Many religions which had their origin in the ancient world, had a theoretical aspect which associated femininity with divinity also. This was certainly true of Greek and Roman religions, of Egyptian and Hindu religions, even of Christianity when it referred to Virgin Mary. In practice and in social status, the treatment of women did not always match this theoretical framework.
In any case, Athena was an ancient Greek goddess to whom, in her revived remembrance, 7 October is sometimes consecrated. She was one of the triple divine principles in Homeric Greece. She was the goddess to whom kings and ordinary men went for counsel, she was the goddess of war and defender of cities.
Practically all characters in mythology have had a non-normal genesis. Athena’s mother was Metis, the goddess of measure and wisdom. But her father Zeus, hearing of a prophesy that his own offspring would remove him from dominance, swallowed his wife, and it was in the body of Zeus that Athena was born. Then, it says in the mythology, by cephalic surgery of Zeus, Athena came into the world.
Athena was strong and beautiful, and vowed to be a virgin: parthenos. The Titan Pallas desired her, and when he came to her for intimacy, she killed him, and appended his name to hers, somewhat as Kali of Hindu lore did when she slew the demon Durga.
Every fourth year they celebrated Athena in a grand festival called Panathenaea, with contests and revelries during which a magnificent garment would be ceremoniously carried to bedeck the ivory image of Athena. The idol of Athena majestically adorned the magnificent temple in the city, with helmet, shield and spear. In our times, simple-minded generalizers have sometimes claimed that if women headed governments there would be no war in the world. Well, at one time, as per Homer and Hesiod, Athena, who slaughtered the Gorgon, was pretty active in the war against the Titans.
But the same Athena has also been pictured as a goddess of peace and of the constructive arts. She is said to have created the olive tree, whose branch is regarded to this day as a symbol for peace. She is said to have invented the plough, taught men how to harness the horse and yoke the ox, and introduced humans to many other crafts, from shoe-making to ship-building.
In 447 BCE Pheidias and Pericles initiated a grand new temple, constructed with white marble chiseled into perfect squares. That temple had a separate chamber which was reserved for the virgins (ton Parthenon in Greek) who served as priestesses in the temple. It is by this name that we refer to the temple today, whose pillared ruins are still standing grandly. In the words of Emerson “Earth proudly wears the Parthenon as the best gem upon her zone.”
The motif in this temple reflected the struggle between civilization and barbarism, between refined life-style and savagery: it was one of the ancient instances of culture-clash. In those days the struggle was between Greek and Trojan, Greek and Amazon, etc.
Relics of those artistic expressions have survived, for both time and intervening wars have destroyed or mutilated some and buried others. It is not just the ravages of weather and age that obliterate yesterday’s beautiful works, but also wanton demolition in the name of a new religion or civilization. With all that, though the spell of Athena is no longer there, her name is etched as Athens in the capital of Greece, and vestiges of her temple continue to attract curious tourists from all over the world.
October 7, 2013