The Boeotian city of Alalcomenai was named after the martial aspect of the Goddess, after her epithet Alalcomene. Athenai, after the difficult-to-interpret name Athena, was the name not only of the city that was to achieve world-wide historical importance but also of an otherwise unknown place on the island of Euboia: Athenai Diades. The second name here stresses the relationship to Zeus, and in this may lie a distinction between the specific city Goddess who was the exclusive daughter of Zeus, and other city Goddesses of the same name who were bound as daughters (and not only as daughters) to a serpent God or to a winged God, before they too became daughters of Zeus. Just as it was possible for several "Pallades," "Parthenoi," and "Korai" to be Goddesses, so it seems that several "Athenai," all of them city and fortress Goddesses, ("Poliades"), were worshipped before the great Daughter of Zeus came to be recognized as the only proper one. An acceptable meaning for the word "Athena" is yielded only if one dares to reach for an old forgotten vocabulary, which in several instances has turned out to be the common property of the pre-Greek inhabitants of Greece and the Etruscans of Italy. From the sacred language of the Etruscans such words as althanulus, (holy vessel of the priest), atena, (clay beaker for use in sacrifice), and attana, (pan) have been preserved.
The signification of "a kind of vessel, a dish, beaker, or pan" will certainly appear at first glance to be less suited to a Goddess than the meaning of "Pallas." The reason that the possibility of this derivation, which was hypothesized by a great linguist, is being brought under consideration is the well-known close connection of Athena to pottery. A monument to this connection is the potters song in the popular biography of Homer. The extraordinary significance of ceramics for prehistoric and historical Athens must be recognized, even if one is not inclined to label Athena a potters' Goddess on the basis of this etymology. Pottery forms the precondition for metallurgy and thereby for bronze objects. Only in a later period was the festival of Chalkeia -- named such after the material and art of the founders and smiths -- celebrated exclusively by artisans as though it were a festival of Hephaestus. Earlier it belonged among the most important festivals of Athena. The nine-month interval, during which the peplos for the Goddess (begun during Chalkeia) was completed, bound this festival to the festival of Panathenaea [Image: The offering of the peplos]. The qualities of the Goddess as ruler of the city ("Polias") and as ruler of handicrafts ("Ergane") are bound up with one another additionally in many ways.
It would be too much of a simplification, however, to assert that the other aspect hidden behind the martial Pallas and appearing in the name "Athena" is simply the protecting spirit of potters, founders, and smiths. From where, then, would have come the feminine image of this Deity? Would it not have been simpler to present her martial aspect as masculine, rather than as simultaneously feminine and masculine, as virago? It must be the case, then, that the image was created from a depth of artistic praxis where the divine forms are experienced directly and not cogitated. The polarity "Goddess of warriors" and "Goddess of artisans" does not express the complete self-contradiction of the image, in which both the martial maiden and the protecting mother are equally patriarchally defined, i.e., as feminine potentialities which serve the father, imitate him, and look after his interests in the next generation. It does express the characteristic feminine situation in a patriarchal order when Athena gets bound up with the God of masculine artisanship as Hephaestia, as the "Athena of Hephaestus" -- like Athena Areia with Ares. Her statue occupied the second place in the temple of Hephaestus [Text and Views: Temple of Hephaestus], the tutelary God of the Cerameicus, the potters' quarter. In her own right, however, on the Acropolis, she protected and ruled over feminine handiwork, the weaving of wool, which in prehistoric times was also an epoch-making handicraft and as closely associated with the Athena religion as was bronze-casting or its predecessor, pottery-making.
At one time this religion included
and gave form to the whole of life. The possibility that one aspect of
its supreme Goddess had to do with the production of one of the most important
ancient arts of man must be admitted. An analogy to her name -- if indeed
"Athena" originally meant a vessel -- is preserved in Greek as well as
in Roman religion. Like Hestia and Vesta, whose names refer to the hearth,
Athena could also, according to her name, be associated with the hearth,
as eschara, a fire container which in its portable form was a coal
pan. The Goddess's sanctuary on the Athenian Acropolis, the Erechtheum
[Text and Views: The
Erechtheum], which -- comparable to the aedes Vestae in Rome
-- enclosed within itself so many of her mysteries, contained a fixed hearth
of this sort. Granted, neither aspect of the Goddess is fully explained
in the fire vessel, or in the concept of a fire vessel, as little as the
other aspect is explained in the shield. However, an image of motherhood,
of a golden core-concealing femininity, can be contained in the name "Athena"
if it means the vessel of the sacred fire.
Athena, Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion (1952)
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Copyright ©1999 Roy George