Monday, 3 March 2014


Athene, favourite child of Zeus is the goddess of wisdom and wits and cunning, of war and warriors and of invention and homecrafts.  Athene was the weaver of the gods as well and took great pride in her skills and abilities even punishing mortals who had the hubris to compare their work to her own.  Athene also is credited with many inventions that ease the work necessary for survival, including the bridle, trumpet, flute, pottery, the rake, the plow, the yoke, the ship, and the chariot.

Athene is often thought of as being born only of Zeus but her Mother is Metis the titaness of cunning wisdom.  Metis an early wife of Zeus was the subject of prophesy that declared her child would be greater than its father and Zeus feared a son who would usurp his position of rule.  Zeus tricked Metis (unknown to Zeus, already with child) in to a shapeshifting contest and when she assumed the shape of a small fly she was swallowed by the god.  A short while later Zeus began having a dreadful headache and begged someone to split open his head to grant him some relief.  Hephaistos, god of the forge took up his cudgel and struck Zeus and from his skull sprung forth Athene – fully grown fully armed and shining in gilt armour.  In some views of this story Athene is Metis reborn, but under Zeus’ control; Athene grown to become Zeus favorite child and even allows her use of the Aegis and his greatest weapons – the thunderbolts.

Athene is a very, very old goddess and there is some evidence that in early Mykenean lore she was the child of Poseidon (who was likely the chief of their pantheon) and not Zeus.  In Rhodes she is worshiped as the daughter of Poseidon and Halia and in other places as the daughter of Poseidon and Polphe (whose name mimics Metis in meaning ‘of much thought’). In the Iliad and in Hesiod’s Theogony she bears the name Tritogeneia which seems to mean “Triton-born”.  There are some stories that speak of Athene as being born, raised or fostered at lake Tritonis in Lybia (by Triton, a Poseidon-like god and his wife the lake Tritonis).  It was here she received another of her epithets as well – Pallas.  Pallas was a childhood friend (or sister) of Athene who was accidentally killed when the two were practicing discus, in memory Athene took her friends name and placed it before her own. 

There are many myths that deal with the relationships between Poseidon and Athene; Athens, named for the goddess and one of her primary cult locations was the sight of the most well known argument between the two.  Both wanted the city to be named for them and for their worship to be primary there, and so all the citizens gathered together to cast lots and choose who would be their god.  To prove their worthiness each deity gave a gift to the city; Poseidon gave the horse (though in some myths it is Athene who first tames horses for humans) and a saltwater spring and natural bay that would help Athens to become a great sea-force.  Athene gifted the people with the olive tree and was declared victorious: the olive tree gave food, oil (which was used in cooking and in lamps for light) and supplied wood; all which were used by the people and to trade for other goods.  Another reason is given for Athene’s victory - the women of the city outnumbered the men by one and all voted for the goddess.  This enraged Poseidon so much that in order to appease him women were forbidden to vote in assembly from that point on. 

Poseidon and Athene also figure strongly in the myth of Medousa.  Medousa was a woman of great beauty and a priestess of Athene who was seduced in Athene’s temple by Poseidon.  In retaliation for this transgression in a sacred space Athene turned Medousa’s hair to serpents and caused it so that any man caught by her gaze would harden to stone.   There has been much thought done by modern scholars and followers of Athene in equating Medousa with an avatar or aspect of Athene, making Metis-Athene-Medousa a single and powerful mother goddess. 

The head of Medousa taken by Perseus, was attached to the snake-fringed Aegis (breastplate) of Athene.  Perseus was one of the many heroes that Athene gave guidance and aid to.  She also gave direction to Iason in his search for the Golden Fleece and gave inspiration to the builder of the great ship Argos that he sailed on, taught Bellephron how to catch and tame Pegasos (possibly a myth of the first taming of wild horses) and she aided Diomedes on the battlefield at Troy against Ares and Aphrodite.  But of all the heroes she aided it was the wily Odysseus whom she seems to have a special bond with, perhaps because of Odysseus reliance on cunning and mental acuity to get him out of the obstacles divinely dropped in his way. 

The name of Athene is very old and has many associations and sources, a variation was probably already used in the Aegean in prehistoric times perhaps for an owl or bird goddess.  The owl is the sacred bird of Athene and she takes the form of a sea-eagle in myth and she is often depicted with wings on Archaic red-figure pottery, the tassels of her aegis may be the remnants of these wings. She may have started out as a Mykenean sun goddess, in linear B she possibly appears in a single inscription at Knossos as A-ta-na-po-ti-ni-ja (At(h)ana potniya) which seems to mean “the Lady of Athens” also in linear B is the name A-ta-no-dju-wa-ja (At(h)ana diwya) or Athene the Divine.  Other theories of the source of her name look to  The Tyrrhenian word "ati", meaning "mother” and to the name of the Hurrian sun Goddess “Hannahannah”.  In poetry Athene is often called  glaukopis which is usually translated “bright-eyed”, “bluish-green" or "gray" eyed.  It can also be read as ‘Shinning Face” which would make sence if she had started out as an early sun goddess.   The goddess most associated with Athene in classical times is the Roman goddess Minerva (who was also influanced by the Etrusacn Menvra) who also served as a goddess of wisdom and war.

Probably Athene’s best known characteristic is her perpetual virginity.   Many see Athene’s nature as being near misogynistic and claim her birth-without-a-mother as the cause of this, but this likely comes from her rejection of the roles of the traditional ancient woman and the embracing of those of men (including weaving which was done solely by men in certain times and places in ancient Greece).  The famous Parthenon where she presided over her sisterhood, the Athenai, in earliest times was named for Athene’s Virginity – Athene  Parthenos, Athene the Virgin.  Early in her life she rejected many suitors including Apollon and Hephaistos.  Though, just as there are older hints that suggest a different birth for Athene than the classical interpretation there are also hints that Athene was not a virgin in the modern sense of the word – that she was one who did not engage in sex, in fact there are legends of her marrying Hephaistos and bearing him a son.  Some of these myths say that Athene rejected Hephaistos in the marriage bed and his semen fell onto the ground from which sprung Erichthonius who ws serpent from the waist down and an early king of Athens and one whom Athene gave great aid to.  Other stories speak of Hephaistos ejaculating on a piece of wool carried by Athene from which the child was born.  In many parts of the ancient world, wool soaked with herbs and animal fat was used as a form of birth control.  The conception of Erichthonius could have come from the failing of an early IUD. 

Today I honor Athene by learning, by embracing wisdom from any and every source – one never knows when a bit of odd information may come in handy or when two things, seemingly unconected can lead to an epiphany.  I also give Athene honor when I am creating art and crafts and seeking insperation for them. 

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