Athena, Goddess of Wisdom and Artistry in Greek Mythology
Greek "Virgin Goddess" Archetype
Athena was the greek goddess of mythology, wisdom and crafts. She was also noted as a good strategist, and a “Father’s Daughter”. She was a stately and beautiful warrior goddess, the only Olympian goddess portrayed wearing armor. But the visor of her helmet was worn pushed back to reveal her beauty. Because she presided over battles in wartime and domestic arts in peacetime, Athena was normally shown with a spear in one hand and a bowl or spindle in the other.
She was dedicated to chastity and celibacy, and the protector of her chosen heroes of Athens, her namesake city. The Greeks gave Athena credit for giving humanity the bridle to help tame horses, inspiring shipbuilders in their craft, and teaching people to plow, rake, ox, yoke and drive a chariot. Her special gift to Athens was the olive tree. Athena was known for her excellent planning and purposeful thinking abilities. Practicality, tangible results, and rational thinking are hallmarks of Athena’s particular wisdom. She had a very strong will, and valued her intellect over her emotional instincts. Her Spirit is found in the city, as the wilderness was the domain of Artemis.
Other Stories of Athena's Origins
There is a Homeric hymn who honors Athena with a different story. She came to the Greek mainland after leaving her original home in Crete. She then became ruler of Athens, the primary city of the ancient world, while maintaining many symbols of her ancient identity. Greek myth tells of a contest between Athena and Poseidon, the god of the sea. Both wanted to rule the city of Athens, and neither would give way to the other. Finally a vote was taken, and the citizens gathered to cast their ballots. Not surprisingly, men voted for the god, and women for the goddess. The odds were in Athena's favor, as there was one more voter on the women's side! And so Athens became the City of the Goddess.
The men did not happily accept this vote count. They struck back by passing three new laws: They barred women from voting, stripped them of citizenship, and gave their children the father's name instead of the mother's. The story of Athena's birth was also altered, making up a motherless tale of a girl born from the head of the chief god (Zeus). So this is why Athena's genesis became so male identified.
Yet another story exists which shows this goddess in another light. This one claims Athena was the daughter of Pallas, a winged giant who tried to rape his virginal daughter. She killed him, then tanned his skin to make a shield and cut off his wings to fasten to her feet.
So however Athena came by her fierceness, she never consorted with men, remaining forever a virgin. Oddly, however, she did she did have one son. Hephaestus once tried to overpower Athena, impressed with her artistic abilities and great beauty. Although she escaped his advance, some of his sperm fell on her thigh. This resulted in the birth of Erichtonious, who remained forever out of sight. In the mythology of Hephaestus, the story differs a little bit, and says Athena raised this son. But this writer has found no other reference to him.
Homeric Hymn to Athena
"Grey-eyed one,I sing of you, wisest and most beautiful, relentless Athena, protector of cities, strong armed and fair. From his head the great god birthed you, Dressed in golden armor and bearing a sharp spear. The whole mountains shook when you were born, and the Earth quaked, and the sea's dark waves broke against the land. Even the Sun stopped in astonishment at this sight, this goddess, fresh born and strong. Hail to you Athena, may I never live without the shield of your protection."
Symbols of Athena
Athena is often symbolized by an owl, for her wisdom, and a snake, which she holds in the famous temple built for her, the Parthenon. The snake is a symbol of protection, for without it, grain stored for the winter would have fed mice instead. The snake's well known ability to shed its skin and emerge, apparently reborn, gave rise to an association with rebirth. The statue of a goddess standing by her snake familiar would have been a powerful message of protective strength and hope to those who entered Athena's temple.
Armor and weapons are also Athena's symbols. She was frequently sculpted wearing a helmet, carrying a shield and spear. It has been often noticed that, with the rise of private property, previously pacifist mother goddesses began to appear as goddesses of war-for when the rich fields were commonly held, there was no need to fight for their use. As land began to be held by wealthier citizens, mostly male, the goddess took on a new role as defender of the city's wealth and safety.
Other Symbols for Athena
Athena is also envisioned as the goddess of the loom and spindle. A weaver, she once turned a woman into a spider for claiming to have greater skill than her own. But there is little contradiction in her imagery, for textile production was an important part of each home's economy, and of the community as a whole. Without such wealth, there would not be such need for protection.
The most charming of Athena's symbols is the owl. He appears on early Athenian coins as an alternative image to the goddess herself. In some images, he sits on her shoulder, or flies in the air above her. Still recognized as a symbol for wisdom, the owl suggests that Athena's power is so strong that it needs to be held in check by careful consideration and judicious concern for the outcome of any endeavor.
Athena's Owl Symbol
Athena Was a Favored Child of Zeus
The most common myth has it that Athena, greek goddess of wisdom, sprang to life as an adult by popping out of Zeus’s head. He “gave birth” to her after experiencing a very bad headache! Although Metis was her mother, Athena never acknowledged this fact. She was a protector, adviser, patron, and ally of heroic men. She helped Perseus slay the Gorgon Medusa, the female monster who had snakes for hair. Athena assisted Jason and the Argonauts build their ship before they set out to capture the golden fleece. She looked after Achilles during the Trojan War, and later aided Odysseus on his journey home. Besides championing individual heroes and being the Olympian closest to Zeus, Athena always sided with the patriarchy.
Athena is the feminine archetype known for her practical solutions and winning strategies. She was able to keep her head while caught in an emotional situation, and could develop good tactics in the midst of a conflict. Normally when someone makes decisions based on their head instead of their heart, they are complimented that they “think like a man.”
When Athena has other goddesses present in her personality makeup, she can be an ally of other women. If she is motivated by Hera to need a mate to feel complete, Athena can assess the situation and devise a plan to get her man. If she is trying to find funding for a women’s health clinic, her political skills will aid her in assessing which is the best way to do so.
When Athena is ruler of a woman’s psyche, she is motivated by her own priorities. She focuses on what matters to her, rather than on the needs of others, much like Artemis. Athena differs from Artemis because she likes to be in the company of men. She does not withdraw from them, but loves being in the midst of male action and power.
The virgin goddess element helps her to avoid romantic and sexual entanglements with men. She likes being a companion, colleague, or confidante of men without developing erotic feelings or emotional intimacy. Her orientation to the world is her pragmatic attitude, her conformity to traditional standards, and a lack of idealism. Athena is the perfect “sensible adult” even while very young.
Athena shows up in educated women who have high paying careers, and her business acumen enables her to make points effectively when political or economic considerations are important. She can think far ahead in order to further her own career goals, or may use her weapons to be a companion and mentor to further a man’s career if she is interested in him. Athena is often called a “Daddy’s Girl”, because she naturally gravitates towards men who have responsibility, authority, or power. She often forms mentor relationships with men who share her interests.
Athena wears armor to protect herself from feeling pain, both hers and others. But she has an advantage over Artemis, because Athena does not take competition personally. She can coolly assess what the situation is when she is distanced from it.
Women who need to cultivate their “inner Athena” can do so by getting more educated or by learning a trade. This stimulates her abilities to learn facts, think clearly, prepare for exams, and stay calm when she is taking tests. She needs to be objective, impersonal, and skillful. A woman who becomes a nurse or doctor because she cares about others is acting on her Athena traits. She has to be dispassionate while she observes a patient so she can utilize her logical thinking skills to help the patient.
Sometimes Athena is developed out of necessity, as a young girl who is being molested. She must hide her feelings and become numb and out of touch with them until she becomes safe again. She may have to use strategy in order to survive when she is being victimized until she can get away from the situation. Athena’s “ever-near” archetype needs to be able to come closer whenever a woman needs to think clearly in an emotional situation.
Goddess Athena is Wise and Self Reliant
Athena the young girl is very bright for her age and wants to know how everything works. She will be her father’s favorite and he may brag that she “is just like him.” This can backfire when an Athena has a father who is too busy to notice her, and this may cause her to not develop her skills as well. Her mother will not understand why she’s not a “girly girl” unless the mom is an Athena woman herself. It can be hurtful to the daughter if the mother does not accept her for what she is. In this case, Athena will reject her mother and feel that she is incompetent. An Athena who has two professional parents, or even one ambitious one, will grow up with a positive self image.
Athena girls know how to fix a car, work with tools, and are great with computers. They can also excel at sewing or weaving. They are not very hormonal and will probably hang around with boys who share their interests. They observe what the other girls do just enough to manage to fit in, although they probably think much of the worry about clothes and makeup is just silly. Athena plans ahead for college and a career, and her early adult years are normally very productive ones as she begins to achieve her goals.
She does not plan to be “saved” by marriage, but if she does marry will run a very efficient household. She is a great researcher, teacher, and gravitates towards law, science or math fields, the old fashioned traditional male fields. Athena usually lacks close women friends as she is most comfortable with men. She is often happy with the status quo since she is close with men, but will be annoyed with other women who are not as successful as she at navigating around in a man’s world.
Athena will choose a man carefully while acting like his “right hand woman.” Soon she will be managing his career and making the decisions before he even realizes it. Her advice and counsel are perceptive and helpful. She has no patience with dreamers or starving artist types. She is only attracted to successful and powerful men.
Athena Does Not Need a Man
Athena women are often out of touch with the needs of their bodies. She is not particularly sexy, flirtatious or romantic, unless she has some Aphrodite or Hera in her. She is able to remain celibate for long periods of time. If an Athena woman marries and does not cultivate traits from the more romantic goddesses, she may regard sex as part of the marital agreement or as a calculated act. When she decides to be sexually active, she will investigate and study sex until she has mastered it just like any other task.
It is companionship and loyalty that Athena women seek. She will expect a spouse to be faithful as part of their agreement, and if he does not, she will get rid of him without too much emotion. On the same note, if she likes the lifestyle she has with this man, she may decide to look the other way and stay with him. She is a mother who gets along better when her children are older and she can relate to them as teens or young adults.
To live as Athena means to mostly live an intellectual life, and to act purposely in the world. She needs to develop the emotional aspects of herself, and may be unable to do this unless she loses or has a very ill child, or if her husband demands a divorce. Athena does tend to push others away and intimidate them, because her practicality and rationality can become boring to those who spend much time with her. She can be unsympathetic to the moral and spiritual issues that other people are facing, so can become very lonely and distant from those around her.
The goddess Athena was never a child, she was born an adult. So she needs to learn to find that “inner child” and look at life from a different perspective. She must learn to laugh, play, and cry, so she can understand what it feels like to know more ranges of emotion. It can be helpful to an Athena woman to find a woman mentor whom she respects so she can learn from her. She must find out about matriarchal values, as she never knew her mother enough to get close to her and have talks about such matters. Once she can try to understand her own mother better, then her intellectual curiosity will lead her to study up more on emotion and women’s issues. Once an Athena woman can look at life from a different point of view, her relationships with other people can change for the better.
The Parthenon, Temple in Greece Dedicated to Athena
Monaghan, Patricia 1999 The Goddess Path Llewellyn Publications, NY The Goddess Revealed Athena Strength pgs. 47-55
Bolen, Jean Shinoda 1985 Goddesses in Every Woman Powerful Archetypes in Women's Lives Harper/Collins, NY Chapter 5 Athena, Goddess of Wisdom and Crafts, Strategist and Father's Daughter pgs. 47-75
© 2011 Jean Bakula