o f P a l l a s A t h e n a
The title of Kerenyi's essay [Athena,
Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion, 1952] on Athena naturally leads us
to associate this mythologem with a Christian counterpart, the Virgin Mary.
The parallels are striking, but the differences are equally important.
Both figures are virginal mothers; both are primarily committed to the
spirit of the Father; both soften and mediate the spirit of the archaic
Father; both are concerned with mercy and justice. Athena, however, is
not a theotokos ("God-bearer") in the sense that Mary is, nor does
she show the same attitude of unambivalent receptivity to the Father. The
tonal quality surrounding Athena is more defensive, more militant, and
more supportive of heroic striving. One could speculate that the countries
of northern Europe (and of Protestantism) inherited more of the spirit
of Pallas Athena, while the countries of southern Europe (and of Catholicism)
received and cultivated more the spirit of the Christian Virgin-Mother.
The receptive maternal elements in Pallas Athena, while present, are more
subdued and hidden in the background, behind her defensive armaments, than
is the case with the Virgin Mary. With the Virgin Mary the maternal flame,
the glowing womb, is prominent; with Pallas Athena it is concealed. This
describes a difference in soul-quality between Protestantism and Catholicism.
One accent in the mythologem to which Kerenyi pays special attention is the theme of defense. Pallas Athena is a Protectress, a Defender of persons and cities. What she defends, according to Kerenyi, are the prerogatives, the interests, the spirit of the Father, "father-right" as he terms it. And what she defends against is any force that would "invade" or challenge these strongholds of the paternal spirit. This would lead us to the deceptively misleading surmise that the forces she defends against must originate with the angry Mothers who had been deposed and sealed off from the areas of legitimate consciousness by the victorious spirit of patriarchal supremacy. But as Kerenyi takes great pains to demonstrate, her relationship to the Father is ambiguous. Was she violated by him? [Image: Zeus loves Athena] Is the Gorgoneum the skin of the revengefully murdered father? Is her defensiveness focused against the archaic father and his overwhelming phallic spirit? Before trying to meditate on these questions, we need to grasp the psychological quality of Athenean defense.
We are following Jung now: taking back and in the projection represented by the mythologem of Pallas Athena and looking for her ways and her force in psychological life as a power that motivates fantasy, feelings, and behavior. In making this move, though, we do not forget that we are dealing with a Goddess, a daimon [genius] (CW9, ii, #51): her defensive, as well as her other aspects, reach us with the quality of absolute power and compelling force. When this is the case, we become worshippers of a Goddess, of the daimon [genius] which can be identified as Pallas Athena. Paying attention to her, we perform a religio [religion].
The attitude symbolized by Athena is clearly a partial reflection of the spirit of the Father (at least in his Zeus-aspect). In the reflection, however, certain aspects of the Father are screened out and the quality of this spirit is changed. To what kind of spirit will we gain access if we approach Spirit through Athena? Here Ottos insights into Athena's nature can help us. Kerenyi agrees with Otto on the "spiritual" (i.e., mental) nature of the facts surrounding Athena, but this spirit needs to be distinguished from, say, the spirit of an Apollo or from the spirit of Zeus himself. Otto demonstrates, and Kerenyi would have to agree, that the spirit of Athena is of a kind that is aimed at handling practical affairs in an heroic, intelligent, and clever way. Athena's version of spirit is embodied in her favorite heroes: men of practical affairs, winners on the battlefield and in the forum, enterprising men of business, and leaders in military enterprises. Athena supports the spirit of strategic planning for the achievement of heroic (not necessarily ideal) goals. She fosters reflection -- not the kind of reflection that leads to insight for its own sake, but reflection that aims at more certain victory. Athena's spirit is the spirit of achievement, competence, action in the world: she gets us out there to win, and gives us the heart and the wit to do so. It is hard to keep from seeing Athena in the American statue of liberty and in the American spirit of enterprise, in American expansionism, military heroics and Pentagon planning (note Kerenyi's observations on her subtle connection with Ares), and in American football (especially in the position of the quarterback, the strategist).
Athena keeps us in the "real world"; she gives us the wherewithal to confront its problems, the joy of conquering ourselves, others, problems, and the sagacity and confidence to slay its dragons. She keeps us grounded in "real projects," out of vain and idle speculations. As a religious attitude, Athena is muscular and action-oriented: building, winning, marching. We can see her moving in the religion of the "healthy-minded," to use the phrase of William James, and not in the religion of "sick souls" who pass through the terrors of guilt and breakdown into visions of transcendence. As philosopher she is pragmatic, giving "wise counsel" to those who reflect on strategies for action.
For good and ill, the spirit of Athena enters therapy, or perhaps works to convert analysis into therapy, as analyst or analysand (or both) becomes compulsively interested in "improvement," ego-building, action, heroic striving, patient effort for concrete results. Everything else becomes regression or is seen as defense against the "real issues." There is a demand to translate thought into action, to leave off wallowing in conflicts for decision, to convert insights into improved ego-defenses. Behind this also lies threat: the frightful aegis-Gorgoneum combination, persecuting with diagnostic labels those who drop out or are not up to the heroic battle. The "positive transference" may be exemplified by the analysand who connects to the Athenean attitude that informs the analyst. Or, the presence of Athena in therapy may reinforce, rather than challenge, an Athena mother-complex, which clinically looks very different from what one usually understands by "mother-complex." But Athena is a kind of mother, and by realizing that she too can appear as mother-complex we can sort out different varieties of that complex, varieties that begin to look more like opposites than relatives.
The mythologem of Pallas Athena offers us an opportunity, then, to gain insight into the defensive nature of heroic striving and into the complexities of defense.
On the one hand, Athena supplies strategic reflection to be used against the threat of the horrible Mother: the reflecting shield of Perseus, which he uses to slay Medusa, is a gift of Athena [Image: Perseus slaying the Medusa]. She also aids crucially in the rescue of Orestes from the persecution of the implacable Furies, who symbolize the "awe-ful" defense of mother-right. She whispers counsel to Achilles as he is about to be overcome by blind rage [Image: Athena appeasing Achilles' rage]. So, she defends against madness, overwhelming affect, psychotic loss of ground to the powers "below," against the "intolerable image" in the spider web at the bottom of the psyche. Here the defense is distantiation, through reflection and "cutting off." It is a defense of reflective distance and repression through intellectualization.
On the other hand. Athena defends against the dark aggressiveness of the Father. As Kerenyi makes clear, Athena's relationship to the figure of the father is highly ambivalent and colored by the theme of rapacious incest. The archaic father appears in this mythologem as forceful seducer, as rapist and murderer. Here Athena defends against loss of feminine choice and integrity, against the power of the paternal phallus to bind the daughter in eternal infantilism and fear of his harsh and absolute domination, against the attacking and undermining force of the archaic masculine. In this, her defense is "identification with the aggressor:" Athena puts on the father's aegis, wears the Gorgoneum, practically becomes the Father. Thus the force of the masculine is absorbed and converted into a kind of masculine forcefulness of the father's daughter. To defend herself from him, she becomes like him: in his pride, then, he may protect rather than attack her. Identification with the aggressor may look like a defensive failure. Has not the father won, after all? In a sense he has. Athena becomes a defender of the patriarchal order and is bound to imitation of the father's spirit, but in this his archaic elements are deflected from his daughter. These aggressive elements can now be directed elsewhere. The father, meanwhile, is seduced into trusting and protecting this daughter who is so much like himself. Her defense, aimed toward fending off the archaic elements of the father and to do this by advancing and supporting his more "spiritual" side, also includes denial: the mysterious child born to Athena [Image: Athena receiving Erichthonius] is secretly whisked off in the dead of night, so as to preserve (or restore) her pristine virginity and to secure her position as the father's "spiritual" alter-ego.
There is a dark night among the cultic celebrations of Athena, and there is a passage through affliction. All is not bright-eyed heroic striving. We come upon the poignancy and depth in the image when we look carefully into what is being defended. We must face the conundrum that the father's daughter is protecting neither her virginity per se, nor her privileged relationship with the father, which amounts to the same thing. Her closeness to him and her identification with him are themselves defenses against his archaic threats to her womanhood. But because she has used the defense of identification-with-the-aggressor, she has no means left open for full expression of her womanhood. This is the trap of the soul which has chosen the defense of heroic striving against the threat of the persecution of the archaic father. What is being protected by Pallas is expressed in the image of the small flame in the fire-pan, which according to Kerenyi, explains the name Athena. Pallas protects Athena. What she protects, therefore, is a core of womanhood as it finds itself besieged by the archaic spirit of the father. And since all men represent father to her, none can be allowed into her womb. Her womb, while not barren literally, remains inviolate psychologically: hence, she is both mother (literally) and virgin (psychologically). Her literal mothering is performed for the fatherland, while her psychological (soulful) mothering is reserved for the children never born to this world. This is one meaning of Athena's connection to Persephone and to the fertility of the realm of unborn souls. This hiatus between the literal and the psychological, between deed and meaning, generates the pathos of achieving "real" goals that do not count for the soul, sublimated and substitutionary goals, even while the womb is literally productive, the career literally successful, and heroic striving literally in high gear. Heroic striving and its results do not satisfy because they are fundamentally defensive in nature.
Heroic striving and conquering can be insighted from many different mythologems: the Promethean variety as rebellion and self-assertion; the Herculean variety as escape from and defense against the persecuting mother; the variety of Perseus who conquers for the sake of the mother, etc. The military stridency of the Athenean version is its distinguishing feature, and its defense against the archaic father is primary. It would be a mistake to see Athena only in heroic striving however, or only as the pattern of a common neurotic defense, although everything else that is said about her must be considered with this in mind. As an agent transformative of the archaic elements of the masculine spirit, her defensive posture is necessary for the safe flourishing of civilized life in the polis [city].
A function of Athena, which Kerenyi does not stress but which derives from her being a transformative mediator of the masculine spirit and protectress against the ravaging impulse of its archaic elements, is that of teacher: she teaches mankind the arts of weaving, pottery, metallurgy, shipbuilding, and yoking oxen. All of these are practical arts, crafts. Athena is a teacher, therefore, not in the sense of guru or wise woman, but of helpful guide in the arts and crafts which civilize human life and which harness and contain "the lawless powers belonging to the world of darkness" (Jung, CW9, ii, #60). With Athena and for her, we weave a peplos, whether we are writing [Image: Athena writing], cultivating, or "getting it together" in the turbulence of our lives. She keeps us patiently, craftily at it until the garment is pieced together, thread on thread, warp to woof, until it is "right."
Psychologically, then, Athena protects our civilized and civilizing selves from the consuming fires of the spirit (could mystics build a city?) and from the threats of our various primordial passions (look at what Dionysus did to Thebes). Like her craftsmen, the metallurgists, she "tempers." Athens, one of the glories of the civilized self, is, after all, her namesake.
Athena, Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion
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Copyright ©1999 Roy George