I bought a couple of statuettes in a charity shop in Clitheroe the other day and they got me thinking about their subject – the Greek goddess, Athene (or Athena).
There are a number of versions regarding the origins of Athene, as you might expect with such an important deity, as the assorted ancient stories were told and retold by people who tried to assimilate them into a coherent, definitive whole. Plato, in his Timaeus [22a], writing about the Egyptian city of Sais, says,
“The founder of their city is a goddess, whose name in the Egyptian tongue is Neith, and in Greek, as they aver, Athena: the people are great lovers of the Athenians and claim a certain kinship with our countrymen.”
|The Head and Lance of Athene|
Without getting into the controversy that the Athenians, and the Greeks, came out of Africa, there are parallels between Neith and Athena, although the etymological links claimed by some scholars are strained and somewhat fanciful to say the least. However, it is just one possibility. One says she was the daughter of the winged giant Pallas, whom she killed when he tried to rape her. Another places her on Minoan Crete, prior to the birth of Zeus, but the most accepted story is that she was the daughter of Zeus (Homer calls her such in the Iliad, Book v, 880).
|Detail of the Head|
Zeus’s first wife, Metis, became pregnant, but on the advice of Gaea and Uranus that he would be overthrown by one of Metis’s progeny, Zeus swallowed her whole but she remained alive, and pregnant, inside him (see Hesiod Theogony 889-892). He began to suffer from headaches and so Hephaestus took his double-headed, bronze axe and struck him on the forehead, from which sprang Athena, with a terrifying shout, fully grown and armoured.
“By the art of Hephaestus and his brazen-forged axe, at the summit of her father's head, Athene, springing upwards, shouted with an exceeding great cry: and Heaven and mother Earth shuddered at her.”Pindar, Olympian Ode VII.
|Athene born from the head of Zeus|
From this account, Athena was the daughter of the most powerful of the gods and the Titaness of wisdom, and she was a harmonious combination of these qualities of her parents. She was not a representation of any physical power manifested in nature, but rather she was an ethical protectress of the state and social institutions, and the patroness of all that preserved them, from the walls and fortresses to the harbours. She fostered agriculture and invented both the plough and the rake, taught men how to yoke oxen and looked over the breeding of horses, giving mankind the bridle, another of her inventions. She also created the olive tree, to benefit humankind.
|Rear of the Head of Athene|
Other, later, writers attribute almost all of the useful and beneficial inventions to her, from numbers, art, navigation, and the chariot to trumpets, flutes and weaving. In this last, she was involved in a contest with Arachne, a mortal weaver who claimed to be more skilled than the goddess. In one version, Arachne lost the contest and hanged herself in embarrassment; Athena turned the rope into spidersweb and Arachne herself into a spider, who continues to spin to this day (hence, spiders are called arachnids). The gifts of Athena lead the Athenians to adopt her as their patron and they named their city in her honour, although she was worshipped equally throughout Greece.
|View of a variation of Athene|
As the goddess of War, Athena differed from the bellicose war gods such as Ares; she advocated prudent war, it is said that she did not own weapons but borrowed them from Zeus. Rather than glorying in battle for its own sake, she avoids conflict but will fight for a just cause and will champion the righteous hero in his strife.
|Representation of Athene from a Greek Vase|
In her martial aspect, Athena wears a crested helmet, carries a lance and carries the Ægis, the terrible shield that not even Zeus can resist. In some versions, the shield bears the head of Medusa, the gorgon, slain by Perseus and which turns anything that looks upon it into stone (the Gorgoneion).
|The Gorgoneion on Athena's breastplate|
In another version, the gorgon’s head is worn on Athena’s breastplate and on the shield is a serpent, Erichthonius, which was born when Hephaestus attempted to rape Athena and spilled his semen on the earth. Athena raised the child herself but hid him secretly in a box, which was given into the care of the daughters of Cecrops, the king of Athens, warning them not to open it. Two daughters, Aglaurus and Herse, disobeyed and opened the box, saw either the child, a serpent or a hybrid of the two, the sight of which drove them insane; they threw themselves to their deaths from the highest point on the Acropolis. Erichthonius went on to become king of Athens and instituted the Panathenaic festival, the great celebration of Athena in the city that took place on the Acropolis; the serpent borne by Athena was his emblem.
|The Shield with the Serpent|
Another symbol of Athena was the owl, a bird long noted for its supposed wisdom, in her case named Glaucus, from the Greek Γλαΰκος – ‘glaring (eyes)’. Unfortunately, the wisdom of owls is not manifest in reality – an owl has cylindrical eyes almost the size of human eyes but its skull is about the size of a golf ball and in consequence its brain is tiny in relation to the rest of its head, to allow for the accommodation of the large eyes.
|Glaucus - the Owl of Athene|
The Greek for ‘owl’ is Οτρίγζ ‘strix’ - ‘screecher’ which is also the root of our word ‘strident’, coming from the cry of the owl; in Latin it is ‘ulula’ – from which we also get ululation – ‘a cry of lamentation, wailing’, in Old English it is ule - ‘owl’, with connections to Sanskrit ululih – howling, Lithuanian uluti – a howl, and Gaelic uileliugh – a lamenting cry.
Tomorrow, the other statuette.