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Athena: A Love Story

by Patricia Montley

Part I: The Honeymoon

I fell for Her in a big way. What twelve-year-old girl wouldn't? It was the fifties. She was the antithesis of the sexy Marilyn Monroe and the silly Lucy Ricardo. She was what I secretly dared to hope, against all odds, I could become: a strong, successful woman in a man's world. Certainly there were no human role models, at least not in my working-class family/neighborhood. So I turned to the Divine, and was not disappointed. Ironically, the divine inspiration did not come via my religion book, with pictures of the virgin Mary and stories of her subservience. Rather, it came in my seventh-grade Poems and Pictures, that slim volume that represented my parochial school's reluctant concession to the visual and literary arts in a curriculum otherwise devoted to the sensible skills of mastering fractions and diagramming sentences.

It was love at first sight. And what a sight She was: the confident stance, the flashing eyes looking defiantly out from under the stylistically plumed helmet, Her right hand grasping the sharp spear, ready for another victory, Her left supporting the massive shield, its writhing snakes poised for attack! Oh, I was smitten, as surely as if She had come off the page and thrust Her spear into my heart, by Athena, Goddess of War and Wisdom.

Later reading would reveal the Goddess's domain was extensive. She is identified as patron of architects and sculptors, as well as of goldsmiths, potters, spinners, and weavers. She is credited with devising the bridle (which made possible the taming of horses), the chariot, the plow, the rake, and the ox yoke, and even with inventing shipbuilding (Bolen, p. 75). The olive tree, so important to Athens, was Her gift to the city, and the one which originally won Her the patronage of its inhabitants.

But it is primarily in Her martial role that She is recognized. In Olympian mythology Athena is firmly established as the cold, rigid Goddess of War (Spretnak, p. 97). Homer makes Her instrumental in the Greeks' defeat of the Trojans, especially in Her championing of Achilles, and in the safe return of Odysseus to Ithaca after the war. Euripides too recognizes Her role in the defeat of Troy. Indeed, She seems more than a little partial to warrior heroes: She helps Perseus slay Medusa, She aids Hercules in the performance of his challenging tasks, She assists Jason in building the ship that will take him to the Golden Fleece.

"The martial and domestic skills associated with Athena involve planning and execution, activities that require purposeful thinking. Strategy, practicality, and tangible results are the hallmarks of Her particular wisdom. Athena values rational thinking and stands for the domination of will and intellect over instinct and nature.... As an archetype, Athena is the pattern followed by logical women, who are ruled by their heads rather than their hearts." (Bolen, pp. 76, 78).

As a teenager in the fifties, I didn't know anything about archetypes. But I did know that people who were governed by instinct rather than intellect (putting heart before head) were viewed as inferior, and most of these "inferior" people were women. I didn't want to be one of them. So I became Athena. At my all-girls prep school, I joined the debate team, where logic and competitiveness were the cardinal virtues. My success was brought home to me when, after our merciless trouncing of the champion team from the nearby boys' school, a judge paid me the highest of compliments: that I "think like a man."

Now another interesting thing about Athena is that while She too "thinks like a man" and hangs out with male superheroes, She generally seems to consider Herself above having anything sexual to do with men, super or otherwise. In Greece She was "worshiped as Holy Virgin, Athene Parthenia, in the Parthenon, Her 'Virgin-temple;' [and]... classic writers insisted on Her chastity." (Walker, p. 74).

Part II: The Breakup

In another fifteen years, however, the honeymoon would be over. Whether it was because the Women's Movement changed my attitudes about the relative merits of head and heart, or because I discovered by reading The Oresteiathat Athena had gone too far, I don't remember. But the disillusionment was real. Let me explain.

In the first play of Aeschylus' tragic trilogy, Queen Clytemnestra kills her husband Agamemnon upon his return from the Trojan War. Her motive is revenge, for he had sacrificed their young daughter Iphigenia to the Gods in return for a fair wind to sail to Troy. In the second play, their son Orestes avenges his father's murder by killing his mother. He is pursued by the Furies, old-order Goddesses, hell-bent on punishing matricide. (These are depicted as vile, and indeed, the masks created for them to wear were so disgusting that they were credited by writers of the period as causing women in the audience to miscarry!) The Furies were "an ugly, frightening characterization of the earlier chthonic female religions" (Case, p. 14), intended to discredit them.

Aeschylus, of course, does not let the Furies succeed in avenging Clytemnestra's murder. Instead, Orestes appeals to Apollo and, in the third play, is brought to trial, the first courtroom scene in Western literature. Apollo defends Orestes against the charge of matricide on the grounds that the mother is not a true parent, only "the custodian" of the seed planted within her. The only true parent, he asserts, is "he that mounts." (The Eumenides, lines 750-51).He cites as living proof Athena Herself who was born not from a woman's womb, but from the head of Her father Zeus. A jury of twelve Athenians reaches a tie, and Athena must cast the deciding vote. She sides with Apollo and frees Orestes. Theatre historian Sue-Ellen Case sees this conclusion as "the public rationalization of misogyny, for it rests upon establishing the parental line as male." Further, after their defeat, "the Furies are confined to a cave and their function is no longer to revenge matricide, but to preside over marriages" (pp. 14-15).

Unfortunately, this is not the only example of Athena's siding with the patriarchy. In addition to Her championing of male heroes as mentioned above, Her defeat of the Amazons on the battlefield of Troy, and Her being the Olympian with the closest bond to Zeus, She punishes the mortal weaver Arachne for portraying Zeus's illicit and deceitful seductions/rapes on her tapestry. Athena is very much Her father's defender, no matter how offensive His behavior (Bolen, p. 78).

I began to understand that, like Athena, I had been my "father's daughter." In my case, the "father" was the patriarchal institutions that had trained me to value "masculine" behaviors and characteristics more than "feminine" ones, namely the Church and Academia. I had been educated in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition and the classical Western liberal arts tradition. And I had accepted, without question, the canonization of male thought and power in both of them. "The father's daughter quality may make an Athena woman a defender of patriarchal right and values, which emphasize tradition and the legitimacy of male power. Athena women usually support the status quo and accept the established norms as guidelines of behavior" (Bolen, p. 82).

By the seventies, however, I was no longer "an Athena woman." And the more feminist consciousness-raising I experienced, the more embarrassed I was about my earlier identification with this Goddess who was really "one of the boys." The very military accouterments that had once so enchanted me I now saw as a kind of male power drag. I felt betrayed, by the Goddess and by my own misplaced affections. But my love-hate relationship with Athena was not over yet.

Part III: The Revelation

The eighties brought a resurgence of my interest in religion, this time the religion of the Great Mother. I took a harder look at the classical Goddesses, including Athena, and discovered I had only part of Her story.

For one thing, She was not born of Zeus. She was, in fact, older than the Olympian Gods. In The Gods of the Egyptians, EA. Budge asserts that "Athena came from North Africa. She was the Libyan Triple Goddess... Egyptians sometimes called Isis Athene, which meant 'I have come from myself'" (quoted by Walker, p. 74).

E.O. James, in The Cult of the Mother Goddess, insists that Athena was originally a Cretan "household and civic Divinity" who watched over the home and town "with fertility attributes revealed in Her snake and tree symbolism" (p. 146). In Lost Goddesses of Early Greece, Charlene Spretnak paints an idyllic (hypothetical) picture of Athena's cultivation of learning and the arts on Minoan Crete. Surrounded by the beautiful architecture She inspired, Athena teaches Her people to devise a calendar based on the movements of the heavens, to keep written archives, to make sculptures of Her owl and serpent, to make engravings of the Goddess on seals and jewelry. She appears to a group of women in the field and shows them the plant from whose fibers flax can be spun and woven, and which roots will provide dye. Next, She goes to a clay pit, where from snake-like coils She makes a spiraled pot. The town is peaceful, without need of fortifications. Prosperity lasts a thousand years (pp. 99-101).

It was only when the Mycenaean princes of mainland Greece took Her over, James says, that Athena's "more warlike characteristics became dominant" (p. 146). She then became the armored guardian of their citadels, particularly Athens.

Although Her matrifocal Cretan origins were so suppressed that She was depicted in classical mythology as springing full-armored from the head of Zeus, She did, like the rest of us mortals and immortals, have a mother, whose name, Metis, means "wisdom." Metis was assimilated to the Zeus cult by the claim that Zeus impregnated Her, then swallowed Her, so Her wisdom-principle became part of Himself. Thus He was able to give birth to Metis' child Athene from His own head. Older versions of the myth show that Metis was really Medusa, whose Gorgon face and snake hair symbolized Female Wisdom. Athene was the virgin form of the same Goddess, born not from Zeus's head but from the triple Gorgon in the land of the Libyan Amazons, who worshipped Medusa-Metis as the Mother of Fate (Walker, p. 653). Given this parentage, it is ironic that the classical myth has Athena helping Perseus to kill Medusa. (But then, as we have already discovered in The Oresteia, the Greeks didn't take matricide too seriously.)

Medusa the Gorgon represents Athena's destroyer aspect. All who looked upon Her were turned to stone, as would Perseus have been if he had not followed Athena's advice to battle with the Gorgon while looking at her in a mirror. It is possible that the stone pillars of Athena's Parthenon were identified with the men-turned-to-stone by Medusa (Walker, p. 74). The snakes on the Warrior Goddess's shield are Medusa's hair, springing from the head given Her as a trophy by Perseus.

More ancient, however, than this identification with snakes is Her association with the diver-bird and the owl. On a sixth century BCE Corinthian vase, Athena sits in Her chariot while, just behind Her, perched on the horses, is a woman-headed diver-bird. Such an archaic image reveals Athena's descent from the Neolithic Bird Goddess, who had as Her counterpart the cosmic snake, and also the Minoan and Mycenaean Bird Goddess (Baring & Cashford, p. 337).

Why was such a venerable Goddess whose history associates Her with wisdom, the arts, fertility, and regeneration transformed into a motherless, war-like defender of the patriarchy? Case believes the Greeks took away Her mother to break the matriarchal line and subvert Athena's identification with Her own sex. Because She has no mother, "Athena represents the end of [what the patriarchal Greeks would have perceived as] the dangers of the womb." By aligning herself with the reign of Zeus and Apollo, She brings (patriarchal) order to Athens (p. 10).

Riane Eisler, whose Chalice and the Bladetraces the cultural evolution from the partnership model of social organization found in earlier eras to the dominator model found in more recent eras, sees in Athena: "both the conflict and the interplay between the androcratic and gylanic elements of classical Greece.... Reflecting the norms of the older partnership direction of cultural evolution, She is still the Goddess of wisdom, with Her ancient emblem of the serpent. But at the same time, reflecting the new dominator norms, She is the new Goddess of war, complete with helmet and spear, Her chalice now a shield (p. 113)."

These "dominator norms" are seen not only in the approval of sexism reflected in Orestes' defense and acquittal, but in the classism practiced by the Greeks. When, at Orestes' trial, Athena boasts of Her purely Olympian existence as "free from all material desire and free from labor-pains," She is referring not only to Her own refusal of childbirth, but to the fact that "the Olympians were Gods of the newly established ruling elite, which did no communal work but was serviced by slave labor" (Sjoo & Mor, p. 236).

Joan Rockwell, in Fact in Fiction: the Use of Literature in the Systematic Study of Society, explains the expediency of having Athena defend the patriarchy at Orestes' trial: "It is very important in an institutional shift that a leading figure of the defeated party is seen to accept the new power" (p. 162). Athena is a direct descendant of the Mother Goddess; She is also the patron Deity of Athens. If She declares for male supremacy, "the shift to male dominance must be accepted by every Athenian. And so also must the shift from what was once a basically communal or clan-owned system of property (in which descent was traced through women) to a system of private ownership of property andwomen by men" (Eisler, p. 80).

So it would seem that Athena Herself is a victim in this saga. Stripped of Her mother, Her true lineage, Her divine history, Her peaceful ways, She is appropriated by the patriarchy for their economic and political purposes, made to speak out against the natural order of things, to play a starring role in the military exploits of superheroes of questionable integrity, to help one of them slay Her own mother, to adopt a war-like appearance and attitude, in short, to deny all that She had once been and stood for.

Part IV: The Reconciliation

Surely this is a story that evokes sympathy, not censure. For me to abandon Athena now would be a classic case of blaming the victim. Perhaps it is not too late to reclaim Her as a role-model, to scrape away the patriarchal accretions, or even to find an arena where the old and the new peacefully coexist. Baring and Cashford seem to acknowledge this possibility: "Through the image of Athena the matriarchal character of the Minoan Goddess is brought into relation with the patriarchal ideals of Aryan and Dorian Greece, and their consequent fusion transforms them both. The result is a new relation to instinct, a disciplining and organizing of Nature that can make possible... an 'imagination of civic order,' but, alternatively, can result simply in repression and apathy" (p. 338).

The suggestion here is that tension can be creative, that civilized action is a balance between expressing an impulse and restraining it. "The initialmoment of controlling an instinct might well be experienced as opposing its urgency the more effectively to channel it" (Baring & Cashford, p. 338). Athena's flashing eyes see beyond immediate satisfaction. That is the essence of Her wisdom: the ability to reflect before acting, to have an image of the final goal while executing the plan. This is why She is patron of spinning, weaving, potting, and sculpting, which are all types of crafts that require the mind's eye hold the design as the hands work the materials.

There is, it seems to me, yet another way of making peace with the Goddess of War, and that is to see Her as a spiritual warrior, a strong, clear-eyed, level-headed Deity who can help us see the enemies within, such as the fear of failure, the resistance to change, the reluctance to risk and grow, all the Gorgon-headed monsters that suck our spirit, and empower us to overcome them.

So it seems I have come around (full spiral?) on the idol of my youth. She speaks to me still:

Forgive me, but try not to forget

that when first you learned

such a word as Goddess,

not long after you first began to read,

and images in books filled your growing mind,

it was I whose image went beside that word,

Athena, proud in my helmet of Valour,

Athena, proud in my name of Wisdom

reaching out to you from the page,

filling you with a woman strength

that no one else would give (Stone, p. 395).


Aeschylus. The Eumenides.Ed. & Trans. Peter D. Arnott (1964). New York, NY: Appleton-Century Crofts.

Baring, Anne and Cashford, Jules (1991). The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image.London, UK: Arkana Penguin Books.

Bolen, Jean Shinoda (1984). Goddesses in Everywoman: A New Psychology of Women. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row.

Case, Sue-Ellen (1988). Feminism and Theatre. New York, NY: Methuen.

Eisler, Riane (1988). The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. San Francisco, CA: Harper.

James, E.O (1994). The Cult of the Mother Goddess.New York, NY: Barnes & Noble.

Rockwell, Joan (1974). Fact in Fiction: the Use of Literature in the Systematic Study of Society. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Sjoo, Monica and Mor, Barbara (1991). The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth. San Francisco, CA: Harper.

Spretnak, Charlene. (1984 [1981]). Lost Goddesses of Early Greece: a Collection of Pre-Hellenic Myths.Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Stone, Merlin (1984). Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood: A Treasury of Goddess and Heroine Lore from Around the World.Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Walker, Barbara G (1986). The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco, CA: Harper.

Patricia Montley
Baltimore, Maryland

Patricia Montley has an M.A. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame and a Ph.D. in Theatre Arts from the University of Minnesota. Before leaving academia to write full time, she served as Chair of the Theatre Department and Coordinator of Women's Studies at Chatham College, Pittsburgh, where she taught "The Goddess in Myth and Ritual."