“Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall,” according to the familiar King James translation of Proverbs 16:18.
I was reminded of that on a recent visit to the ancient Greek city of Delphi, home to the famous oracle. Most of the terraced temple complex, parts of which are more than 3,000 years old, fell into ruin long ago, and was covered with dirt until archaeologists began uncovering it in the late nineteenth century.
Along the serpentine path leading to the Temple of Apollo, the home of the oracle, various cities or peoples erected treasure houses to store gifts sent in hopes of gaining Apollo’s good graces and receiving a positive response from the oracle. Some of these were surrounded by friezes portraying activities of the gods, battle scenes, and the like.
The Treasury of Siphnos, a city-state on one of the Cyclades Islands, is one of the best known. The Siphnians had grown wealthy from mining silver and gold. Their treasury, probably built around 525 BCE, was one of the first buildings constructed wholly from marble. The pediment beneath its angled roof and friezes surrounding the building featured scenes from the Trojan War on the east side, a scene from the “judgment of Paris” on the west, and what appears to be the abduction of an unknown woman on the south. The north-facing frieze depicts a “Gigantomachy,” a mythical scene in which the Olympian gods did battle with a race of giants for control of the earth. The giants are armed with swords and spears, and protected by helmets, breastplates, greaves, and round shields.
In the scene pictured above, beginning at the left one can see two giants facing left toward two goddesses on a part that has been broken. To their right is Dionysus, wearing a panther skin, and a goddess who drives a chariot pulled by a lion, which is attacking a giant. To his right, the twins Apollo and Artemis pursue another giant who is fleeing toward a line of three other armored giants, with a fallen comrade at their feet.
The aspect I liked best can be seen in a close-up of the far-right giant’s shield. The sculptor, apparently proud of his abilities and knowing that the north side would be visible to pilgrims walking up the sacred way, took the unusual step of signing his work, inscribing the shield in ancient Greek letters with his name, followed by the statement that he “made these and those at the back.” Others apparently did not appreciate his hubris, however, and deliberately chiseled out his name: one can see only traces on the top left portion of the shield.
We are all-too-familiar with the pompous self-inflation of performers or politicians who can’t get enough of the public eye. Self-flattery may massage our pride, but fame, as we know, is fleeting. To coin a proverb of our own, “Better to have one’s name written in heaven than in all the newspapers on earth.”