The Corinthian Column

The so-called Corinthian column was the last of three major column styles developed by the ancient Greeks, that made its debut in the Peloponnesean district of Arkadia during the fifth century BCE. Over the next hundred years or so, the column was installed only within a small number of temples and shrines across southern Greece. Following the success of the Makedonian empire forged by Alexander the Great (336-323 BCE), the style began to be fitted externally to diverse structures, where it was introduced as far north as the Ukraine, as far east as India, and as far south as Egypt. Following its adoption by the Romans at the close of the first century BCE, the style was marched westwards across northern Africa and southern Europe into Britain. Hence the column ranks amongst the first international styles of architecture. However, it was not until the eighteenth century of this era, and the colonising efforts of imperial Europe, that the style succeeded to global dominance, whereupon the style can be found today in almost every major town and city the world around.

Early corinthian capital from Tegea
Capital from Tegea, Arkadia
(ca.360 BCE)
Early corinthian capital from Epidavros - front
Capital from Epidavros, Argolis
(ca. 340 BCE).
Early corinthian capital from Epidavros - corner
Capital from Epidavros, Argolis
Corner view.

Now the terms Corinthian and acanthus, by which the column and its leaf are most widely known, originate with the architectural treatise of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, a Roman of the first century BCE, whose account of the invention of the capital is the only one surviving:

A Corinthian maiden of marriageable age died suddenly from a violent disorder. After her funeral, her nurse collected her favourite cups and placed them within a vase upon her grave, covering the vase with a tile for the longer preservation of its contents. Inadvertently, however, the vase was placed upon the root of an acanthus, which come spring-time shot forth stems and large leaves. But pressed by the weight of the vase and tile, the stems turned into volutes at the extremities of the tile.
Callimachus, who for all his elegance and subtlety in carving marble was called Catatechnos (Katatexnos) by the Athenians, happened to pass by the grave at this time, when he noticed the vase and its delicate arrangement of surrounding foliage. Pleased by the form and novelty of the combination, he began to fashion columns of the species in the country round about Corinth, determining the proportions and dimensions by perfect rules. [Vitruvius. 4.1.9-10]

While many in the architectural community have denounced this account as a fiction, it appears Vitruvius may have been relating a truth, but whose words require clarification. The Corinthian maiden was probably the goddess Aphrodite (Kupris), whose renowned sanctuary at Paphos in southwest Cyprus (Kupros) was violently destroyed by the advancing Persians in around 495 BCE, barely two generations before the column is widely deemed to have made its debut. Aphrodite also commanded a major sanctuary atop Akrokorinthos (Rock of Corinth), whose sudden rise to power and influence directly followed the demise of the ancient Paphian sanctuary.

The funerary vase and cups may have represented a sacred wine-drinking set, that generally consisted of a large decorated wine krater (vase), a number of kulikes (tall stemmed cups), and a ladle or dispensing jug. The wine drinking sets appear to have been an essential accoutrement to the marzeah and agape (family heritage) festivals celebrated throughout the eastern Mediterranean region. Meanwhile, the capping tile may have represented a copper (kupros) ingot from Kupros, that were often cast to the size and shape of an outstretched hide of moufflon (sheep) or goat. (The modern term "ox-hide", that is widely used to describe these ingots, may play upon the "oxidised" or corroded condition of the many ingots recovered from several bronze-age shipwrecks along the southwest coast of Anatolia.) Such an ingot may have been the price for a krater of Aphrodite's wine, a wine undoubtedly made by fungi. More recently, in other parts of the world, living deer and cattle have been swapped for amanita muscaria mushrooms.

Mycenaean drinking set
Mycenaean Wine-drinking Set
Copper 'oxhide' ingot
Oxidised (ox-hide) copper ingot

The nurse may have been head-priestess of the Paphian sanctuary, who managed to secure the sacred objects for return to Greece ahead of the advancing Persians, and who may have been aided in her flight by the nearby sanctuary of Apollon at Kourion in southwest Kupros. Upon returning to Greece, the sacred objects were probably given a ritual burial beneath the sanctuary of Aphrodite that once stood within the hollow hilltop overlooking the temple of Apollon Epikourion at Bassai ("Groove") in southwest Arkadia. Within this temple of Apollon, completed in around 430 BCE, was found the oldest surviving example of a Corinthian column.

Bassai - aerial view
The temple of Apollon Epikourion (circled) at Bassai is dwarfed by the domed mound (left), within whose hollow summit once stood a temple of Aphrodite.

That Arkadia was chosen as the final resting place of Aphrodite was probably because her temple at Paphos was deemed to have been founded immediately after the Trojan War (ca.1183 BCE) by king Agapenor (Great-Lover?) of Tegea in southeast Arkadia. However, as Corinthian columns were also installed within the temple of Dios at Tegea, which was rebuilt in 360 BCE after its predecessor was destroyed by fire in 395 BCE, it is possible that the earlier temple at Tegea also contained Corinthian columns, which may predate that at Bassai. This being the case, the solitary Corinthian column found at Bassai may be a survivor of the earlier Tegean temple.

In naming the column Corinthian, Vitruvius may have succumbed to the will of Julius Caesar, who instigated the Roman re-settlement of Corinth in 45 BCE, almost a century after the city was totally destroyed by the Roman general Mummius. In 69 BCE, Caesar had publicly proclaimed himself a direct descendent of Aphrodite, whom the Romans called Venus ("Huntress"). The highly prized Amanita caesarea mushroom, which can appear very similar to Amanita muscaria, was named after Julius Caesar. However, it would be left to Avgustus ("Great Gusto"), whom Caesar named as his successor, to spread the Corinthian column throughout the Roman empire. But as the oldest known Corinthian columns were discovered at Bassai and Tegea on opposing sides of Arkadia, and as no Corinthian columns have yet been found at Corinth that pre-date the Roman re-settlement, the Corinthian column deserves to be re-classified as Arkadian.

The earliest mention of acanthus occurs in the Odussei (Odyssey) of Omeros (Homer):

'... as in autumn, when Boreas spreads the akanthas across the plain...'. [Od.5.328]

While the akanthas ("pointy flower") of Omeros remains to be identified, the reference to autumn and the magical fertilising power of Boreas (North-Wind) suggests a progressive sporing of fungi from the wintry north to the warmer south. This passage may also explain the autumnal colour scheme generally given to Greek Corinthian capitals, which compares directly with the colour scheme found in the Amanita muscaria pileus. As the fluted shafts and moulded bases of Greek columns were normally left as plain white marble, if not rendered in a creamy white stucco, the shape and colour scheme of these two elements also compares directly with that of the stipe and volva of this mushroom.

Of all the Greek column styles, the Corinthian column presents as the most sublime rendition of the sacred mushroom. As the placement of flimsy acanthus leaves in the capital corresponds directly with that of the gills in the mushroom, the spiralling corner stems may represent a pileus in the process of unravelling. The peculiar shape of the four-cornered abacus may reflect a trimming of an unopened spherical pileus into a cube, whereupon the inwardly-curving shape of the tile becomes apparent when the pileus has opened upwards and outwards to a flat table. The mounting of Corinthian columns upon cubic (kubos) pedestals certainly added kudos ("glory") to the column.

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