So ancient is the goddess Athena that Her name has never been translated, though the etymology suggests it means protectress. Some histories seems to point to Her origins as a Mycenaean or Minoan household goddess Who was the essence of the family bond, symbolized by the hearth and home, accompanied by a mild serpent that protected the family’s food supply from rodents. As a domestic goddess, Athena ruled the implements of household crafts: the spindle, the loom and the pot. She was also guardian of home and goddess of the palace. Once Minoan civilization declined, Athena was blended with the Greek warrioress Pallas and became Pallas Athena.
Athena was primarily a Greek goddess; most stories make Her the favorite daughter of Zeus and Metis, born by emerging out of Zeus’ head fully grown and armed after Zeus has consumed Her mother. Other stories say She is the daughter of Pallas, a winged giant of Attica whom she kills when he attempts to rape her. She uses his skin for her sheild and his wings to fasten to her feet. Another story makes her daughter of Tritonis and Poseidon and educated by the river god Triton together with his daughter Pallas, her girlhood companion, whom she later accidently killed.
Athena was a divinity of the state, promoting prosperity by encouraging agriculture and other industry. She invented the plough, the rake, the bridle and the yoke. She was the creatrix of the olive tree, and oak trees were also sacred to Her. It is said She was the creatrix of the flute, the trumpet, goldsmithing, shipbuilding, shoemaking and most all useful items as well as elegant arts, including sculpture, architecture, weaving, spinning and cooking. Her principal role was to strengthen the state from within and to oversee the civilization of its people. She maintained law and order internally and protected the state from external enemies.
In wartime, She was protectress of harbors, fortresses and towns. As a symbol of courage and friendship, She often counseled great warriors to gentleness, usually with Her constant companion, Nike, by Her side. She is given credit for creating the chariot, numbers and navigation, all necessary tools for law enforcement, justice and war. Though frequently outfitted in armor, Athena’s warlike qualities were geared more towards protectiveness than aggression, a quality She was readily willing to leave to Ares (God of War).
Perhaps more so than anyone else in the Olympian family, Athena was the champion of heroes. She helped Bellerophon capture Pegasus and bridle him. She was protectress to Heracles, running interference on most of his labors and risking Hera’s wrath by tricking Her into nursing him when hewas an infant. Jason and the Argonauts could not have done without Her assistance. Her affection for Diomede ran deep, and She protected him well after he returned from the Trojan War with the Palladium. He founded a temple to Her in, and She followed him to Argos, Italy where he founded several colonies. Eventually She gifted him with immortality.
When Odysseus’ raft fell apart on his trip back to, Athena guided him to the island of the Phoenicians. When he arrived in Ithaca, She came to him in disguise and helped him to disguise himself. She sent Telemachus back from Sparta to assist his father and accompanied Odyessus to the banquet hall to kill every suitor there. She then later assisted in forming a truce between Odysseus and the islanders.
It doesn’t take long to see that Athena had very little hidden agenda or ulterior motives, and was, for the most part, totally ethical and was almost an entirely benevolent goddess. Essentially gentle, She was rarely spiteful but was quick to temper when anyone interfered with Her person, Her worship, or violated someone under Her protection.
She turned Arachne into a spider for outspinning Her and creating a tapestry that made fun of the gods. Unhappy with the judgment of Paris, she sided with the Greeks in the Trojan War and punished Ajax and Menelaus for impiety and sacrilege.
When Medusa desecrated one of Her temples by lying there with Her uncle, Poseidon, She turned Medusa’s hair into a mass of writhing snakes. Teresias of Thebes spied on Her while She was bathing and saw Her naked, so She struck him blind. Thinking better of it later but not able to reverse it, Athena gave him a staff that enabled him to function as though he could see, and She gifted him with the ability to understand the language of birds, which made him one of the greatest prophets in the ancient world.
With very few exceptions, it’s generally a safe bet that if someone incurred Athena’s wrath and received
punishment, that person probably more than deserved it. It’s not easy to get a picture of Athena. Despite Her great improvements to the welfare of humankind and Her many kindnesses to great heroes, and even though She shared certain attributes of other Olympian goddesses (Demeter, Hera and Hestia), She remains in our memory banks as a stern, formidable, unapproachable warrior goddess.
More than a mere Goddess of War or Wisdom or Air, however, Athena as a Guiding Goddess or archetype walks beside us, in some way touching our lives: protecting, teaching, guiding. With the help of Her myths, Her sacred totems and Her unique set of attributes, She helps steady our minds and thoughts with creative spirit, aiding us in balancing our positive and negative energies. She leads us and gives us the choice to follow or blaze our own trail, and She aids us along the way.
Athena helps us to find our own courage and use our own shield to transform our lives while we must sometimes move through healing fires of purification in doing battle with our own personal giants and demons. The owl, Athena’s sacred bird and companion, can see what others cannot, even in the thick of night. While others may be deceived, the owl sees and knows what is there, which is the true essence of wisdom. Owl is referred to as Night Eagle by several Amerindian teachers of the Medicine Wheel and traditionally sits in the East, the place of illumination.
Owl is symbolically associated with wisdom, healing, magick, prophecy and astral projection and is the medicine of witches and sorceresses. Guardian not only to the Acropolis but to Athena Herself, Owl sits upon Her shoulder and has the ability to light up Her blind side by revealing unseen truths to her, thus enabling Her to speak the whole truth, as opposed to only half truth. This aids Athena in Her unique ability to see into the darkness of our souls and lives. She helps us to extract those secrets we hide from ourselves and bring them to light so that we may heal. Athena befriends us on our dark journeys and aids us in seeing the total truth, ever
reminding us that truth always brings further enlightenment.
Snake is also associated with Athena, sometimes seen coiled on Her shield or elsewhere adorning Her person. Her connection to Snake comes from a story about Hephaestus that had to do with his attempted rape of Athena, during which his semen fell on Her leg. When She wiped it off, it fell to the ground and impregnated Gaea, the earth. From this fantastic union, the half-snake child Erichthonius was born. Athena took the child under Her protection and left him in the temporary custody of of Cecrops’ daughters, cautioning them never to open the chest in which She had concealed him. They, of course, didn’t listen, and, when they opened the box, promptly went insane, tossing themselves from the Acropolis. Baby Erichthonius crawled into Athena’s shield, perhaps implying that he accepted Her as something close to a mother, and under Her guidance and care he grew up to be King of Athens.
Snakes, or serpents, as they are often called in Greek myth, are also known for their transmutational power, which is exemplified in their ability to shed their skin. This life-death-rebirth cycle is the energy of wholeness and the ability to experience anything willingly and without resistance. It is the knowledge that those things which might be poisonous, hurtful or uncomfortable may be ingested, experienced, integrated and transmuted if one is in the proper state of mind. This nuance is further perpetuated when one looks to the myth of Athena and the Giant of Attica, mentioned earlier in this article. She uses the skin of her aggressor and transmutes it into something that will protect her. Snake energy melds two polarities into one, thereby producing divine, cohesive energy.
Athena, with Her fortitude, perseverance and willingness, can help us transmute our demons and giants of fear, insecurity and self-destructiveness into ambition, creation and resolution, to finally arrive at peace, contentment and connection. Athena aids us in realizing that through accepting all aspects of our lives, we can bring about the transmutation of fire medicine. Fire energy, on the material plane, creates procreation, passion, desire and vitality. On the emotional level, fire becomes power, charisma, intellect and leadership. Once it reaches the spiritual level, fire energy becomes understanding, connection, wholeness and wisdom. In this vein, Athena teaches us that magick is often no more than a change in consciousness and that we can become our own enchantress and transmute the energy and accept the power of the fire.
Athena has held me in my experience and not judged me for it unless it was deserved. She has helped me learn to read the signposts that guide me through the landscape of my life and does not define the world that I see along the way. Like the little markers you often find in forests, where different symbols offer different routes without any clues as to where the path might lead, Athena has made Her suggestions, encouraged me forward and left me to be who I am, to see what I would see and respond in my own way.
It has been many years since I came to know Athena and dedicated both my life and my Self to Her. To say I have always been hesitant to immerse myself in a community of other Goddess-minded women would be the understatement of the century. And still, in the midst of today’s renewed interest and growth in matrifocal spiritualities and religions, I find myself actively isolating myself from public participation in Women’s Spirituality, preferring solitary practice and working with and ministering to women, humbly, quietly, as a part of my devotion to Her.
Many popular books tell me I am the Goddess; No, I am not. Whatever happened to,”We all come from the Goddess and to Her we shall return?”; She is the source from which I seek guidance, solace and inspiration. I am of Her, but I am not Her. I don’t find Athena when I look in the mirror. I don’t find Athena in candles or incense, either. I don’t find Her in chimes or bells or drums. I don’t find Her in catalogs or hand lotion or foot cream or essential oils. I don’t find her in charms, poppets, amulets or talismans. She’s not in books, spell recipes, or channeled in my local bookstore. These are tools and symbols available to aid me in reaching Her, but I will not find Her in them.
Having walked this path for many years now, I am all too familiar with my faults and indelicacies, and I am aware that, unlike Athena, I am mortal. I look to Athena. I petition and beseech; I pray to Athena. I seek Athena, but I am not Athena. And I am glad. It’s a big job.
(Originally published in The Beltane Papers: A Journal of Women’s Mysteries, Issue #29, August 2002 )
Athena Shrines pictured are created by the author: Copyright Krishanna Spncer 2007