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Commentary

Chapter 8: Athena


A study of women, cloth, and society in early times, Women’s Work, The first 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber presents insights into how women's textile arts function as analogy and metaphor in mythology and illuminates the importance of Athena as the goddess of the “central womanly skill of weaving” (p. 242). Athena not only represented skill but also cunning, and so weaving became a metaphor for human resourcefulness as illustrated by clever Penelope, a wily wife, just like her wily husband Odysseus. The related theme of life as a thread, created by women and controlled by the feminine fates receives scrutiny. Barber makes us realize that weaving, however necessary, was also revered as a most respected art that belonged to the arête (“excellence”) of a woman as opposed to the different arete of a man.

Athena is a powerful goddess and most important, not least of all because she is the patron deity of the great city of Athens and was honored with her own temple on the Acropolis, the beautiful Parthenon, a phenomenal masterpiece of architecture.

The character of Athena as a war goddess and her close relationship with her father Zeus resemble the depiction of Brünnhilde and Wotan in the Teutonic and Norse mythology of the epic Nibelungenlied. An enriching experience is to explore these parallels in Richard Wagner’s opera, Die Walküre. One can believe that Athena’s mighty war-cry sounded very much like a Greek rendition of the triumphant “hojotoho” of the Valkyrie Brünnhilde. That Hera and Fricka have very much in common would also become all too apparent and Loge as a god of fire would suggest contrasts with Hephaestus. The exploration of Die Walküre provides an easy and enjoyable beginning for a later study of Wagner’s entire cycle The Ring of the Nibelungen (there are plenty of excellent recordings and videos) to afford comparison with figures, concepts, and themes in Greek and Roman legend. Siegfried, after all, is yet another in the long tradition of archetypal dragon-slayers.

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