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.