Myths of Greece and Rome, by Jane Harrison, , at sacred-texts.com
Next after Zeus himself in Olympian precedence comes Athena, the Grey-Eyed, the Ægis-bearer. She is, in very special fashion, the daughter of Zeus; she is a motherless child, she sprang full-grown, full-armed, from the brain of her Father. This fact is never stated either in the Iliad or the Odyssey, though the relations between Zeus and Athena are always specially close, but the miraculous birth is the subject of one of the Homeric Hymns, a hymn of such splendour and, moreover, so instructive that it must be quoted in full:
The east pediment of the Parthenon, the sculptures of which that remain are now in the British Museum, is but the Homeric Hymn to Athena translated into stone. Helios, with his four-horse chariot, is just emerging at dawn, beating up against the figure of the mountain god Olympus. Close to Olympus are seated the two Horæ, who guard the gates of heaven. In the opposite angle are seated Gaia and Thalassa, Earth and Sea, half-rising from their seats in amazement at the wonder before them, while Selene, the Moon, riding her horse, sinks below the horizon. The whole scene is conceived as an event of cosmic importance.
Magnificent though the Hymn is, it somehow leaves us cold. It has the impress of theological intent, of a desire to lift the goddess from humbler beginnings to the empyrean. If we examine the name of Athena, we shall, perhaps, be able to paint a picture soberer in colouring but nearer to the facts. The longer form of Athena's name, Athenaia, is simply a feminine adjective, she-of-Athens, the maiden of Athens. The Hymn addresses her as "Pallas, our Lady of Athens." This other name, Pallas,
simply means virgin. If the claim of Hera to maidenhood is shadowy, it is not so with Athena. She is maiden through and through, and her temple is rightly called the maiden-sanctuary, the Parthenon. But this maiden is essentially of Athens; she could not have been reared in any other city.
Plato, in the Laws, says plainly that Athenaia is but the local Korê, or maiden, the incarnation of Athens. But, naturally, after the fashion of his day he inverts cause and effect. Speaking of the armed Athena, he says: "And methinks our Korê, our mistress, who dwells among us, joying herself in the sport of dancing, was not minded to play with empty hands, but adorned her with her panoply, and thus accomplished her dance; and it is fitting that in this our youths and maidens should imitate her." It was, of course, in reality, just the other way round; it was the goddess who imitated, whose image was projected by her youths and maidens, she who was the very incarnation of their life and being, dancing as they danced, fighting as they fought, born of her Father's head when they were reborn as the children of light and reason.
The figure of Athena cannot well have been fashioned before the Homeric poems came from Ionia to Athens, there to be remodelled and recomposed. The rising democracy took the ancient figure of the local Korê and set her as rival and counterpoise to Poseidon, the old god of the aristocracy, whose fortunes we shall follow later. In altering and, so to speak, theorizing her, they robbed her of much of her reality and beauty; they made her a sexless thing, they forgot that
The figure of Athena is charged, overcharged, with intended significance, yet, somehow, she never quite convinces us; she remains to the end manufactured, as a person unreal. We come nearest to understanding her if we steadily remember that she is, in fact, the Tychè, the Fortune of the city, and the real object of the worship of the citizens was not a goddess, but the city herself "immortal mistress of a band of lovers":
As Professor Gilbert Murray has fitly said: "Athena is an ideal and a mystery: the ideal of wisdom, of incessant labour, of almost terrifying purity, seen through the light of some mystic and spiritual devotion like, but transcending, the love of man for woman."
Some little scraps of home-grown moss still, happily, cling about the figure of Athena. She has her ancient snake crouching beneath her shield. This snake was the primeval earth-born guardian of the city, and probably the goddess herself was at first imaged as a snake. Herodotus tells us that, when the Persians besieged the citadel, the guardian snake left the honey-cake, its monthly sacrificial food, untouched, and when the priestess told this the Athenians the more readily forsook their city, inasmuch as it seemed that the goddess had really abandoned the citadel.
Then, too, the primitive Athenian Korê or maiden had her olive-tree:
Pausanias again tells us that the goddess, as token of her power, produced the olive-tree at the time of her contest with Poseidon, and, he adds, "there is a story that when the Persians set fire to the city of the Athenians the tree was burnt to the ground, and that after it had been burnt down, it sprang up, and in one day grew up as much as two cubits." Long before Swinburne wrote his Erectheus, Sophocles made his chorus in the Œdipus at Colonus chant the glory of Athena's olive:
And, last, Athena had her owl, that little owl whom, if to-day you climb the Acropolis by moonlight, you may still hear hooting in the ruined Parthenon. The goddess herself bore the title Glaukopis, Owl-Eyed, and on her coins, current through the whole of civilized Greece, was stamped the image of her owl. When Athena rose to be the goddess of Light and Reason, the little old owl
stopped hunting mice in the Parthenon, and mounted with Athena to be her Bird of Wisdom.