The image of Athena, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom and patroness of Athens,
in Greek literature and art is both complex and prominant. 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 emphisized 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.
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.
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
was at times portrayed as a serpent, and usually shown curled by her feet
Athena 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). 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.
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.
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 enemie’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.
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 Hyms as a goddess of sensibility
and warfare, wise in both aspects. She is immune to Aprhrodite’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 techonological gifts that allow
them to be a cultured and mighty society, enriching their lives in numerous
abstract persona of the mother and protectress of her people is an image
that is still used today through different incarnations