The Palladium


Nike and the Palladium

In this bas relief Nike offers an egg to a snake entwined about a column with the Palladium on top.

Louvre, Paris



The story told about Pallas and her namesake, the Palladium is as follows : They say that when Athena was born she was brought up by Triton, who had a daughter Pallas; and that both girls practised the arts of war, but that once on a time they fell out; and when Pallas was about to strike a blow, Zeus in fear interposed the aegis,  and Pallas, being startled, looked up, and so fell wounded by Athena. And being exceedingly grieved for her, Athena made a wooden image in her likeness, and wrapped the aegis, which she had feared, about the breast of it, and set it up beside Zeus and honoured it.

But afterwards Electra  took refuge at the image, and Zeus threw the Palladium along with Ate into the Ilian country and Ilus built a temple for it, and honoured it.

Such is the legend of the Palladium, such is the founding of Troy.

From Sir James G. Frazer's 1921 translation of Apollodorus,  The Library (Apollodorus 3. 12. 3)

During the Trojan War the Greeks learned  that Troy would not fall while the Palladium  remained within Troy's walls. The  task of stealing this sacred statue fell upon the shoulders of Odysseus and Diomedes. They made their way into Troy by a secret passage and carried it off.  Later the Greeks were then able to enter Troy using the Trojan Horse and sack the city.


Odysseus and Diomedes stealing the Palladium [Apulian red-figure oinochoe, 4th cen BC]

During the sack of Troy, the Trojan princess Cassandra took refuge at the Temple of Athena, but to no avail.


In Vergil's account of the fall of Troy in the Aeneid, Ajax the Lesser attempts to pull Cassandra away from the Palladium.  A  fresco in the Casa del Menandro, Pompeii.




After the war the Palladium was carried, some say, to Athens and housed on the Acropolis. The 5th century Athenians worshiped an olive wood xoanon (statue not made by human hands) housed in the east-facing wing of the Erechtheum temple. This holiest image of the goddess was placed under a bronze likeness of a palm tree and a gold lamp burned in front of it. The centerpiece of the grand feast of the Panathenaia was the replacement of statue's woolen veil  with a newly woven one. The statue was also carried to the sea by the priestesses and ceremonially washed once a year, in the feast called the Plynteria.

Erectheum   Erectheum, Acropolis, Athens (note the sacred olive tree, replanted in 1952)

According to the Roman version Aeneas the exiled Trojan who founded Rome (see Virgil's Aeneid) brought the Palladium with him to Rome.  It was kept there in the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum for centuries, along with other objects sacred to the Romans.

In the 4th century AD the Palladium was transferred from Rome to Constantinople by Constantine and installed in a building at the base of the  Column of Constantine.  Such a move undermined  Rome and announced to the world the primacy of  Constantinople as capital of the Roman Empire.

The classical world's switch from pagan to Christian did not happen over night, Constantine hedged his bets. The  fifty meter tall Column was surmounted by a statue of Constantine as Apollo. The orb he carried was said to contain a fragment of the True Cross. At the foot of the column was a sanctuary which contained  Christian relics, the palladium from Rome,  and the Palladium  from Athens. 

column of constantine
The Column of Constantine, Istanbul, Turkey

The Palladium from Rome and, perhaps, the Palladium from the Erechtheum remained in Constantinople until 1204 AD when the crusaders sacked Constantinople. The Venetians appreciated the treasures of Byzantium; they looted rather than destroy.  St Mark's in Venice is graced today by many rich possessions brought back in 1204, including parts of the Pala d'Oro, the porphyry figures known as the tetrarchs, and above all the four great bronze horses. If either Palladium made it back to Venice is anybody's guess.


The Palladium as Axis Mundi

An axis mundi is the center of a group, culture, religion, or nation; the connection between the heavenly and earthly realms. In Mircea Eliade's opinion, "Every Microcosm, every inhabited region, has a Centre; that is to say, a place that is sacred above all."

 Originally a celestial pole, tree, or a high point, such as the top of a mountain, the axis expresses a connection between heaven and earth. From this axis emanates the four geographic points of the compass. Thus prayers travel up the axis to heaven and blessings from higher realms descend for dissemination. The spot where the axis enters the earth symbolizes the omphalos, navel of the world's beginning. The axis is both the feminine umbilical and the masculine phallus.

Whenever the connection and balance between heaven and earth is interrupted, all hell breaks loose. In Greek tragedy the break is often caused by an arrogant male. In Sophocles play Antigone, Antigone is interrupted while performing a religious rite, burial of her brother, by the king. This break in the  sacred relationship between the community and heaven is fixed only after  much human suffering.  The tragedy often ends with a sacrificial hanged woman, often from a tree. This vertical suicide reconnects earth and heaven - at least until the next arrogant male comes down the pike.

Anyone or anything suspended on the axis between heaven and earth becomes a repository of potential knowledge. A special status accrues to the thing suspended: a serpent, a victim of crucifixion or hanging, a rod, a fruit, mistletoe.

 In the Christian religion the crucifix or cross is the axis mundi. The blood and death of the sacrifice, ritualized each Easter, redeems mankind and reaffirms the link between earth and heaven. During the middle ages the cathedral, where the mass was performed, served as both the religious and civic center for the larger community.


cathedral plan Norwich
The four points of the compass are indicated.  The axis mundi is located at the crossing, which is often covered with a dome (indicating the heavens). Mass is often conducted at the crossing. Norwich Cathedral has the spire (axis mundi) directly over the crossing.



omphalos washington  monument  
Mother Nature's belly button, the Omphalos at Delphi Our national axis mundi, the Washington Monument.  

hearth Homes can also represent centers. The symbolism for our residents is the same as for inhabitants of palaces, sacred mountains, or national capitals.  The hearth acts as the altar.