The day a god rode In


Illustration from 1838 by M. A. Barth depicting the return of Peisistratos to Athens, accompanied by a woman disguised as Athena, as described by the Greek historian Herodotus IMAGE/Description/Wikipedia

The Realness of Things Past: Ancient Greece and Ontological History by Greg Anderson

The exiled tyrant Pisistratus, planning his return to Athens in the early sixth century bc, hired an unusually tall woman named Phye to ride beside him in his chariot. She was to pretend to be the manifestation of the goddess Athena, the patron of Athens. Herodotus gives her height as some four cubits – around 5’11”, more than a foot taller than the average woman at the time – and notes that not only was she dressed in full armour but was ‘instructed of the bearing in which she might best beseem her part’ (according to Macaulay’s inimitable translation). As Pisistratus and Phye trundled through the fields of Attica, the Athenians fell over themselves to pay their respects. Herodotus notes that Pisistratus was immediately returned to power.

Why would the Athenians, famed for their cleverness, have been taken in by something so silly? Some historians write the whole problem off: perhaps Herodotus, famously prone to shaggy dog stories, got the details wrong. Others have argued that to understand why Pisistratus’ deception worked, you have to bear in mind that it happened in pre-democratic times. Maybe Athenians were peculiarly gullible in those days, or had lived under tyranny for so long that, even if they secretly suspected they were being duped, they didn’t have much choice but to do Pisistratus’ bidding. The problem for anyone making this case is that very close parallels to the Pisistratus incident can be found in democratic Athens. A major cult memorialised the healing god Asclepius’ arrival in Athens in 420 BC in the chariot of a human companion, Telemachus. Similarly, reliefs from the sanctuary of Artemis in Brauron, a small Athenian outpost about twenty miles east of the Acropolis, show worshippers paying their respects to the goddess. Like Phye, Artemis is at least a foot taller than her worshippers, and stands upright, politely observing them while holding various ritual objects. There are also cases of divine appearances, or epiphanies, at times of crisis. In 490 BC, Pheidippides – the long-distance messenger best known for his supposed run from Marathon to Athens – was reported to have encountered the god Pan on a mountain while bearing a message to Sparta. Pan, annoyed that the Athenians weren’t paying him enough attention, asked Pheidippides to remind them of his support. They responded by building a sanctuary to him on the Acropolis, which seems to have been a satisfactory outcome for everyone; Herodotus reports that the Athenians’ victory in the battle of Marathon was owed in part to the intervention of a grateful Pan.

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