Victory at the Louvre
Travel Stories: Erin Byrne never let her mask slip, until a headless, armless Greek statue taught her a lesson she couldn't ignore
08.11.10 | 10:50 AM ET
I clicked along the marble floor in my Franco Sarto boots, a modern woman, chic, savvy, worldly. But when I saw her poised at the top of her stairs, admirers from all over the globe gazing worshipfully, I stopped and stared. I’m not easily intimidated, but she had me.
The headless, armless statue had something I lacked.
Winged Victory of Samothrace leaned forward upon the prow of her ship in the Denon wing of the Louvre. Daylight streamed from a ceiling of high, white arches and oval windows, bathing her in golden light: sturdy legs caressed by wind-whipped fabric, chest high, feathered wings flying out behind. She faced out, with absolutely nothing to shield her from the Louvre’s thousands of daily visitors.
It was the way she stood, as if she knew exactly who she was.
I wondered if her head and arms had weighed her down. Their absence enhanced her ethereal beauty: Without arms, the intricate scalloped design on her wings stood out in high relief; the lack of a head accentuated her dramatically arched torso.
Winged Victory, called Nike by the ancient Greeks, is the goddess of victory, and of the decisive moment in life—in athletics, war, even love—when we are at the crossroads and must draw upon all we are to spring forward. When the goddess is shown with wings, she reminds us that success is fleeting. American mythologist Joseph Campbell once wrote that what we seek from gods and goddesses is their grace—the power of their sustaining substance, their miraculous energy-substance.
The statue—made of Parian marble, the coveted prize of the Greek island of Paros: fine-grained, semi-translucent, pure white and entirely flawless—was once nestled in a niche carved out of rock in an open-air theater on the Greek island of Samothrace sometime around 190 B.C., the sky above blending with sea-blueness on the distant horizon. Winged Victory was unearthed in fragments, brought to Paris in 1860, and has been reassembled in stages since her discovery. Her outstretched right wing is a plaster version of the original left one. In 1950, a hand and the tip of a finger were discovered on Samothrace, and the rest of this finger and a thumb were found in a dusty drawer inside a museum in Vienna. These pieces now rest inside a glass case near her podium.
God hath given you one face and you make yourselves another.
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Before my trip to Paris, I read The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau, which urges us to reimagine the way we travel, follow the hunger for something deeper, be mindful and alert, and cultivate the ability to respond from our most authentic place. But then I discovered I couldn’t quite locate this interior place, the source of all that was me. The sensation of searching, like digging for an underground spring, was something I’d lived with for so long that I’d forgotten what I was looking for. Cousineau’s words reminded me.
I gradually became aware that I was disconnected from my own self—the original me. She was buried inside, but I had a picture of her: a four-year-old sitting in the front row of a 1963 black-and-white pre-school photograph, staring at the camera with penetrating eyes and a tiny crinkle between her brows.
My lower lip sticks out a fraction to indicate I’d fold my hands in my lap, but would assume no grinning pose, just my own unwavering, challenging gaze. I remember this time in life—I saw under the surface of things; a million questions rolled around inside my head. I was content to be inquisitive, for it was my natural state. I was different, and I knew it: too intense, serious and direct for the comfort of adults—my parents blanched when the teacher told them I was the most independent girl she’d ever seen.
In my first-grade photo, I tilt my head, shrug prettily, and stretch my lips wide in a smile that produces dimples in both cheeks, but does not come from within. My eyes are cheerful, unseeing crescents. I look fun, not fiery. I am well-behaved, far easier to adore than the unblinking little owl. I will grow into a chic, savvy, worldly woman.
Was it America’s twisted expectations of little girls in the 1960s that made me hide my brooding introspection and instead beam perkiness? I felt compelled to be cute.
Over the years, the mask morphed into a costume that never quite fit on an actress who played her part to perfection, but would have preferred to be narrator, waiting in the wings. In school I felt like raising my hand a hundred times a day; instead I told giggly jokes. As an adult, I wanted a life of learning and study, but I became a teacher. When I longed to listen, I talked. The extroverted persona I adopted appears in the stack of photos that chronicle my life: laughing teenager, gregarious sorority girl, effervescent wife and mother, accomplished public speaker.
The mask slipped whenever I would see a young girl suppressing her serious side with a smiling shield that was easy for me to recognize (I’d looked at mine every day in the mirror), or when I was near one of those rare individuals who presents herself to the world without reservation, the way Winged Victory did.
I viewed her from afar, then up-close, stopping on each stair as I approached. Her proud, triumphant stance touched the deepest part of me, for she had mastered the art of simply being herself. I longed to emulate her.
As I stood among the crowd milling around Winged Victory’s pedestal, I felt an intense energy, a kind of awareness, flow from the statue directly into me: an invitation to my buried self to stand up. My eyes and cheeks felt heavy, and I was instantly aware of the effort required to maintain the mask. Slowly, I let the muscles in my face relax, to reassemble naturally, and melt into my own serious expression. As I dropped the smile that did not come from within, the inside and outside of me clicked together with a rush of pure relief.
—Inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi
Insight is fleeting, and change takes time. That moment in the Louvre has been repeated hundreds of times during the last year—Nike reminds me to remove the mask, to peel off the costume, layer by layer. Over and over, I surrender the stretchy smile, and my essence emerges. When I fall into the habit of frivolously skimming the surface, I am reminded to stop and scrutinize in a more authentic way, with a furrowed brow that feels a perfect fit.
I continue to excavate traits I forgot I ever had, speaking my sharpest opinions and constantly asking questions. Rather than being the perky center of attention, I am most content to be a narrator. In Paris, a year to the day after I was struck by the stance of the statue, I looked up at her and felt not envious but victorious, for now I too stand boldly on my own ground.
Home again, I feel charged with the current from a worn postcard on my wall showing Winged Victory against a dark background, only her wings illuminated. Inside the Louvre, day turns to night, the crowd empties out, the security systems activate, and all is still. She stands, timeless, at the top of her stairs—Nike, the goddess who symbolizes the precise moment when victory was granted to the ancient Greeks, and to me.