Yet this symbolism has a solid mythological background. The symbol of the pomegranate belongs to Persephone, most likely since the pre-Greek period when the underworld Goddess was not yet associated with Demeter but with Rhea. It is not only a fertility symbol, but points also to a specific aspect of the realm ruled over by the Great Mother Goddess Rhea -- its underworldly aspect. Persephone ate some of the pomegranate, and since then she has belonged to Hades. This has been classically understood as implying the fruit made her unfruitful. But, according to the understanding of all antiquity, she became the Queen of the realm of the dead. The pomegranate, with its internal richness of myriad kernels, is a miniature copy of the underworld's richness in souls, even of its fruitfulness, if it is believed that souls of the living have come here from there or have returned here from there. Internal to this symbolism is the realm of death as the realm of souls.
The symbolic animal of Athena, the owl, was also related to the realm of the dead. According to one story, Ascalaphus, the son of Acheron and Gergyra (which is a variant of Gorgon and thereby has a relation to Athena), was to blame for Persephone's enthrallment with Hades -- he revealed that she had eaten part of the pomegranate, or he even seduced her into doing it. For punishment he was turned into a type of owl, which was called Ascalaphus. The similarity of the one aspect of Athena to Persephone is attested by the pomegranate and possibly also by the owl. Festivals such as the Procharisteria or the Skira, which could be confused with festivals of Persephone, can be merely mentioned as a further bit of evidence. In her temple near the Boeotian town of Koroneia, Athena was worshipped together with Hades. Our source, Strabo, does not reveal the guarded secret of the mythologem which clarifies this association, but he does say explicitly that it came about "for some kind of mystical reason." The Athenian in Plato's Laws names Athena frankly "our Kore and Despoena," or in other words "our Persephone."
Less certain is the duality of attributes
in Athena as a city Goddess. It is present, however, at least on the vase
painting that shows the seated cultic image of Polias: beside her is the
serpent, before her the priestess, the altar, and the steer being led to
sacrifice. In her left hand she holds the helmet, in her right a
bowl for catching the liquid sacrifice. It is a sacred vessel, without
special reference to the art of pottery but perhaps with meaning in the
Athena religion [Image: The
offerings to Athena]. It is striking how often since mythical and heroic
times bowls are named in the lists of votive offerings brought to the Goddess
in her famous cult in Lindus on Rhodes. The bowl, in contrast to the helmet,
characterizes the Goddess as recipient and thereby perhaps more her
feminine side, more the "Athena" than the "Pallas."
Athena, Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion (1952)
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Copyright ©1999 Roy George