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A Goddess For Men - Athena

Related Resources
Olympians Table of Contents
Symbols of Athena
Gallery of Athena
Profile of Athena

No more of this, though. Two of a kind, we are,
contrivers, both. Of all men now alive
you are the best in plots and story-telling.
My own fame is for wisdom among the gods--
deceptions, too.

(Odyssey 13.296-99, trans. Fitzgerald.) From Deborah Lyons' Gender and Immortality: Heroines in Ancient Greek Myth and Cult ISBN: 9780691011004.

When you first read the Judgment of Paris, did you really root for Aphrodite? Didn't you want him to pick Athena, the warlike goddess of wisdom who stands on her own, able to get the best of men when she wants to, the noble hero's behind-the-scenes helper? I certainly did. However, the Trojan War isn't a pick-your-own adventure story. No matter how many times I read it, Aphrodite won. What did change over time was my attitude towards the goddesses.

Athena is a wonderful, inspiring role model for schoolgirls. Even schoolboys find her attractive. As Athenian-born Nick Pontikis says:

As a child growing up in Greece, she was my favourite of the 12 gods - After all, she was the goddess of: Wisdom (I've always admired smart women); War (you should see her take on the men and clobber them!); the Arts (you gotta have art); Industry (her gifts to gods and mortals are legendary); Justice (nice to have the law on your side); and Skill (nothing like a skilled trade to see you through rough times...)Talk about a well-rounded woman!
But perhaps that's not so surprising. If it weren't for her, few heroic tales would have happy endings.

Athena Favors Heroes

Asclepius

He needed a course on ethics from Hippocrates.

He's certainly not your average hero. Still, he's included because of his reliance on Athena. If she hadn't favored him with the life restoring and destroying blood from the two veins of Medusa, he might not have become patron of healing. Like other heroes and unlike most other gods, Asclepius died. The story goes that Zeus, seeing him accept a bribe for resurrection, struck him down with a thunder bolt.

Bellerophon

Pride before a fall.

Athena's help to Bellerophon was small and only at the beginning. Unlike some of the other heroes, notably Hercules and Odysseus, I haven't written much about him. Here's his story:

When Bellerophon was young he followed the proper sacrificial course to obtain the object of his desire. After spending a night at the altar of Athena he awoke to find the dream he'd had was real, for while he slept, Athena had put in his hands the golden bridle to tame the flying horse, Pegasus [http://www.jovian.com/product/pegasus/PegasusLegend.html 02/26/99].

Of course one doesn't just capture a fabulous creature and fade into obscurity, so Bellerophon had to have some heroic adventures. Scorning the amorous wife of his host, King Proteus, landed the young hero in traditional hot water. King Proteus wanted him killed, but since Bellerophon was a guest, he couldn't. Perhaps Proteus thought his fellow monarch less honorable; at any rate, the sealed note he gave Bellerophon to give to King Iobates testified to Bellerophon's perfidy. The trouble was that Iobates, Bellerophon's new host, was under the same obligation as King Proteus [http://www.hol.gr/greece/mythology/bellerophon.html - 02/26/99].

Arriving at the usual solution to the unwanted virile young man problem, King Iobates sent him off to kill the fire-breathing lion-goat-snake monster, the Chimera. After Bellerophon succeeded in this task, he was given several others until the king gave up and gave him half his kingdom.

This would have been a good time for Bellerophon to have settled down, but instead, hubris and the magical powers of his horse overcame him. He decided to ride to Mt. Olympus to visit the gods.

This could not be tolerated, so Zeus put an end to it, alternatively with a thunderbolt or by sending a gadfly to torture Pegasus, which, in turn, meant Bellerophon was thrown. Bellerophon landed, crippled. Without anyone willing to help him, he wandered the rest of his life in obscurity [http://www.travel-italy.com/ct/challenging.html - 02/26/99].

Hercules (Herakles/Heracles)

Athena was right there whenever Hercules needed her.
  • Labor #6
    To scare off the enormous flock of birds at a lake by the town of Stymphalos, Athena gave Hercules noisemaking clappers or krotala.
  • Labor #11
    After Hercules brought the apples back from the Hesperides they had to be returned. This Athena did. She may also have (http://www-lib.haifa.ac.il/www/art/gr/olympia_temple_of_zeus.gif) helped Hercules hold up the world when Atlas went to fetch the apples in the first place [http://jcccnet.johnco.cc.ks.us/~jjackson/athe.html - 02/24/99].
  • Labor #12
    She may have escorted Hercules and Cerberus out of the Underworld.
  • Madness
    Athena is said to have protected Hercules from killing more people than he did. After the murder of his children, when he was about to kill Amphitryon, Athena knocked him out, thereby preventing the murder of his mortal father.

Odysseus and Athena

A pair of connivers.

Athena was there throughout The Odyssey when Odysseus faced peril or when she wanted his son Telemachus to take action. She also saved his life in Sophocles' Ajax. After the dead Achilles' armor had been awarded to Odysseus, Ajax, thinking the honor should have been his, set out to slay his rival. But first he had to get through the Greeks. Athena put it into his mind that the cattle were Greeks, so in his mad rampage, Ajax slaughtered the cattle. He bound the Odysseus-ox for later destruction.

(www.perseus.tufts.edu/cl135/Students/Debra_Taylor/final2.html) Orestes

Who needs a mother, anyway?

Athena:
Mine is the right to add the final vote,
And I award it to Orestes' cause.
For me no mother bore within her womb,
And, save for wedlock evermore eschewed,
I vouch myself the champion of the man,
Not of the woman, yea, with all my soul,-
In heart, as birth, a father's child alone.
Thus will I not too heinously regard
A woman's death who did her husband slay,
The guardian of her home; and if the votes
Equal do fall, Orestes shall prevail.
Aeschylus Eumenides

Homer calls Orestes the killer of Aegisthus, but not necessarily a matricide. That's left to the tragedians.
In Aeschylus' Eumenides Orestes' father, Agamemnon, was killed on his return from the Trojan War through the connivance if not the actual hand of Clytemnestra, his wife and the mother of Orestes. Through the Delphic Oracle Apollo tells Orestes to exact revenge by killing his mother. Unfortunately, killing a blood relative is frowned on by the Furies, so they hound Orestes. Taking responsibility for the action, Apollo arranges to have Athena judge the case. In the end when the votes are evenly split, she casts the deciding ballot in favor of Orestes because -- based on her own experience -- she feels the mother's role is less important than the father's.

Perseus

Athena brooks no rivals in the area of beauty.

After Poseidon's and Medusa's tryst in the Temple of Athena,
Medusa further enraged the warrior goddess by (www.perseus.tufts.edu/classes/ALp_fn.html) comparing herself with the goddess in beauty. As punishment the goddess changed Medusa's beautiful hair into snakes making her so fearful those who looked at her were turned to (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/classes/finALp.html)stone.

Even that wasn't enough for Athena. Her opportunity for complete revenge presented itself when a king, in the typical predicament of needing a legitimate way to dispose of a virile young nuisance, sent Perseus off on a quest impossible for mere mortals.King Polydectes sent Perseus off to fetch the head of Medusa.

Athena couldn't resist this opportunity. Allied with her brother Hermes, she helped the young son of Danae and Zeus. First they acquired for him Hades' helmet of invisibility which Perseus used to trick the three Graeae. Then, aided by the nymphs' donation of a wallet and winged sandals, Perseus flew to Medusa, where, with sword hand guided by the goddess, he struck off Medusa's head while looking into a shield. To prevent anyone from inadvertently seeing it, he deposited the fearful snaky tressed object in the nymph's wallet.

With due reverence to his savior, and after wreaking his own revenge by turning the king to stone through an unguarded glance at the Medusa head, Perseus handed the head over to Athena who put it in the middle of her aegis.

Next: Athena - A Goddess for Men Part II

Athena and the women she harmed.
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