Pallas Athena is the warrior goddess of wisdom, courage, conviction, causes, strategy, healing and other fine qualities. She is a virgin goddess who never marries, takes a male partner, or gives birth to a child through her womb (though she raises one as a surrogate mother).
There is controversy surrounding her feminine identity and the way she treats those of her same sex. For instance, she accidentally kills her childhood friend Pallas, turns the proud and skilled weaver Arachne into a spider for her hubris, transforms the beautiful Medusa into the snake-headed Gorgon as she was raped, thereby defiling Athena’s temple. Feminists have debated the figure of Athena for years owing to her specific treatment of women, and the mythological cooptation of a deity from matriarchal society into a patriarchal one. This claim seems to have some weight when you consider her multiple origin narratives – a goddess of a lake in Libya, then as the daughter born of Titaness Metis … and then as the direct offspring of Zeus who sprang fully formed from his forehead, and in some stories as the daughter of Poseidon.
A further myth tells us of how Goddess Athena’s victories have bestowed mixed blessings upon women. She and Lord Poseidon were competing to see who would become the patron deity of Athens. Athena won by gifting the Athenians the olive tree, but not without incurring the displeasure of Poseidon. The men of Athens then agreed to give up the citizenship rights of the women there to appease him. If I recall my first undergrad research paper on the subject correctly, they were supposedly too emotional and passionate to have any head for politics.
Goddess Athena is further differentiated from other female Greco-Roman goddesses by the fact that she refuses to engage in any form of sex (per most myths, others hint at same-sex interests), and does not bear children, though she has a foster child. As there is still so much of stigma surrounding women who cannot bear children, or who choose not to (and as I read recently, women who do not endure ‘normal, natural’ childbirth) – Moreover, she is severed from any Mother archetype or connection to the Womb as she is born of the head of Zeus (who actually devours his wife Metis so she may not bear an heir that would be more powerful than himself but Athena’s rising cannot be stopped – in one account). The Mother is devoured by the Father to avoid the birth of an heir who can surpass him. Because she is not male, Athena is automatically accepted by the Father as his ally as she bears no threat his supremacy.
Now I’m not saying that these myths are true, or that they are not. Personally, I have always loved the Goddess Athena and I find her courage to be one that speaks to every minority man/woman/LGBT person who has ever needed to step up and play in the big leagues, in ‘a man’s world’. But the myths are narratives that reflect a particular social and cultural context. And sadly, they still echo with the kinds of concerns that others still feel (and sometimes voice) when seeing a woman stepping into her own power – even today. (But it’s not her place! Her place is in the kitchen! Women must be soft spoken, it’s a man’s job to earn the money, if she’s out for work at night she must be a prostitute! etc. etc.) These fears are more visible in some cultures, but still present across the globe in one form or another.
But what do we do with this information?
I feel that collectively, we need to reclaim the figure of Goddess Athena from the mythological associations that somehow associate her assertive force with a betrayal of / alienation from her own biological sex (women) – and re-cast them in the modern day. This is my still-evolving take on this mighty Goddess:
Here we see the first ‘career woman’ who chose to divert her energies into her work, and not into raising children or pleasing a male partner in bed. In liberal societies today, many would recognize those choices in their own lives and feel the same weight of burden or stigma associated with them. In traditional societies, more women are beginning to rise up and exercise their right to live their lives beyond a biological/reproductive/heterosexual prescription.
Honestly, the choice needn’t be so stark, Women can be assertive and have careers and success and power without giving up their familial roles as mothers. They can be as nurturing and caring as they want to be. And they do not need to step on or curtail the expressions of power of their fellow sisters and brothers. And if women don’t like having a female form – depending on which part of the world they’re in – they can even change that too.
I would go out on a limb and say that if Athena was a human woman living today, she would likely be a (1) ‘career woman’ (in her cultural milieu) rejecting the prescriptions of patriarchy and/or (2) LGBT (think about it, same-sex partnerships, a female body that rejects any identification with biological processes unique to women and performs ‘as a man’).
So you could say – at least within the Greco-Roman pantheon, Goddess Athena was the first female form to break out of the stereotypical mold, exploring alternate meanings and expressions of female identity, power and role. So she is not just a Goddess for ‘women’ but for anyone daring to take a leap forward in uncharted territory: A Path-Maker.
Taking that in, all I can say is …
Priestess Bairavee Balasubramaniam, PhD
Part 1 of this series is available at: http://wp.me/p4OUNS-5y
*I first published this article in another blog of mine on July 12, 2014.
Image Information: “Bust Athena Velletri Glyptothek Munich 213” by Unknown (Greek original by Kresilas) – User:Bibi Saint-Pol, own work, 2007-02-08. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bust_Athena_Velletri_Glyptothek_Munich_213.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Bust_Athena_Velletri_Glyptothek_Munich_213.jpg