Athena is the most complex goddess in Greek mythology as her power encompassed
many different, and even contradictory, aspects. Athena’s complicated
and active persona is unlike that of her female counterparts, the Olympian
goddesses Hera, Aphrodite, Artemis and Demeter. Most female Greek
deities possessed one or two stereotypical aspects of female nature and
thereby were powerless by their limited scope and sexuality. Hera
was portrayed as the harping, jealous wife, while Aphrodite was solely
a sexual goddess with powers only pertaining to the realm of love.
Artemis, also a virgin goddess, shied away from men and society, thereby
exemplifying the connection of women in nature, the wild unpredictable
forces that challenged the male deities of order and civilization.
Only Demeter, who later eclipsed Athena on a more earthy plane, develops
power; yet it was not on the civic level of Athena, but in the home, hearth
and hearts of women.
Within literary and artistic works Athena's varied characteristics are depicted with vivid descriptions and symbolic representations. "The Hymn to Athena" portrays her as the “ mighty defender of cities” and the “awesome one.” Importantly, she is a protectress as she “saves the people as they go out and return”(147, 4). In another hymn to her, Athena’s attributes are greatly praised; she is “resourceful, with an unyielding heart, the reverent maiden, a glorious goddess”(160). In the Theogony, a chronicle of the gods, Athena is again described in these same virtuous, glowing terms: “From his own head he (Zeus) gave birth to owl-eyed Athena, the awesome, battle-rousing, army leading, untiring Lady, whose pleasure is fighting and the metallic din of war”(87, 929-931). These described characteristics are portrayed in The Iliad where Athena is both a civic and individual figure to her troops and warriors. Homer characterizes her as a force that should not be confronted, powerful and wise, unlike Aphrodite who “was a timid goddess, not one of those that play a dominating part in the battles of mankind, such as Athena”....(The Iliad,101). Zeus agrees with this when he tells Aphrodite that “fighting, my child, is not for you. You are in charge of wedlock and tender passions. We will leave the enterprising War-god (Ares) and Athena to look after military affairs”( The Iliad,103). All of these images provide the reader with a picture of Athena’s character, as if she was a real being. These assigned characteristics along with her actions within Homer’s epics present a “woman” who is not conventionally womanly; instead, she represents the male within a female virginal body.
A humorous insight that reinforces this concept is the relationship between Athena and her father. When Ares complains to Zeus about the war wound Athena has given him, he reveals the daughter-father bond: “We are all at loggerheads with you for having cursed the world with that crazy Daughter of yours, who is always up to some devilment or another. The rest of us, including every god on Olympus, bow to your will and stand in awe of you. But when it comes to her, you neither say nor do a thing to check the creature: you let her have her head, because she is a Child of your own, who was born for mischief”(The Iliad,16). Athena obviously is her father’s favorite as she reinforced Zeus’ patriarchal line and supremacy as a father.
While Athena is portrayed as wisdom in The Odyssey, in The Iliad she is all warrior and strength, leaving no doubt about her patriarchal ties and “manly” nature. The personification of her as a warrior is a recurring theme: “On her father’s threshold, Athena Daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus shed her soft embroidered robe, which she had made with her own hands, put on a tunic in its place, and equipped herself for the lamentable work of war with the arms of Zeus the Cloud-compeller. She threw round her shoulders the formidable tasselled aegis, which is beset at every point with Fear, carries Strife and Force and the cold nightmare of Pursuit within it, and also bears the ghastly image of a Gorgon’s head, the grim and redoubtable emblem of aegis bearing Zeus. On her head she put her golden helmet, with its four plates and double crest, adorned with fighting men of a hundred towns. Then she stepped into the flaming chariot, gripping the huge long spear with which she breaks the noble warriors ranks when she, the almighty Father’s child, is roused to anger”(112). Of course, within the Greek culture, Athena the warrior is not viewed as a threat to patriarchal structure because her loyalty lies with her father; in fact, she is a direct representation of Zeus, the supreme male ruler, as she personifies male wisdom due to her birth from Zeus’ head.
The Odyssey and The Iliad show both sides of her character, as a cunning, brave warrior and peacekeeping, wise mentor. As a woman goddess who is both mother and warrior, her dual personality is contradictory and easily twisted to represent many different ideas.
She was the goddess of war-time strategy yet also the patron of crafts,
especially weaving, often depicted with a spear in one hand and a spindle
in the other. She loved strategy, victory, and logic as opposed to
the bloody carnage her counterpart Ares preferred. Hesiod describes
her in Theogony as “Grey-eyed Athena, the awesome, battle-rousing,
army-leading, untiring lady, whose pleasure is fighting and the metallic
din of war”(87). Otto also interprets her as more male than female:
“Athena is a masculine woman; some might label her androgynous. She
is female in appearance and associated with the handicrafts of women and
the fertility of the olive, but many of her attributes are traditionally
associated with males. She is a patroness of wisdom, considered a
masculine quality by the Greeks. She is also a warrior goddess, protector
of the citadel, armed with shield, spear, and helmet”(4). All of
these traits amount to a powerful deity, even though she is a female within
a patriarchal theological system and society where venerated female wisdom
was a rarity, and woman warriors were not allowed within the civilized
city state of Athens.
Athena was the patroness of male heroes and written stories of her encounters with females had violent endings due to her anger or jealousy. Even the Goddess of wisdom was prone to lapses in character, especially towards “female” emotions. Anne Shearer quotes Jane Harrison as seeing Athena as a “sexless thing, neither man nor women” whose birth from her father’s head is a “desperate theological expedient to rid an earth-born female of her matriarchal conditions-- a dark, desperate effort to make thought the basis of being and reality”(3). Therefore, Athena’s seemingly contradictory position as a powerful female goddess within the patriarchal Greek society is not as surprising as it may first appear. Female figures have always been venerated even where the status of women has been repressed. Gods and symbolic figures do not usually correspond with earth-bound reality, and pictorial evidence is not always accurate or honest. Therefore it is impossible to discern the exact relationship between Athena’s power and the actual status of women. Often, what is worshipped in theory does not correlate to societal behavior, actions or mindset.
Athena’s characteristics were not accidentally combined, but had symbolic meaning for the Greeks. Greek men realized the importance and inescapabiltiy of female traits, as well as the influence of older mother deities within their society. Therefore, Athena’s traits of wisdom and warfare, as well as agriculture, are the blending of male qualities with the best female qualities to insure a goddess under the ruling of the patriarchy. It is no wonder Athena was the patroness of many male heroes and sided with the patriarchy in every matter as she is her father’s daughter in all respects. She was the product of parthenogenetical male birth, the triumph of male as a creator. Her birth from her father’s head, thereby characterizing (male) wisdom reinforced this concept. Although female, Athena was masculinized for male purposes. Her virginity also took her away from the realm of the sexual and into a “manly” realm of the intellectual.
The complexity of Athena’s nature and character allow her to be interpreted in numerous, personal ways. In one aspect she was like the Virgin Mary, a mother to her people, the citizens of Athens, yet a virgin herself. She was almost anti-feminine, yet venerated for her beauty, rationality, agricultural skills, and wisdom as a woman. Her strong character -- she was not a weak or vengeful Hera, or a sexual being like Aphrodite -- but a deity who was prayed to by heroes, war generals and craftswomen alike. Otto claims that “belief in Athena arose from no individual need or individual longing of human life. She is the meaning and actuality of a complete and self-contained world -- the clear, hard, glorious masculine world of design and fulfillment whose delight is in struggle. This world includes the feminine also. Not, however, as lover or mother, as dancing girl or Amazon, but as a knowledgeable and artistically constructive nature does woman belong to Athena”(60).
Her characteristics, outlined within these literary and artistic works,
have later been adapted to other figureheads of state, such as Lady Liberty
and Britannia, who personify Athena's qualities, only with a different
name and country