Thursday, June 17, 2010

Athena snake-goddess, part 2

See part 1 here and links here.

The whole focus of the new Acropolis Museum is on getting the beautiful Elgin marbles, stolen from the Acropolis, back to their rightful place. This is a matter of national pride for the Hellenes. It is standing up – as they have been standing up for decency for the last two years – after long centuries of being crushed. That is one, decisive perspective. But in the light of the older frieze of Athena dispensing with the giants with snakes, there is another, very important one. One of the friezes on the Parthenon is of Athena emerging from the head of Zeus, its centerpiece, father and daughter. Zeus has a headache and asks Hephaestos, the hearth god, to cure it by splitting open his head with an axe. Hephaestos does, and out leaps a helmeted Athena with spear. This beautiful frieze was put in place perhaps by Phidias and his co-workers sometime between 437 and 428 BC (alternately, 438-432).

Athena has been de-snaked. Her great power has been removed from the earth and replaced with Zeus, now an air-god, on Olympus, celebrating the patriarchy. The political revolution to a powerful democracy has been celebrated by Pericles who inspired the commissioning of these friezes (see his Funeral Oration in Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War). His speech focuses on Athenians going their own way. Unlike Spartans who strive from earliest childhood for war, each of us can be as eccentric as he likes. We cast no "censorious looks" (Hobbes translation) upon one another, Pericles says, so long as we all come together for a common good. In contrast to a modern conception which emphasizes individuality more strongly than democracy, Pericles advocates a kind of democratic individuality (see my book of that title). Yet Athena is also now the daughter of the sky god, no longer authochthonous, created, shaped and, in major respects, destroyed by Athenian patriarchy.

In the story of Athena and Poseidon, the men exert their “strength” and deprive the women of the vote. As one can see on the Parthenon, the centaurs start a war with the Lapides by seizing (raping) their women and slaughtering the men. This was a standard Greek patriarchal or heroic practice (consider Achilles and Briseis) including of the Athenians (viz., the slaughter at Melos.and the enslavement of the women and children ).2 Athens displays the emergence of freedom for Greek men, and a realm of protection even for slaves who are beaten or abused to escape into: the Temple of Hephaestos, just below the Acropolis, where a slave could go and sit; there would be an inquiry and the slave would often be given to a better master (h/t Atthanasios Bobos). This god played an admirable role in Athens. But the imprisonment of women was most severe. This Greek heroic, militarized culture is nothing but an illustration of the connection between the abuse of women and war.1

In the myth, Athena supposedly expresses her loyalty to the father, to Zeus, against Athenian women. She is a warrior, advisor to heroes like Odysseus and Perseus. Yet she is alone, no woman except among the guardians in Plato’s Republic follows her to war (on the Parthenon, there is a frieze of Amazons - fierce, "alien" women - taking on the Greek men, so it was not so far out an idea). But the image in book 5 of women wrestling naked with men is, for Plato, adolescent humor. Plato disguises the mysterious Cretan ritual of young women as well as men vaulting the horns of the bull – see here and here. One discusses Athens or Plato or Socrates often as if Athena were not a woman (again, “of no woman born”), as if the Mysteries were not some pharmacological festival of healing - poppies grow out of some of the heads of late Minoan statues in the Herakleion Museum, snakes out of others - led by Demeter and Persephone.

But there are two more legends about Athena. Her mother was Metis, a beautiful, shape-shifting goddess whom Zeus took a fancy to and raped. But Zeus was then told by a seer that Metis’s first child would be a daughter, the second a son, stronger than Zeus himself. As Zeus killed his father, so this son would kill Zeus. Zeus promptly hunted down Metis in the form of a fly and swallowed her. But he got a terrific headache, Hephaestos smashed open his skull with an axe and out popped the warrior goddess.

Metis was associated in Syria with female wisdom. The shape-shifting also suggests this. But further, her name meant Medusa in Greek. In another legend, the beautiful Medusa was raped by Poseidon or took Poseidon for her lover. She then went into the Temple of Athena to pray. Athena felt violated and disfigured her, making her gorgon, her hair all snaky. There is a thin bronze cut of the Gorgon (very fierce) from the 7th century B.C. across from the frieze of the lions rending the dead bull – the advantage of the stronger - at the beginning of the second floor in the Acropolis Museum. In little windows on the back wall, there are a number of 5th century depictions of Medusa, one with eight snakes looping down instead of curls. Medusa is Athena’s split off, dark side. Athena has been masculinized in the story of her leaping fully formed from the head of Zeus.

Athena now comforts men like Odysseus and Perseus. She gives Perseus a shield with a mirror. He steals into the cave of the three Gorgons while they are asleep (the other two are immortal). He can see Medusa in the mirror without turning to stone. Helped by Athena, he guides his blade to cut off her head while she sleeps (a supposedly heroic act, so “admirable,” a follower of Socrates might note, are these "heroes" helped by gods), seizes it, plunks down his cap of invisibility and escapes the fury of the two remaining sisters.

He brings the head back to Athena, on whose breast, as she fights, the medallion of Medusa, her snake-power, resides. He makes two vials of poison, one from her right side to heal - to revive the dead - which he gives to Asclepius, one from her left to kill which he gives to Athena. Of course, since Athena created the snaky hair and stony look originally and guides Perseus (who seems a rather hapless hero), one might not think – coals to Newcastle - that the snake goddess needs some extra poison.

Once again, the Parthenon – parthenogenesis – a virgin birth preceding Mary’s – came out of Zeus’s forehead. The Cycladic statues which influence 20th century sculpture and painting, are profoundly often of pregnant women with vaginas. See here and here. Warrior Athena clothed, and even Demeter and Persephone clothed in the votive marbles from Elefsina (Eleusis) in the National Archaelogical Museum are relentlessly asexual. Demeter and Persephone offer wheat to the little, naked King Triptolemus, his eye held in fascination – perhaps in hypnosis – by the piercing eye of Demeter.

Athena poisons the giants who, naked Greek warrior-athletes, all have penises hanging down. Athena has no vagina or even breasts – breasts are left to naked Aphrodite, or among Athena’s later servants among the people, some feminine Nikai. Nonetheless, Nike, the winged victory, surviving from a naval hull and lodged in the Louvre, is fierce, clothed, has no femininity. But men and satyrs and centaurs have penises. The Greeks apparently did not cover themselves for battle but fought naked; it would be ungainly to fight in their clothes, give the opponent many advantages, unless as, with Athena, one had the powers of poison. If one looks at Cycladic civilization, one symbolized by the vagina, it is no wonder that its warrior overthrow was connected fiercely to erection and the penis. This is like the overthrow of the advanced Arab civilization in Cordoba and Granada in Spain from 800-1300 AD and the assertion of ham. Madrid today is full of Museos de Jamon, stores named museums of ham, in which hundred of pig’s legs hang down from the ceiling into the window, for sale. As Spanish culture affronts the Moors, so Athenian the Cycladic.

Yet even on the fifth century Acropolis, the creators could not deprive Athena of her snakiness completely. One of the buildings is the Erechthion. It is named for Erecthious, a serpent king of Athens along with another serpent king, the founder, Cecrops. According to myth, Hephaestos the lame god of the hearth married to Aphrodite, always had a connection to and yearning for Athena. When Aphrodite took off with Ares the god of war, Hephaestos, following the Zeusian pattern, tried to rape Athena. Athena fought him off. But he ejaculated on her leg and she threw the sperm disgustedly on the earth.

Ge is alive, however, and from the soil rose Erichthonious, part human, part snake. The Erectheion rears up (or since the sexual metaphors are hard to miss, becomes erect). Hepahaestos has no connection with snakes. But his sperm falls upon the earth (feminine) and breeds a snake whom Athena adopts and protects as a son. Though supposedly there was no sexual consummation and Athena remains fiercely virgin, somehow her blood got into Erectheus. For Athena is, the legend says, and one can see it before one’s eyes in the new Acropolis Museum, part snake, rising out of the earth…

There are six women or caryatids on one wall of the Erectheon. Outside, they are copies, but in the Museum, 5 remain. A sixth was stolen by Lord Elgin. They are on one side of the second floor, with a space left in the hope of return of the sixth. There is a lengthy sign. My student Arielle Finkelstein found a revealing sentence 3/4 of the way through. The caryatids had snakes on their sandals and snakes on their bracelets (they were probably long, arm winding bracelets in serpent shape, as on the second snake goddess in the Herakleion Museum in Crete). As with Athena, whether these were clothing designed as serpents or serpents, who can say?

The cariatids are cut off above their sandals; no arms remain. Yet there must be some writing of the time (or shortly thereafter) from which archaeologists or curators supply this designation. It is of course, safe, a comment on clothing, like the dreadful repetition of the word himaton. You may not see the snake in Athena’s hands but she is, curators tell us over and over again, wearing a himaton…

A reconstruction of the 40 foot (12 meter) statue of Athena apparently imagines Erectheus, the big snake, rising beside her (shorter than her, twice human size). Even in the new propaganda story of Athena, her link to the snake was clear enough to the eye.

On the third floor, there are drawings by the German archaeologist K. Scherzek from 1904. They depict Zeus and Athena together on a central frieze, Athena and Poseidon on another. Today in the evenings, one can see Zeus and Athena high up on the third floor, lit from behind, from the street. The medallion of Medusa has been reduced in Scherzek’s drawing, so that she has no snaky hair; no boar’s or snake’s fangs are visible in her mouth. But Michael Coury, my student, stretched out to look on the back of her shield. What should there be but a long, winding snake? As Vassilis told me, Germans from the 1930s had some hypothesis of this sort.

The whole course has had a theme of finding the snakes. Several students are going to write papers on this. We are also studying Platonic dialogues, though we did not read the Timaeus, the one where Plato offers a kind of propaganda about Atlantis. The real civilization being buried by the sea and fire or by an earthquake, Plato says, was male-dominated. The volcanic eruption on ancient Santorini exploded the islands - the volcano is under water, the rim is some of the remaining island fragments or those pushed up since by lava – it has been 3500 years - and sent a huge tidal wave, the biggest ever, crashing over Crete.

Plato says that an Egyptian told Critias'a grandfather how Athenians are so young, they just don’t know how the mighty Athens, led by the warrior-guardians, as “Socrates” had explained the day before, conquered, along with Atlantis, all threats to civilization. Here Plato deliberately buries the cities of the mother, the older, autochthonic civilization of the soil and snakes and non-militarism and equality. See here. Adding to the first book of the Laws which praises everything Athenian except the democracy, his message to his followers, as the later Platonist Al-Farabi notes, was to subvert democracy in Athens. See here. The excitement of teaching is precisely in suggesting surprising insights or stories, to inspire students to go beyond them, find out the facts, counter them or more likely, elaborate or even create a new intellectual tapestry

When I later explained my hypothesis to Vassilis over coffee, he talked with me about what an archaeologist can say, based on facts, and what she can not. He has formed a new and democratic society of archaeologists working on Egypt (he pointed out to me that there is some connection between Sekmet3 and what we see of Athena). But one digs into the earth and finds a surviving table: is it an altar or an accounting table? There may not be enough surface or writing left to tell. One needs to be cautious about inferences.

As I pointed out in our discussion, what the standard commentary largely consists in – not what archaeologists know – is safe and British. Every custodial sign informs you that some god or person wears a himaton or a chlamys, or that the Panathenaic procession, going to Elefsina (Eleusis) bears a peplos. One can see with one’s eyes these garments in the marble. This is empiricism run amok. In contrast, Vassilis gave me many of the links to Athena as an autochthonic snake goddess, her serpents rising out of the soil of Athens. I tried to suggest that my hypothesis is sustained by a great deal of evidence which also comes from using one’s eyes. I hope that eventually, this hypothesis will gain force in the Museum since the main frieze, Athena taking out the giants with snakes, is so vivid, unexpected. See here. But it may yet be a while.


1. See Valerie M. Hudson et al on "The Heart of the Matter: the Security of Women and the Security of States," Belfer Center, Kennedy School of Government, who have traced some interesting correlations on this subject today.

2. Jonilda Dhamo is writing a master’s thesis with me on the older, women-led culture of the island - Phylakopi - and Thucydides’s account.

3, Sekmet, whose symbol or sometimes head was the lion, was a warrior goddess for Ra. But she was also connected with Wadjet who appears as a cobra (her hieroglyph is a cobra). Wadjet was, before the dynasties, a cobra goddess, very much like Athena, who became the goddess of lower Egypt and protector of the Pharoah. She is depicted sometimes as coiling around his head.

No comments:

Post a Comment