21 November 2008

Athena, Zeus Born

Athena is another goddess whom I've never really cared for particularly because the classical story of her birth is one dripping with patriarchy. Zeus slept with Metis, a minor goddess of wisdom, but since it had been prophesied that any offspring would outshine the father he swallowed her whole. (And she, conveniently, is not heard from again.) Eventually there came a time when Zeus was in great pain and was aided by some of the male deities, like Hermes and Hephaistos, who split his head open. Out popped Athena fully grown and fully clothed, complete with armor ready to do battle.

Now, what this says to me is that she is not a feminine goddess and not a very natural being. Sure, Metis bore her until her "birth" but only inside the body of Zeus. Either way you look at it Athena was born from a male which just sets off all kinds of alarm bells in my head. I've never reconciled with that fact and I guess I never will. And I've wracked my brain for years to figure out just what the hell it means. And the best conclusion I've ever come to is this: the ancient Greeks, along with many ancients and moderns, considered war to be a masculine occupation. And somewhere along the lines, sometime in prehistory that we will never know about, Athena became linked with war. And to explain this the story was created that she sprang forth from Zeus, an extremely masculine deity if I do say so myself.

The fact that Athena was born fully grown is also important. If one is born fully grown there's no need for a mother to care for the child. There are no tender times of breastfeeding, no gentle nurturing, no innocence of childhood, no carefree years of youth. There is only hard adulthood and the violence of battle. There is, in short, no need for another woman's influence at all. There is only a female goddess dominated by and springing forth from the mind and brain of a male. And this is what makes Athena so very different from other war goddesses. At least they seem to have come to their positions all on their own. It seems that Athena didn't have any choice. And that's why, of all the war goddesses, she is the one I like least. I'd rather a goddess, and women in general, choose to be warriors than be forced.

Later, Athena somewhat redeems herself in my eyes when she triumphs over another male in her bid for Athens. This time, her uncle Poseidon is the male in question. See, the story goes like this. Each of them wanted to be the patron of Athens which, up until this bout was decided, was presumably known by some other name. So they had a little contest. Poseidon, as god of the seas, caused a fountain of water to spring from the ground. Unfortunately for him, the fountain contained sea water, salt water, which is useless to city-folk. Athena, on the other hand, created the first olive tree which provided timber for building and fire for heat and cooking, olives for food and olive oil which has numerous uses. Obviously, Athena won as her gift was by far the most beneficial to the people. Thus, we have a great city named Athens.

Now I say she redeems herself for two reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, she wins against a guy. Yay, good for her! She's refusing to be held down by the men in her life and family. But, perhaps more importantly, she displays features of an earth goddess by her creation of the olive tree. The olive was (and is) an incredibly important tree for the Greeks. Aside from its aforementioned uses it was also a crucial commodity that created trade across national lines. It helped Greece become a country of importance and standing. And it came from a goddess of war! How 'bout that?

So I guess I should admit that Athena isn't all bad. Even though her birth still rankles she was responsible for the all-important olive tree. Her story expresses that, even if a woman is seemingly dominated by men, she is not without hope or promise. Athena is a testament to the potential within all women. And for that I salute her.


Sortiarium said...

Wonderful blog!

Griffin said...

Well, ok, point taken, but she sprang from his forehead, whether she liked it or not. She got her mother's revenge and could be seen as a feminist goddess overcoming the patriarch. And she did outshine her father too.

I love Athena. She is not merely a warrior for the sake of war - like Ares Sacker of Cities, but she is more considered. The warrior who knows when to and when not to fight. That is her wisdom as shown in her winning Athens. She is also the goddess of crafts as in the story of Arachne and for that too I love her.

I grew up with certain wise women guiding me like signposts along the way and they still come into my life. I call them Athenians after her because they teach me about myself and about life with their wisdom and experience.

Athena is the strong assured woman like those I know. She bows to none but Zeus and even attacks Ares in the War of Troy.

Livia Indica said...

You're right Griffin, I totally forgot to compare her to Ares. My bad.

Sortiarium, thanks! Glad you like it!

Leon Basin said...

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Leon Basin said...

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Livia Indica said...