That we’ve broken their statues,
that we’ve driven them out of their temples,
doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead.
– IONIAN, Constantine Cavafy
The world we live in, the world we know, is built of stories: old and new, public and private, contradictory, overlapping, evolving and unborn. Storytelling has been with us from the beginning and will be with us till the end. It is our first and most distinctively human art. The stories we are told or tell are inseparable from everything we know or do. To a large extent, stories are who we are. And while everyone has a story to tell, some storytelling rises to the level of art, as literature, music, painting, sculpture, dance or film. In fact, George Lucas, one of the great modern-day storytellers, feels storytelling is so important to us as individuals and to society that he has spent the last several years creating an extraordinary new museum, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.
“Narrative art tells the story of a society—most importantly, what the common beliefs are that hold it together.”
– George Lucas
Pioneering Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein (1898 – 1948) saw film as the ultimate storytelling medium – the perfect way to mirror and even change society, thanks to its ability to mobilize the senses, mind and emotion together in a powerful, immersive experience – after which (theoretically) one walks out of the theatre a different person. For Eisenstein, the Parthenon frieze, with its 160-meter-long procession of images, was the prototype for this kind of modern storytelling:
“The Parthenon frieze is the perfect example of one of the most ancient films, with the unique capacity of fixing the total representation of a phenomenon in its full visual multidimensionality.”
– Sergei Eisenstein
The Art of Storytelling and its History
The art of storytelling is a big, broad, rambunctious field. We are storytelling animals, and, in our diversity and ingenuity, over the millennia we have produced a bewildering array of stories, a tiny sampling of which I will briefly present this week and next – and which I would include in any time-capsule buried in the earth or sent into space to try to describe, maybe even explain, our creative, troubled, curious species. The Parthenon frieze takes its place among these other examples as special and unique, but it is not alone, and it is good to consider it here among its brethren as a key to unlocking the mysteries and miracles of a particular time and place in the story of human society. With so much else that is going on these days, much of it depressing, it is good now and then to look at the things we do best. Storytelling is definitely one of them.
The Caves of Lascaux and the Birth of Narrative Art
15,000 years before the Parthenon, with its orderly cavalcade of mounted horsemen, serene and solemn celebrants – and images of the free men and women of Athens – humans were already painting their stories on cave walls and etching them in rock. We cannot know for certain why they painted these images of wild bison, horses, deer and the hunters who pursued them, but their energy and beauty still move us.
Mesopotamia: The Hard and Rigid Order of Kings
Much later in Mesopotamia, horses were now hitched to chariots, and kings hunted lions for sport. Massive brick and stone palaces in Babylon, Ninevah, Sidon and Tyre were covered in panel after panel of glazed tile or scenes carved in low-relief – all showing the power and wisdom of rulers such as Hammurabi, Ashurnasirpal, Marduk, Nebuchadnezzar, Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal. In contrast to the wild and unrestrained freedom depicted in the caves of Lascaux, these narratives portrayed and served the harsh and rigid order of kings.
The Question of Immortality
Still two millennia before Pericles and Phidias, narrative art takes another turn in Egypt, where hieroglyphic “text” and colourful images combine to tell stories from this life – and to prepare kings, queens, generals and scribes for life after death. The Egyptian elite often commissioned lavishly illustrated papyrus manuals for this purpose. “The Book of the Dead”, also called “The Book of Going Forth by Day”, contained texts, formulas and spells to help the dead arrive safely and thrive in the hereafter. As with tomb and temple walls featuring the exploits of royals and deities carved in stone, these papyrus scrolls told stories that were literally meant to last forever – and to help their patrons do the same.
Societies Grew, Storytelling Flourished
As civilizations and cultures developed around the world, so did various forms of art and storytelling, verbal at first, as wandering bards and poets passed stories down from generation to generation in verse and song – and later in writing. This same creative impulse led other artists to narrate their stories in paint and stone – on public platforms that shifted over the ages from the walls of caves to the walls of palaces, temples, churches and, eventually, urban neighborhoods (see The Great Wall of Los Angeles mural project by Judy Baca).
It was universal, this urge to sing, dance or paint a world into being. While Homer was composing the Iliad and the Odyssey in Greece, half a world away in India generations of poets were creating the Mahabharata, an epic poem ten times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined and probably as important to world civilization as the Bible. In between India and Greece, in ancient Palestine, the sprawling collection of stories comprising the Old Testament grew over centuries, gathering in its generous embrace all the stories, creation myths, wedding songs, customs, wisdom and prophetic visions of the Holy Land. The Quran told the life and revelations of the Prophet Mohammed and enshrined a code of charity and joyful obedience, while the Christian New Testament detailed a fresh contract with God based on the life, death and teachings of Jesus. And while Buddha and Socrates were inspiring their students to take storytelling in new spiritual and ethical directions, philosophers and scientists began spinning their own tales about the origin of the cosmos and our place and purpose in it. Heroes like Odysseus, Gilgamesh, Heracles and Beowulf populated the ancient world – and were gradually joined by more human characters, especially women, with all the passions, strengths and conflicting emotions we find inside our own breasts: Antigone, Medea, Andromache and Electra. And then came Shakespeare. A vast torrent of storytelling, carrying along in its tide all the hopes and fears and wonder of our species is still in full flood. If it all seems too much to contemplate, then I suppose it’s a good thing that narrative artists have taken small portions of this vastness and shaped them into digestible form, as painting, poem, frieze or mural.
A Revolution in Marble
Greece made many contributions to the art of storytelling, beginning of course with the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, the poets who invented drama and comedy – and then the Parthenon frieze, one of the oldest and greatest examples of what George Lucas calls “narrative art”, visual art which tells a story. In its 160 meters (424 feet) of continuous figures the frieze captured in marble a unique time in the life of a unique culture, and while it tells a particular story about democratic Athens of the 5th Century BCE, it is also timeless – because it is about the human condition – and the essential dignity of a citizen in a well ordered and democratic society. After millennia in which narrative art exalted the lives of kings and rulers, the Parthenon frieze suddenly broke with this pattern and turned the men and women of Athens into the heroes of the story. This was revolutionary, not just artistically, but socially as well. The Parthenon frieze was in one sense descriptive, showing Athens and the world what it had achieved, but in larger sense it was aspirational and showed the Athenians what they had to live up to and fight to maintain. In either case, the subject of the story and its setting were one and the same: Athens – which makes the following statement by former Director of the British Museum (2002 to 2015) Neil MacGregor so puzzling:
“The Elgin Marbles are no longer part of the story of the Parthenon. They are now part of another story.”
What other story? Exile? Separation? Empire? Injustice?
The British Museum undoubtedly wants to tell a different story about the Sculptures in its possession, but they cannot erase the original story that they were created to tell – a story which depends for its meaning on its original setting, the Acropolis of Athens.
New Director, Same Script
Referring to the Parthenon, and obviously reading from the same script as his predecessor Neil MacGregor, the current Director of the British Museum Hartwig Fischer recently had this to say in defense of keeping half of the Parthenon Sculptures, half of the storytelling frieze, in London:
“Since the beginning of the 19th century, the monument’s history is enriched by the fact that some parts of it are in Athens and some are in London – this relocation enables the sculptures to tell a different story.”
Imagine for a moment that Lord Elgin and his men had visited Milan instead of Athens, and had bribed the caretakers of the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie to look the other way while they removed the figure of Jesus in Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (1490) for his collection at home – and that this image, now in a frame, had been sold to the National Portrait Gallery or some other prominent museum. Would we be talking today about enabling this dis-located image to tell “a different story”? Would this action have “enriched” the history of the convent and its famous mural? The original story is what matters – and gives the scene its meaning. While the monks ate their simple meals in the convent refectory, they could look up to see Jesus and his disciples taking their last meal together – and reacting to the news that one of them would soon betray him.
In the case of the Parthenon Sculptures in the British Museum in London, the only other story that they can now tell is a story of separation and exile, like the Israelites’ exile in Babylon. Instead of weeping by the waters of Babylon, however, the Sculptures weep for home on the chilly banks of the River Thames.
(To be continued next week…)
NEXT WEEK: Don Morgan Nielsen continues with Part 2 of the story using other examples of narrative art to explore why some, as with the Parthenon Sculptures, need to be appreciated within their original context while others don’t.
ABOUT THE PARTHENON REPORT | DON MORGAN NIELSEN:
In this bicentennial year since the birth of the modern Greek State, of both pandemic and celebration, Greek City Times is proud to introduce readers to a weekly column by Don Morgan Nielsen to discuss developments in the context of history, politics and culture concerning the 200-year-old effort to bring the Parthenon Sculptures back to Athens.
Classicist, Olympian and strategic advisor, Don Morgan Nielsen is currently working with a growing international team to support Greece’s efforts to repatriate and reunify the Parthenon Sculptures.
Click here to read ALL EDITIONS of The Parthenon Report by Don Morgan Nielsen
Feature Image : Copyright Nick Bourdaniotis | Bourdo Photography