The statue cornicing each page of this
essay is a reproduction of Athena Varvakion, itself a reproduction of the
original, Athena Parthenos. That original statue watched over Athens from
its vantage in the Parthenon's sacred eastern chamber.
Writers have long identified the goddess Athena with the civilized mind.
The story of Athena's birth is readily interpreted as the
irruption of Mind into the world. It bears a playful reading:
So there was Zeus, father of gods and
men, pacing beside Lake Triton in Libya. Every step he took
reverberated with the crashing headache that hammered inside his
skull. He thought his head would burst. He roared. It took
Hermes to see what had to be done. He called up Hephaestus the
smith-god, or maybe Prometheus the Titan, or maybe both of them, so great
was that headache. And between them, they swung the axe and split
Zeus's head right open.
Full-grown, and fully-armoured too,
shaking that golden spear of hers, a bellow of a war-cry on her lips, in a
great shower of golden rain.
It was aweful, that birth.
The earth itself groaned and
The ocean foamed up hugely and then
stopped, just there.
The very sun halted his course across
Time stood still, waiting.
It was as if all creation held its
Her spangled gold armour glinted and
her bright grey-green eyes flashed. And she danced. Her very
first steps on this earth were a war-dance.
And then — enough.
The goddess took off that golden
armour, put down her spear, shook her bright golden hair free from her
helmet, eased her shoulders a little.
Ah! The earth gave a great sigh
and settled back into shape. The ocean refound its rhythm and the sun
moved on his accustomed course.
'O Lor',' said Ares, 'this one's going
to be trouble.'
What an entrance.
darts to center stage in Homer's Odyssey
. Here we see Athena coaching the youth Telemakhos;
planting in his imagination the vision of a grand sea voyage, and helping him
undertake it. It's Athena as scoutmaster; very much a boy's mentor.
too, we see Athena at Odysseus' side. Athena holds council with her
friend, spending patient hours in planning the battle he must fight if he is to
recover wife and home.
here we see aged Laertes. Weak, spent, he must watch from a distance
as Odysseus his son and Telemakhos his grandson withstand Eupeithes' murderous
assault. Athena takes pity, and lends Laertes a god's strength for one
His spear drills Eupeithes' helmet through the cheek
At this shock the Ithacans flee, scattering before enraged
Odysseus. Merciful Athena steps in to staunch the bloodshed and broker
These scenes convey something of the early
Greeks' reverence for the brave and civilized mind; a reverence they
lavished on their champion, Athena. With this literary history before us
we can understand why philosophers have sometimes turned to Athena for
inspiration. Proclus counted Athena as his great muse, going so far as to
write odes in her honor.
More recently Sigmund Freud was known to keep a statuette of
Athena always on his writing desk. It was a favorite keepsake.
Freud's little muse is with us still. It is on display in his home, now a
museum. But Proclus had the misfortune to lose his muse. The rulers of Greece
removed Athena Parthenos from Athens by force during Proclus' lifetime. This
sacrilege reduced the Parthenon to its present husk. The loss to humanity grieved Proclus and the other remaining Hellenes beyond words.
Proclus' misery eased only when Athena's messenger
greeted him in a dream, with an announcement:
"The Athenian Lady wishes
to dwell with you."
Athena's image is an apt talisman for those who would attempt metaphysical philosophy.
Dedicating this essay to Athena would be an act in accord with a
good, though now lost, philosophical tradition.
But a discrepancy bothers
me. The discrepancy stands out when we consider the design of Proclus' Elements
: two hundred and eleven propositions in all, going astray early on at
. In Proposition 15 Proclus turns his back to the corporeal,
denying corporeal nature those powers of life which men knew even in his time to
be self-evident. Perhaps Proclus willed himself to "look past
nature." If he petitioned Athena for the strength and wisdom to
compose metaphysical philosophy, never did Proclus' Athena direct him to study
nature, or to incorporate nature's simple truths into his philosophy.
classicist Jane Harrison has shed light on this failing of Athena myth
psychology. As cited by Ann Shearer:
The circumstances of Athene's birth have
defined her as the very image of the father's girl. 'To the end she
remains manufactured, unreal, and never convinces us. We cannot love a
goddess who on principle forgets the earth from which she sprung.'
Thus the classicist Jane Harrison passionately sees Athene as 'a sexless
thing, neither man nor woman', and her birth from her father's head as 'a
desperate theological expedient to rid an earth-born Kore of her matriarchal
conditions', 'a dark, desperate effort to make thought the basis of being
Harrison has issued a harsh
indictment. Not of the Athena myth per se
— every myth tells a story; no myth can tell them all. What
Harrison has really denounced is a trait common among men: the desire, or
talent, that drives men to fashion worlds of their own. Historically, men
have cultivated this trait in order to wrench civilization out of nature, with
the result that civilization is now estranged from nature.
Proclus is a case in point.
Proclus fought mightily to justify the metaphysics he'd fashioned;
justifying it not within nature, but through pure reason.
His was a well-intentioned but "desperate effort to make
thought the basis of being and reality."
And that is why I cannot in good conscience
dedicate this essay to the Athena Proclus knew. The premises of this essay are naturalistic, whereas Proclus' grey-eyed
Athena was blind to nature.
This discrepancy hinders the dedication, but
needn't block it. Proclus' Athena was not the only one known to the
Greeks. There were several Athenas, actually. All were truly the
invincible goddess, but each moved in a different milieu. Listing a few of
- Athena Areia: goddess of war.
- Athena Nike: Athena victorious.
- Athena Hygieia: the healer.
- Athena Polias: goddess of the city's life.
- Athena Ergane: patroness of the arts.
Athena's attributions matured as
they tracked Hellenic civilization. Her transformations are recorded in the
progression of titles; titles which drift towards a dedication fit to the
the required dedication we will need to extend the Athena myth in two directions
simultaneously: towards the present — and also towards the ancient past,
back to the verdant pre-history which antedates Athena's classical titles. This
should be done, not to slight the Athena myth or the classicists who've
recovered it for us, but only so that we might inaugurate a new Athena: one
exempted from Harrison's
then, should we add to Athena's attributes? Any addition must lift the
Athena myth closer to what is ultimately true and good. And as mature
souls value natural truths, the qualities of
spirit most needful are those by whose aid we may end our blood feud with
qualities of spirit are within reach — our good naturalists are everywhere
our exemplars. They garland Athena with their metiers. If we will
consent to learn life from the naturalists, they will seal our diplomas with a
temperance sufficient for lasting peace with nature.
Athena granted Odysseus. His implacable countenance belied a heart that was glad
for peace with Eupeithes' vanquished clansmen.
Greek mythology accommodates this
innovation. A small shift in emphasis works the necessary change, and in just this
Athena's birth from Zeus was a birth of Mind. Yet Zeus was, we should
remember, grandson of Gaia — Mother Nature to the Hellenes. In
consequence, Mother Nature holds rights over all the Olympians; even over bold
Athena. Nature can reclaim Athena as Her own.
wish coins the dedication.
I dedicate this work to a new Athena, icon
of Mind at peace with Nature.
To Athena, Earth-born.
End of essay.
Significant Addendum — May 2009
Or... that was the end of the essay. Something's come up, and I've added a postscript chapter to address the issues raised. Please see:
Chapter 20: Proof and Speculation
Chapter 19 Endnotes
For two recent surveys, see Lee Hall, Athena: A Biography
(Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1997);
Ann Shearer, Athene: Image and Energy
(London: Viking Arkana, 1996). See also: Encyclopaedia Britannica article on Athena
Here Ann Shearer is using an alternate spelling,
"Athene." See Jane
Harrison, "Athene" Section, Prolegomena to
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991) 300-07. (First
published in 1903 by Cambridge University Press.)
This quotation is from
1-2. Shearer has compiled this version of the story from three separate
sources. For details, see Shearer, Prologue, note 1.
Homer, The Odyssey
, trans. Robert
Fitzgerald (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1963). Book Two, "A Hero's Son
Awakens." Athena adopts a common guise with Telemakhos, taking the
form of a trustworthy seafarer, comrade in arms to Odysseus. The
seafarer's name is Mentor
Homer, Book Thirteen, "One More Strange Island."
Homer, Book Twenty-four, "Warriors, Farewell."
Hall 244. A translated ode is available online
See also Ernestus Vogt, ed., "Procli Hymni,"
18 (1957): 31-33. Hymn VII [Greek].
Al. N. Oikonomides, trans.,
Neapolis, The Extant Works, or The Life of Proclus and the Commentary on the
Dedomena of Euclid
(Chicago: Ares Publishers, 1977) 69.
Shearer 3. Harrison's quotations are from Harrison, Prolegomena to Greek Religion
Harrison saw this trait as a common failing of the
Olympians. Jane Harrison, Themis: A Study of the
Social Origins of Greek Religion
edition (London: Cambridge University Press, 1927) 446. Quoting:
"The Greek Gods, in their triumphant
humanity, kicked down that ladder from earth to heaven by which they
rose. They reflected, they represented the mood of their worshippers,
which tended always to focus itself rather on what was proper to humanity
than on what was common to man and the rest of the universe."
Pronunciation: "gay-ge-NE-tays" with all
"g's" hard and all "e's" soft, as in "get."
Etymology: ge = earth; gene = born; tes = one who is. The appellation is
taken from the pre-Olympian Greek gods, known also as Titans. They were
the children of Gaia. For a spirited (and graphic) re-telling of the
relevant myths, see Hall 7-16.