all individuals, with their own hopes, desires, dreams and personalities. Nonetheless, despite their ostensible differences, they will be punished collectively, for eternity, for the sole reason that they are women who ‘belong’ to the wrong sort of men.

This sentiment of pity and of outrage at the perennial humiliation of the hapless Caryatids is not one that I share readily with my compatriots, for whom the Caryatids generally serve as a symbol of the cultural superiority of our tribe to the West. Yet I am consoled by the French sculptor August Rodin, who in my opinion feels their plight even more deeply than I. In his 1881 sculpture “Fallen Caryatid Carrying her Stone” which forms part of his immensely confronting Gates of Hell depicting a scene from the Inferno, the first section of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, he has carefully depicted a caryatid who has fallen. Robert Heinlein in his science fiction work Stranger in a Strange Land, describes this crushed individual far more eloquently that I ever could: “Now here we have another emotional symbol… for almost three thousand years or longer, architects have designed buildings with columns shaped as female figures… After all those centuries it took Rodin to see that this was work too heavy for a girl… Here is this poor little caryatid who has tried—and failed, fallen under the load…. She didn’t give up…; she’s still trying to lift that stone after it has crushed her…”

‘Our’ Caryatids have not fallen, neither have they been crushed, and whatever the vagaries in their condition they maintain their immense dignity in the face of their subjugation, permitting all of us to draw strength from their undefeated womanhood. Sometimes, especially in times of crisis, they serve for me as a fitting metaphor for the Greek experience, enslaved but invariably free, with a spirit than can never be broken. Other times they remind me of the indomitability of the human spirit and the necessity of emancipation; In Act 2 of his 1953 play ‘Waiting for Godot’, author Samuel Beckett has his protagonist Estragon say “We are not caryatids!” when he and Vladimir tire of carting around the recently blinded Pozzo. But most of the time, I dream of being able to affix a placard upon each of the amputated hands of the Caryatids that proclaims simply: “I am a woman and I want to be free.”