The Ecphorizer

Caryatids, Atlantes, and Telamones
Paul W. Healy

Issue #37 (September 1984)



The selection of Geraldine Ferraro to support the Democratic ticket and platform reminds us of some other women who were supporters - not of platforms, but of porch roofs ....

[quoteright'/>The city of Caryae is located in Laconia, a Greek province. It once boasted one of the grandest and most famous of the temples of Artemis (= Roman Diana), whose priestesses were called Caryatids. According to Vitruvius the city of Caryae made the tactical error of siding with the Persians after the battle of Thermopylae. As a result of this decision their city was thoroughly sacked by the Greeks when they were finally victorious -- the men were slaughtered, and the women carried into captivity as slaves. To commemorate this event the Athenians commissioned one of their sculptors - possibly Praxiteles - to carve statues in the form of women dressed in the Caryatic mode and use them to support the roof of the porch of the Erechtheum, just below the Parthenon. Hence the name came to be used for any figure, or half-figure, of a woman used to support a structure.

But women were not the only ones used to support roofs. Anyone who has stood in the public square at Tula and gazed at the four giant figures of Toltec warriors standing against the skyline, and realized that they had formed the pillars supporting the roof of a Toltec temple, may or may not be aware that these are fine examples of atlantes. And thereby hangs another tale ....

Atlas (of which Atlantes is a plural) was a Titan, the son of Iapetus and Clymene. His error in judgment was to lead the Titans in a revolt against Zeus. On the defeat of the Titans he was condemned to stand on the western end of the earth and hold up the heavens with his hands. Heracles (= Roman Hercules) once relieved him of the burden while Atlas retrieved the golden apples which had been guarded by the hundred-headed serpent, Ladon, which Heracles had slain. Atlas tried to get away without resuming the burden, but Heracles begged him to assume the weight once more while he adjusted a pad for his shoulders, and, when the gullible Atlas did so, promptly left. When Perseus came by and asked for help, Atlas refused -- so Perseus uncovered the head of Medusa, and we now have the Atlas Mountains in Libya. Mercator first used the word to apply to a collection of maps from the fact that a figure of Atlas was the frontispiece of the volume.

The Greeks referred to male figures used as columns as atlantes; the Roman word was telamones. The reason why the Romans should have used the name of this Greek hero is not readily apparent. He was the son of Aeacus, king of Aegina, and Endeis. Telamon helped Heracles in a Trojan War which preceded the abduction of Helen - in fact he was the first to break through the walls of Troy after the siege. This so enraged Heracles that he was about to cast his spear at Telamon when he paused to notice that Telamon was busily engaged in piling up large stones. When Heracles asked what on earth he was doing, the quickwitted Telamon replied that he was building an altar to Heracles the Victor. This mollified Heracles and he remained Telamon's friend. Later, when the allies were victorious, Telamon was awarded Hesione, the daughter of King Priam. His refusal to return her to Priam is supposed to be one reason that Priam felt justified in refusing to return Helen to Menelaus. In the more famous Trojan War two of Telamon's sons, Ajax and Teucer, took part. Telamon banished the latter for not preventing Ajax from committing suicide, though it would seem he was blameless. Telamon was one of the Argonauts, going to Colchis with Jason to secure the Golden Fleece. He accompanied Heracles on his quest for the girdle of Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons. Possibly he had supported so many heroes in so many causes that the Romans thought he deserved some additional recognition. Except in a dictionary definition the word does not seem to be used today as a synonym for Atlantes; nor does Atlantides (= the daughters of Atlas) seem to have any use as a synonym for caryatids -- except in the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia.

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Paul Healy




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