T h e m a s c u l i n e - m i n d e d m a i d e n
It has been maintained that this is the result of a relatively late development, with the "Parthenos" seen as entering the picture as the Greeks moved through a refinement of taste toward classicism: "Parthenos" replaced "Meter" without being able wholly to suppress it. Such a development presupposes that virginity would have enjoyed greater respect than motherhood in the high period of Greek history, particularly in Athens. But this is by no means the case. According to our sources, Athena is first addressed as "Mother" by Euripides, but this should not lead us to the false conclusion that she was not worshipped in this aspect earlier. The signs of the worship of the Mistress of the Acropolis in Athens as a maternal Goddess who was closer to women appear in her unarmed representations, above all in the work of Endoios -- granting that the identification of the seated statue in the Acropolis Museum is correct. His statue creates a matronly effect, even though her bosom is bedecked with the aegis and the Gorgoneum -- the frightening goatskin and the grotesque face. The image of the armed, masculine-minded maiden is, however, also old, older than Homer for whom it is a given premise. The arms, the virginity, and the masculine character are expressed mythologically as direct descent from the father -- these three elements together present a unified, unmistakable, distinct totality.
The worship of a divine Virgin does not suggest a later style on Greek soil than worship of a divine Mother. To the enduring residue of ancient Cretan mythology belongs the image of the "sweet virgin" Britomartis, called by this name in the pre-Greek language of the great island. On the northern periphery of the Greek world, on the Black Sea and in Thrace, there is evidence of the cult of a Goddess no more specifically named than "Parthenos," who was comparable to the warlike maiden Athena. This Goddess who, judging from the style of her cult, was "barbaric" (i.e., remained archaic), was equated with Artemis, and with Athena on the island of Lemnos, and on the Bosphorus where she bore the name Chryse. The virginity of a Goddess is therefore certainly not the product of a relatively late and exclusively Greek development. In the case of the Thracian-Pontic Parthenos, this feature is so strongly emphasized and placed in the foreground that a reason such as has been advanced to explain the virginity of the Greek Goddesses would hardly suffice. As this explanation has it, Goddesses who have their own well-defined meaning and function will not tolerate husbands beside them. They are much too independent to be subordinate to a man. This is meant to be valid not only for Athena, but for Demeter, Artemis, Hestia, and even Aphrodite as well. Either they remain virginal, or they casually bind themselves to a God or to a hero and bear him a child if such suits their nature.
In agreement with this conception, which justly stresses the particular, unmistakable nature of the individual Goddesses, stands a noteworthy psychological conception of virginity. As this conception is formulated, the woman who is psychologically virginal is independent. She is what she is, regardless of whether she belongs to a man or not. In itself it would be possible that such virginity, which is a form of feminine existence that can represent a valid experience of the soul, would have appeared to the Greeks as the defining characteristic of a Goddess. Above all others Aphrodite would come under consideration here. She, however, was considered by the Greeks not to be a virgin. Of three other Goddesses, on the contrary, it is explicitly maintained that they never had anything to do with love: Athena, Artemis, and Hestia. Of these only Hestia does not relate to another God in such a way that virginity could be explained as independence more than as the opposite of independence. The virginity of Goddesses such as Artemis and Athena, who are more clearly defined images than is Hestia, differs according to the nature of these divine Virgins and contains much more that is positive than merely the negativity implied by independence itself. In the instance of Artemis, it conceals in itself the untamable wildness of a particular age of maidenhood along with the closest relationship to the brother; in the case of Athena, it contains the unconquerable determination of the masculinely oriented battle Goddess along with the closest relationship to the father.
It is the image of the armed and terrifying maiden that is associated with the birth from the head of Zeus. The Iliad alludes to this mythologem. Ares reproaches Zeus for giving birth to such a daughter and describes at the same time her terrifying force in battle. In his rage he gives her the epithet aphron ("crazed," "frantic"), by which he calls into question any association she might have to prudence and wise counsel. This means, though, that Athena's close connection to Metis was very familiar to the poet and to his audience. It was precisely at her epiphany from the head of the father [Image: The birth of Athena by Group E Painter] that her quality as a Goddess of war came to the fore, and this is equally true in all three classical passages which testify to this form of birth. Hesiod, who at the beginning of his list of Zeus's spouses told of the swallowing of Metis, describes the epiphany at the conclusion of the list:
Then from his head, by himself,
Pindar authenticates another vivid but unclassical and rather archaic feature of the mythologem, i.e., Hephaestus' help at the birth, which he effected through a blow to the head of Zeus with his crescent-moon ax [Image: The birth of Athena by Phrynos Painter]. Whereupon, "Athena sprang from the skull of Zeus with an earth-shattering battle-cry, so that the heavens and the mother earth shook." The poet of the 28th Homeric Hymn, using the same poetic style, seeks to give the complete account. Present in his description, too, are the epithets associated with Metis. In this epiphany, however, the other martial aspect of Athena comes more clearly to the fore: she is born from the sacred head, clad in armor of resplendent gold; all the Gods are awed by her appearance as she leaps before aegis-bearing Zeus from his immortal head, brandishing the sharp-pointed spear; great Olympus quakes under the force of the owl-eyed Goddess; the earth all about resounds deeply and the sea heaves in an uproar of dark-colored waves, the ocean's tides burst over the shores, and for a long while, until Pallas Athena finally removes the divine armor from her shoulders, Hyperion's heavenly son allows the sun's horses to stand still. In conclusion the poet of the Hymn once more alludes to the Metis aspect, when he adds: "And Zeus the God replete with wise counsel, rejoiced."
Belonging also to the martial aspect of Athena is her association with the war God, Ares, an association that cannot be simply judged as one of enmity. They are bound to one another also through rivalry, and Ares betrays his jealousy when he reproves Zeus for giving birth to this "foolish, dangerous daughter." The superiority is of course Athena's: as the two of them confront each other on the battlefield, the Goddess strikes her opponent with a boulder. These are examples of a negative association. On the shield of Achilles, however, it was shown how Ares and Athena, a similarly disposed and constituted pair, jointly led forth the departing warriors. One may speak of an ambivalent relationship: for Homer the rivalry weighs heavier, while in the cult the positive association is highlighted much more. In Attica, Ares was the beloved of a figure who stood in a particularly close association to Athena: Aglaurus. We are not completely informed about the secret love affair, but we do know of an exact parallel, the identical case with a somewhat altered name: Tritaia. A priestess of Athena like Aithra, and according to her name clearly a representative of Tritogeneia herself, Tritaia became the divine Ancestress of the Achaean town of the same name after she bore to the war God the founder of the city, Melanippos. From the association of Ares and Aglaurus, a daughter was born who was the exact double of her mother, yet with a name much like that of Melanippos, ("he with the black stallion," or "a black stallion") belonging to a level of Greek mythology in which the horse rules as the characteristic animal. The mother, Aglaurus, was connected to the serpent; the daughter, Alcippe, was according to her name like a courageous mare.
The facts of the cult which remain still to be mentioned here indicate the association of the Goddess with Ares and with militant youth: the oath of arms of the Athenian Epheboi was sworn in the sanctuary of Aglaurus, and during this ceremony the God of war was addressed by two names. On the Areopagus, the hill across from the Acropolis, an altar was dedicated to Athena Areia -- the "Athena of Ares" -- and in the temple of Ares stood a statue of Athena and one of the battle Goddess, Enyo, two related images. Through the first part of her name (derived from alke, "defensive power and courage," and from alalkein, "to defend"), Alcippe, who besides being the daughter of Aglaurus was also the wife of Metion, the ancestor of the Metionidai, was associated with a series of epithets for Athena which point to the north, in the direction of the Thracian-Pontic Parthenos: Alalcomene and Alalcomeneis were the names of the Goddess in her Boeotian town of Alalcomenai, named after her, and in her Macedonian town of Pella she was Alcidemus. The weapons of the Goddess -- helmet, lance, shield -- serve both the purposes of defense and of frightening away, as do the aegis and the Gorgoneum. In this, her frightening-away defensive aspect is allied with her maternal, protective aspect.
The discovery of a painted limestone plate in Mycenae bearing the representation of a shield-bearing Goddess and two feminine devotees testifies to the great age of this image and to its validity for Mycenean culture. Perseus as well, the hero and protégé of Athena with a pre-Greek, mythological name, belongs to the territory of this same culture. Against the opinion that this Mycenean representation was the oldest image of Athena, the objection was raised that the painted plate actually shows primarily the powerful figure-eight-formed shield, behind which the Goddess is hidden. One shield alone discloses very little of what Pallas Athena meant to the Greeks and nothing at all of the essence we confront in the mythology of the Goddess and in her cults behind a continuous recurring duality of aspects. "Only the 'bright-eyed intelligence' capable of discerning the decisive element at every juncture and of supplying the most effective instrumentality is an adequate characterization of her ideal" -- this is how Otto sought to grasp the essence of the Goddess. "Consummation, the immediate present, action here and now -- that is Athena." Or again: "She is the spirited immediacy, redeeming spiritual presence, swift action. She is the ever-near" (Otto, The Homeric Gods). These insights represent an advance in the understanding of the Goddess, beyond the concept which identified the Goddess with divine "Providence," and beyond the concept of a Mycenean palace Goddess as well, which, while being historically valid, left it without religious content.
Otto's formulations still do not,
however, give sufficient definition to the essential core of the rich manifestation
that was the historical Pallas Athena. Even in Mycenean times this manifestation
may have been more multifaceted than the painting of that time could indicate.
The quality of being "one who is ever near" and the Goddess of wise counsel
belongs to a particular aspect of Athena, one that is not identical with
the martial and virginal qualities. Hers is the sagacity of a mother who
is completely focused on the father and oriented to father-right, a motherly
sagacity that does not give itself arbitrarily to everyone. From the outside,
at least since Mycenean times, Athena was a fear-inspiring battle Goddess,
but she had her favorite heroes, her favorite warriors, and her favorite
towns, all of whom she guided with maternal care. The maternal associations
are hidden behind the image of martial maiden, but they do not contradict
it. The inner contradiction of the figure is nonetheless undeniable: it
lies in the representation of a virginal mother.
Athena, Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion (1952)
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Copyright ©1999 Roy George