Mythic Wisdom: A Greek Author’s Perspective

Connecting the past with the present has always been a powerful experience for me, maybe because I live in a land rich in history. In this blog I am going to explore a variety of topics, which I find deeply meaningful: women’s roles, gender and sexuality issues, activism, goddesses and gods, etc. By examining myths, symbols, and archetypal figures, I feel that we gain a fresh perspective on our lives and society. Ancient history, art, and literature can become amazing sources of inspiration. By learning from the wisdom of the past, we can transform ourselves and the world we live in.

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Women, Power and Religion in Ancient Athens

Having lived in the suburbs of Athens for most of my life, it's not surprising that a feel a special connection to Athena. As Goddess of Wisdom, she resonates with the writer in me. As a warrior goddess, she inspires my activist work. She defies gender norms by remaining independent and by combining features of both genders; she's called "male and female" by the Orphic Hymn in her honor.

The most splendid festival of ancient Athens, the Panathenaia, was dedicated to her and women played an important role in it. This festival took place in the summer, but the exact date is unclear. Some ancient sources indicate that it may have taken place in June. So, now is the right time to share this essay with you. It sheds light in the powerful connection between Athena and the women of Athens!

Women, Power and Religion in Ancient Athens

If there ever was an intimate connection between state and religion, we can see it quite clearly in ancient Athens. The very name of the city is attributed to a goddess—Athena, its protectress and guardian. There are different versions of how this came to be as she competed against Poseidon, the angry god of the sea and earthquakes. A fascinating story about this fight comes surprisingly from a Christian writer, St. Augustine:

At the time of Kekrops [legendary king of Athens] an olive tree suddenly sprung up on the hill of the Akropolis and a spring gushed out near that spot. Kekrops asked the oracle for advice and received the response that the spring suggested Neptune [Poseidon], while the olive tree pointed to Minerva [Athena]. Kekrops called an assembly of all the citizens, male and female, to vote on the question; for at that time and in that place the custom was that women as well as men should take part in discussions about the affairs of state.

When the matter was put before the people, the men voted for Neptune, the women for Minerva; as it happened, the women outnumbered the men by one; thus, the victory was given to Minerva. Then Neptune was outraged and devastated the territory of Athens flooding it with sea-water (...). To appease his anger (...) the women suffered a threefold punishment: they were never to have the vote again; their children were never to take their mother's name; and no one was ever to call them "Athenian women.”[1]

This amazing myth reveals a telling connection between religion and politics. Also, it states quite bluntly that there was a time when women had significant rights: they participated in the decision-making in a democratic way, they had the legal status of Athenian citizens, while the naming of children was likely to be matrilineal. The essential truth of this legend is confirmed by archeological and anthropological evidence, showing that egalitarian societies did exist in prehistoric times while in some parts of the world they survived even until recent years.[2]

Furthermore, the matrilineal naming of children is attested among several ancient peoples, such as the Lykians of southwestern Anatolia, the Egyptians and the Etruscans. It is also evident in Lokroi Epizephyrioi, a Hellenic colony in Southern Italy, as well as in the area of Western Lokris in Greece.[3] Even in modern Greece, where, as a rule, children take their fathers’ last names, a number of these clearly originate in female names.

The tale preserved by St. Augustine also demonstrates that Athena was worshipped mainly by women—it was their vote who made her patron (or rather matron!) of the city. Yet at the same time this story shows how religion was used to justify women’s oppression: their subordination was presented as a kind of punishment inflicted through the wrath of a male deity, as plainly stated by St. Augustine. Far-fetched as this may sound, it is also reminiscent of another story used to marginalize the female gender in more recent times: the punishment of Eve, who is portrayed as angering God within both Judaism and Christianity…

Women were indeed deprived of many rights in class-divided, patriarchal Athens; yet the power of the goddess never failed. Athena remained strong and independent—unlike other goddesses, she was never defeated, raped or forced into marriage. The best-known monument of ancient Greece, a testimony to the glamour and wealth of classical Athens, is none other than her temple, the Parthenon. The word derives from Athena’s title Parthenos, “Virgin,” a term originally denoting a woman’s unmarried status rather than her physical virginity.[4] The goddess’s huge statue, made of gold and ivory, was the work of Pheidias, one of the most famous sculptors of antiquity.[5]

b2ap3_thumbnail_Parthenon_20160619-203244_1.jpg

The Parthenon on the Akropolis Hill. Athens, Greece. Photo by H. Meenee.

Many were her titles and attributes in ancient Athens: Polias, “Goddess of the City,” Promakhos, “Defender,” Boulaia, “Of the City Council,” Ergane, “Industrious” etc.[6] Splendid festivals, like the Panathenaia, were organized by the state in her honor. Women always retained a special place in her rituals as her priestesses and worshipers. They took part in formal processions, wove her peplos (mantle), carried her sacred objects and ceremonially washed her wooden statue. They also tended the fertility of the earth in festivals like the Skira and the Arrephoria, since women always maintained a mystical connection to the land and the magical energy of the goddess.[7]

Although, according to myth, they suffered the loss of many rights because of their devotion to her, they knew better than to hold that against her. Besides, oppression is usually rooted in political, social and economic conditions rather than in religious beliefs used to justify it. The wealth and power of ancient Athens was largely based on the exploitation of women and slaves—female as well as male ones.[8]

Aristophanes, the greatest comedy writer of antiquity, pointed in his own way at women as the possible solution to the problems of social injustice and war.[9] It seems that memories of a more egalitarian and peaceful world, in which the female gender played a major role, were still alive in his time. Intertwined with these memories was old, wise Athena.[10] For the women of the city she was a mighty goddess of peace and freedom, dear to their hearts, rejoicing in their celebrations, or so grandpa Aristophanes tells us. Thus, the female chorus in his Thesmophoriazousai makes a touching invocation to her:

Athena Pallas, the dance-loving goddess,

it is custom to call to our dance,

the virgin, unmarried maiden,

holding our city,

she alone having evident power,

she, the keeper of its keys.

Appear, you who properly despises tyrants.

The womenfolk are calling you;

come to us bringing Peace,

who loves festivities.[11]

 Top photo: a modern statue of Athena. Photo by H. Meenee.

NOTES

  [1] This account was given by Varro, the great first-century BCE Roman scholar; it was preserved by St. Augustine in his City of God, 18-9. Translation by Harita Meenee.

  [2] Sotiris Dimitriou, The Development of Human Beings: The Origins of Social Organization, vol. 4 (Athens: Kastanioti, 1996), 127-30. Chris Harman, A People’s History of the World (London: Bookmarks, 1999/2002), 3-31.

  [3] Panaghis Lekatsas, Matriarchy and its Clash with the Greek Patriarchy (Athens: Kastanioti, 1977/1996), 9-14. See also the epigram of the poet Nossis from Lokroi Epizephyrioi, in which she identifies herself only by the name of her mother and her maternal grandmother (Anthologia Palatina VI, 265).

  [4] Athena Parthenos: Pausanias 5. 11, 10. For examples that a woman could be called a “virgin,” even though she had sexual relationships and sometimes had borne children, see Herodotus 5. 6 and Homer’s Iliad 2 512-15.

  [5] For a description of the works of art adorning the Parthenon see Pausanias 1. 24, 5-7.

  [6] Herodotus 5. 82, Alkiphron 3. 51, Antiphon 146. 35, Pausanias 1. 24, 3.

  [7] Dimitris Karabouzis, The Ancient Attic Calendar and Festivals (Athens: Metaikhmio 2001), s.v. “Kallynteria, Plynteria,” “Skira or Skirophoria,” “Arretophoria or Arrephoria” and “Panathenaia.” For the festival of Arrephoria see also Pausanias 1. 27, 3.

  [8] Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism, translated by Eleni Asteriou (Athens: Odysseas 1974/2001), 25-9. G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests, translated By Yiannis Kritikos (Athens: Kedros 1982/1986), 139-45.

  [9] Aristophanes, Lysistrata and Ekklesiazousai.

  [10] I believe that the warlike attributes of Athena were a later addition, stemming out of her role as protectress of cities. The Virgin Mary underwent a similar transformation in Byzantine times; a famous medieval Greek Orthodox hymn called her the “Defending General” of Constantinople.

  [11] Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazousai 1136-47 in the original. Translation by Harita Meenee.

 

 

 

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Harita Meenee is a Greek independent scholar of classical studies and women’s history. Her graduate studies were in the field of archetypal and women’s psychology. She works as a writer, translator and editor while also being a human rights activist. Harita has presented cultural TV programs and has lectured at universities in Greece and the US. She is the author of five books, as well as of numerous articles and essays published in Hellenic and international anthologies and magazines.

Comments

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Sunday, 19 June 2016

    Love your speculations on women's power in early Athens. Also love the ending invocation of Athena and women as callers of peace. As an activist for peace, I cannot affirm the Warrior Athena as an emblem of my activism. I believe the image of Athena as a warrior is proof that an earlier Goddess from a peaceful society was co-oped by a warrior culture in classical Athens. Siggghhh.... She may not have been raped or married but she was drafted into the army.

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