The Goddess Athena: Feminist or Misogynist?

Applying modern standards to ancient symbols, myths, and civilizations is as anachronistic as a Shakespearean production of Antony and Cleopatra in Elizabethan garb. Nevertheless, when we hail these ancient gods and goddesses, we must remember whom we are calling. As a graduate of Bryn Mawr College, which regards Athena as a muse of the mind, I have not fully come to grips with the possibly sexist aspects of this Greek goddess.

Athena is charismatic, yet problematic. She exemplifies strength, wisdom, intelligence, strategy, handicrafts and skill. She is an inspiring role model for women, a multifaceted alternative to the mother/sexpot Venus role that pop culture often means when it hails someone as a “goddess.” However, she is strongly male-identified in classical mythology, assisting male heroes and (often) treating women rather badly. Or does she?

As always, we must ask, “When?” and  “Says who?” Our chief difficulty with Athena comes from this passage in Aischylos‘ Eumenides, part three of the first surviving drama (and court drama) in western literature:

It is my duty to give the final judgment and I shall cast my vote for Orestes. [735] For there was no mother who gave me birth; and in all things, except for marriage, whole-heartedly I am for the male and entirely on the father’s side. Therefore, I will not award greater honor to the death of a woman who killed her husband, the master of the house. [740] Orestes wins, even if the vote comes out equal.

~Trans. H.W. Smith, from Perseus website

This after Apollo asserts that Orestes is guiltless of matricide because a mother is only a vessel, and the father is the sole contributor of genetic material, citing Athena herself as proof that a mother is non-essential to procreation. This Apollo and Athena have  denied the existence of Metis, goddess of forethought, swallowed by Zeus after he learned that her child was destined to be more powerful than him. Athena’s mother has been devoured and blotted out by the patriarchal Olympian regime.

Of course, the Eumenides was written by a male Athenian playwright whose plays affirm the city’s status quo. In some ways, male Athenian writers of the classical period were grappling with the opposite problem we do today: if women were inferior, why did a goddess protect their city?

The Greeks answer this question with muddled biology; we can perhaps point to archaeology. In the Mycenaean period, Athena may be the goddess of the king’s household (“Potnia Atana”) who becomes the patron of archaic Athens (King Erichthonios, legendary founder, is her foster-son). She is strongly associated with city and civil institutions, the public sphere from which Greek women were almost entirely excluded. So again, she is not so much a misogynist figure as a goddess who presided over male spheres of ancient Greek life.

This association with men predates Athens’ classical portrait of the goddess. In the Odyssey, Athena is at least sympathetic to Penelope as well as Odysseus, but in both Iliad and Odyssey her concern is with the male heroes. She often comes down in disguise (usually in a male disguise) to assist Akhilleus, Odysseus, Telemachos and others. She has no part in women’s lives, except where they intersect the male heroes who are her chief concern.

In The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine, Dr. Christine Downing’s nuanced discussion of Athena notes that one can interpret this aspect of Athena in a more positive way: she represents the idea that women can have meaningful friendships with men (and women!) based on intellect, camaraderie, shared projects, the mind; not every male-female relationship need be predicated on or reduced to sex.

Moreover, Dr. Downing points out what I tend to forget: Pallas Athena had friendships with women, from her childhood friend Pallas whose name she assumed, to Persephone and Artemis with whom she plays in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, to Khlariklo the mother of Teiresias in the poetry of Callimachus (by which time the gods and goddesses has become literary figures suitable for poetic embroidery, more than worshipful divinities, at least in educated circles).

Yet even in her friendships with women, there is a hint of a problem: Athena accidentally kills her beloved sister-playmate Pallas while mock-fighting with her. The goddess takes her name in memory and creates a sacred image the Palladium, which in time comes to represent Athena more than the girl. Athena has killed her. Athena has subsumed her. Athena has devoured her, as Zeus devoured Metis, paradoxically obscuring and forgetting the real Pallas in commemorating her.

The myths of Kassandra and Medusa demonstrate similar ambivalence. Post-Homeric stories about the Trojan War tell how the priestess Kassandra sought refuge in Athena’s shrine during the sack of Troy, was dragged outside by Ajax the lesser and violated. Athena, furious with this outrage, persecuted the hero and ultimately killed him by cracking open his ship with a thunderbolt borrowed from Zeus.

Medusa, on the other hand, receives harsh treatment from the goddess who wears her head as an emblem. The original symbolic and mythic connections between the pair have been lost, but  by archaic times, we see Athena supervising and assisting in Medusa’s beheading. By late classical times, Apollodorus says that Athena turned Medusa into a Gorgon for daring to compare her beauty to Athena’s, while Ovid, fanfiction author of mythology, tells an elaborate story of how Athena punished Medusa for having sex in her temple— never mind that it was not sex, but rape perpetrated by Poseidon.

Another doublet is Arachne versus Penelope. Penelope has Athena’s gifts in handicrafts, wiles, and storytelling, a worthy match for Athena’s favorite, Odysseus:

Athena has endowed her above other women with knowledge of fair handiwork and an understanding heart, and wiles, such as we have never yet heard that any even of the women of old knew, of those who long ago were fair-tressed Achaean women— [120] Tyro and Alcmene and Mycene of the fair crown—of whom not one was like Penelope in shrewd device…

~Antinoos, Odyssey 2.115, trans. A.T. Murray, Perseus Library

Antinoos has just described how Penelope used the ruse of weaving a shroud for her father (then secretly unraveling it each night) as a delaying tactic to put off remarrying. So Penelope uses Athena’s art of weaving as military strategy.

Arachne is an anti-Penelope, misusing and usurping the goddess’ art. She boasts her work bests Athena’s and accepts the goddess’ challenge to a contest with classic hubris. While Athena weaves an image of her own majesty, Arachne depicts the scandalous affairs of the gods. Athena rips the girl’s tapestry because it is technically flawless, strikes her, and humiliates her so that she hangs herself; Athena then transforms her into a spider. While we may say Arachne invited divine punishment, there are hints of bitter jealousy in Athena’s treatment of her that go beyond justice. Then again, as with Medusa’s rape, the main source for this myth is Ovid, for whom the overriding feminine emotion is jealousy.

I am circling my theme without coming closer to resolution, but my point is this: Athena’s relationships with women are rarer and more ambivalent than her connections with men, and there is often a hint of rivalry.

Wait! someone is probably saying. Haven’t you forgotten the most important aspect of Athena — preliterate Greece was matriarchal, and Athena was once a mother or much more powerful goddess who got demoted when Zeus and his Olympian posse came in?

Perhaps. “Potnia Atana” in Mycenaean tablets (if that is truly Athena) and an early snake-goddess figure found on the Athenian Acropolis hint at Athena’s antiquity. Her cult in Athens is certainly ancient, rich in primordial, chthonic symbolism of snakes and tunnels. And in Delphi, where the myth of Apollo killing Gaia’s snake and coopting her Oracle explicitly chronicles the hostile takeover of a goddess’ sanctuary by a god, the Athena Aphaia temple stands over the foundations of a Mycenaean sanctuary full of goddess figures. Is Athena a reincarnation of the goddess of Delphi, a dogged survivor?

However, there is a great gap in time between the old Mycenaean sanctuary and Athena’s oddly-shaped shrine. It is hard to say whether this is a case of continuity or coincidence. And in general, the evidence for the ancient matriarchal culture of Neolithic Greece, popular as it in Neopagan literature, is scarce. It may be a myth. The evidence seems to show more early examples of goddess worship, but not necessarily one Great Goddess, not necessarily exclusive of gods. While Athena may once have been a virgin mother figure, foster-mother of Erichthionios, I am unconvinced that she was ever worshiped as supreme, solitary mother goddess figure, even in pre-classical Athens.

We are left, then, with Athena Polias, the goddess of (male) Athens, who like modern women executives challenges the corporate world by assuming male dress, denying femininity, and by denying that traits like intelligence, wit, crafts, technical skill, non-sexual camaraderie are naturally part of a woman’s repertoire. We are left with Pallas Athena, who kills her girlfriend, who denies her mother, who rises from the head of Zeus. We are left with the more complex Athena who gifts Penelope and (in late classical times) seems to have another Pallas-like girlfriend, Khlariklo.

I have raised this question not because I think Athena is a misogynist goddess. Again, that is imposing modern values on another culture, and at any rate, I think Dr. Downing has shown us that reducing Athena to a male-dominated goddess brainwashed into championing the patriarchy does a great disservice to her. But she is a complex figure, and any follower of Athena or graduate of Bryn Mawr who identifies her as a patron of academics, wisdom, and womanpower may need to grapple with this question.

For further reading: I highly recommend Chris Downing’s The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine, which heavily informed this discussion and makes some useful points about not only Athena, but most of the Greek goddesses who serve as inspiration to many feminists and/or neopagans.

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