Athena Statue outside Athens University
It has always struck me as odd that Athena, embodiment of Athens, goddess of so many important aspects of Greek life, is a woman. She is the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law, justice, just warfare, math, strategy, arts, and skill as well as the defender of cities and protectress of heroes. We remember the wise men of ancient Greece, the courageous male heroes, know that every Greek man was a citizen, that men served justice, did math, made sculptures, protected their homes. Why, then, does a female deity represent all of these typically masculine Greek traits?
It is also interesting that a female goddess holds such a high rank on Olympus as Zeus’ favored child. Athena’s mother, Metis, was a Titan goddess of wisdom. Metis in Ancient Greek holds that very meaning of wisdom, craft, skill, and cunning. Thus Athena, sprouting only from Zeus who swallowed Metis, has taken on her mother’s role. Athena being gifted in craft and renowned for wisdom as well as depicted as a cunning trickster follows with the wisdom god being associated with the feminine.
Further, Athena may have been female given that her primary role as warrior goddess and favored child of Zeus directly contrasts that of Ares, war god and “most hateful of all gods who hold Olympus” (Iliad 5.890). Whereas he represents the violence, savagery, and bloodlust of war, Athena represents the strategy, justice, and, discipline of war – the honorable side. It then makes sense that to further the dichotomy between the two, Athena would be female to oppose the male Ares.
Finally, Athena’s prevalence as a culture goddess was not only relevant to men through law, math, and art. Her skills also extended to womanly arts, namely weaving, the quintessential craft associated with being a high-positioned woman. Since she is goddess of craft and skill, and weaving (a typically decidedly activity in the Greek world) would have to fall into that category, it again makes sense that Athena would have to be a female to encompass her myriad of attributes.
Perhaps, instead of being a woman who uncharacteristically represents all these primarily masculine traits, Athena is not meant to be seen a woman at all. She is meant to represent something beyond man. That wisdom, civilization, justice, strategy, and skill are all things that men can strive to but never easily attain. Athena as an Other presents a further boundary toward reaching these goals. They must transcend the capacities of mankind to achieve these lofty aims. Also, given her divine status, she instantly rises above the ranks of man. They can only hope to be as great as she is in their attempts at civilization (justice and skills) and war (strategy and courage).
Given the proposal that Athena is not meant to be seen as a woman, it is therefore not altogether surprising that Athena is so defeminized in mythology. She does not have any relation to the earth or fertility, and she is one of the three virgin goddesses. As such, she never features in love stories that would serve to make her effeminate. Instead, she is depicted as an armour-clad warrior goddess born solely of the king of the gods, Zeus (after, of course, he absorbed her mother Metis). She is, therefore, a direct line to Zeus. On the statue Athena Parthenos, Athena holds an aegis, the shield of Zeus which she, too, is worthy of wielding (occasionally, he even allows her and no one else to use his lightning). Perhaps this direct line and the close connection she has with her mighty father is one of the reasons that Greeks, and specifically Athens, assign so much import to her. Enough so that they constructed the entire Parthenon as a temple to house a massive ivory-and-gold statue in her honor.
- No labels