A caryatid – or karyatid if you prefer the more accurate Greek spelling – is a female figure that serves as a type of support in architecture. Essentially, a karyatid acts as a column.
The Erechtheion (which incidentally is also known by its Latin title, the Erectheum) is a famous Greek temple in Athens. The Porch of the Caryatids.
There is a beautiful passage in Margaret Atwood’s book Cat’s Eye about caryatids: “…for an hour I’ve been looking at slides, yellowy, sometimes unfocused slides of white marble women with flat-topped heads. These heads are holding up stone entablatures, which look very heavy; no wonder the tops of their heads are flat. These marble women are called caryatids, which originally referred to the priestesses of Artemis at Caryae. But they are no longer priestessess; they are now ornamental devices doubling as supporting columns.” (p. 288)
Another one of my favorite contemporary references to the caryatid is from Neal Stephenson’s book The Diamond Age. In one striking passage, Stephenson juxtaposes ancient and modern, describing a “…a rack of free weights supported by four callipygous caryatids…” (p. 29) I love the visual, of course. But (no pun intended) I also appreciate the use of the word callipygous. Well done Mr. Stephenson, well done.
And for some reason, the phrase “callipygous caryatids” also reminds me of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, California.