Forms of Motherhood
    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
who was at times portrayed as a serpent, and usually shown curled by her feet in sculptures.
    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 ways.
Her  abstract persona of the mother and protectress of her people is an image that is still used today through different incarnations
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