Notebook

Notebook, 1993--

ANCIENT GREEK CULTURE

Athena


Pallas Athena [Minerva] was the daughter of Zeus and his first wife Metis. In the traditional story, when Gaea foretold that the next child borne by Metis would unthrone Zeus, the Olympian promptly swallowed Metis, following which he felt terrible pains in the head. Thereafter Athena sprang full-armed from the head of her father which Hephaestos had opened with an axe. Athena Parthenos, as she was known by the ancients, played a part in the most important stories involving cosmogony. Endowed with a wisdom which she inherited from her mother, she advised the gods in their war against the Giants. Athena competed with Poseidon for the possession of Attica and proffered to its inhabitants the olive tree, symbol of peace and prosperity. In gratitude, the inhabitants named their city Athens. Patron of the heroes of Attica and of the heroes [p. 35] who joined the expedition against Troy, she took part, as did the other gods, in the battles around that city. But despite her martial virtues and her purity, she blinded Theresia because he had seen her unclothed when she was taking a bath, Athena became the protectress and champion of the city-state and the guardian of the liberty of its citizens. She made sure that the laws were applied with justice and proposed leniency in the trial of Orestes, releasing him from persecution by the Erinyes [Furies]. She also strove for the progress of her people and invented farming tools for man so that the soil they cultivated would produce more fruit. Athena was the patroness of the family, encouraged harmony of married couples, helped preserve the marriage vows and health. Because of her wisdom and reason she was also the patroness of letters and the arts and the inspirer of all intellectual activity. In short, Athena was the deification of the ideal among the ancient Greeks, the ideal which enveloped the whole of Greek civilization which was founded on martial valour, wit, wisdom, and beauty as expressed in the spoken or in the written word, or in works of art.

The festivals honouring the goddess were panhellenic and numerous, but she was in particular the most important goddess of Athens. The most celebrated of these were the Panathenaean festivals, both the great and the small. The great Panathenaea lasted ten days and began with contests in music, gymnastics, horse-racing, dancing, male beauty contests, and to torch races. But the outstanding event of the festival was the great procession in which the peplos, or costly garment woven by Athenian maidens of good family, was offered to the goddess on the day celebrating her birth. Her best known temple was the Parthenon on the Acropolis. Athena, however, had numerous sanctuaries outside of Athens, in Attica, in Boeotia, Phocis, Locris, Megara, Corinth, Argos, Arcadia, and Elis, where she was worshipped as "the Mother". Her most important symbols were the aegis, the spear, the owl, and the olive tree. In works of art she is represented in a standing or sitting position, the former representing the warrior, and the latter the goddess of peace. In his gold and ivory statue in the Parthenon, Pheidias presents her standing. The statue measured twelve metres in height, and the statue of Nike [Victory] in her hand was all of two metres in height. Another, yet larger statue, was situated outside to the southwest of the Parthenon. This was the Athena Promachos, probably also a work of Pheidias, which was visible, according to the legend, from as far off as Sunium. [pp. 35-36]

[Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]




Athena
'She threw round her shoulders the formidable tasselled aegis, which is beset at every point with Fear, and carries Strife and Force and the cold nightmare Pursuit within it, and also bears the ghastly image of a Gorgon's head, the grim and redoubtable emblem of aegis-bearing Zeus. On her head she puts her golden helmet, with its four plates and double crest, adorned with fighting men of a hundred towns.' [Homer, Iliad]



'By the artifice of Hephaistros,
at the stroke of the bronze-heeled axe Athena sprang
from the height of her father's head with a strong cry.
The sky shivered before her and earth our mother.'

[Pindar]



'I'll start this singing with that grand goddess,
Pallas Athena, bright-eyed, so shrewd,
her heart inexorable, as virgin, redoubtable,
protectress of cities, powerful,
Tritogene, whom shrewd Zeus himself
produced out of his sacred head.'

[Homeric Hymn to Athena]



'The man is the source of life--the one who mounts
She, like a stranger for a stranger, keeps
the shoot alive unless god hurts the roots
I give you proof that all I say is true.
The father can father forth without a mother.
Here she stands, our living witness.
Child sprung full-blown from Olympian Zeus,
never bred in the darkness of the womb
but such a stock no goddess could conceive!'

[Apollo in Aeschylus' Eumenides]



The myth of Athena, all hymns to her, all references in Greek drama, begin with her beginning from the father. . . . It is a beginning that the virgin goddess proudly acknowledges: [p. 138] 'No mother gave me birth. I honour the male, in all things but marriage. Yes, with all my heart I am my Father's child.' [Athena in Aeschylus' Eumenides]

She is not only her father's child, but the father's favourite, the only one who knows where the lightning-bolts are hidden, the only one who uses the aegis, Zeus' magical potent shield. In the ultimate Olympian trinity of Zeus-Athena-Apollo, Homer places Athena second, immediately after the king of the gods.

Athena's essence springs from this primary relationship with the father and the masculine order that he represents. She has absorbed aggression and transmuted it into a compelling strength that belongs to woman as much as to man. Athena's emergence, fully armed and independent, from Zeus's head, her total ease in the practical world of men whether on the battlefield or in the city, her inventive creativity, her involvement with law, justice and politics, all symbolize the great gift she can give modern woman: the realization that creation and action are as inherently natural to a woman as to a man. Athena frees women from the fear of trespassing into a masculine domain, the fear of throwing themselves into what Ana­s Nin called 'the aggressive act of creation, the guilt of creating. I did not want to rival man, to steal man's creation, his thunder.' Athena does not have to steal the lightning-bolts; she has complete access to them and freedom to use them.

She fully aligns herself with the masculine order, but she breathes into it soul, mercy, wisdom. She is, above all others, the goddess of civilization. 'Cities are the gift of Athena'; artisans, craftsmen and tradesmen celebrate her as their teacher and patroness; the male brotherhoods of the city worship her as their goddess. She is woman as inventress and woman as artisan. She invented the arts of pottery, of weaving, of measuring, and she was also the couturièr of Olympos. When Hera wanted to lure her husband away from the action on the battlefield, she turned to Athena to make her robe, and when Zeus created the first woman, Pandora, to seduce mankind, he asked Athena to weave her dress.

In the Statesman, Plato uses Athena's weaving as a metaphor for the political process, and provides the bridge between Athena═s nurturing of the arts that sustain the life of the community and her patronage of the art that binds the community together. James Hillman strikingly amplifies the metaphor: 'Inclusion of the excessive and abnormal by weaving it in is the art of political consciousness. Such weaving is not patching quilts, tacking boards, stitching leather, darning holes. It is not repairing. It is not collage. It is not bricolage, [p. 1 40] haphazard, without inner necessity. Rather, Athena's art is the systematic plaiting of strands together; and as her own person is a combination of Reason and Necessity, her art of combination produces a whole fabric. All strands find place in and contribute . . . The old Furies brought in, nothing left out, no extremities hanging over the edges; integration as ideal norm.'

The art she draws on for her political weaving is the art of persuasion. Right words in the mouth of Athena become healing, restorative, moving the dark elements both within man and within the state into co-operation. In Aeschylus' Eumenides, she conceives the jury as a means of attaining an ideal of justice beyond primitive revenge. 'Persuasion guided my mouth', she explains when she wins the climatic argument with the Furies and saves Orestes' life.

Athena's use of the art of persuasion is most powerfully portrayed in her protection and guidance of her beloved heroes: of Herakles, Perseus, Jason, Achilles and, above all, Odysseus. 'I love them', she says in the Eumenides,' as a gardener loves his plants, these upright men, this breed fought free of grief.' In the Iliad, as Achilles is about to draw his sword to slay Agamemnon who has announced his intention to take Achilles' concubine for himself, the goddess intervenes: 'Cease', she whispers. Athena is standing beside Achilles, personifying his own inner wisdom, whispering, yet clearly heard over the tumult of wilder passions. She represents both 'the nearness of the divine at the moment of severest trial' and the embodiment of the wise counselor we all carry in us. 'She always stands beside me in all my tasks and always remembers me wherever I go,' says Odysseus, whose devotion to her is complete. For Odysseus, she is first among the immortals, the one who personifies his own clear-eyed sagacity and eloquence, sense of balance and shrewdness, his vision of homecoming in the midst of heroic adventures.

She guides Odysseus everywhere, except on his journey into the Underworld. Here Hermes takes over. Athena's domain is this world, and her reluctance to penetrate the mysteries of what lies below is the chink in the armour of the goddess of civilization. We shake the kaleidoscope and the goddess who 'outfaces the sun in brilliance' is seen as the goddess who denies her connection with the depths, with her own womanliness, with Gaia, the Goddess Earth, the Great Mother. Athena is the goddess of what W. H. Auden in his Ode to Gaea called 'this new culture of the air': 'But why we should feel neglected on mountain drives, unpopular in woods, is quite clear; the older lives have no wish to be stood in rows or at right angles . . . . '

Athena's pragmatic spirit directed towards standing lives and things 'in [p. 141] rows or at right angles', towards order and tasks and agendas, becomes disconnected from soul and from earth. Then the goddess of the erect carriage and the long proud stride dries up like a withered stick. This is the dark side of the goddess who, because she sprang from the father's head, forgets the mother who conceived her. Yet Athena's deepest wisdom comes not from Zeus but from the ancient goddess of wisdom, 'the most knowing of the gods and men', her mother Metis whom Zeus devoured as soon as she became pregnant. He had been warned that Metis was destined to produce children whose wisdom would defeat the power of his lightning-bolts and challenge his supremacy. It is the wisdom not of the head but of the soul that Metis represents. And it is this deep rooted wisdom that renews, which Athena denies proudly, even stridently. when she asserts: 'with all my heart I am my Father's child'.

By accepting her connection with Metis, Athena would rediscover a lost part of herself, preserved in the pre-Olympian myths about the Minoan shield goddess from whom Athena most likely descended. That goddess, as well as being a protective divinity, was a tree goddess and a snake goddess, both earthly symbols of eternal renewal. The ancient symbolism survived into classical times. Athena was the goddess of the olive tree, the sacred tree of Athens, and, even in the age of Pericles, Pheidias' famous statue of Athena Parthenos had a snake rearing up behind her shield and another coiled around her waist. Athena's very emblem, the owl, represents her dependence for strength and wisdom on the depths she denies. The owl is not only a wise bird but a night bird of death and darkness, 'associated with winged flight and spirit . . . . the bringing of souls back into the upper air'.

Athena's rejection of her powerful, instinctual femininity and sexuality is part of her denial of the depths in her nature. When these are disowned, Athena becomes all head, and the darkness of this is there for all to see in the terrifying image of Medusa's head that the goddess wears on her breast--a head so horrible that those who see Medusa or are seen by her are turned to stone.

Today those modern Athenas dominated by their heads are busy living out the negative side of the goddess. Her dispassionate passion turns into coldness, aloofness, self-righteousness. Terrified of their vulnerability, they barricade themselves against life. Stubbornly self-sufficient, they run away from any relationship that threatens to disturb their boundaries.

Athena invented the bridle to harness horses, but she harnessed herself as well. The intrusion of sexuality in her well-ordered world turns the virgin goddess into a hag. The sight of Arachne's beautifully woven account of the lusty adventures of the gods reduced the reasonable and fair Athena to such a rage that she tore the cloth into threads, beat Arachne with her shuttle and [p. 142] drove her to hang herself. It is true that she saved the girl's life by loosening the rope, but the punishment was no less vicious: she transformed Arachne into a spider, condemned to hang on a thread, forever spinning her web. When Tiresias happened to see the goddess naked while she was bathing, she struck him blind. And when Medusa made love with Poseidon in a sanctuary dedicated to the goddess, Athena punished her by turning her into a horrifying snake-haired Gorgon. Athena found a place for the Furies in the city-state but not in herself.

When in 1879, Nora slammed the door on her 'Doll's House', Athena came alive in the heart of modern woman and has been gathering strength ever since; 'Athena was alI I wanted to be and I gave my soul to her--self-confident and courageous, clear-eyed and strong, intelligent and accomplished, judicious and fair. I delighted in her ability to make full use of the given possibilities in any situation, in her gift for deep friendship unentangled with the confusions of passion, in her pleasure in struggle and challenge. Her dedication to the world of art and culture, of clear thought and realized accomplishment, were important testimony to me of how a woman might order her life.'

One after another, masculine strongholds surrendered to Athena's strength and her power of persuasion, and once established, every advance was soundly defended. In the perennial pull between work and intimate relationships, femininity and assertiveness, intellect and sensuality, the modern Athenas chose work, assertiveness, intellect. Until, that is, recently when the signs of a new discontent began to appear symbolized by the baby boom among career women in their thirties and forties.

Freedom from the confines of a narrowly-defined femininity had turned out in many cases to be capitulation to the no less narrowly defined masculine values of our culture. Attendance at Athena's altar left deep needs neglected and powerful forces unacknowledged. Yet, paradoxically, there is no better place to begin the process of integration than at the altar of the grey-eyed goddess herself. In the more obscure elements of her myth, in the instinctiveness of the tree goddess and the snake goddess, in the intuitive wisdom of her mother Metis, even in her dark outbursts of passion, modern woman will find all the elements she needs to reclaim the parts of herself that she thought she had to leave behind in the 'Dolls' House' in order to compete in a masculine world. In fact the task of integration belongs to Athena's essence. Under her patronage, women--and men too--can begin to weave together strength and vulnerability, creativity and nurturing, passion and discipline, pragmatism and intuition, intellect and imagination, until we claim them all, the masculine and the feminine, as part of our essence and expression. [p. 145] [Stassinopoulos, Arianna and Roloff Beny. The Gods of Greece. New York: Abrams. 1983.]



'I turned your face around!


That frozen rage is what I must
    explore--

Oh secret, self-enclosed and
    ravaged place!

That is the gift I thank Medusa
    for.'

[May Sarton] [p. 145]



Statue of Athena, with snakes and the Gorgon on her breast, from Lavinium in southern Italy. As well as being the goddess of wisdom and civilization, Athena was a tree goddess and a snake goddess, both earthly symbols of eternal renewal and a reminder of the goddess' dependence for true wisdom and strength on the instinctual depths that the tree and the snake represent. [p. 149] [Stassinopoulos, Arianna and Roloff Beny. The Gods of Greece. New York: Abrams. 1983.]



Marble statue of Athena, as it was renovated in 525 BC from the Old Temple of Athena on the Acropolis in Athens. Athena fully aligns herself with the masculine order, but she breathes into it soul, mercy, wisdom. Her emergence, fully armed and independent, from Zeus' head, her total ease in the practical world of men whether on the battlefield or in the city, her inventive creativity, her involvement with law, justice and politics, all symbolize the great gift she can give modern women: the realization that creation and action are as inherently natural to a woman as to a man. [p. 149]



The Caryatid Porch of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis in Athens, c. 410 BC.
'Goddess of Wisdom! here they temple was
And is, despite of war and wasting fire,
And years that bade they worship to expire . . . . '
[Byron] [p. 151]



The Parthenon, 447-432 BC, embodies Athena at her fullest: male force and female receptivity, intellect and imagination, soaring towards the sky and enfolded in the arms of the earth. [p. 152]



'Homer meant by Athena mind and intelligence. And the maker of names appears to have had a singular notion about her, and indeed calls her by a still higher title, divine intelligence, as though he would say, This is she who had the mind of God.' [Plato, Cratylus] [p. 147]


[Stassinopoulos, Arianna and Roloff Beny. The Gods of Greece. New York: Abrams. 1983.]




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