The Odd Story Of Ancient Athenian Olive Wood Statues

When reading any section of The Histories, you can be sure that the father of history, Herodotus, recorded for us a few bizarre and entertaining stories of history or folklore. For instance, take a look at the odd series of folklorish events surrounding a few statues made from Athenian olive wood.

At an unknown time before the Greco-Persian Wars of the 5th century BCE, the citizens of Epidaurus went to the Oracle of Delphi, hoping to receive a cure for their troubles. Despite the oracle’s reputation for riddles and vague answers, the Epidaurians received a clear response. They were told that their fortunes would improve if they built statues honoring the fertility goddesses, Damia and Auxesia, in Epidaurus. Yet, these statues required a special building material. Basic stone and metal would not do the trick. No, the oracle decreed that only statues made of olive wood could bring prosperity back to their region.

As soon as the Epidaurians received their answer from the oracle, they quickly went about gathering the materials they needed. For the required olive wood supply, Epidaurus reached out to the Athenians, whose olive groves were thought to be the most sacred of Greece. Athens allowed the citizens of Epidaurus to gather their olive wood on the condition that the Epidaurians give annual sacrifices to the deities, Athena and Erechtheus, as long as the statues were in Epidaurus. The Epidaurians agreed to the conditions and built their statues. According to Herodotus, their crop yield then began to noticeably improve.

Although Epidaurus was increasing in prosperity, another specific region under their control was growing even more powerful. According to Herodotus, the island of Aegina was long under the rule of Epidaurus. Yet, now they had raised a fleet of ships and declared independence from their former masters. During their struggle for independence, the Aeginetans seized the prized olive wood statues and brought them back to their island.

When Athens heard that the statues had been relocated to Aegina, it sent an envoy to the island, asking for the islanders to continue the annual sacrifices that the Epidaurians had been dutifully hosting.

 The Aeginetans, however, had no intention of inheriting the sacrifices carried out by the Epidaurians.

Once the people of Athens fully understood that the Aeginetans would not sacrifice to Athena and Erechtheus, they sailed troops to Aegina with the intention of repossessing the statues. When the Athenians arrived at the island, the Aeginetans let them land without any harassment. The soldiers then tried to remove the statues by hand, but the wooden structures would not budge. When hands and muscle did not do the job, the soldiers attached ropes to the statues and began pulling the monuments toward where their ships were moored. Yet, before they could reach their ships, an earthquake and thunderclap suddenly occurred, unleashing chaos on the unfortunate Athenians.

At this point, Herodotus wrote that one of two things happened. In one scenario, the Athenian crewmen all went mad and began fighting amongst themselves. After a bloody free-for-all, only one Athenian sailor remained breathing. In the other scenario, a coalition of Aeginetans and Argives ambushed the Athenians, killing all except for one of the soldiers. According to Herodotus, the name of the only surviving Athenian was Phalerum, and he somehow managed to sail back to the city of Athens.

Even though Phalerum had survived a massacre and found his way home, his fate was in no way kind. When he arrived in Athens, he was assaulted by a mob consisting of the widows of his dead crewmates. According to Herodotus, the bereaved women asked him why he was alive while their husbands were dead in Aegina. As they questioned the poor man, the widows each poked him with their broaches and clothing pins. The combined damage done by the poking, pricking and stabbing proved to be too much for Phalerum and he died from his wounds.

Herodotus made no more mention as to the whereabouts of the olive wood statues. Reasonably, they would have remained in Aegina after the Athenians were ambushed or struck with madness. As for the widows who killed Phalerum, Herodotus wrote that the city of Athens gave them an interesting form of punishment. Apparently, the women were forced to wear tunics—a punishment that would cause them some embarrassment, but, more importantly, the garments would not require broaches or pins.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Picture of a carved wood Madonna, [Public Domain] via pixabay.com)

Sources:

  • The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
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