Depiction of Athena’s character and symbolic qualities in ancient texts
have been reincarned throughout history in varied female symbols.
The figure of Athena has influenced later female figures such as the Virgin
Mary, Britania 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 sterotypical woman to be romantically
venerated as a symbolic reprsentation. She is not a chaotic, uncontrollable
female force, but one that is a representative of the male within the virginal
body of a woman.
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 other-worldly 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 which men could turn to her for comfort and aid, much like the Virgin
Mary whose sanctity was without reproach. 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).
Therefore, 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 who is prayed to and called
upon for assistance is similar to the position of the Virgin Mary.
A depiction of the Virgin Mary
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.
of Britannia found on gold coins
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 envoked. 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 woman
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 model that men could look
to for inspiration, but women could never obtain.
essence, these figures of women as the symbolic representation of countries
is ultimately an abstract, empty, beautiful figure -- often
what “women” are reduced to. 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
we can see from these later portrayals of Athena, she is sexualized and
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 depictes Athena and her life.