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Athena, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom and Crafts, is a complex and contradictory
female figure whose image has survived the ravages of time to intrigue
us today. The heavy influence of ancient Greece on Western civilization
has preserved Athena through artistic and literary works. In her
constant revival throughout the ages, from Renaissance paintings to New
Age psychology, Athena has been adapted and molded by each new generation
to fit its beliefs and interpretations. Feminists adopt her for their
cause; artists continue to be inspired by her; and classical scholars and
historians argue over her significance and authority. Her essence
remains long after her civic power has waned and the states she ruled have
crumbled. Of course, much has been lost of Athena’s ancient culture,
which leads to difficulty in research and speculation, but of all the Greek
goddesses Athena has by far the most authentic and extensive proof of her
popularity and power within Ancient Greek civilization. Her status
as an ancient mother figure, as well as a symbolic representation of her
country, give Athena depth and intrigue as to her true nature and purpose.
The worship of Athena is contradictory and surprising within the misogynistic
Greek patriarchal society. The paradox of Athena’s character is manifested
through her status as a powerful female goddesses who exudes mother-like
qualities despite her virginity and masculine nature and foreshadows other
images of women as the mothers of states.
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.
Athena was depicted
with many symbolic objects such as an owl, the bird of wisdom, and the
head of Medusa on her breastplate. The loom, harness, olive tree
and serpent were all identified with her and represented different areas
of her influence and sponsorship. She wore full armor, which could
conceal her sex and allow her to fight or act as a man, and also illustrates
the protection of her virginity. The famous classicist Sarah Pomeroy
asserts that, “Athena is the archetype of the masculine woman who finds
success in what is essentially a man’s world by denying her own femininity
and sexuality. Thus, Athena is a virgin -- and, what is more, a virgin
born not of woman but of man”(4).
The story of her birth is sometimes related as a virgin birth, but Athena
did in fact have a mother, the beautiful nymph Metis, who is rarely acknowledged.
The poet Callimachus writes of Athena’s birth, “No mother bare that goddess,
but the head of Zeus.” Zeus, afraid that his offspring will overthrow
him as he did to his forebears, swallows the impregnated Metis to destroy
her and her child. Later, when Zeus complains of a pounding headache,
his son Hephaestus splits his head open with an ax from which Athena springs
fully formed and armored. She quickly becomes Zeus’ favorite and
his consort in many matters. She wore his aegis, a goatskin breastplate
fringed with snakes, and was the only other deity allowed to touch and
use Zeus’ thunderbolts. 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
She was the goddess of wartime 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. Her characteristics
were as varied as her skills, emphasizing the dual nature of her sexuality.
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’s characteristics were not accidentally combined, but had symbolic
meaning for the Greeks. Greek men realized the importance and inescapability
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.
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.
Athena was a revered goddess, but ultimately became a head of state figure,
like the United State’s Lady Liberty. This image, reproduced again
and again, throughout history and in different areas, is a noble and inspirational
figure. This abstract woman embodies grace, beauty and wisdom while
remaining distant enough to keep her otherworldly mystique. While
the Virgin Mary’s chastity and saintly character inspired men through her
perfection, Athena likewise was construed as a perfect, sacred concept.
She was the beautiful, wise, brave woman who came to her countrymen’s aid
without the baggage of sexual interest. She was also an eternal mother
to whom men could turn to her for comfort and aid, much like the Virgin
Mary whose sanctity was without reproach. Later figures have copied
this image of Athena as representatives of state: a beautiful woman, sometimes
in armor, inspiring her people to victory and greater deeds in the name
of their homeland.
Thus, Athena’s influence throughout history has manifested itself in a
variety of ways. Seltzman asserts that “Athena had changed into another
kind of goddess, emblem of the state, symbol of an empire, from which was
to be copied as time marched on in other very similar female figures named
‘Roma’, ‘Britannia’, and ‘Columbia’(59). Athena’s image was
found on Greek coins and later, Alexander the Great put her on the currency
of his vast empire, spreading her likeness. Athena’s image expanded
to Rome in the form of Minerva when Greece waned and the Roman Empire began
its long rule. Her spirit and characteristics are immortalized in
works of art from Ancient Greece and throughout history and permanently
engraved in many literary works. Later, when Christianity conquered
paganism, Athena still lingered in her shrine, the Parthenon. Seltzman
reveals that, “at last, when the closing of all pagan temples were ordained,
the Parthenon became a Christian church, and the cults of the virgin goddess
of Athens were replaced by that of the Virgin Mary”(59). In essence,
these figures of women as the symbolic representation of countries are
ultimately an abstract, empty, beautiful figure -- often what “women”
are reduced to.
Athena’s origins and characteristics, according to myths and historical
research, have many influences from earlier goddesses, yet her nature is
uniquely Greek. Her name is believed to have pre-Hellenistic roots,
which leads to comparisons between other ancient mother goddess figures
from Summaria, the Near East, India and Egypt. Unequivocally, her
power was very old and based on that of prior female deities which the
Greeks adopted to their own beliefs, just as she in turn influenced the
Roman Minerva and other representations of countries and states.
Her power was curtailed in certain aspects because, as Pomeroy notes, she
was a “warrior, judge, and giver of wisdom, but she was masculinized and
denied sexual activity and (physical) motherhood”(8), one of the most significant
elements of womanhood. Her power surpassed the other two-dimensional
Greek goddesses, but she never inspired the cults or following of women
who worshipped Demeter, the goddess of fertility and growth. Demeter’s
festival, the Thesmophoria, was attended only by women and celebrated fertility
and life over death. It took place over three days and had many similarities
to the Christian Easter. Athena, conversely, 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.
the records available, one can deduce that the worship of Athena was at
a civic level, a celebration of patriotism and the power of Athens within
ornate and elaborate ceremonies. Although Athena was one of the most
powerful Olympians, arguably second to only Zeus himself, she did not seem
to have a strong specifically female following, as one would assume.
In fact, Athena’s patronage of Athens was used as an excuse to keep women
powerless. According to myth, both she and Poseidon (her uncle) laid
claim to the city that would become Athens. Poseidon caused a salt-water
spring to rise from the earth while Athena created the first olive tree.
The citizens were told to vote for their patron deity on the basis of these
gifts. Of course, the men voted for Poseidon, while the more numerous
women voted for Athena and the olive tree. In punishment for their
victory, the females forever more lost their status of citizens within
the Greek city-state of Athens. Therefore, Athena can be perceived
as a repressive force against women instead of an empowering figure.
Her obvious devotion and guidance to male heroes and her love of battle
and strategy assist her alienation towards women. She was instead lavishly
worshipped by both men and women as the omnipresent, yet distant, patron
Goddess of Athens. Seltman notes that “there is no clearer proof of the
love which the Athenians felt for their goddess than the temple which they
built for her. The Parthenon, made of solid Pentelic marble, was
not the largest Greek temple, but was incomparably the finest” (58).
Inside her temple, the Parthenon, stood a symbolic statue of her as the
figurehead of the state, over forty feet tall, made of gold and ivory by
the master sculptor Pheidias. This was the earthly manifestation
of the goddess, larger than life, striking, powerful, and towering majestically
over her people. The majority of the massive freize that encircles
the Parthenon depicts Athena and her life.
Athena was devotedly worshipped mainly by men seeking her protection, wisdom
and guidance in battle; she was most famously the patron goddess of the
Greek heroes Perseus, Herakles and Odysseus, to whom she represented a
combination of mother-figure, goddess, deity, mentor and protector.
Man’s idolization of Athena was similar to the awe and sanctity that men
later lavished on the Virgin Mary. This reverence is illustrated
in The Odyssey, in which Athena is a central character. Homer’s
insights into Athena’s actions as she organizes Odysseus’ rescue offer
a humanistic interpretation of the goddess by taking her off of lofty Mt.
Olympus and placing her among men on earth. She is omnipresent in
the Odyssey, constantly changing forms, organizing expeditions and protecting
her favorite heroes. Unfortunately, Athena did not show the same
devotion towards women. While Athena’s popularity and worship
did not appear to empower the heavily restricted Greek women, she did empower
women in specific situations. Pomeroy reports that the priestess
of Athena, which was a “hereditary position from the noble family of Eteoboutadae,
had great importance and some influence”(75). Religious activities
were really the only area where women, especially the upper class, were
allowed to participate within Greek public culture. The Panathenaea
was held on Athena’s birthday and attended by all people living in the
state, both males and females, citizens and foreigners, which were rare
in this ridged society. The procession of Greek men, women and children
leading up to the Acropolis is depicted on the freize of the Parthenon.
Besides portraying a mother-figure to the numerous heroes she protected
and assisted, Athena embodied many unconventional motherhood qualities.
Foremost, Athena was a mother to her citizens, a symbolic figurehead of
Athens. She was the wise protectress of the citizens of Athens who
could glorify her without the baggage of sexuality. Surrounding Athena
is a strange myth of virgin birth in which Athena has a son, called Erichthonios.
As Shearer says, “Athena would not be the last goddess, as she was not
the first, whose mysteries included the bearing of a child while remaining
perpetually virgin” (33). The crippled god Hephaestus was said to
have struggled with Athena in an attempted rape during which he ejaculated
on the ground near her. From this encounter came Athena’s son who
was at times portrayed as a serpent, and usually shown curled by her feet
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). Though her qualities may
have been seen as male and purely symbolic in ancient Greece, she personifies
a strong, wise, athletic being -- prototype young women are free to embody
today. Her abstract persona of the mother and protectress of her
people is an image that is still used today through different incarnations.
The image of Athena, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom and patroness of Athens,
in Greek literature and art is both complex and prominent. Her character,
which was defined within the Greek culture, has evolved and been used throughout
history as a symbolic, cultural figure. Her culturally constructed
nature can be fully interpreted through ancient artistic and literary sources.
Her position as a “manly” mother figure both to the state and individuals
is reinforced within The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer’s ancient
epics in which gods and men interact, wherein Athena is a central character.
She is also mentioned by Hesiod, within the Homeric Hymns and in
many ancient Greek plays, notably Ion by Euripides, in which she
has a speaking role. In The Iliad and The Odyssey,
Athena is the most emphasized deity and the descriptions of her, and her
actions, are much more detailed than any of the other gods who are mentioned.
In the Homeric Hymns, Athena is described as “distinguished among
the blessed gods”(79, 315). However, Athena is also ubiquitously
represented in society through art and architecture. Many towns erected
prominent temples to her and lauded her civic importance. Established
and reinforced through artistic and literary representation, Athena’s status
as a complex mother figure and figurehead has influenced subsequent ideas
and representations of women.
is portrayed as having many womanly and motherly qualities in literature,
especially seen in her interaction with men on an individual level.
Foremost is her physical motherhood, although she is a virgin. Her
status as a virgin mother to Erichthonius is described within Euripides’
Ion, a play dealing with lineage and motherhood in which Athena
ultimately solves the problem of succession by promoting the father-right.
Within Ion, the custom of putting gold snakes in nurseries is described
as dating “back to Erichthonius, whom Athena furnished with a brace of
snakes to be his bodyguard”(Ion,105). Also, “snakes in gold”
were given to young children as presents from Athena because “she likes
children to have them in memory of Erichthonius”(Ion,154).
The icon of a serpent has been incorporated with Athena in both artistic
renderings and literary allusions. The precursor to the deity of
Athena is thought to be found in pre-Hellenistic Minoan serpent goddesses
found at Ancient Knossos.
Statues of Athena were always recognizable by the fact that she was the
only goddess to be depicted in armor and the snake-covered aegis was almost
always present with the symbolic head of Medusa, in the center.
In many statues, Athena had a snake curled around her feet, thought to
symbolize Ericthonius, and therefore, the lineage of Athenian Kings.
The Varvakeion Athena, which is a third century copy of the Athena Parthenos
(the huge statue thought to have occupied the Parthenon) by Pheidias, depicts
the serpent curled around her shield.
In Ion, the aegis is described as being covered with crawling snakes
made from the skin of Medusa. Strangely, Athena was said to have
used this snake-infested breastplate as a baby sling for young Erichthonius.
Exhibiting the many contradictions within Greek mythology, the serpent
shown with Athena stood for both motherhood and a severing of Athena’s
own ties to matriarchy. Her symbolic motherhood was a corporeal reality
needed by humanity to establish a divine lineage of Athenian Kings.
Thus, with her venerated chaste status and her giving virgin birth to Erichthonius,
who becomes king of Athens, there are similarities to Christianity’s Virgin
Mary. Christianity conquered paganism and established itself as the
new religion, while borrowing heavily from old ideas and beliefs.
Athena’s temple the Parthanon even became a shrine to the Virgin Mary.
And, as Warner points out, the characteristics associated with Athena such
as chastity, bravery and wisdom, were easily transferable ideals that Christianity
also celebrated. Why personify these characteristics within a woman’s
form? Because women are judged on their outer qualities, it is no
stretch to glorify an empty, highly gendered symbol. Warner suspects
that due to the “Christian belief that woman are morally weaker, their
strength is all the greater if they actually manage to be good”(65).
Athena’s role as an omnipresent mother figure that is prayed to and called
upon for assistance is similar to the position of the Virgin Mary.
Unquestionably, Athena personifies a mother figure to, most prominently,
both Telemachus and Odysseus and also to other male heroes, notably Perseus
and Herakles. In The Odyssey Athena is portrayed as a wise,
prevalent force who organizes expeditions, solves problems and protects
those deemed worthy of her attention. The mother-like love Athena
shows to Odysseus is widely known as King Nestor comments: “never saw I
such open affection on the part of the Gods as was there displayed by Pallas,
who would stand openly by his (Odysseus’) side”(The Odyssey, 34).
Athena is undoubtedly the central divinity in The Odyssey and is portrayed
as a wise mother protectress, yet unfeminine and often in the guise of
men. The fact that she often took the form of a man is an action
that should not be overlooked in its ramifications in Athena’s character,
for she often reverted to male form when interacting among humans.
In The Iliad, Homer describes her as a protectress and mother of
her favorite warriors: “Athena, the Fighting Daughter of Zeus, warded
off the piercing dart, like a mother driving a fly away from her gently
sleeping child”(80). When her favorites are harmed or threatened,
she flies into a rage like a mother protecting her children, but she also
exemplifies sensibility, especially in contrast to bloodthirsty Ares, the
God of War. In The Iliad Athena proclaims, “I came from heaven
in the hope of bringing you to your senses”(28), when Achilles is overcome
with anger and violence. In this portrayal she is the calm, feminine
force. Countless times in The Iliad, Athena shields and protects
warriors from the enemy’s attack. She also joins in the battles and
rallies her men -- “Athena Daughter of Zeus, the Lady of Triton, went through
the ranks herself and spurned on any laggards she saw”(The Iliad,
90). Homer poetically depicts the wise, graceful, brave warrior
goddess in the opening of The Odyssey: “She drew upon her
feet those golden sandals (whose fairness no use could dim) that carried
their mistress as surely and wind-swiftly over the waves as over the boundless
earth. She laid hold of her guardian spear, great, heavy, and close-grained,
tipped with cutting bronze. When wrath moved the goddess to act,
this spear was her weapon: with it, and stayed by her pride of birth, she
would daunt serried ranks of the very bravest warriors”(The Odyssey,3).
This portrayal of a beautiful, yet dangerous warrior who is moved to terrible
anger when one of her “children” is in trouble is one manifestation of
her mother persona.
a civic level Athena is represented as a mother symbol to her people, a
figure that was later adopted by other countries in an attempt to symbolize
the glory that Ancient Greece had stood for by using these ancient figures
in their own society. As the protectress of Athens and its people,
Athena is the image of perfection and is omnipresent throughout the city
due to her numerous shrines, especially the imposing Parthanon. Throughout
these ancient literary works, prayers are constantly invoked to Athena,
portraying her importance as a civic deity. In the Iliad, for example,
she answers Diomedes’ prayer and “makes a new man out of him.” Surprisingly,
a large number of ancient Greek cities, both large and small, had temples
created for Athena, exemplifying her popularity as a civic goddess in art
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 “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.
In a different twist on her character Athena is also the mother of invention,
who bestows agricultural and technological gifts to her people. She
is portrayed in the Homeric Hymns as a goddess of sensibility and
warfare, wise in both aspects. She is immune to Aphrodite’s love
charms and cannot be deceived by her: “For the daughter of aegis-bearing
Zeus, gray-eyed Athena, the deeds of golden Aphrodite do not bring her
joy, but wars are pleasing to her, and the work of Ares, and battle songs
and preparing glorious deeds. She first taught earth-dwelling craftsmen
to make carriages and chariots worked with bronze; and the soft skinned
maidens in the halls she taught glorious deeds, placing skill in the minds
of each”(Homeric Hymns, 126, 7-15). Her status as a
generous and enlightening goddess evoke images of motherhood. Her
people honor her for her agricultural and technological gifts that allow
them to be a cultured and mighty society, enriching their lives in numerous
Depiction of Athena’s
character and symbolic qualities in ancient texts has been reincarnated
throughout history in varied female symbols. The figure of Athena
has influenced later female symbols such as the Virgin Mary, Britannia
and Lady Liberty. As Marina Warner asserts, “Athena, the virgin born,
chaste goddess of wisdom, the unyoked guardian of the city, the patroness
of women’s skills and work, is the immediate model of those exemplification’s
of Justice, Prudence, Fortitude, and Temperance...Divorced from the religion
that created her, disinfected of pagan cult and ritual, Athena provided
the mold in which the language of virtue was first cast in the Renaissance
and again, during the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The examples of personification which still surround us, like Britannia,
often return directly to Athena”(Monuments and Maidens,87).
Her qualities of beauty, wisdom, bravery, chastity, and, most importantly,
her ties to the patriarchy, create a perfect stereotypical woman to be
romantically venerated as a symbolic representation. She is not a
chaotic, uncontrollable female force, but one that is a representative
of the male within the virginal body of a woman.
To the Western world, Athena symbolized the glory of Athens, which other
countries wished to duplicate its once powerful status. Athena was
reincarnated by future societies because she was not a subversive figure.
Although a woman, she reinforced the rule of patriarchy in her abstraction
and characteristics. As Warner comments, “this warrior woman could
not have been acceptable as a figure of good to Western civilization, almost
at any time and certainly not to the Victorians, if she were not predicated
on an unimpeachable ethic of proper feminine conduct”(Monuments and
Maidens,103). Britannia, and later the United State’s Lady Liberty,
both draw on Athena’s characteristics and the awe that she evoked.
She rallied her forces onward with the perfect combination of strength
and beauty. Besides the obvious external similarities between these
womanly figures lies their symbolic characteristics that are used to represent
a whole country and its values. The representation of warrior woman
in armor, sometimes with spear, shield and helmet illustrates strength
and invincibility, while also guarding chastity and promoting virtue.
Usually these women have strong, unfeminine, proud features and a womanly
body cloaked in a loosely flowing tunic so as not to be overtly sexual,
of course. Sometimes winged victory is depicted in hand, a tradition
that originated with the Athena Parthanos statue. Although these
symbolic representations were used to characterize a nation, one must remember
that in no way did they reflect the status and freedom of women in their
societies. Instead they were the unreachable, glorified models that
men could look to for inspiration, but women could never obtain.
In ancient literary works Athena’s character comes through most clearly
as she is the main focus and vividly described. The Odyssey
and The Iliad show both sides of her character, as a cunning, brave
warrior and peacekeeping, wise mentor. Ion exemplifies her
wisdom and loyalty to the father, while giving the history of Ericthonius’
strange birth. Theogony describes her own birth from the head
of her father, while the Homeric Hymns sing her praises. And, in
Monuments and Maidens, Marina Warner examines the influence
of Athena in the depiction of the female form and image throughout history.
Almost every aspect of her is portrayed with symbolic objects that today
are known personifications of characteristics such as victory or chastity.
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.