Images of Influence
    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
 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.
 Images 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.


 In 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 their homeland.

As we can see from these later portrayals of Athena, she is sexualized and romantized.

  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.

The Parthenon today


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