by Charlotte Dovey
The ancient Greek myths tell us that Athena had no mother but rather sprang from Zeus’s head (Freud would have something to say about this), full grown and armor-bearing. She is also Zeus’s favorite child. This is no small wonder, as Zeus would not have had to rely on a woman to produce her; she is his alone. One way to interpret the act of her creation is that she embodies pure thought and spirit. Aristotle thought that women gave physical life (body) to babies, but their psyche, thought and spirit, came from the father. Athena, then, was primarily thought and broke the pattern of established womanhood. Nevertheless, she was created by a male figure.
As we all know, she is goddess of wisdom and war. Her animal familiar, an extension of her, is the wise old owl, who is a fierce predatory bird. On first glance, it may seem odd that Athena is the goddess of both wisdom and war, as they seem antithetical. This apparent dichotomy dissolves when we consider that Athena is warlike to defend one’s home, and this includes one’s nation. Hence, while she is warlike she is also reasonable and wise; defending one’s home and community is a good reason for war, and it is wise to do so, though obviously there are many unwise wars that are not fought for this purpose, such as to invade another’s home, and these probably would not be sanctioned by Athena.
There is a connection between wisdom and reason that the Greeks understood, as brought out by Socrates, Plato, and later Aristotle, who gave us our first formal logic. While logic may not provide the entire basis of wisdom, the ancient philosophers, who were also our early scientists, established that the strength of an argument depends upon its logical soundness, rather than mere rhetoric. Athena, then, is a favorite figure amongst philosophers.
Athena is one of three virgin goddesses, along with Hestia, also called Vesta, and Artemis. These figures undermine the idea that women are associated with the body and childbirth. Women can be creatures of reason, as seen with Athena. They can also be associated with socialization and the social structures that are often associated with men, as seen with Hestia: All newborn babies had to be carried around the hearth, of which Hestia was the goddess of, to be accepted, and all meals began and ended with a prayer to her. Artemis, the third virgin goddess, was goddess of the hunt but she also embodies the heavens, earth, and the dark world, or death and night. She represents wilderness, or absence of civilization. Their virginity is a symbol of purity and power; they do not give away either to anyone but maintain them within themselves.
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