Dr. J. Michael Stitt
phone: 702 895-3909
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Cultural History
Athena and Poseidon
Athena's Wisdom
Athena and Arachne
The Panathenia

In spite of attempts to see watery origins for the goddess based on the epithet Athena Tritogenia, "Born of Trito," ( = the sea god Triton?), the older explanation seems correct. She is a Pelasgian (although probably not specifically Minoan, as originally thought) protective deity of Athens. Her protective role is reflected in her martial conduct and appearance -- she normally appears in full armor. On her shield or cuirass is the head of Medusa. In another case of Zeus subsuming an originally independent and powerful goddess, she is said to be born of Zeus and Metis ("Wisdom"). Zeus impregnates her then consumes her; later, he gives birth to Athena through his head. (In a dominant tradition, she is born in full battle armor.) Thus Zeus matches the parthenogenesis of the earlier goddesses.

Athena is a dignified virgin, beautiful but severe in Classical sculpture, and is described as "gray-eyed,"
although the term might mean "bright-eyed" or even "owl-eyed" -- interesting since in Classical times and after she is associated with the owl.

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In one myth, Athena and Poseidon contend for the title of patron of Athens; the Athenians themselves are to decide the contest. Poseidon creates a spring on the Acropolis, but true to his essential nature he unthinkingly makes it of salt water and so it is counterproductive to the needs of the Athenians. Athena creates the olive tree, thus providing the people a valuable resource. She is named the patron of the city.

Thus the myth is both etiological, with regard to the olive tree and the spring, and functional in that it confirms Athena's "right" to be the city patron.

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Athens was a city of craftspeople, so as the patron deity Athena became associated with crafts -- particularly with the woman's craft of weaving. In earlier Greek the term sophia meant "technical [craft] knowledge;" later the word underwent a semantic shift to "knowledge" or "wisdom" in the broad sense. With the semantic shift, Athena becomes a "wise" goddess. (Is this when she is associated with the owl, or does the owl come to be considered wise because it is associated with Athena?) Athena is born from Zeus' head after he impregnates and swallows Metis, whose name often is translated as "wisdom." Actually, her mother's name means "good counsel," and probably alludes to one of the qualities of a good protector.
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Ovid preserves the tale of the mortal weaver Arachne and her challenge to Athena. Athena weaves a tapestry portraying punishments of presumptuous mortals; Arachne weaves embarrassing portraits of the more unsavory love affairs of the gods. Athena begins to beat Arachne, who tries to hang herself. Athena preserves her life but transforms her into a spider.

The tale has a literary flavor to it, and may not be particularly old. It is, however, etiological and functional, in that it reinforces the "proper" behavior of mortals toward gods.

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In Athens and Attica, the worship of Athena became a state religion -- a politically prescribed act -- and its major expression was the Panathenia held in July. Subject colonies and territories of Athens were required by treaty to participate in specific ways; typically, they had to send a set number of representatives and they had to supply a specific portion of the sacrifice (called the hekatomb, or sacrifice of 100 cattle, but in actuality far more animals were sacrificed). A central part of the festival was the procession to the Parthenon led by the wives of high-ranking Athenian citizens. The women earlier competed in weaving a peplos (a woman's outer robe); the winning article was draped onto the statue of Athena (and perhaps remained until the beginning of the next festival).
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