A large part of my fascination with Goddesses has to do with images of female power in cultures that were (and are) overtly patriarchal. Power has a tricky balance: when it’s being abused, the struggle is to find a way to overcome the oppressor without becoming one yourself. But to paraphrase Erica Jong, the best oppressors don’t beat you – they get you to beat yourself. I have been thinking about this as I watch Democrats hand power over to Republicans ever since coming back into control of the government.
Which brings me to Athena.
Athena may have had her origins as a Cretan or North African mother Goddess. But by classical times in Greece, she was firmly established as the virgin Goddess of wisdom, household crafts, and war and peace. It’s said that Zeus, like his father and grandfather before him, feared that his child would be more powerful than himself. So when Metis was pregnant with Athena, he challenged her to a shape-shifting contest. She took the form of a fly, and Zeus swallowed her. (I don’t know why he swallowed that fly…)
But even this couldn’t stop the invincible Athena. Zeus was stricken by a headache so agonizing that he begged his son Hephaestus to split his head open with an axe. Hephaestus obeyed, and Athena sprang forth in full armor, brandishing the spear that she’d been using to poke the inside of Zeus’s head. (It seems fitting that the cerebral Athena should be born from her father’s head. As a parallel, the love Goddess Aphrodite arose from the sea after Uranus’s severed genitals were thrown in.)
Athena is a bit of a puzzle. She seems a naturally feminist figure: a female warrior who refused the compromises that marriage would have demanded of her in that era. Yet in her stories, she is shown enabling the creations of patriarchy. For instance, there’s the story of , a guy whose family reunions must have been terribly tense and sparsely populated. His father, King Agamemnon, sacrificed Orestes’s sister Iphigenia to get fair sailing winds in order to start the Trojan War. When he got home ten years later, Orestes’s mother Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon in revenge. Which led to Orestes and his remaining sister killing Clytemnestra in revenge. When the furies put him on trial, Orestes faced a hung jury. Athena cast the deciding vote in his favor, symbolically ending the system of mother-right.
The best-known Athena story concerns the founding of Athens. Athena and Poseidon were competing to see who would get to name the city. Poseidon offered the townspeople a horse – the first one ever – and a spring. Athena responded by offering them the first olive tree. In a party-line vote, all the men voted for the God, all the women for the Goddess. There was one more woman than man, so Athena gave the city her name and patronage. But the men were very sore losers, and announced that they would accept the election result only if women gave up the right to vote in all future elections. Inexplicably, the women agreed to trade real power for a hollow symbolic victory.
What do you suppose would have happened if the men had won? The phrase “elections have consequences” springs to mind. I don’t think they would have agreed to an after-the-fact rules change. And yet it rings weirdly true that the women agreed to this.
Women and Democrats (two groups with a lot of overlap, obviously) are too often quick to give up our power. Because we want to take care of everyone. Because we don’t want to be b*tches. Because we’ve been the nail, and we don’t want to be the hammer.
We don’t want to be like Dubya Bush, silencing critics and arresting people just for showing up at a town hall in an anti-Bush t-shirt. So instead we let right-wing zealots shout everyone else down, wave their guns around and call it “free speech” while they intimidate everyone else into silence. We didn’t like being bullied with signing statements and nonsensical claims that “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.” So we make a fetish out of “bipartisanship” and try to compromise with people who aren’t acting in good faith. We had a President impeached for cheating on his wife. So we failed to impeach or otherwise hold accountable the people who cheated 5000 Americans – and untold thousands of Iraqis – out of their lives.
I was going to put this story in another diary, but I think it belongs here:
Years ago, I read a letter to Dear Abby (or maybe it was her sister Ann) from a woman with a pathologically jealous husband. She had tried everything to appease him: she didn’t go anywhere without him, didn’t so much as look at a man when they did go out. While the husband was at work, she would stay at home and wait by the phone in case he called to check on her (this was before cell phones, obviously). Her question was not, as you might expect, “Will a women’s shelter take me if he hasn’t actually hit me?” Or, “Where can I find a good divorce lawyer?” Her question was: “Where can I buy a chastity belt so he won’t have to worry anymore?” The somewhat flabbergasted columnist asked readers if they knew.
I thought: Way to miss the point. It won’t be a week before he accuses her of screwing the locksmith. Or just thinking about cheating on him. There is nothing she can do that will stop him from making the accusations that have allowed him to completely control her.
Side note to Marc Ambinder, Joke Line, Mark Halperin, and the rest of the corporate media: there is nothing you can do that will halt the right’s accusations of “liberal bias.” You can “balance” facts with their blatant lies, refer to mainstream positions as “far left,” and bash the patriotism of liberals until the gnomes invade Nome. It will never be enough. They will keep crying “liberal bias,” because that gives them control of your behavior.
Note to Democrats: you can water down your proposal until it’s tea instead of soup, and the Republicans will still call it fascism and/or socialism. They are not interested in achieving anything except undermining you, in the hopes of getting themselves back into power. Come up with a health care proposal that’s good for the American people, and if Republicans don’t want to be bipartisan about it, you have the votes to treat them as irrelevant. Elections have consequences, and one of the reasons the American people elected you is that the vast majority want universal health care.
One of the characteristics of bullies is that they’ll immediately cry that they’re being bullied as soon as things don’t go their way. It is not our job to keep giving up our power until they’re satisfied. The Golden Rule of pretty much any religion says to treat others as you’d like to be treated; it doesn’t say to be a doormat and accept outrageous treatment from them.
Zeus chose to be a bully when he swallowed Athena’s mother. She doesn’t owe him any apologies for the headache she gave him while fighting her way out.
This is part of a series on Goddess spirituality and political activism that originally appeared on The Daily Kos.
14 thoughts on “How a Woman Became a Goddess: Athena by Laura Loomis”
Wow! You got it just right. When are Democrats going to stand up for equal rights for all and not negotiate on that. “Athena” didn’t vote agaist her another woman. A patriarchal construct did. The Democrats have no such excuse.
It’s really scarey seeing what’s happening these days with women’s rights. One state (I think it was Kansas?) just came up with a law allowing doctors to lie to pregnant women patients about risks to their own health or that of the fetus, if they think she might otherwise have an abortion. I can’t think of any other situation where a doctor would be permitted to commit blatant malpractice like that.
This is what we’re up against on the Republican side, and I need to know that Democrats will show some backbone and stand with us. It’s scary.
Just a small point, hate speech isn’t free speech: don’t let anyone, ever, claim that it is.
It’s like I’m free to walk down the street without asking anyone’s permission. Doesn’t give me the right to dump in the gutter.
This is a very powerful post. You never negotiate with patriarchs, you never placate them, you never bow down. Women get accused of all sorts of things for standing for something, first for refusing to be doormats and sex slaves of men, to more ordinary things. But you don’t have to care what the opposition calls you. I’m not worried about turning into a hammer, in fact, I have no problem at all being a hammer. Remember, everytime you shout patriarchs down, and demand rights, you will be called names. Hey, call them names back, throw them out of women’s spaces. Liberals will be the death of me!!!
What is infuriating is seeing the collaborators within patriarchy, and that’s what holds back the whole movement. NO you don’t negotiate with patriarchy, ever. Women do give up power all the time, het women are the great placators in chief; I’d rather be a hammer than a nail. Hey, if I see women turn into hammers all over the world, I’ll start singing another Peter Paul and Mary song!
Oh I’ve got a hammer, and I’ve got a bell, and I’ve got a song to sing, sing all over this land….
I like your political points. I agree that the Democrats (and Obama in his first 3 years) tried to appease the Republicans, who have NO interest in bipartisanship. But I have big troubles with your depiction of the woman who is the victim of domestic violence. There have been many studies that show that there is a cycle of violence which incapacitates its victims, making it much harder for them to escape their abusers. What you are doing in your article is blaming the victim. We should help battered women, not blame them.
Also from my reading of the mythology and history of ancient Greece, your depiction of Athena is flawed. The myth that Zeus gives birth to Athena (through his head) records the disempowering of the various prepatriarchal goddesses, who until then were the only deities to give birth to gods, goddesses, the earth, etc. The fact that the women give up voting in the myth about naming Athens mythologically records the fact that Greek patriarchy disenfranchised women. Actually the fact that Athena is warrior already aligns her with the patriarchs. As Audre Lorde said many years ago, “You can’t dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.” War, conflict, either/or ways of looking at things, hierarchical dualisms like patriarchal views of men and women, etc. are the problem.
I don’t think we women are too quick to give up power. We are taught to be “nice,” but we’re often playing with (against) men who never had that training, and that puts us at a disadvantage. I agree that the outcome is the same, but it’s important to be nuanced in how we characterize an oppressed group and its non-functional ways.
Thanks for your very good points, Nancy! I’ve worked a lot with domestic violence, and my point was not to blame the victim, who I think was severely emotionally beaten down by trying to comply with impossible demands. She was so isolated by the abuser that she was willing to treat the chastity belt idea as a reasonable suggestion.
But it was disturbing that when she turned to an advice columnist for help, the columnist went along with the chastity belt idea and asked for (and got) reader suggestions on where to find one. It would have been much better to give her a reality check: “This is abuse, it is going to keep getting worse, and you need to get away.”
By the way, it gave me a big smile to see your name; I still listen to an old cassette (remember those?) of your “Chants for the Queen of Heaven.”
I’m glad you’re still enjoying “Chants for the Queen of Heaven.” It’s on CD now.
Love and light,
Hi Laura —
I just wanted to add that Demeter/Persephone makes a much better model for feminists than Athena. I just finished an article about my take on this myth for _SageWoman_ magazine. I’d be interested in what you think about it (and my comments above).
Barbette Stanley Spaeth has done an interesting study of Ceres (Demeter/Tellus). Part of her work shows how the religion of Ceres was co-opted by the Roman Elite. But the early history indicates that Ceres was the goddess of the plebians, the common people…those we would probably call the working class today. Spaeth writes: “The cult became the focal point for the development of the class consciousness of the plebs during the Early and Middle Republic.”
I was just thinking about Christian churches that have closed their doors and lands to the Occupy protesters and of the Roman Catholic Bishops who are threatening nuns who work with the people. One can only imagine the difference if we had long-standing temples of Ceres/Demeter where the deity supported and protected people’s daily lives.
See: Barbette Stanley Spaeth, The Roman Goddess Ceres (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996), 81-102.
I love the story of Demeter and Persephone: the mother who was literally willing to challenge Hell to protect her daughter. Nothing passive or doormat-ish about Demeter.
Thanks, Demetria (you Demeter woman, you), for the citation. I’ll be interested in what Spaeth says about Ceres/Demeter.
This piece was written while we were in the midst of trying to reform health care a couple of years ago (thus the statement that Democrats had the votes to treat Republicans as irrelevant, which is not longer true).
The same struggles are taking place now over proposals to cut social security and medicare. They’ve even been moving the goal posts on contraception, a right we all thought was settled when I was in diapers.