Pallas Athene
Goddess of Knowledge and Defensive Warfare

She is a fearsome queen who brings
the noise of war and, tireless, leads the host
she who loves shouts and battling fights.

Hesiod, Theogony

Click on the picture for Athene artwork

In the male dominated pantheon of Greeks gods, she was the most overtly powerful of the females, daughter of the Great Father, Zeus (Jupiter), and no one to be trifled with; yet unlike Hera (Juno) the wife of Zeus and highest ranking of female gods, Athena was well liked. Hera, a woman of great potential power, was always an uncomfortable figure and never really liked, always threatening and complaining; but Athene was said to be "man like" and just went and did what she wanted; and did it well and was loved for it.

At first her name was Pallas Athene, as she is called by Homer in The Iliad; though sometimes he calls her just Athene or just Pallas, but after about 500 BC she is referred to as Athena, after her whom her namesake city was called and of which she was patron goddess. Pallas is really an epithet for her and means the "spear shaker," and spear shaking was the dominant intimidating attitude of a warrior back then. She is always seen with her long bronze-tipped spear and strong, bronze and goat hide shield. In the ancient world she is always portrayed respectably clothed in a long and proper gown, with sensible sandals, and mostly with a helmet upon her head with the visor raised (the helmet thrown back, actually) and the serpent at her side, the giant snake which protected the acropolis at Athens. In fact, she is often shown with many snakes wriggling about her person, which she uses to ward off her enemies. Her favorite bird is the owl, and from association with her the notion of its being a wise bird. She is of sober and serious countenance, though not dour, and Homer refers to her as "gray-eyed." Aphrodite and Helen are "white-armed," and a little soft-headed and whiney, but Athene is "gray-eyed" and strong and takes decisive action, and never whines.

Perhaps no better description of her power and determination is that found in the Iliad,

Then Athene, child of Zeus whose shield is thunder,
letting fall her supple robe at the Father’s threshold
rich brocade, stitched with her own hands’ labor -
donned the battle-shirt of the lord of lightening,
buckled her breastplate and geared for wrenching war
and over her shoulders slung her shield, all tassels
flaring terror - Panic mounted high in a crown around it,
Hate and Defense across it, Assault to freeze the blood
and right in their midst the Gorgon’s monstrous head,
that rippling dragon horror, sign of storming Zeus.
Then over her brows Athene placed her golden helmet
fronted with four knobs and forked with twin horns,
engraved with the fighting men of a hundred towns.
Then into the flaming chariot Pallas set her feet
and seized her spear - weighted and heavy, the massive shaft
she wields to break the battle lines of heroes
the mighty Father’s daughter storms against.

It should be also mentioned that the bit about stitching her own robe is not without meaning for she was also the goddess of handiwork and all the things done in the home, like weaving and needlework. But yet she was a fearsome killer. (Kinda like bending six-inch nails and making Chicken Diana.)

Her (sort of) mother, Metis, was the first wife of Zeus, and her name (Metis) might mean "wisdom". When Zeus saw that Metis was pregnant, he was told that the child, a boy, if allowed to live, would be his doom, as he himself had usurped his own father. So, he did the only reasonable thing a Greek god could do and swallowed Metis to prevent the birth. It didn't work, though. Athene sprang forth from Zeus’s head, fully formed, an adult, and armed and armored, but Metis was never seen again; and the baby boy was a now a woman, but a woman with the attitude and intellect of a man, and a wise man at that, a rare thing back then - and maybe not all that common now.

Here she is being born. To see a larger version, click picture

While Ares (Mars) is the god of aggressive warfare, Athene is the goddess of defensive warfare, the protector of the hearth. But even more than that, she is a strategist, a schemer; she uses her brains first rather than her brawn, and then, when the situation is fully understood, uses her brawn. Her use of schemes and contrivances gave her the reputation of being a woman of wisdom, a thinker. On the battlefields she could be a terror to behold and in the Iliad she sweeps through the Greek ranks, bullying, enticing and intimidating the men to fight even harder. She grabs the reins of chariots and guides spears into Trojan flesh and bellows out fearsome war cries. She poses as Hector’s bother and entices him into fatal combat with Achilles. And she even gives Achilles back his spear after he misses Hector. Fair play? No, but this is a serious warrior out for the kill.

In an amusing scene from the Iliad, she taunts the weak and whiney Aphrodite who had entered the great initial battle to save her son Aeneas but was stabbed by Diomedes. Athene had given Diomedes the ability to see the immortals on the battlefield and advised him to avoid them, but she suggested that if he sees Aphrodite, to attack her (Iliad 5.129). Diomedes obeyed, and Aphrodite was the first immortal to be wounded on that bloody day. Upon being wounded, Aphrodite goes boo hooing to her brother Ares, "I’m wounded, the pain’s too much, a mortal speared me...[whaaah!!]" And Ares says, "Who has abused you now, dear child, tell me." And more whining and crying and blaming. Athene, disgusted, calls out to their father, Zeus, "...she’s pricked her limp wrist on a golden pinpoint." And Zeus says to the tearyeyed Aphrodite, whose wound is now completely healed and is just fussing and pouting and looking for attention, "Fighting is not for you, my child, the works of war. See to the works of marriage, the slow fires of longing. Athene and blazing Ares will deal with bloodshed."

And in the same battle, if you want real blood and guts, "...Athene drove the shaft and it split the archer’s nose between the eyes- it cracked his glistening teeth, the tough bronze cut off his tongue at the roots, smashed his jaw and the point came ripping out beneath his chin."She had a strong right arm, and never missed.

But the bane of Athene’s existence was Aphrodite, she really found her disgusting and took advantage of every situation to humiliate her. She is one of only three who can resist the charms and spells of Aphrodite. Hestia and Artemis are the other two. In Iliad, Book 21.446, Ares and Athene, who love to hate each other, are going at it again hammer and tongs, almost literally.

Ares, stabber of shields led off, charging Athene,
shaking his brazen spear and dressed the goddess down:
"You dog-fly, why drive the gods to battle once again
with that stormy bluster driving in your wild heart?

And then, after hurling some more insults, he goes for her.

With that he stabbed at her battle shield of storm,
it’s dark tassels flaring, packing a tremendous force-
not even Zeus’s lightening can break its front.
Bloody Ares lunged at it now with giant lance
and Athene backed away, her powerful hand hefting
a boulder off the plain, black, jagged, a ton in weight
that men in the old days planted there to mark off plowland-
Pallas hurled that boundary-stone at Ares, struck his neck,
loosed his limbs, and down he crashed and out over seven acres
sprawled the enormous god and his mane dragged in the dust,
his armor clashed around him. Athene laughed aloud,
glorying over him, wringing insults, "Colossal fool-
it never even occurred to you, not even now
when you matched your strength with mine,
just how much greater I claim to be than you!

Aphrodite now runs up and takes her brother’s hand and toddles him off the plain, a tottering wreck. Mother Hera, who is not fond of Aphrodite either (at the moment), calls out to Athene.

"Just look at them there … There she goes again,
that dog-fly, leading her man-destroying Ares clear
of the rampage, through the slaughter. After her quick!"

And Athene, glowing and bolstered by Hera’s approval, tore off.

Athene’s heart leapt high and she charged at Aphrodite,
overtook her and beat her breasts with clenched fists.
Down she sank with Ares, resistance quite dissolved.

And Athene laughed.

"Down you go!"

And she kicked the living crap out of Aphrodite and Ares both. A lot of people simply do not know how good the Iliad is. By comparison, the Odyessy, in my opinion, is not nearly so interesting; particularly if your a strong woman fan.

But Athene had more intellectual virtues as well. Once, Cecrops, the first king of Athens (which could not have yet been called Athens) had to contend with the fact that both Athene and Poseidon wanted to be the patron deity of his town (whatever it was called). So, it was decreed that Athene and Poseidon would have to come up with the most useful gift or mortals; the best gift got the patronship, quid pro quo. Poseidon gave man the horse; not bad, not bad at all, but Athene did one better, she gave man the olive. Now, that might not sound like much today, but you have to understand that the ancient world ran on olive oil the way we run on petroleum. Nearly everything which was liquid was made from or with olive oil. They did not have distilled spirits, like alcohol (wine was the hardest booze available), so olive oil was the base for perfume and medicines. They made soap out of it and it was the lamp oil, the lubricating oil, and even the Vaseline and K.Y. jelly of its day. It lit your home, took away annoying squeaks, made sex nicer, soothed your muscles, straightened hair and got what-ever-it-was named Athens. A stroke of genius on Athene’s part, really. Poseidon comes in with a great big horse and Athene pulls a little olive out of a fold in her gown, or from under her helmet; and that’s just the kind of stuff women do that embarrasses the shit out of men and makes us "sulky for ages".

But, the ancient world made women who acted like men, no matter how much men liked them, pay a price, and the price for Athene was no sex. She was a virgin, in some versions of her story she is even denied a womb. She could never marry or give birth, and those things are what made Greek women, women. Once a wife, you were out of sight forever, sequestered, incommunicado. Greek men demanded virgin wives, except the Spartans, who passed their wives around like hors ‘d oeuvres and believed in matriarchal decent. (When you pass your wives around you have to.) Both the men and the women like the wife swapping, they thought improved the gene pool, seriously.

Even seeing Athene naked was a grave offence.

If I might digress for a moment; being naked in the Mycenaean world is very interesting. Men basically hung around naked all the time, flaunting their stuff in front of each other - like they do in gyms today. But women, except in Sparta again, always had to be covered up rather thoroughly; except lovely, nubile slavegirls who could be made to go naked all day long just because they were pretty to look at and conveniently "fuckable" on demand by the master. In Sparta, things were different. Spartan women didn’t fight in battles, but young girls were trained in athletics as well as the boys and were expected to be very fit. Each year, young girls of marrying age, 12 or 13, to young women of about 20, marched stark naked down "main street" so the young men (and dirty old men) could assess their charms and attributes for marriage. They apparently enjoyed the event and sung songs they made up about the virtues of being strong and healthy as they proudly displayed their cute little bodies; and a hard body was apparently much desired. No fatties or softies here; the ancient world of Sparta left little room for those who could not keep up. And Spartans HAD to marry. If you did not marry, things got difficult; men were shunned and women over the marrying age were forced one day a year, in winter, to march in a circle in the public square naked. But that was Sparta and not the rest of Greece.

Getting back to Athene, she could not be seen naked. Once, when bathing, Tiresias was caught spying on her and was blinded by the gods for his offence. An even better story is when she was visiting the blacksmith Hephaestus to contract for some new armor, Hephaestus got so excited he grabbed her and tried to rape her - dumb move. She easily fought him off and in the process he spontaneously ejaculated on her leg. (I saw a rabbit do this once when only carried past a female, amazing.) Actually, he was fortunate to have retained his genitalia. Athene was apparently more disgusted than angry (the mere idea of him trying to overpower her must have appeared ludicrus), she wiped her leg off with a piece of wool and the semen fell to the earth, where Mother Earth accepted it and gave birth to Erichthonius. Athene adopted the boy and raised it. In that way she became a mother and completed her image as a woman without having to get laid and go through pregnancy.

She’s my favorite goddess, I admire her, but the relationship is, perforce, stricly platonic; she doesn’t like sex, so the fantasy is difficult to hang on to.

By Robert Rhys