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Chapter 08

Athena


THE BIRTH OF ATHENA

Zeus swallowed his consort METIS [mee'tis] (“wisdom”), after he had made her pregnant, because he feared that she would bear a son who would overthrow him. And so ATHENA [a-thee'na], or ATHENE (MINERVA), was born from the holy head of Zeus. Hephaestus, with his ax, may have facilitated the birth. The occasion was awesome as Athena sprang forth fully grown, a beautiful young woman in full armor, fearlessly announcing her arrival with a thunderous war-cry.

CHARACTERISTICS OF ATHENA

Athena’s birth allegorically proclaims her essential character: her divine wisdom drawn from the head of god; the special bond of affection between father and daughter; her championship of heroes and male causes, born as she was from the male, and not from a mother’s womb. A dread goddess of war, she remained a virgin.

APPEARANCE OF ATHENA

Athena bears an aloof kind of loveliness, akin to the beauty of youthful masculinity. She is associated with the owl and the snake. She is usually represented with helmet, spear, and shield or aegis that bore a depiction of the head of Medusa. With her there may be a female winged figure (called NIKE [nee'kay], “victory”), bearing a crown or garland of success. Athena herself as victorious war goddess was called Athena Nike and the simple but elegant temple of Athena Nike stands to the right of the entrance to the Acropolis.

THE CONTEST BETWEEN ATHENA AND POSEIDON

Athena and Poseidon vied for control of Athens and its surrounding territory, Attica. The contest took place on the Acropolis. Poseidon struck the rock with his trident and produced a salt spring or a horse. Athena brought forth an olive tree from the ground by the touch of her spear and she was proclaimed the victor. The olive was fundamental to Athenian economy and life.
Angry at losing, Poseidon was appeased and continued to be worshiped in Athens, especially in conjunction with the Athenian hero ERECHTHEUS [e-rek-thee'us] (see MLS, Chapter 23). In his lovely temple the ERECHTHEUM [e-rek-thee'um], or ERECHTHEION, on the Acropolis, just across from the Parthenon, the marks of the blow of his trident supposedly could be seen, and nearby it, the olive tree that Athena had produced continued to grow.

THE PANATHENAEA OR PANATHENAIC FESTIVAL

The PANATHENAEA [pan-ath-e-nee'a], or PANATHENAIA, was an annual festival celebrating the birthday of Athena; every fourth year the celebration of the Great Panathenaea was especially splendid. Important in the ceremonies were sacrifices and games; the prizes for winners in the games were special Panathenaic amphoras—vases inscribed and decorated with a depiction of Athena and containing sacred olive oil. A Panathenaic procession wound its way through the city ending with the presentation of an embroidered robe (peplos) to Athena on the Acropolis. Athenians (young and old, male and female) carrying sacred implements, leading sacrificial animals, with chariots or on horseback, figured in the procession.

THE PARTHENON AND ITS SCULPTURE

The PARTHENON [par'the-non] is the great temple to Athena Parthenos on the Acropolis of Athens that was built in the fifth century B.C. PARTHENOS [par'the-nos], an adjective meaning "virgin," was a standard epithet of Athena. It is a most beautiful Doric temple (even in its ruined state today), and its sculpture (created under the aegis of the great Athenian sculptor Pheidias) bears tribute to Athena herself and her city and all that they mean forever.

  • East pediment: the dramatic moment of the birth of Athena, who stood in the center before the throne of Zeus, from whose head she had just spring, fully grown and fully armed. Other divine figures are present at the miracle. At the corners, the horses of Helius (the Sun) and those of Selene (the Moon) set the momentous event in cosmic time.
  • West pediment: the contest between Athena and Poseidon, described above; these two central figures pull away from each other as they produce the gifts with which they vie. On either side, figures of Athenian divinities and heroic kings are witnesses.
  • Doric frieze: on the exterior are metopes (relief sculpture) depicting four subjects: the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs; the sack of Troy; the Gigantomachy; and the battle between the Greeks and the Amazons.
  • Ionic frieze: in the interior, on the outer wall of the naos (or cella), continuous relief sculpture renders the splendid Panathenaic procession described above. Athenian men and women are shown as marshals, attendants, horsemen, hoplites and assistants in the worship, along with the animals of ritual sacrifice. At the climax the ceremonial robe is presented to a priestess of Athena while, on either side, enthroned Olympian deities witness the joyous celebration of civic piety.
  • The Athena Parthenos: this monumental statue of Athena stood in the cella (or naos). The surfaces of the standing goddess were made of gold and ivory and she held a figure of Nike (Victory) in her right hand; she wore a helmet and the aegis with the head of Medusa, and a spear and shield are at her side; elaborate decorative reliefs enhanced the statue, which has not survived.

PALLAS ATHENA TRITOGENEIA

Athena is often called Pallas Athena and sometimes she is given the obscure title TRITOGENEIA [tri-to-je-neye'a or tri-to-je-nee'a], which suggests her links with Triton, a river-god. Triton had a daughter named PALLAS [pal'las] who used to practice the arts of war with Athena. As the result of a quarrel, Athena impulsively wounded Pallas. Pallas died and Athena was distraught when she fully realized what she had done. In her sorrow, she made a wooden statue of the girl which was called the PALLADIUM [pal-lay'di-um], or PALLADION. Through the agency of Zeus this Palladium fell into the territory of the Trojans, where, as a talisman, it carried with it the destiny of their city. The word Pallas probably means “maiden” and designates Athena’s virginity, like the epithet parthenos, “virgin.”

THE INVENTION OF THE FLUTE; ATHENA AND MARSYAS

Athena invented the flute upon hearing the lamentations and the sound of the hissing of the serpent hair of the surviving Gorgons, after Perseus had killed their sister, Medusa (see MLS, Chapter 21). She quickly grew to dislike her invention because her beautiful cheeks became distorted when she blew into the instrument, and so she threw it away. The satyr MARSYAS [mar'si-as] picked up the flute and became so excellent a player that he dared to compete with Apollo in a musical contest, with dire consequences for himself (see MLS, Chapter 11).

ATHENA AND ARACHNE

ARACHNE [a-rak'nee] was born in a lowly family, but her skill in spinning and weaving was extraordinary. When Athena (or Minerva in Ovid’s account) learned that Arachne's fame as a worker of wool rivaled her own, she was determined to destroy her. Arachne was foolish enough not to admit that Athena was her teacher and challenged her to a contest. Disguised as an old woman, Athena warned Archane about the danger of her hubris but Arachne persisted. Athena in anger threw off her disguise and accepted the challenge. She wove at her loom, with surpassing skill, a tapestry depicting noble scenes from mythology. Arrogant Arachne, on the other hand, wove into her tapestry scenes of the gods’ less honorable amorous conquests. Athena was furious, particularly since she could find no fault with Arachne’s excellent work. She tore up the embroidered tapestry and beat Arachne’s face with the shuttle. Grief-stricken, Arachne strangled herself with a noose, but Athena took pity and transformed her into a spider; as such, she and her descendants practice the art of weaving forever.

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