As I will be in Athens in just a little over one month where I will begin a goddess pilgrimage, I have been exploring the stories of Athena, patron of the city. She almost didn’t get that job as she and Poseidon were both in contention for that honor. When the people voted, it was split down the middle because the women voted for the goddess while the men voted for the god; however there was one more woman than there were men, and she cast the deciding vote. It is also said that the Olympian gods gave it to Athena because she planted the first olive tree on the Acropolis. Apparently the men of the newly named city of Athens were so angry that She won that they decreed that women of the city would give up their citizenship, no longer be able to vote, and their children would no longer go by their mother’s last name as had been the tradition, but would take their father’s instead.
This, my friends, was the beginning of the patriarchy, when the stories got changed. It would almost seem that Athena was made a token female deity (disguised as a man) so that the men in power could strip women of their rights. However she may have been used, she was thereafter cast in the role of masculine warrior goddess who, the patriarchal story went, was born from the head of Zeus, top Olympian dog and her father. They now proclaimed her a virgin goddess, devoid of sexuality, and in her newly cast androgyny made her “all for the father,” aligning her with the patriarchy against the rights of women and the motherline.
Before I go on to talk about the earlier origins of Athena — an entirely different story, which always interests me more — the heady times when women ruled more peacefully before men took over — it may be worth pondering for a moment the similarities between what happened then and what is going on now, right here in River City, that is the United States of America. Does it not seem as if we are in danger of slipping back to a more rigid patriarchal structure what with the conservative Republicans (Paul Ryan and Troy Akin to name two) trying to take away hard-fought women’s rights on abortion, equal pay, and reproductive freedom, as well as the rights of LGBTs to enjoy the same constitutional freedom as everyone else? We may need Athena’s warrior prowess and ability to protect us now more than ever.
But getting back to her pre-patriarchal beginnings… Athena is also known as Pallas Athena, which appears to refer to her role as a warrior who went into battle to fight the good fight when necessary. She was a prudent warrior and strategist, being the goddess of wisdom, so as an archetypal figure for women, she is the one who does not shrink from bullies and who will not only go into battle herself, but will do everything she can to help others win, especially when the odds are stacked against them. She may have gotten the name Pallas Athena from killing her father, a giant named Pallas, who tried to rape her. She then took his skin, tanned it, and made it into her aegis or shield and appropriated his wings for her own feet. We’ll talk about how the image of Medusa’s head ended up on her aegis in a moment.
But one other interesting story of note is that Athena is often depicted with a large snake either coiled around her or at her feet. The snake is an ancient symbol of the goddess, often thought to symbolize the transformational aspects of birth, death and rebirth that is at the heart of all goddess mythology, and indeed the story of woman. The snake was an animal that could travel underground and above ground, in both worlds, and could shed its skin, the ultimate transformation from the old into the new. But on a very practical level, snakes in those days were helpful creatures who were often kept near the stores of grain almost like watch dogs to kill and eat the vermin that threatened the food supply. It is also said that the snake may have been Athena’s child with Hephaestus, the lame smith god (and cuckolded husband of Aphrodite) who also tried to rape Athena, but failed. However, his ejaculate fell to the ground and instead impregnated Gaia, the earth mother goddess, and from her a serpent boy named Erichthonius, was born, whom Athena, in a sense, adopted, and who seems to have followed her around like a little puppy dog.
As to the snake-headed goddess, Medusa, whom Athena wears on her breast and shield, some say that Medusa is Athena’s sister and helped her ward off evil and intimidate her enemies with her monstrous gaze. Some legends say Medusa was once a stunningly beautiful Amazon warrior with luxurious, thick, black hair. However, she made the mistake of defiling Athena’s temple by making love to Athena’s rival, Poseidon, there. Athena had her servant kill Medusa by cutting off her head and her hair was turned into snakes. And the more familiar myth has Perseus cutting off the head of Medusa with the help of Athena, who was angry at her for messing around in her temple (although her anger about this seems positively patriarchal).
Another story suggests that the priestesses in the temples of old wore helmets and masks adorned with snakes, the symbol of transformation, and that it was not Medusa’s head on her shield but a representation of the priestess who was the mortal emissary of the goddess. Some say that Medusa is but the shadow side of Athena and the two are one and the same. The message is: Don’t mess with Athena. You might be turned to stone.
However, before Athena became the warrior goddess of the Athens city-state, her primary role in the matriarchal culture appears to have been much more benign. She was a goddess of the home, family, and community at large, as well as patron of handicrafts, particularly weaving. In the patriarchal worldview this protector of the family tribe was given big cajones and put in charge of the political state and given the same status as Ares, god of war. At her heart, though, we may see Athena as a fierce protector of women, children and family, whose wise counsel is to be sought in times of conflict, as one who will stand up to abusers and tyrants.
She is often seen as holding a sword, which I like to think of as the sword of truth, which must be held high whenever we are confronted by foes who would take away our power. As long as we stand in the truth, demand nothing less than our right to equality, and don’t give away our power, we will prevail. Hear that, Romney, Ryan, Akin, and all other preservers of the patriarchy? We’ve got Athena, goddess of wisdom, truth and justice, at our side. We’re ready to fight the good fight.