A statue who shakes her head no


2019.06.05 | By Manon Brouillet

§1. In 1966 the popular French singer Michel Polnareff reached his first audience with the song La Poupée qui fait non. A big success, the song has been translated into Italian (“Una bambolina che fa no, no, no”), Spanish (“Muñeca que hace no”), and German (“Meine Puppe sagt non”). This doll, who has never learnt to say yes, keeps shaking her head from side to side to express her refusal, at the great despair of the singer who cannot but wait for a sign of acceptance.

§2. Such a simple, silent, and implacable gesture echoes a famous scene of the Iliad. In book 6, the Trojan women, made desperate by the situation on the battlefield, go to the temple of Athena on the Acropolis in order to offer a peplos to the goddess and ask her to stop and even kill Diomedes. Indeed, the Achean hero is currently slaughtering their husbands, brothers, and sons. The offering ritual is described with precision by the poet and has no equivalent in the Homeric Epics. It involves a statue, situated within the temple. As Gregory Nagy has shown, the scene can be related to the Athenian festival of the Panathenaia, the climax of which was the offering of a peplos woven by the Athenian maidens (Nagy 2009|2008 I§144; Nagy 2010|2009 II§§357–72).

§3. In this episode, the cult statue is not designated by any Greek word, but we can without a doubt infer its presence by the fact that the Trojan women are said to place the veil on the knees of the goddess (Athēnaiēs epi gounasin) (Nagy 2010|2009 II§363). Unfortunately, like the doll of the song, Athena shakes her head no:

ὣς ἔφατ ̓ εὐχομένη, ἀνένευε δὲ Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη.

She spoke in prayer, but Pallas Athene refused, throwing her head back.

Iliad 6.311

§4. The verb ananeuō describes the fact of throwing the head back, in token of denial. The body language being culturally dependent, we note that the gesture of refusal is different from the one of the French doll. But it is the same that we can still witness today in the streets of Athens, or in Sicily!

§5. However, if the “knees of Athena” designate the knees of the (sitting) statue, one can ask whether the head that moves is the head of the goddess, unseen by the mortals, or the head of the statue, making it a “living statue”. I argue that this ambiguity is wanted by the poet. The blurring between the goddess and her statue does not imply that there were no differences between the two in early Greece, as it has sometimes been stated (Bremmer 2013:7), but that the poet proposes a reflection on the representation of the gods, here on the link between the cult statue and the goddess.

§6. The episode concludes on that line, without mentioning if the Trojan women are aware of the goddess’s refusal. By not using explicitly the term “statue,” the poet leaves the question open. In other words, the climax of the ritual scene relies on the audience’s wondering about the relationship between the statue and the goddess, and ultimately about the result of the ritual process.

§7. Centuries later, Virgil recalls the scene and enters into dialogue with the Iliad. (On the Homeric features of the Aeneid, see Barchiesi 2016.) Aeneas, the Trojan survivor, arrives in Carthage where Dido the queen has just finished the construction of a magnificent temple to Juno. Among the many moving Trojan scenes, one represents the offering of the peplos to Athena by the women and the subsequent reaction of the goddess:

crinibus Iliades passis peplumque ferebant
suppliciter, tristes et tunsae pectora palmis;
diva solo fixos oculos aversa tenebat.

the Trojan women with streaming tresses, and they were carrying the peplos,
in the mode of suppliants, sadly, and beating their breasts with the flat of the hand.
With averted face the goddess kept her eyes fixed on the ground.

Aeneid 1.480–482; translation by Nagy

§8. In the Virgilian scene, the goddess does not shake her head. On the contrary, she stays still, her eyes staring at the ground. Does Virgil misremember his Homer? I think that, on the contrary, he knows perfectly well what is at stake in Iliad 6.311—that is, the blurring, wanted by the poet, between the goddess and the statue. Just as in the Homeric epics, there is no word to designate a statue, and diva refers directly to the goddess. But in the Virgilian scene, Athena doesn’t move, because the human gaze is not that of the Trojan women but rather of Aeneas himself, who is looking at a sculpture within a sculpture. In other words, the shape of Athena is carved in the stone of the temple’s pediment, like all the other figures, including the Trojan women. At the beginning of the description, the Roman poet insists on the materiality of the temple, made of bronze and stone. In such a setting, the blurring is no longer possible, because the statue of Athena is no longer a cult statue but rather the representation of a cult statue. While in the Homeric scene the statue was not a mere representation of the goddess but had a much more complex link with her, in the Aeneid we are in a regime of representation (a pictura; Nagy 2009|2008 1ⓢ13) that prevents such an ambiguity.

§9. I now turn back to the French song, in which, in a way, the dramatic tension tends to be as great as in the epics: the singer would give his life for the doll to say yes! But there is more. While Homer uses the name “Athena,” both for the goddess and the statue, Michel Polnareff plays with the “pet names” lovers use. The “doll” designates at the same time a toy, that would here be animated, but with only one program—refusal—and the young attractive girl—a baby doll, as inexorable as an unreachable goddess.

After Barbie as Athena (2010).
After Barbie as Athena (2010).



Barchiesi, Alessandro. 2015. Homeric Effects in Vergil’s Narrative. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Bremmer, Jan. 2007. “The Agency of Greek and Roman Statues.” Opuscula 6:7–21.

Nagy, G. 2009|2008. Homer the Classic. Printed | Online version. Hellenic Studies 36. Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Homer_the_Classic.2008.

Nagy, G. 2010|2009. Homer the Preclassic. Printed | Online version. Berkeley and Los Angeles. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Nagy.Homer_the_Preclassic.2009.



Cover image: After Barbie as Athena (2010).