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Review of Children of Athena

Children of Athena, by Nicole Loraux

Subtitled Athenian Ideas about Citizenship and the Division Between the Sexes, Nicole Loraux' Children of Athena examines the literary background to the ambiguous position of the Athenian female: By the time of Pericles, the Athenian woman's verifiably Athenian parentage and fidelity to her citizen husband were essential to create a new citizen, but the wife-mother herself was always less than a citizen. She may have been referred to as a resident of Attica, but she was never an Athenian.

Loraux' introduction and first chapter present the myths of the origins of mankind. No primordial Adam and Eve engaged in sexual reproduction populated the Athenian world. Instead, the gods created man and woman separately.

The birth of Erichthonius. (1844-1861). Image ID: 1624638

NYPL Digital Gallery

Man -- as in "the male" only -- sprang autochthonously from Mother Earth (Gaia). This was a natural birth from the seed of a god that also involved Athena and Mother Earth. The story of the 3-fold parentage is that the smith god Hephaistos (Hephaestus), unwilling to take Athena's no for an answer, ejaculated on her leg. That seed, wiped from the goddess' leg and thrown to the ground, soon became the human male Erichthonios.

The daughters of Kekrops, the ruler of Athens before it had become Athens raised Erichthonios. Kekrops had brought men together to live in a city, but Erichthonios, who named the city, was responsible for introducing the valued concept of (Athenian) citizenship. The second chapter examines the origin of women. Unlike men, women were not natural. Myth supported the primacy of the male in reproduction. Women were admittedly necessary, but only secondarily.

Hephaistos was involved in the creation, not only of the first Athenian male (citizen), but also of the first woman. He built her as an artifice in his smithy. Athena, again involved tangentially in the creation, taught the first woman skills. Loraux adds that Athena made woman dangerous. Zeus bestowed the first woman on man as a great, albeit beautiful, evil (Pandora). From these very separate beginnings, women and men are very different types of creatures. Men are citizens, while women are from the race of women (genos gynaikon). Just as there are no Athenian citizens who are female, so there is no race of men (genos andron).

To further explain the Athenian concept of the woman, Loraux looks at poetry. Misogynistic Semonides describes the 10 varieties of female as the offspring of: pig, fox, dog, donkey, weasel, mare, monkey, bee, earth, and water. All except the offspring of the bee are evil, while the offspring of the bee is an unattainable ideal.

The third chapter discusses the name of Athens the and the logical/linguistic problems involved in providing names for women that incorporate the name of the city without being simultaneously the name for the goddess. When the people of what became Athens were voting on the name of their city, both genders were eligible to vote. The men all voted one way and the women the other, but since there was one more woman than man, the women won the election. The men voted for Poseidon, the women for Athena, whose gift to the city of the olive tree was considered more important that Poseidon's offering of a (probably salty) spring. At the moment the women won they lost their right to be referred to as inhabitants of their city.

The last two chapters look at drama -- Aristophanes' Lysistrata and Euripides' Ion. Lysistrata, the comedy about the women's sex strike to stop the Peloponnesian War, should be familiar to those who have wondered about the role of women in Athenian society. The bawdy sex comedy is instructive. Loraux says, "absurdity instucts us, better than a long treatise could, about the condition of the female."

The final chapter on Ion balances the opening chapter. Instead of a myth of a child with two mothers (Athena and Mother Earth), Ion is the child of two fathers, Apollo, who forced himself on the mortal Kreous (Erichthonios' grand-daughter) and Xouthos, her non-citizen husband, the offspring (like Athena) of Zeus. Once the child was born, Kreousa, acting like a man, exposed (=left to die) it by putting it in the hollow of a rock -- like the seed that landed on the earth when Erichthonios was conceived. Mother Earth is again instrumental at the beginning of a child's life. In the opening chapter of Children of Athena, Athena had acted as Erichthonios' protector. In the case of Ion, Apollo plays a similar role.

Children of Athena was originally written in 1984. Many of the intriguing ideas of this book have by now become mainstream. Because of more recent scholarship Loraux revised the earlier edition with an epilogue bringing it up to 1993.


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