Spring 2010, Volume 8

Fiction by Robin Russin

Athena's Beard

You might think my memory has been addled by the centuries of seawater passing through, but what I am about to tell you is as it happened. Forgive me if my long acquaintance with the much-murmuring waves has made me chatty. It could be I’m talking to myself, or to my usual audience, those adorned with gills, tentacles or claws. It doesn’t matter. It's worth the telling, it needs to be told, to whatever audience I have, because once,  I was a god.

Plato understood the problem I presented to him all too well. That’s why he couldn’t bear to look at me. I was the fly in his philosophy. But Aristotle loved me. He saw what his old mentor couldn't, that truth wasn't a fixed ideal independent of perceived reality, but in fact based on that perception. And I was true. The Romans, of course, missed the point altogether. By they time they came, they saw, and conquered, lusting after gaudy Imperial souvenirs (and what a souvenir I was), their dull, practical minds were dismayed when they took me down and saw me up close. As they lowered me from my high pedestal with their precisely engineered Roman block and tackle, it must have seemed to them as if I was undergoing some kind of hideous disfigurement, or a slow death. But what they were witnessing, incapable as any Roman would be of the concept, was time reversing itself, moment by moment, back all the way to the instant he created me. And so they tossed me on the scrap heap.

But you’re confused, I imagine. Who was I? None other than the legendary Athena Technon, the masterpiece by Pheidias. And who was he? You must have heard of him, even now, unless all klea andron—the famous deeds of men—have come to nothing. Demiurge of one of the Seven Wonders—of my father Zeus in Olympos—the greatest sculptor in all of Greece? Well, it doesn't matter. Time passes, things change, even the gods are forgotten. I should know. I'm certainly not what I once was, not what I was the day of the competition. For one thing, I was a god myself, dry and polished to shining perfection. Now look at me, crusted with coral, choked with barnacles, frosted by the pale light filtering down from the dappled surface, but that day...

Alkamenes—whose greatest artistry was his ability to blind men to the mediocrity of his work—had contrived a competition, a commission for a new statue of Athena to grace the city. It should have gone automatically to Pheidias. Had he not astonished the world with his mighty Athena Promachos, The Warrior Maiden, erected to celebrate the miraculous destruction of the Mede? With the sun flashing fire from her shield, had he not blinded one and all? Had he not seduced them with the paralyzing beauty of his second Athena, the Lemnian, so that the island’s sons forgot to honor their mothers, lovers forgot the names of their girls—or even their boys? It was only natural that he would be chosen to create this new Athena, to be set high above the city bearing her name on its tallest pillar, a beacon to the world. But the Athenians, too, could forget, especially if drugged by the lotus of a few well-placed bribes, and so a contest was announced. There would be a sculpt-off between the two of them, Alkamenes, that hack, and my illustrious creator. Some competition—was Polykleitos invited? Or old Myron? Or the great Kritios, who had blazed the path of artistic revolution? No, Alkamenes alone was invited to the agon against my master. Such, even then, was the aesthetic influence of the drachma.

You must understand: the difference between Pheidias and Alkamenes, or any other sculptor, was more of kind than of degree. Did I sound boastful when I spoke of his other images of Athena? But it was true. Or rather, they were true, true to the goddess, who she was, what she was. They didn't represent her, they presented her—she was present in all of them. In all of us. We were like quadruplet sisters, identical, from the same source, and yet all distinct, like four different rivers splitting off from the same Olympian spring, or like the Graiai—where those identical hags shared a single, fatal eye, we four shared her divinity. We became her. Pheidias created the Hebrew's blasphemy, graven images alive with the godhead.

This is also how Pheidias later gave Plato nightmares, for he had created an exception that disproved his rule. Pheidias did not imitate the real, or even the ideal. His art was no shadow of a shadow on cave wall. It was the ideal made real in the full light of day. What he crafted became the content of its image. The transformation, spreading like golden blood through the fabric of the form, was as ineffable as the quickness of life. In his hands, metal tresses shimmered like spun phosphor; hard lips and cheeks blushed like the dawn; his chased and chiseled drapery was motionless, yet rippled with mysterious breezes. And that is how I, a mere weight of bronze, flowed bright and smoking into the curves and channels of the mold, like hot sperm into a womb, and sprang to life as Athena.

You might well be skeptical, to look at me now. You might think the goddess departed long ago, if she’d ever been here at all. Maybe she did. Maybe she died— Olympians, like all gods, tended to fade away when people forgot them. But even though part of her is gone, the form he imposed on my metal, part of her remains, the content embedded in its alloy. That was Pheidias’ alchemy.

The problem, in my case, unlike the others, was that the alchemy was site-specific. Once I was no longer at home, high atop my pedestal, the gold appeared to turn back into lead. My divinity couldn’t be recognized. That is why so few marble copies of me were made, and why those the Romans did churn out before I was melted for their stolid atria or pornographically mosaiced baths are hardly worth a glance. They are Plato’s drab imposters, bleached skeletons stripped of the flesh. The form is there, more or less, a little thicker, a little more awkward, but they are corpses drained of vital pulse. No amount of mortuary make-up can warm their counterfeit cheeks, spark fire into their dull eyes. Copying my master was an undertaking without hope. Alkamenes, midwifing stillborns to begin with, fared better with the copyists and the passage of time. The endless succession of constipated, waxy-haired Herms with which he infested the Ionian coast, the blight of bad bronzes he cast across Greece, are almost unchanged by conversion to marble in the indentured hands of some Roman copyist. Some, in fact, were stone to begin with, but stone untouched by Niobic passion. Alkamenes’ rocks have no tears to weep. They were dead to begin with, at one with reduction and reproduction.

Alkamenes would have made a good Roman: plodding, persistent, imitative, scheming, corrupt, and dull. He approached the problem of the competition with his usual approach to originality: by trying to figure out how Pheidias would do it. There was a kind of comical doggedness with which he chased after Pheidias, trying to figure him out and outdo him. He stole into sanctuaries at night, places where my master's work could be found. He was a midnight scholar. Once, stooping over his torch to peer at some fine chase-work, he set his own beard on fire, and then tried to douse it with the ritual oil. Not all his efforts were so flamboyant. He once tried to bribe Pheidias’ assistants to learn the master's secrets, as if true art were nothing but some trick, some sleight of hand.

Although, maybe in my case, just a little trickery was involved. In me, Pheidias invested all his magic. I say with all modesty that it was undoubtedly the greatest challenge that any sculptor had ever attempted, or possibly ever would. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Once the competition was under way, the only thing that the spies Alkamenes sent to Pheidias' workshop could learn was that my master spent most of the day looking up at a model he had made of his Athena of Lemnos, placed on a high rafter of his studio. He hadn't touched clay yet, let alone wax. Alkamenes was thrilled. It looked like Pheidias was simply going to revise his old triumph, the beautiful Lemnian. Pheidias obviously thought he could plagiarize himself and get away with it. Alkamenes reasoned that, even if Pheidias succeeded perfectly in regurgitating that past success, it would show poorly for an Athenian audience, who would want something uniquely their own. Athens was, after all, establishing itself as the new central power of Greece. Well, if that was what the master was going to do, Alkamenes had the answer. He would do Pheidias one better.

Ever the thief, the false syllogist, he ran off to Lemnos to study the original. By catching something of its elemental radiance, maybe he could steal some of Pheidias' own fire. But he would combine it with the old-time majesty of canonic masterpieces like the primitive Hera at Olympia and, by proportioning the mix according to Polykleitos' fashionable new formulae, he would surely, finally, defeat the old magician. Beauty, majesty, history, proportion: surely these spelled the definition of victory, especially if Pheidias was bereft of new invention. And Alkamenes would add his own trademark, a certain lumbar stiffness that he considered the key to portraying dignity.

Returning from Lemnos, seasick but happy, he set to work, carefully shrouding his efforts. The reports his agents brought from Pheidias' studio baffled but encouraged him. The clay work had begun but—instead of a neo-Lemnian beauty, it was by their accounts perfectly hideous, even grotesque. The statue's mouth yawned, its brow protruded beyond reason, the eyes seemed cavernous. A rumor mysteriously began to spread that Pheidias had misunderstood the commission and was sculpting the gorgon Medusa, instead of the goddess whose chest her apotropaic face adorned. Meanwhile, Pheidias spent the better part of the day lying on the floor beneath his model, looking for all the world like a besotted husband passed out at the feet of a raging, disfigured wife. Perhaps, thought Alkamenes, the strain of genius had been too much for the old man. Perhaps he had crossed the border into lunacy. Toward the end, Pheidias also hid his work, and so both statues, from wax to bronze, were completed in secrecy.

To tell the truth, most people felt that Pheidias had been carrying on an act to deceive Alkamenes, who everyone knew would be trying to copy him. What? Would Pheidias, the greatest artist of the age, create a monstrosity? The sculptor whose Apollo practically tuned his own lyre before your very eyes? Whose Zeus made the vast temple at Olympia seem to shake with his crafted glance? The odds in this race were so bad that the bookmakers could hardly force a bet—and Athenians would wager on whether or not the sun would rise.

On the morning of the unveilings, both of us stood, wrapped in heavy tarps, before two wooden mock-ups of the high pillar one of us would eventually ascend. After the usual speeches, sermons and political hard-sell, Alkamenes drew the first lot: his sculpture would be the first unveiled. This suited everyone, since it nicely increased the drama and expectations surrounding the statue about which everyone’s curiosity had been aroused. Fluffing out a beard made patchy by his incident with the ritual oil, and clapping his hands with impatience, Alkamenes shoved aside the nearer spectators lest any beam of sun be impeded in its divine mission to illuminate the glory that was his Athena. Warning the crowd to shield their eyes, he drew back the canvas with a flourish.

It was what everyone expected: another waxy-haired effigy, smirking in homage to the archaic past and sporting an unpleasantly oily, roundish face that was his attempt to reference the lunar luminosity of the Lemnian. The eyes had the dull stare of day-old rockfish at market, the pulpy, slightly parted lips seemed about to drool...but maybe I'm being too harsh. An unpleasant residual effect of having been a god is that we were a notoriously vindictive lot. This statue was, to be fair, Alkamenes’ best work to date, and of course the Romans adored it when it came into their hands. The crowd gave him a discreet measure of applause, to which he bowed and waved his arms like some braggart pankratist.

Even as the first tarp fell to the ground, all eyes turned to my master's veiled creation—me. What form would the goddess take this time, again springing full-grown from the brow of the Zeus of sculptors? I could feel the strain of their eyes against the canvas covering me. The time had come, but Pheidias seemed to pay no attention. He hadn't even glanced at the competition, but remained deeply involved in discussion with the engineer responsible for hoisting the statues onto their respective towers. The crowd began to chant and stamp with impatience. Almost as an afterthought, Pheidias finally sent over an apprentice to pull away my tarp.

As it fell, a silence of appalled disbelief descended. But before I relate how this almost came to be Pheidias' last day to enjoy the Aegean sun, let me tell you how I became a goddess.


Pheidias knew this commission would be different from the others he’d done. It went to the heart of what he himself experienced in the act of creation. He demanded identity, not allegory, if he was to avoid the fate of Arachne, Marsyas and the others who had challenged the art of the gods with their own insufficient attempts. If art was misperceived as the slave of beauty, it was nonetheless the creature of perception. So, while Alkamenes was off studying the Lemnian close up, at face level, Pheidias had been re-examining her from below, at a distance. While Alkamenes was calipering everything into Polykleitan perfection, Pheidias was gazing up from the floor, studying how to keep the chin from being the center of attention, the nose from visually squeezing the upper lip, the eyes to keep from bugging out, even if it meant pulling the face—my face—into a grimace worthy of a tragic mask. While Alkamenes patted each stolen curl into place, Pheidias added layer upon layer of prominence to the forehead, almost disregarding the need for human proportion altogether.

The result was the difference between dogma and discovery. You see, in spite of the great artistic leaps of the previous fifty years, in spite of the exultation at having broken with time-worn Asiatic and Egyptian precedent, Alkamenes and most of the others were still mummifiers at heart, too slavish to comprehend their new freedom. Was it not the glory of Greek philosophy to have abandoned the false participial infinity of the Pharaohs? Did our gods not revel in the shape-shifting mysteries of life? Yet, in the broad light of day, artists like Alkamenes were still modeling simulacra for the tomb. They could not escape the notion of an icon true to all places and all times. Hadn't they looked at their own reflections? Hadn't they seen their own faces changing, year by year? Would they say they looked the same at seven as at seventeen or at seventy—not to mention at seven hundred? And yet they would place the same marble youth on his grave, hoping to fool time and visitors into believing that instead of a disintegrating corpse, a youthful man indistinguishable from all the others was there: "This is me" as I was, as I still am, always. Their kouroi now had bended knees and contraposto, the blocks of stone were no longer carved using squared off grids, but they still wanted the images of their deceased, and their gods, to be unchanged and unchanging. As if Kronos had not cast his father’s genital blood into the mud, as if Zeus had not been diapered and burped by the wood nymphs and then gone on to take a hundred different shapes to bed a hundred different women, as if Atlas had always shuddered under the burden of the sky, and as if my sisters, the Promachos and the Lemnian, as different as furnace from moonlight, were not all equally the incontestable incarnation of Athena. No wonder Zeno had been able to convince people that they were all frozen in mid-step. There are limits to reason.

It is said that genius consists of nothing more than the recognition of the obvious. It is obvious that a man may look seven heads high standing up, but only one or two heads high if seen from the same vantage point while lying on his back. And it was clear to Pheidias that, just as the sun is white and round at noon but red and oval as it touches the horizon, and yet it is the same sun, and further, that the same sun may have set for a farmer in the valley but still be visible for a shepherd on the mountain, so a true work of art must be true for the place and vantage point from which it is seen.

Alkamenes, like Plato, might object that the sun is always round and white, and we only see it to be different. But isn’t that the point? Regardless of how unchanging it may be in some Platonic meta-framework, it remains our experience that every evening when we see it kiss the horizon, it is flattened and red. And that is the greater truth, for that is what constitutes the divine identity of the sunset. The truth of the sun at noon is the falsehood of the sun at setting time—their light, their appearance, and their meaning have changed. Apollo would hardly have tried to seduce an already rooted laurel, nor would he have woven a wreath of Daphne’s amputated fleshy fingers to commemorate his love. A luscious fruit out of season will make you ill. "Ripeness is all"—shall I go on? And so the Lemnian Athena, so true at eye level, would be somehow false—even grotesque—when observed at a great height. Another truth was needed.

And yet, paradoxically, while one truth supplants another, while we can never step in the same river twice, yet somehow the river retains its identity, even when it floods or goes dry. A form, once true, remains true even when altered. Only an Egyptian at heart would try to fix it into one state, to freeze its flux, to embalm a lifeless form in the hope of trapping an essence already irretrievably altered.

What I am getting at is this: even as Pheidias refined the last ornament on my robe, even as that morning I stood wrapped against eyes of the spectators, I was, even then, not yet, not always and at all times, something you might recognize as Athena. I was, in fact, a warped and shocking physiognomy, and this is what, after all the speeches and delays, was revealed to the stunned crowd.

Their silence was not of the awed variety an artist might hope for. It quickly turned into the sort of mob violence usually reserved for the Dionysia. It resembled nothing so much as the reaction of a hometown crowd when the hellanodikas has made a blatantly biased call against their team.

Pheidias had foreseen this reaction, and had wisely hired a cordon of strong men to guard me. But he had forgotten about himself. Seeing the sculptor to be an easier target than his sculpture, Athenians of all ages and stations joined in uncommon unity and rushed him, searching as they went for anything that might avail them in their goal of pummeling him beyond recognition for his sacrilege. Each had his reasons: there was The Patriot, outraged that Pheidias would make a farce of this occasion and afraid that Athens would become a laughing stock, as visitors from all over Greece had come to witness the unveilings. There was The Connoisseur, nauseated at the idea that the winning—and therefore newly defining —image of Athens would, by default, be the mediocrity created by Alkamenes. And, there was The Loser, one of those few addicts who couldn’t resist a bet, provoked to avenge the talents of silver he had squandered. Most, however, were simply crushingly disappointed. They had expected so much, a new goddess to grace the newly ascendant polis, and what they had been presented with seemed worse than incompetent—it seemed an insult, if not indeed deranged.

Pheidias ran to the scaffolding of his mock-pillar and scrambled up above the grasping hands, shouting frantically at the engineer, who had already tied hoists and counterweights in place. As he climbed, then, the two statues began to rise as well, perhaps somewhat faster than safety might have dictated. The ropes and timbers groaned alarmingly around us as the engineer urged his team to drive the winch ever faster. Above the crowd, between hurled rocks and branches, Pheidias called to his persecutors to turn and look: all would become clear! And some few did shift their attention, and found themselves unable to turn back, their jaws no longer agape with anger but with wonder—something strange, something supernatural was happening. Others turned, and then more, until the whole crowd was watching with one unblinking gaze—for as we levitated higher and higher, we began to change.

To their deaths, some of the witnesses vowed that they saw some invisible hand begin to resculpt the pieces before their very eyes. Alkamenes’ effigy became squatter and uglier, but I—the disgrace, the monster—progressed into a protean, apotheotic miracle. The crowd had forgotten Pheidias, clinging like a monkey to the beams, and stood in a different kind of silence, the sort any artist might long for. That, of course, was before the cheering began.

It is hard to overstate the fickleness of an Athenian. He would fight to the death for a friend, and then—assuming he was successful—turn around and swindle this same friend out of his life's earnings. But this time the cheering was genuine, not the result of some bribe or mob manipulation. It was true enthusiasm—the entrance of the goddess. I can assure you of this, because as I rose, attended by the creaking of timbers, I myself began to feel Athena enter me, become me, hot and bright and irresistible in a way that I had not felt since my casting. At that moment I could see into the hearts of every one of them, my eyes sending down sparks of sacramental light. The closer to the column’s capital, my eventual resting place, the more I could see, until the whole of Attica coalesced and became known to me, from the slow sap of the olives and vineyards to the quick fingers of slave girls at home with their weaving, from the bleating of goats to the barking of officers. I saw the hidden ballast of boats in the harbor, and the even more hidden subterfuges of councilors and sophists.

The people, of course, could not see what I saw, but they saw that I saw, and that I seemed to have literally come to life—more than that—to divinity. My gaping maw closed into a portal of oracle; my overbearing brow transformed into a shining shield of wisdom. On my breast the gorgoneion writhed, threatening dark retribution for disbelief. All the distortions and displacements drew together until, at last atop the pillar, I became like light captured within a crystal, focused to unbearable intensity, as Archimedes would later bind the beams of the Syracusan sun with his parabolae to torch the Roman fleet. And yes, I was there to see that happen, although in my present, more functional form.

My fire was of fury, however: it was a beacon, inaugurating a Golden Age. That very day it was decided that Pheidias would have artistic control over the reconstruction of the city, in particular the Acropolis and its planned centerpiece, the Parthenon, the Temple of that would house the last of the sisters born from the seed of his genius, the chryselephantine Athena Parthenos. This Age lasted less than half the lifetime of our creator, but it didn't matter. Like all of us, it was eternal, and yet fated to change. Athens was not embalmed into some Egyptian eternal that day, but immortalized by a zygotic energy that would divide and differentiate through time into the civilization of half the world. You see, even though I outlasted Pheidias himself by only a few generations, my sisters and I were not fossils, but vessels. Our truth was as durable and malleable as bronze, and as fragile as a point of view. We were destroyed, and yet, having been genuine, our reality was—and is— undiminished, for those who still seek it out.

Ironically, Alkamenes' melon-faced mannequin now lies not a hundred yards from me, garbed in sponges and spineless annelids. It took up residence here a few centuries before I did, this particular stretch of water having lost none of its treachery for foolish spring sailors. The same equinoctial season when the Romans brought me down to earth and wondered whether their eyes were playing tricks on them, as my magic undid itself, that same season they found another bronze of Athena, with its shiny round face, stuck incongruously in a dark corner of a custodial shed, and decided that if I, the Athena Technon of Pheidias, was not worth taking back to Italy, this oddly discarded statue certainly was. An Adriatic squall decided otherwise.

As it happened, I made it to Italy too, though somewhat later. Left for scrap, I was melted and remelted into a variety of new forms. For a while I served time as a ceremonial chariot for plump provincial governors. Parts of me were divided into a series of pot-bellied urns and sold, but through an intervention of what I can only call Fate, I was reassembled by an avid collector, whose chief joy was to dust the divided vessels of my  self and strike us with a mallet, as if instinctively trying once again to elicit our divine voice. Later, I was enlisted in the cause of the Roman fleet, reassembled and recast as one of a battery of naval cannons, my voice no longer music but a thunder of fatal destruction. My ship was captained by a man of admirable caution, one of the few to escape Archimedes’ firestorm in the bay of Syracuse; but, having escaped that maelstrom, one fine April my ship made its way down the Adriatic coast and met up with another of those spring squalls, and so I came to rest next to my old rival. We have little to say to one another, in fact, nothing at all, since she remains what she was in Alkamenes’ hands, a simple lump of bronze, while I, even though I am now only a hollow tube half-buried and forgotten, retain the divine spark. Art creates these problems.

I still have contact with the world in my own way. Here beneath the surface there is a constant exchange of information. My skin oxidizes and electrolyzes, passing minerals back and forth in the alkaline water. My breastplate, my aegis of Medusa, was melted away along with the rest of my Athenian form, but I now have the companionship of a small octopus, who considers me his home. At times, when he rests along my barrel, his tentacles curling in the current, he provides a comic reminder of my once fierce, serpent-haired gorgoneion. At other times, when he’s lounging in my mouth, his tentacles at rest, it seems I’ve grown long whiskers, and so I’ve come to call him Athena’s Beard.

Through him, I know how far civilization has drifted along its currents. The news these past years has not been cheering; sometimes it seems only the worst aspects of Athens have survived, that they have lost the light of wisdom completely. It saddens me when the little fellow returns from scavenging in the polluted bottom muck, his body distilling the poisons of complex molecules from a diseased sea bed, his eyes deranged with mercury-spawned dreams of succulence and destruction. Perhaps we are in another age of Romans, who polluted themselves with their lead fermentations and also went mad. But I have hope. I am content to lie here, both empty phallus and virgin womb, waiting for another Creator to melt me and mold me, to spend my seed and impregnate my metal and give birth again to my virginal, ineffable divinity. And then I, Athena, in whatever form, will return to the world, a beacon for another awestruck age.


BIO:  Robin Russin is Associate Professor of Screenwriting at University of California, Riverside. He has written and directed extensively for film, TV and the theater, and is the co-author of the books “Screenplay: Writing the Picture” and “Naked Playwriting.” He received his A.B. in Fine Arts from Harvard, and graduate degrees in English, Sculpture and Screenwriting from Oxford, Rhode Island School of Design, and University of California, Los Angeles.