Athena: Her Impact Upon the Polis (2012)- Part II

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The religion and mythology of Greek antiquity were heavily an integral component of the lives of the ancient Greeks. The ancient Greeks as a civilization worshipped the same pantheon of deities; however, each individual city-state has a patron deity that was extensively venerated by the citizens of that polis. The manner in which the patron deity was portrayed and their role in mythology often influenced the culture of the polis. The most conscious example of this was in the ancient city-state of Athens, the citizens of which often derived rituals, values, and concepts from the mythological depictions of their patron goddess Athena. The patron goddess of Athens influenced the form of Athenian government, perspective on education, rituals of celebration, and the local function of their institutions of worship.

In the city-state of Athens much like other city-states, religion and mythology were closely intertwined. Athena was a prevalent figure throughout Greek mythology (Mikalson, 68). Athena was often depicted as the following: a cultural hero, a figure of protection, a virgin deity, and a rival of Ares, the Greek god of war. Athena is known as a cultural hero for her role in establishing the crucial institutions of Greek life (Hoffman, 277). She was responsible for life-sustaining institutions such as arts and crafts, wisdom, the structure and order of law, shipbuilding, domestic chores such as cooking, mathematics, etc. (Burkert, 140-141; Graves, 96).

Athena often acted as a protective figure that tended to guide a hero or the Greek people away from harm.  Examples of such accounts are ample, for instance, her aid to Hercules in the myth of Twelfth Labor: The Capture of Cerberus, his task of capturing the dog, Cerberus, from Tartarus, offering him guidance and moral support (Graves, 514-517). Athena was portrayed as being a deity that never engaged in any sort of amorous activity and zealously guarded her prudish nature. The account of Teiresias being blinded by Athena while watching her bathe clearly illustrated this attribute (Graves, 327). Athena has also been depicted as a rival of the god of war, Ares.  Ares tended to be viewed as the boorish representation of offensive warfare, while Athena was the representation of strategic and defensive aspects of war (Burkert, 141, 169).

It is important to realize the cultural context in which Athena was venerated in ancient Athens, the same polis which first developed the institution of Democracy. This development was rooted in the Solonian reform (594 BCE) and came to fruition during the era of Cleisthenesian leadership (508 BCE). Under Cleisthenes is where pure democracy was developed. A form of democracy in which average citizens had an actual say in making policy and were selected to the Assembly or boule, by lot for an annual term. Individual citizens who disagreed with policy had the ability to issue a “writ of unconstitutionality” to formally express any grievances (Starr, 46-47, 50-53). Both developments created a sense of socio-economical equity with regard to the political rights of the polis.

It appears as if this cultural development is rooted in the founding mythology of the city-state. The city-state of Athens has a strong sense of national identity coupled with a sense of equality among the citizens of equal status (Athenian-born male landowners). It is speculated that this value of equality among Athenian men is what engendered the establishment of the first democracy. This sense of equality among Athenian men stems from a myth in which they are identified as having a common lineage with an early Athenian king, Erectheus, who was cared for by Athena (Mikalson, 58-59; Starr, 50-52).  The myth depicting the birth of the first Athenian king begins with an account of Hephaestus attempting to sexually force himself upon Athena. She halts this attempt, but Hephaestus does end up ejaculating on her thigh.  She wipes off the discharge and lets the semen fall on the ground, thereby creating Erectheus. Fulfilling her role as a protective figure, Athena watches over him until he ascends to the throne of Attica and institutes the worship of his protective surrogate mother (Gantz, 77; Graves 96-97). This myth rationalizes direct democracy through the concept of the divine right of kings, a premise based on the idea that authority and order are derived from divine will (Leonard & McClure, 192-193). Due to Athenians being decedents of the chosen king, they are all of equal status and all participated in running the government. This clearly illustrates how humans tend to utilize myths to justify governmental authority.

True to the depictions of Athena, the Athenians held wisdom and education in high esteem. Formal education was available in the polis; however, contrary to Athens’s lack of social stratification in politics, it seems as if it was a privilege of the wealthy. Formal Athenian education was diverse and included: poetry, music, rhetoric, physical training, grammar, didactic, writing, and logic.  All of this suggests a very holistic approach to the education of young affluent males. Formal higher education was available in the form of academies founded by philosophical thinkers such as Isocrates and Plato, which was a development that transpired around the 4th century in Athens. However, male children of lesser affluence were often taught to read at home due to the skill playing a vital role in citizenship (Starr, 44, 61-63; Webster, 59-63, 67).  Athenian males of voting status pursued knowledge in order to be competent participants in the political process, illustrating the value of knowledge (Beye, 113). It is quite evident that the form of democracy practiced in ancient Athens did have an influence on the Athenian values of education and knowledge because of the high degree of civic involvement. However, the city-state’s patron goddess’s influence cannot be ignored when examining this cultural value. Athena has been depicted in Greek mythology as being the divine manifestation of wisdom (Hamilton, 29).  This is shown in the myth of The Wooden Horse, in which Athena suggests using a wooden horse as an effective means of covertly sneaking troops into Troy, which proves to be a worthwhile strategy (Graves, 692, 696). Just as their patron deity inspired the proper application of knowledge, Athenians in the classical era used wisdom to stay informed, so they could govern themselves, instead of succumbing to the consequences of detrimental policies. The value of education is more directly influenced by mythology since Athena created many of the academic disciplines that existed.  She is known to be the deity that taught Prometheus math, astronomy, medicine, architecture, and other fields of study (Graves, 39).

Athena: Her Impact Upon the Polis (2012)- Part I

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This upcoming series will feature segments of a paper I wrote while attending Bridgewater State University. My paper Athena: Her Impact Upon the Polis (2012) was composed for professor Dr. Michael Zimmerman’s course Anthropology 111-F01. Most of the papers I wrote in college might have been “well written”, but this is the only work I chose to hang on to for the past ten years. For me, accumulating sources and drafting this paper became something more than a mere school assignment; at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I was fighting for my soul. I attended this course my senior year to fulfill a university-mandated “writing intensive” requirement. However, this endeavor was far from mundane. After spending hours engaging with material that pushed me to question the interaction of religion, mythology, culture, and social institutions, but circuitously led me to look a little deeper inward to learn more about myself. Any dynamic thinker cannot help but examine their own beliefs and values when undergoing such a transcendent analysis. After all, culture is never neutral. The stories of our culture permeate into our subconscious without us even being fully cognizant of this occurrence. These commonly shared tales manifest themselves in everything from moral arguments to colloquial speech and are even referenced in popular entertainment.

This was a defining moment in my life; I was about to graduate and faced a hostile job market. This lingering confrontation with the uncertainty of my future career and life was extremely anxiety-inducing. Ancient myths convey lessons and observations that are still applicable in modern society. For example in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh’s struggles with life, legacy, and acceptance of death was not parochial concern isolated to the ancient Mesopotamians; but are concerns that are prevalent in modern societies today. Once an individual has this revelation, it is difficult to deny the logic behind Carl Jung’s theory of Collective Consciousness. I was a fan of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell’s work shortly before Jordan B. Peterson reignited interest in their intellectual contributions.

A decade has passed since I was at the crossroads of being a student and entering the workforce; I have done much self-reflection within these ten years. In retrospect, majoring in psychology was a horrible error in judgment on my part. I have also realized that the mythic hue of the proverbial “dream job”; is nothing more than a rose-tinted mirage. However, the specter of uncertainty still is omnipresent in my life; it will be a lifelong process to acquire the adequate skills to navigate these uncharted waters. Whether this context is impertinent or adds another level of depth to my analysis remains to be seen. I request all my readers to join me on this multipart series journey. I hope you all find this series to be illuminating and insightful. 

Peter Clark, Arizona

April 2022