Read Part 1 here.
Note: This part of the story concerns what nearly everybody who has read the mythology knows about the Goddess of Wisdom. But what you’ve read in, say, Edith Hamilton or Robert Graves is the patriarchal version. What would the story be like if Athena told it herself? That’s what I imagined as I wrote her story. Read on to learn more about her Greek incarnation.
After our tribe was conquered by the warriors who lived across the seas, I wished to die, and I was indeed close to death when I was carried off by the bloody hero who fancied me. I longed to die every time he violated my body, every time he crushed my mind. But I was carried away alive, a living trophy for that warrior-king. I was secured in his warship as it sailed across the sea to his hard and stony land. Weak though I was, men still fought over me. Eventually I was claimed by their god-king Dyaus, whom you may know by his commoner name, Zeus. I was claimed as his prize of war, dragged up the stony mountain that came to be called Olympus, and flung into his harem until I should become strong enough to bear his weight upon me in mating. And still I longed to die.
But I survived among his other captive wives. I survived among the queens and princesses and priestesses of lands that the armies of the god-king had invaded. Some of these captive women were resigned to their shadowy lives. They sat in silence and they did as they were told. Others remembered that they were free-born women, that they were queens and priestesses. They remembered their lost lands and their vanished peoples and fought against their captors. She who fought hardest and longest was Hera, not the first wife of the upstart god-king Zeus, but his most prized possession because her state had been the greatest upon the earth (after the land of my birth), and she was most prized by the upstart god-king because her temples and sanctuaries and sacred precincts were the oldest and most renowned in those northern lands. Hera, once the divine, independent queen, became my second mother.
Yes, I was adopted by that great queen who was forever, proudly one-unto-herself, but now captive and dwindled to housewifery. I learned much from her. I learned to watch and wait and work with the cycles of time. I learned when to complain and when to be forceful, when to be meek and when to be cunning. I learned when to listen openly and when to listen from the closet, I learned how to curve my words into labyrinths of meaning. And I was healed by Hera. My body was healed by her herbs, my mind healed by the example she set before me. Day by day, I came back to life and was reborn in the harem, and that was my second birth.
And I recovered my beauty, too, and thus I came to Zeus’ special notice. He called me to him more and more often, and soon I took pride in his calling me. I used the lessons I had learned from my adoptive mother Hera to flatter and manipulate him who was never my father. And now I began to learn the arts of another kind of war. I who had lived in a flowery land of mother-right learned the ways of father-right. I learned them well! My reputation soon spread beyond the harem, and poets began to sing my praises and invent new stories about me. Surely you’ve heard those inventions. Myths. Falsehoods, every one of them.
Yes, I learned to be so cunning and full of guile that Zeus brought me to his side and called me daughter. I learned to whisper in his ear and used my learning from my childhood to heal his headaches. I learned to give him my thoughts and let him think they were his own. I learned to interpret his dreams and fantasies, and soon he was joking with his toadies and generals that I had been born from his head. Not true! Not even possible.
And though I now weep to confess it, I came to love my position as favored daughter of the boastful god-king. I came to be proud of the favors and flattery I received. I forgot my true mothers. I forgot Metis the Wise and pretended she had never existed except in a naïve myth. I forgot the love of Hera, my adoptive mother, and, yes, I began to fancy myself her rival, her equal. O, how foolish I became, I who was now the true source of wisdom of that grasping god-king.
Oh, how I weep to remember it! I sat in judgment of other women and condemned them. I was jealous of their grace, for I had lost my own, jealous of their beauty, for my own had been claimed by the heroes of bloodthirsty armies. Jealous of their achievements, I punished women like Arachne in crafty ways, banishing them or transforming them into insignificance. To this day, I carry the burden of shame that I encouraged that hubristic minor king Odysseus, that I judged that matricide Orestes and acquitted him. In my pride of position, I even declared that the mother is no real parent. I decreed that true humanity resides only in the father, that true humanity can be found only in his semen, and the mother is no better than an oven in which the bread of the sire is baked.
Well, I stayed for many years as the favored daughter of the rapacious god-king, forever justifying his crimes. I learned much that I know to be useful. I learned how their minds work, those who raise god-kings above their rightful mothers and think men on earth and gods above the earth are all superior to their mothers. Yes, I learned to think as they think. And is that not truly useful?
But as the cycles turn, that cycle of my life turned also, and it happened that the god-king grew old, and with age came not wisdom but waning power. As the years passed, fewer men obeyed him, fewer feared him, fewer even believed in him. Though perhaps he still reigns in his diminished state, he no longer king of heaven and earth, no longer ruler of gods and men. Younger warriors have overthrown him, younger gods have replaced him, younger men have stolen from him what he stole from those who stole before him. Dame Fortuna’s great wheel has turned for him as it turns for us all, and the mighty Zeus is now only a foolish old man, a dim, diminished, mythic king. Though the poets still sing his epics and build their rhymes to elevate his position (and theirs), the mighty god-king has fallen. New god-kings are always rising. I left him ages ago. I saw his fading and I scorned failure. I had no pity for his weakness, for had he not taught me to hate weakness? I laughed at his impotence, for had he not taught me to worship power above all else? I decided to seek another kingdom where I would find favor and high position. I decided to go where the gods were strong and the kings were young.