The Parthenon, of course, is the grandest temple to Athena in the history of Greece, but it is also a temple that represents how the ancient Greeks viewed the universe, and all that made the reality of the world for Hellenes.
Athena, Goddess of war but also of universal wisdom, intellect, and strength stands center to all when looking through the entrance, and Her statue is a world all unto itself.
It stood around 4o feet in height, filling the room, symbolizing that the Gods are greater than humans, and made of the finest gold and ivory ever seen. The sculptor, Phidias, intended the statue, known as Athena Parthenos, to spare no expense in representing the full glory of Athena.
Starting at the top, is the helmet of the Goddess, and whose center is occupied by the Greek Sphinx. One such notable of its kind comes from the story of Oedipus, a Heroic traveler who outsmarted the infamous Sphinx that held the City of Thebes hostage, and as a result, became the City's King.
The Greek Sphinx bears the head of a person (usually a woman), the haunches of a lion, and the wings of bird. The wings represent heaven (the realm of the Gods), the lion body represents Earth (the realm of mortals), and the head is so that the two realms can communicate, or rather, so that man can talk with and learn from the realms.
But the Sphinx itself is not evil or something which desires malice. Statues stood guard at temples and even cemeteries or burial grounds. While some may interpret the Sphinx as being wild and chaotic, it can actually be a very intelligent and tamed guardian of civilization, especially in the presence of Athena. The danger is simply that ultimate knowledge can be a very perilous pursuit, perhaps some of which is even better suited to be left for Gods and not mortals.
On either side of Athena's helmet stands the mighty Greek Gryphon, an animal seen in many cultures, but the Greek being identified by its flawless posture and amazingly detailed beauty. It possesses the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion, all being composed of highly powerful animals, and having nothing to do with any image of mortals.
Their purpose is therefore, and always has been, their own, which is to guard highly valuable treasures of the world. Being that the Parthenon was also intended to be the greatest treasury of Athens, their presence in the temple alongside Athena is not a surprise.
Over Athena's golden peplos, the traditional feminine robe of Athens, She wears the Aegis, the description of its existence going all the way back to The Iliad, predating even the Parthenon itself by around 400 to 500 years. Holding the Gorgon head in the center (a previously untamed spirit of the wind or perhaps Medusa herself), the Aegis was an animal fleece used as armor, but this one was empowered and kept by Zeus Himself, and given to His daughter Athena. It is therefore, quite literally, armor of heaven, Divine protection and power impenetrable.
The Ageis was created by Zeus during the Titanomachy, which is also depicted through the Parthenon, and came into being after Zeus slayed and flayed the hide of the Gorgon Aix during the war. This could therefore be the Gorgon depicted on the armor itself, and not Medusa. So whether the Gorgon be the ill-fated monster killed by Perseus and gifted to Athena, or the trophy from victory over the rebellious Titans, is our interpretation or belief. I myself would say it's likely Aix.
The head of the statue is believed to have had a somewhat opened mouth, to represent air, or that which gives life.
Going to the bottom of the grand statue, around the edges of Athena's sandals, was the depiction of the Centauromachy, which was essentially when Greek Heroes like Theseus overcame natural chaotic forces and banished them from human civilization, the Centuars being at the center of the chaos because the Centaurs in question found themselves unable to control their barbaric side. So upon Athena's feet, almost under them, that which threatens civilization is subdued.
In Athena's left hand is Her spear and shield, and at Her left side is the snake of the Polis of Athens, which requires a somewhat detailed explanation to understand.
The outer portion of the shield holds the depiction of the Amazonomachy. This was the war between the Greeks and the all female warrior nation known as The Amazons, of which there could have been way more than just one conflict, because not only are they in The Iliad, but also the story of Theseus. Nevertheless, it is all represented on that shield.
No one knows exactly who these women warriors were, but the Greeks ultimately defeated them, and that victory on the shield of Athena represents the triumph of civilization over barbarism. Keep in mind, barbarian didn't necessarily mean ruthless or evil to the Greeks, but simply people who did not speak Greek. Thus, we could also be looking at the fact that the ancient Greeks or Athenians eventually ruled the world around them.
The snake is probably one of the most misunderstood images and realities to modern readers and onlookers. The snake represented the beginning, the ground from which the Athenian City came, and that such a natural force, while uncontrollable in the wild, was tamed by Athena to the benefit of humanity.
This is a reality for all of our cities in the world even to this day. All of it comes from, and starts at, the ground.
Finally, in Her right hand, She holds about a 6 foot tall statue of Nike, the Spirit of victory, or Goddess of victory to some. She holds a laurel crown in Her hands, about to place it upon Athena's head, representing that Athena is the victor in all battles that She fights.
The statue we have come to know and love as Athena Parthenos, that once stood immortally on the Akropolis and still stands grand today as a replica in the Nashville, Tennessee Parthenon, is of course the representation of mighty Athena, but also of the immeasurable value that She gives to humanity; civilization, the taming of chaos, and freedom of the mind. In short, life itself.
In the Goodness of the Gods,
I'll see you at the next Herm down the road,
Sources and Citations: Athena Parthenos