A caryatid is a sculpted female figure serving as an architectural element such as a column or a pillar supporting an entablature on its head.
Some of the earliest known examples were found in the treasuries of Delphi, dating to about the 6th century BC, but their origins can be traced back even further to ritual basins, ivory mirror handles from Phoenicia and draped figures from archaic Greece. The best-known and most-copied examples are those of the six figures of the Caryatid Porch of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis at Athens.
One of those original six figures, removed by Lord Elgin in the early 1800s, is now in the British Museum in London. The other five figures, although they are damaged by erosion, are in the Acropolis Museum.
The Romans also copied the Erechtheion caryatids, installing copies in the Forum Augustum and the Pantheon in Rome and Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli.
The origins of the term are unclear. It is first recorded in the Latin form caryatides by the Roman architect Vitruvius. He stated in his 1st century BC work De architectura that the female figures of the Erechtheion represented the punishment of the women of Caryae, a town near Sparta in Laconia, who were condemned to slavery after betraying Athens by siding with Persia in the Greco-Persian Wars. The Greek term karyatides literally means "maidens of Karyai" or Caryae.
However, Vitruvius' explanation is doubtful; well before the Persian Wars, female figures were used as decorative supports in Greece and the ancient Near East. Caryae had a famous temple dedicated to the goddess Artemis in her aspect of Artemis Caryatis. The Erectheion caryatids may therefore represent priestesses of Artemis.
The male counterpart of a caryatid is referred to as a telamon or Atlas (plural, atlantes) – the name refers to the legend of Atlas, who bore the world on his shoulders. A caryatid supporting a baskets on her head is called a canephora, representing one of the maidens who carried sacred objects used at feasts of the gods.