What’s at stake in ancient representations of Athena?

In the process of rereading Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, I’ve been puzzling over the nature of the goddess Athena, one of the more intriguing conundrums of ancient Greek mythology.

The popularly repeated story about her is that she sprang fully formed from Zeus’s head, “shaking her sharp spear” and causing Mount Olympus to tremble “at the power of the goddess/with the gleaming eyes” (from Homeric Hymn to Athena, #27). The hymn continues, “Wise Zeus was delighted.” The hymn does not mention a mother.

The notion of a motherless Athena is further attested in Aeschylus’s “Eumenides,” the third play in his trilogy, the Oresteia. Explaining why she casts her tie-breaking vote to acquit Orestes for murdering his mother, Athena claims, “There is no mother who gave birth to me./With all my heart, I hold with what is male” (lines 736-7).

Reception of Athena has often accepted this self-definition, describing her as essentially male, female in name only. She is, after all, the goddess of war and strategy and the patron of heroes, two for the most part exclusively male domains in ancient mythology. She is a virgin goddess who never marries, thus preserving her from the typical female domains of home and family.

This view, however, fails to reconcile the fact of Athena being a female goddess, not a male god. Her domains are not exclusive to her. She has male counterparts: Ares, the god of reckless war, and Hermes, the trickster god. Significantly, her male counterparts represent the more chaotic versions of Athena’s skill sets. In the Iliad, for example, Athena battles Ares one-on-one and easily dispatches him with a well-timed and thrown rock to the neck. While he lies groaning in the dirt, she taunts him, calling him a fool and crowing about her superior strength. Further, she does not oversee only male domains. Athena is also the goddess of handicrafts, an exclusively female domain. She acts on this in the Odyssey when she watches over Penelope and puts schemes into her mind.

Despite Athena’s claims in “Eumenides” (not incidentally, composed in classical Athens, a city-state with tremendous restrictions on women), she does have a mother: Metis, Zeus’s first wife. According to Hesiod’s Theogony  (see lines 884-896), Earth and heaven warned Zeus to “put [Metis] away in his belly” because her children were destined to be clever and might compete with their father. Zeus swallows Metis “so that the goddess could advise him of what was good or bad.” In other words, Zeus swallows Metis (whose name means cunning) so that he can absorb her positive qualities—her good sense and good advice. But her child, Athena, manages to exit Zeus’s person via his head. (Personally, I love the version where Zeus gets an almighty headache, and Hephaestus bashes his head in to free Athena.)

Casting Athena as essentially male neglects an important element of her characterization, elaborated on in Hesiod. His Theogony recounts a prophecy that Zeus’s first child with Metis (i.e. Athena) would have “courage and sound counsel equal to her father’s” (emphasis mine). This line helps explain why Athena has, within the ancient Greek worldview, to be female: If she were male, she would compete with her father and could potentially usurp him. Because she is female, she remains, by the standards of ancient Greek society, his property. It’s in Athena’s interests to identify herself as male, and it’s easier for us to dismiss her femaleness and resolve her duality by casting her as essentially male. But in doing so, we miss a crucial element: By making Athena female, the tradition insists that her gifts exist to serve her father, not overtake him. Her characterization can then be seen as a way to account for and contain strong, intelligent women, by assigning them the role of supporters and upholders of the male order.