t h e d i v i n e c h i l d o f A t h e n a
Present as well was the son, who was always called by the pseudonym Erichthonius [Image: The Birth of Erichthonius by Hermonax]. There was a secret tradition concerning him, which Aristotle exposed and systematizers of Greek mythology after him retained. According to this, Athena is explicitly assigned a son by Hephaestus with the name Apollo, and the two of them are described as protective Deities (tutela and custos) of the city of Athens. An inscription in the vicinity of the city celebrates Apollo with the epithet Hersus, which associates him (as divine child) with the Erechtheum. If the reading of "Lethe" in a passage by Plutarch is correct, then there stood in this same sanctuary an altar to the recognized mother of Apollo, who instead of openly being named Leto was hidden behind a playful pseudonym.
Shining through all this mystery is a "sun child," neither more nor less sunlike than Apollo himself on Delos. The Athenians decorated and handled their newly born children in accordance with this example. When they gave the infants a serpentine golden necklace and placed them in round baskets, as Euripides tells of Ion (the son of Apollo and Creusa, daughter of Erechtheus), the practice represented a repetition of what happened to the divine child on the Acropolis. That child was guarded by serpents, but it was also represented as having the form of a serpent or serpentine feet. The color of gold, suited to a sun child, also has a mythological meaning, which comes to light in various remarks that have come down to us. Aglaurus loves gold, and Hermes can bribe her with gold to let him in to see Herse. The serpent of the Acropolis, too, is supposed to have been especially fond of gold, and for this reason the Athenians wore their characteristic golden hair ornaments. But the golden ornamentation became sacred only after the servants of the Goddess, the Arrephoroi, put them on. It was these same Arrephoroi, who, imitating the daughters of Cecrops but less curious than they, carried the basket with the unknown contents out of the fortress into a sanctuary on the north slope of the Acropolis. Supposedly neither they nor the priestess herself to whom they turned over the basket knew what it contained or what they brought back as they returned to that other sanctuary on the Acropolis. But the rite becomes intelligible through the story which the Arrephoroi were told to keep them from opening the basket.
As one of the disguised stories tells it, Athena wanted to feed the child secretly whom she had taken from the Earth Mother, to make it immortal [Image: The Birth of Erichthonius by Euergides]. She turned the infant over to Aglaurus and her sisters in a locked basket with the strictest prohibition: they must not know and must not investigate what the basket concealed. This would be understandable if the child was Athena's, a child no less mysterious than the Underworld Goddess's child whose birth was celebrated at Eleusis. This placing of the child under lock and key would not be understandable, however, if it had actually to do only with its nourishment. The Arrephoroi had to do something similar to what the daughters of Cecrops did: before the great festival they had to remove something from the fortress which corresponded to the newly born divine child. The time of their doing this is given by Pausanias as the night before the "festival." No one would think of any other festival than the Panathenaea had the month of Skirophorion not been stated explicitly for it. This was the month of the great bull sacrifice and the "mysteries" preceding it, i.e., the festival of Skira, in which the priestess of Pallas, the priest of Poseidon Erechtheus, and the priest of Helius all participated. That a secret unmentionable object (Arreta) was carried in a sealed basket in rites held outside the fortress also at this festival cannot be doubted. During the night before the Panathenaea, however, there took place a mysterious basket-carrying (an Arrephoria) also, and probably this one was distinguished from the other by naming it with the playful variation Hersephoria.
A natural calculation sets aside any doubt about the meaning of the basket-carrying during the night preceding the Panathenaea. Athena and Hephaestus were celebrated together at the festival of Chalkeia, earlier called Athenaea. This day, the last day of the month of Pyanopsion, was celebrated like a wedding: the artisans presented grain swingles to the Goddess. It was the custom to carry these about at Attic weddings, and they would otherwise actually have been out of place here. Nine months after this wedding celebration, the Panathenaea (also earlier called the Athenaea) was celebrated. This nine month interval, about which we earlier knew only that it served the purpose of weaving a new peplos for the Goddess, now becomes intelligible [Image: The weaving of the peplos]. Before the birth of Athena as virginal daughter of her father is celebrated in the fortress, two servants leave with a locked basket. On the basis of new excavations, their path can be traced precisely: they left the Acropolis via an underground stairway which led northwest into the Aglaureum [Image: The norwest slope of the Acropolis]. The maidens, however, had to bend from this path eastward, and there they came upon the grotto sanctuary. According to Pausanias, their goal was supposed to be the sacred precinct of "Aphrodite in the Garden." Whether this name should be attributed to the grotto sanctuary remains an open question, The cavern was a sanctuary of Aphrodite and Eros and full of cultic monuments to both of these Deities, among them stone phalluses and representations of the divine child Eros. After the maidens had returned to the sanctuary of the virgin Athena, carrying another and again mysterious burden, they were removed from service and others were chosen to replace them.
On the basis of everything we have presented here, we must assume that the basket contained symbolic objects which at least on the way down, signified the divine child. It has actually been handed down that the Arreta of the basket were serpents and male members made of dough. Whether distinct objects are meant here or a single form, made of cake, that united and could be conceived of in this way or that, remains beyond our current knowledge. Perhaps on the way down it was a serpent figure; it was said explicitly that Athena had given birth to a serpent and that Erichthonius was a serpent, and the form of a serpent was also not incompatible with the name of Apollo, who could as well appear as divine serpent. On the way back up, the basket could hold differently shaped cakes, i.e., those of which it was said that they had been baked for the basket-carrying maidens, for the Arrephoroi: the anastaoi, whose name indicates a phallic shape. Perhaps the servants were given these when they were removed from service after the festival, having been initiated into future motherhood through the mysteries which they carried.
The removal of the divine child prepared things for the second phase of the festival, i.e., the rebirth of the Goddess in victorious virginity as Pandrosus, Pallas, and Nike. The human analogy is not easy to find for this rapid sequence of motherhood followed by rebirth as maiden, which is the most peculiar paradox of Athena's nature. Even if every woman and every soul has something irreducibly virginal within, which is restored after every pregnancy and period of fruitfulness, this still does not occur as an epiphany immediately following the birth of the child. Here we must observe not only the human, but also the cosmic, time-frame. In the familiar Attic calendar, the Panathenaea follows the Chalkeia by an interval of nine thirty-day months. The human period of pregnancy may be mirrored in this. But if the months all contained thirty days, the two festivals could not possibly occur during the same phase of the moon. In this calendar the agreement is only approximate. In the same month of Pyanopsion, whose last day was the day of the Chalkeia, there occurred a festival which was supposed to prepare for the wedding celebration of Athena and Hephaestus, the Apaturia. At the Apaturia the marriageable young men sang the praises of the fire God. The moment of conception, i.e., the festival that would correspond to the Christian celebration of the Annunciation, and that had a significance only on the human, not on the cosmic, level, had to follow soon after, even if it was not a new-moon festival. The character of the Panathenaea as new-moon festival and as preparation for the birth of Pallas Athena allows the conclusion that there was a correspondence between the mythological transformation of the Goddess and the transformation of the moon. But one has to consider this cosmic transformation from the standpoint which is yielded from the essence of the Goddess Pallas Athena.
With Hera the correspondence of the mythological and cosmic transformations extended to all of the three phases in which the Greeks saw the moon: she corresponded to the waxing moon as maiden, to the full moon as fulfilled wife, to the waning moon as abandoned, withdrawing woman. The phase which showed Hera's essence in its fullest development was the full moon. From the viewpoint of Athena, the most essential phase is the exact opposite, the darkest night preceding her birth. Corresponding to her essence is the blackest darkness in which only the eyes of the owl can grasp the hidden light, wherein from the conjunction of the sun and moon both luminaries once more proceed forth: first the sun, a divine child, then the new moon, the virgin. On the cosmic stage, birth follows conjunction immediately, without pregnancy. Now in the heavens the Goddess is manifested as bright and virginal, again shining after the dark period like a winged Nike or a martial Pallas and recognizable by the shield. Thus we can understand the assertion of the ancients, attributed to Aristotle himself and repeatedly stated: Pallas Athena is the moon, although she is much more than only the moon.
The humanly impossible, rapid change out of dark motherhood into bright virginity is discernible against the cosmic background. The inner tension and opposition between motherhood and a maidenhood that is dedicated to the father and signifies a prohibition against all other men is a human reality. If we have understood the peculiar birth of Pallas Athena through the epiphany of the new moon, we must not forget the bondedness of a real fathers daughter to her progenitor, to the dominant spirit of the father. The incestuous character of this bond is explicit only in archaic mythologems and stories and in collective dreams, phenomena which fall outside of that order which the Greeks called Themis. Within this order the same bond became the foundational pillar of the patriarchal family. The father's daughter among the Gods stands beside the sons of the father, delivering over to the young men the maidens so that they will become mothers, but the lordship of the paternal spirit perdures above everything else.
Athena, Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion (1952)
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Copyright ©1999 Roy George