M o t h e r, M i s t r e s s
a n d P r o t e c t r e s s
If the chorus of old Athenian men (Euripides, The Heracleidae) addresses the Goddess "Mother, Mistress, and Protectress," one might suppose that she were named "Mother" in an unusual, or perhaps a merely poetical, sense. The Athena Meter of the Elis cult, however, bore this epithet as Goddess of motherhood in the truest sense. She brought about conception, which was not simply the self-evident and inevitable result of men uniting with women; and she entered this realm, which from the viewpoint of Hera must be looked at in a completely different light, not only for the sake of fertility. According to cultic legend, the women of Elis once prayed to the Goddess, when all the men of suitable age had left the country, that they might conceive immediately upon being reunited with their men. Because this prayer was granted, they founded the temple to "Mother Athena"; and because the men and women had particularly enjoyed their reunion, they named the place where it happened and the stream that ran in front of the place Bady, which means "sweet." The action of Athena is given here a different telos, a different meaning for the love union than this union receives in Hera's sphere of action. Here conception belongs to fulfillment: in the ideational world of mother-right, on the other hand, which was attached to the wife of Zeus, not obvious motherhood but the woman's completion through the man is sought for and found -- this is a viewpoint that may be called matriarchal. The fulfillment that may be attained only in being impregnated by the man signifies the subordination of the woman to a higher goal, namely, the securing of offspring, and for this reason it conceals within itself a typical patriarchal standpoint.
As it appears in connection with Athena, motherhood must be understood in terms of father-right. For this there is a late but nonetheless valuable testimony in the privileged city of the Goddess. In Athens the priestess of Athena visited the newly married women wearing the aegis, the sacred goatskin, which had been removed from the cultic statue. As such she appeared as the representative of the Goddess, and because -- not being a virgin herself but a married woman -- she mediated a sort of epiphany of Athena and placed the new marriage under the protection of the existing patriarchal order. This order above all else required descendants. The occasion for this ceremony was the common wedding celebration for all the couples who had married during the year. It was probably no different in Elis. The meeting of all women and men at a stream -- the stream (or river) God played a precise role in wedding rites in Greece -- probably takes the place of the annual communal wedding festival.
In her character as "Mother," Athena was above all a wedding Goddess, though not in the same sense as Hera. The evidence suggests a middle stage between the order of mother-right, as this is reflected in the cult and mythology of Hera, and the patriarchal world in Greece. Three stages of Greek cultural and religious history are evident. This conclusion is reached independently of Bachofen's schema and without reliance on broad generalizations. One can find analogies in other places, but the Greek conditions, insofar as they allow for reconstruction from the concrete Greek materials, are at least equally instructive from the general human point of view. The transitional stage between the orders of mother-right and father-right was characterized in Greece by male societies, which in the course of history more and more lost their character (well-known in ethnology) as secret societies. What remained in the end were classifications of men into "brotherhoods," the phratries. In this final, purely formal condition, the phratriai of Athens had practically no other task than assuming responsibility for the early maturational ceremonies, by now very faded in form, for young boys at the feast called Apaturia, and then for leading them step by step toward the stage of marriage. They also registered the marriageable maidens and accepted them into the phratrie as wives. As Phratria and Apaturia, Athena is the Goddess of these ancient male societies. Among the male Deities, Zeus Phratrius stands in the first position beside her [Text and Views: Temple of Zeus Phratrius and Athena Phratia]. Hephaestus was especially revered among them, being also a "marriage candidate" for Pallas Athena. We will often meet representatives of the male sex in the realm of this virginal, and in a special way also maternal, Goddess. For now, just one particularly instructive example has been selected.
There is the cultic legend from a small island not far from Athens, across from Troezen. Appearing as an apparition, Athena sent the maiden Aithra there, where she could be taken by Poseidon. Having celebrated her involuntary wedding, which had been desired by the Goddess, she founded a temple there to Athena Apaturia and gave the island a new name. Earlier the island had been called Sphairia, "the round," but since that event it was called Hiera, "the holy." This legend explains the custom of the Troezen maidens offering their girdles to Athena Apaturia before their weddings. For this purpose they went to the holy island. The Athenian maidens, too, were led by their parents to the Acropolis on the day before their weddings in order to make an offering to Athena. Athena protectively surrounds the wedding event with her presence and secures the conception of a child. In the heroic legend this had to do with an heroic child: Aithra became the mother of Theseus. What is striking in this is the importance attached to conception, which highlights the patriarchal viewpoint within the Athena-inspired union.
In the antique tradition there are explicit testimonies of a certain amount of consciousness about the transition which took place under the protection of Athena. The transition from the matriarchal mode of thought (that left fatherhood to incalculable powers) to the patriarchal order, which consecrated specific institutions to conception and thereby concretized fatherhood, was expressed in the language of the saga, that primal mythological history of Athens. During the period when the Goddess seized possession of her property on Attic soil, when she struggled for it against Poseidon and single-handedly fortified the Acropolis, there reigned the earth-born, half-serpent primal man Cecrops, the first king of Athens: this is the one "of whom it may be said that he first revealed the two elements of the father and mother" (Plutarch). This remarkable assertion was supposed to explain the epithet for Cecrops, diphues, with a different strand of the saga than the fantastic one that he had a two-fold form, which is what the word actually means. This less fantastic, but by no means obvious, explanation was further substantiated by the assumption of general promiscuity in primal times, in which the father had to remain anonymous; to counter this Cecrops would have introduced monogamy. In this pseudo-historical construction of a rationalistic era -- it originates with the historian Klearch -- there thus appears, as an element of the explanation, a tradition of the introduction of the patriarchal order. In agreement is another tradition contained in the form of a saga, according to which women, under the reign of Cecrops, lost the right to name children after their mothers, i.e., metronymically and not patronymically.
Cecrops belongs to Pallas Athena not only in saga; he is also bound to her in cult. His tomb is alleged to have been located in the sanctuary of the Goddess on the Acropolis, which was named the Erechtheum after Erechtheus, another kingly worshipper of Athena who was born from the earth and later transformed into a serpent. Both of these kings who were connected with Athena have archaic outward forms, which in the same temple were objects of religious veneration, concretely as animals -- i.e., as the "home-protecting serpent" (oikouros ophis). In Attica, however, Zeus too bore the form of serpent as Meilichios -- an epithet of the paternal God of the underworld, as well as of Dionysus in this aspect -- and as Ktesios, who is mentioned with Athena Ktesia in one and the same prayer formula. In the rich theriomorphism of the mythology of Pallas Athena, the association of the Goddess with the form of the serpent certainly belongs to the most ancient stratum. The assertion is even put forward that the serpent -- at once "palace snake" and "Palace Goddess" -- was the prehistoric predecessor of the Goddess herself. On the Acropolis of Athens it appears as the masculine complement to the Fortress Goddess, as the most archaic in the line of masculine beings whose most ancient representatives had the form of serpent, or took on the serpent form, or like Zeus removed it by degrees: the primal kings Cecrops and Erechtheus and the divine child Erichthonius. As the closest analogue, one thinks of a similar role for the serpent in the case of the Minoan "Palace Goddess," particularly if one avoids its relation to the sphere of fertilization. The possibility of a mythical wedding of serpents, in which the bride would also take the form of serpent, must naturally be considered in this connection. As one can infer from the Orphic tradition, such a mythologem exists in connection with Rhea and Zeus, mother and son, as a prelude to a second serpent wedding between Zeus and Persephone, father and daughter, wherein only the masculine portion of the incest -- and therefore archaical pair -- appeared in animal form. A prehistoric serpent cult and serpent mythology, which most likely had their early forms in Crete and their analogies in Egypt and in still more southern, snake-infested lands, project themselves into the Attic cult of Athena, not amorphously however, but in the form of archaic mythologems. Over against the mother-son mythologem, which is connected to Crete through the image of Rhea, the patriarchal tone of the Athena religion creates something definitely new; it creates nothing new, however, in relation to the father-daughter mythologem. Despite this, however, a graduated transition does become evident.
Within the cultic domain of Athena
the serpent is the complement of the maternal aspect of the Goddess and
simply refers to the fertilizing masculine sphere, to the father and to
his continuation, the son. Another tradition points in the same direction.
The same Cecrops, whose respect-commanding authority as arbiter in the
dispute between Athena and Poseidon provides evidence that he belongs to
a more ancient stratum of religion and culture in Attica than the disputing
Deities themselves; this serpentine partner of the Goddess, who in the
realm of the Athena religion also plays the role of husband and father,
was also according to Athenian tradition supposed to have introduced the
patriarchal Zeus -- and Athena -- cult. He is supposed to have first given
a name to Zeus and to have first erected a statue to Athena; perhaps more
precisely he was the first to name Zeus "Hypatos" ("the highest"). This
epithet is the first to allow the patriarchal Sky God in Zeus to step forward
fully. In nearby Marathon it was precisely in the marriage month of Gamelion
that sacrifice was made to Hypatos.
Athena, Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion (1952)
Back to the top
Copyright ©1999 Roy George