Goddess of Wisdom

My attendance at the local courthouse has been excused for the day, so while the trial at which I’m serving as juror will continue on Monday, I’m free until then…which means I can post something today!  What, then to post about…?  Well, to be honest, all signs have been pointing loudly and repeatedly at…Athena, Greek Goddess of Wisdom!

Athena, the Olympian Goddess of Wisdom...
Athena, the Olympian Goddess of Wisdom…

And wisdom is not actually the only province over which Athena holds sway: among her areas of governance, Athena presides over such things as courage, justice, the law and civilization, mathematics, inspiration, skill, and various arts and crafts (most notably weaving).  Some scholars hold that while Athena’s brother, Ares, is pretty much unanimously characterized as the Olympian God of War, it might be more accurate to view him as the more Yang aspect of war: that is, Ares is predominant when it comes to things like bloodshed, violence, savagery, berserker-ism, pain, injury, rage, conquest, and bloodlust.  Athena, on the other hand, is more like the Yin aspect of war, overseeing such things as military strategy and tactics, battle-planning, cool-headedness in conflict, fighting for just causes (as opposed to fighting just for love of violence), she’s often accorded some credit as being involved with the conception and forging of metal weaponry and armor (although the bulk of such work would most likely fall under the scope of another brother of hers: Hephaestus, the Smith-God), and Athena is also cited as being the creator of the chariot.

She’s a Deity-Figure rich in individual symbolism, too, and you’ve likely seen depictions of her, even if you didn’t know that’s who you were looking at.  The Goddess of Wisdom will very often be rendered wearing a plumed helmet and an aegis (= “breastplate”), she will generally be shown carrying a very long and imposing spear, she similarly bears a large round shield, and she will very regularly be accompanied in imagery by an owl; by the winged Goddess of Victory, Nike; or by both.  Many, many artists will also incorporate an image of the slain serpent-haired Gorgon, Medusa, into Athena’s shield and/or aegis, as well, as the Goddess was involved in Medusa’s tale (more on that below…).

No Nike in this sculpture of Athena, but all the other major symbols are there: the plumed helmet, the aegis, the spear, the owl, the shield with Medusa's grim visage glaring out from it...
No Nike in this sculpture of Athena, but all the other major symbols are there: the plumed helmet, the aegis, the spear, the owl, the shield with Medusa’s grim visage glaring out from it…

And Athena’s not just a terrific figure for symbol-analysis — she also features in quite a bountiful collection of myths…starting with her rather unique birth…

Athena’s father is Zeus, the undisputed monarch of the Olympian Pantheon.  Upon overthrowing his own father, Cronus, and toppling Cronus’ regime, Zeus chose as his first wife Metis, the Titan Goddess of Prudence and Cunning.  This was tricky business, as it had been prophesied by Gaia — Mother Earth herself — that if Metis gave birth to a son, this male offspring would rise up to conquer his father, even as Zeus had conquered Cronus (who had in turn defeated and cast down his own father, Uranus…)…  Zeus didn’t want to lose Metis, or her sage counsel, but having only just dealt with Cronus and assumed rulership of the Cosmos, he was also in no hurry to prolong this odd family tradition of a father suffering a terminal beat-down at the hands of his own son.  He then hit upon a plan: he proposed a game of shape-changing with Metis, each shuttling through a kaleidoscopic variety of animal forms, seeing if the other could keep pace.  When Metis transformed herself into a fly…Zeus swallowed her.  Being immortal, this wouldn’t kill, or even truly harm, Metis, but she was now imprisoned within Zeus, and he believed this would enable him to go on receiving her advice, while closing off the possibility that she might give birth to some unbeatable, upstart son.  What Zeus hadn’t planned on, though, was the possibility that…Metis was already with child when he swallowed her…

Metis was actually a fantastic sport about the whole “being swallowed alive” thing, and made her way to the inside of Zeus’ head, agreeably continuing to dispense her keen thoughts to him from there.  She was also, however, feeling the full blush of proud, impending motherhood, and she began hammering out a helmet, breastplate, spear, and shield for her blossoming child.  Given that all this hammering and pounding and crashing was going on right inside Zeus’ melon, this caused him no small amount of distress.  The rest of the Olympians came running at the sounds of Zeus’ agony, and his son, the aforementioned Smith-God, Hephaestus, took his tools and split open his own father’s skull so as to directly address the problem.  When he did so, the new Goddess, Athena, sprang fully-formed, armed and armored, from her father’s head…

Poseidon, great Olympian God of the Sea, looks on as his nephew, Hephaestus, splits open the head of Zeus, thus welcoming the already formed Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, into the world...
Poseidon, great Olympian God of the Sea, looks on as his nephew, Hephaestus, splits open the head of Zeus, thus welcoming the already formed Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, into the world…

Maybe in part because he’d in some way “given birth” to this one out of all his many children, Athena became Zeus’ very favorite.  Known far and wide as the gray-eyed, white-armed Embodiment of Wisdom, Athena became an extremely popular Deity.  She even became the Patroness of arguably the single greatest city-state the Greeks ever founded: Athens, which shared much of its name with the Goddess.  She was actually chosen by the people of Athens in a sort of competition held with her uncle, Poseidon, the great Ocean God, who also favored Athens.  Each Deity was to give the city a gift, and the giver of whichever gift the people judged most beneficial, would be adopted as the city’s primary Patron-Figure.  Poseidon struck the nearest hillside with his mighty trident, and a new spring welled up…but while the people marveled at the God’s power, the water of the spring itself was salty, like the sea, and didn’t yield much in the way of drinking or bathing facility.  Athena then granted the city the olive tree, thus ensuring that the people would always have food, oil, shade, and lumber.  The Athenians judged her gift the greater, and Athena became their official Patroness, and the olive and the olive tree have since also become additional symbols associated with the Goddess.

Further myths abound.  One involves Athena in her Weaver-Aspect…  A Greek woman named Arachne caught the attention of the Goddess with her unparalleled skill at the loom…but like many figures in Greek Mythology, Arachne committed the grave error of daring to compare herself to one of the Olympians, here claiming she was a better weaver than even Athena herself.  The Goddess, unhappy with such prideful and disrespectful words, engaged Arachne in a weaving contest.  Athena herself — adherent of the concept of fairness that she was — admitted outright that Arachne’s resulting tapestry was just as expertly done as her own…but whereas Athena’s work depicted the Olympians as noble figures, Arachne had chosen to create a piece that ridiculed Zeus and his many wives and concubines as he chased after them.  Outraged by Arachne’s grossly inappropriate choice of content, Athena destroyed her tapestry, and struck the girl with her shuttle, transforming Arachne into a spider, dooming her to now weave picture-less works forever…

Oh, Arachne -- never compare yourself to Deities, and *never* make fun of them!  They don't like it, and it won't turn out well for you (illustration by Gustav Dore, 1861)...
Oh, Arachne — never compare yourself to Deities, and *never* make fun of them! They don’t like it, and it won’t turn out well for you (illustration by Gustav Dore, 1861)…

Other myths involve Athena in her role as an Aider and Protectress of heroes, most notably those on the grandest of quests or possessed of special shrewdness.  Among the recipients of her Divine Intervention here are numbered such mythic greats as Odysseus, Heracles, Jason, and Perseus.  It was the latter who, with help from not only Athena, but also from her brother Hermes and from Zeus himself, slew the monster known as the Gorgon, Medusa.  Like Arachne, Medusa had once been a human woman who offended the Olympians, and was transformed into a monster.  She had fangs, and scales, and snakes instead of hair, and her naked gaze would turn any observer to stone.  Athena loaned Perseus her own shield, polished so brightly that it served as a mirror, and he was able to look into it to track Medusa’s position when he confronted her, instead of trying to operate blind or hazarding a direct glance at her that would have turned him into a statue.  After making use of Medusa’s severed head to complete his own quest, Perseus then gave the horrible thing to Athena, who, depending on which account you prefer, affixed it to either her breastplate or her shield, thereby greatly increasing her own already considerable power.

Those stories, plus even a few others, comprise the “what” of Athena: who she is, what she did in her mythology, what she represents to us today.  But what about the “why” — why am I talking about her, specifically, here and now…?

Several reasons:

For one, WordPress keeps statistics for us bloggers, and it’s become evident to me that the one search term that’s lately been driving people to this site has been…”Athena.”  Apparently, the Goddess is on people’s minds of late.

For another thing, as I’ve been attending these trial proceedings this past week+, every morning as I enter the courthouse, I’m confronted with a huge rendering of the Great Seal of the State of California in the courthouse lobby.  The Seal looks like this:

California very officially recognizes the essential greatness of Athena!
California very officially recognizes the essential greatness of Athena!

The Goddess herself would in fact hold sway over things like the courtroom affair that’s been eating up my days, and there she is gracing our own state’s Seal!  I’ve come to feel like Athena has been taking a personal interest in having me get all legal, and being a part of the judiciary process…

And a final thing…  Some of you may remember my post of some weeks back about an exceptionally vivid dream I had in which an owl flew down and landed on my hand…?  Well, part of the “why” of this particular post being written now, deals with a similar occurrence — two connected occurrences, actually…

I’ve also mentioned that last month, I moved to a new home.  I now have a stone patio outside the uppermost level of the house, and from that patio, there’s a ladder I can, and do, climb to the roof, so that I can look out across the western part of the city.  I generally like doing this in the evenings, because that’s probably my favorite part of the day in general, and also because the planet Venus has been glowing brightly in that segment of the sky at that time ever since I moved here, and quite frankly, I like looking at her.  So a couple of nights ago, I was just standing there at the top of the ladder, contemplating Venus, and even musing on Athena, as luck would have it…when a very large owl appeared from above and behind the trees that overlook the house here, soaring in utter silence (this even despite actively flapping its wings from not very far away from me — I heard nothing!) across my field of vision, disappearing into the twilight gloom to the north.  The sun was already down, but the light wasn’t completely gone yet from the sky, and I had a very clear view of the airborne creature, and I tell you without the slightest shred of uncertainty and with the full benefits of vision last gauged at 20/15 that it was an owl I saw, not a more common kind of bird, not a bat, not an insect flying really close to me and tricking my eyes.  It was an owl, and a really impressive one at that.  Does this mean it was Athena’s owl, sent by the Goddess of Wisdom herself…?  Hey, it’s not for me to tell you what to think…

But I can tell you this: I climbed the ladder the very next night, at roughly the same time — it was maybe a bit later than I’d ascended to the roof the night before, but no more than maybe 20 minutes later.  And guess what?

It happened again.

I can’t swear that it was the same owl, but it could have been.  Maybe it has a nest nearby, and maybe it takes off to go hunting at around the same time every evening.  Or maybe Athena really is out there, even in our modern, “rational” world, and she was sending a message to me, specifically.  Either way, what are the odds of seeing a large owl at dusk, up close and personal, even once…much less twice??  So yes, Athena has been very much on my mind, and I knew all week long that as soon as I had time in which to post, she needed to be the subject of a blog article.  I apologize for the long-windedness, but even weighing in at a beefier word-count than usual, I fear I skimped a bit in lavishing some rhetoric upon one of my most admired Deities out of myth.  I feel I’m being reassured that my experience as a juror is highly significant in whatever fashion, and so while I do miss posting as regularly here as I generally like to do now, it seems that my absence from this site is somehow serving some highly worthy cause.

So I enter the weekend wishing you all much Wisdom…and maybe an owl-sighting of your own!  Happy Friday!

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