Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Athena as snake goddess: women's power and the earth, part 3

I meet my friend Vasilis Chrysikopoulos, a leading Egyptian archaeologist and curator at the New Acropolis Museum last week. See here and here. He showed me the changes that the Museum has made in its third year, introducing cases on the inks or dyes used to paint the sculptures – one can still see traces of them on the stone - and of tools and marbles, with a showing of the incision each made. The curators have lengthened out the exhibit to fill the whole second hallway, full of light – big windows, a view of the Acropolis from the second and particularly the third floors. The museum is already a wonder. One walks up to it as if one were on the sea in a glass-bottomed boat, the earth with half-glimpsed stone, layers of treasures yet to be excavated, visible through the water (air) between the soil of the last excavation and the floor through which one looks. It is a spectacular modern complement to the Acropolis up on the hill, something that novelly mirrors, echoes, adds to it in Athens.

Vasilis took me to the frieze of Athena, the snake goddess, battling the giants from the top of the temple at the Acropolis in the early 6th century. She brandishes a viper and has a cloak of snakes, as I had noticed and discussed with him last year, and he had shown me the many snakes in the statues on the second floor. See here. I had insisted to him that the brief curator’s sign, indicating the garment, the statue was wearing, but not that she was calmly dispensing with the giants with snakes, was mistaken. The giants were not – as the sign suggested – down, bracing to get up. She had poisoned them. One would not think of Athena as a virgin here (it was before the Parthenon was built(the word is Greek for virgin, the structure dedicated to the virgin), before Athena was reinterpreted, patriarchally, as jumping fully-armed from the head of Zeus (“of new woman born”). This Athena is enormously powerful, entirely snaky. See here.

Now there are two, new curator's remarks. The first, by the frieze, refers to how Athena wears an aegis “with aggressive snakes.” The second, a special orange one for children who come to the museum and are creatively invited to find 12 Athenas on the second floor, each with an orange sign, and get prizes if they do, refers to an aegis with “ferocious snakes.” (Vasilis has organized a great, forthcoming exhibit about Egypt of children’s books for the Museum, and has thus carried the spirit of this new Museum from being remarkable not only for visitors who come up, but into being kid-friendly. The New Tate Gallery in London is wonderful, but it would be fair, I think, to say the New Acropolis Museum is the most friendly to visitors and the most ingenious at encouraging children to engage with the arts and culture of anything I have run across).

It is a rare that a conversation with a visitor – and one external to architecture and curation - produces a change in the signage at a Museum (Vasilis had warned me that archaeology as a field is as self-protective of common fables as other fields, and I could see it in the reaction to questions of some who were not as free as Vasillis, see here). I am grateful to him and flattered by the change.

In the children’s version, there is a reconstruction of this statue of Athena by a myth. Her missing right hand in the curator's drawing holds a spear. She is a busy girl, what with all the snakes, the last no longer in the cape, but in her hand, some strands of her hair turning snake, like Medusa (she wears the medallion of Medusa on her breast). And for the children, she has a spear too. After all, she is a goddess, just manifesting in human form.

One would think the poison enough to dispense with the giants (her face is calm, attentive, and thus deadly). According to the myth, she is fighting the giant Engelados and throws the island of Sicily upon him. So in the picture, someone added a familiar spear. The myth reconstructs her for the designer of the card to guide children to the appropriate - ferocious snakes or not - conclusion…

But actually unless she is like Shiva and has many arms, she is going to have to drop the spear, let the snakes recede into her cloak, and pick up Sicily and toss it on the giant to kill him. Seems more effort than the frieze suggests is necessary…

Perhaps one should use one’s eyes on what is there, see what inferences one might draw (perhaps these are moments in a longer story…). One should certainly question the inferences that have been drawn. The currently authoritative story may just be…a story with little or no visible evidence for it at all.

Take Athena springing from the head of Zeus, fully armed, of no woman born, judge and convener of Athenian to judge (see Sophocles’ Oresteia) on behalf of patriarchal Athens, the furies (the Erinyes of vengeance, demanding blood for blood, disfigured survivals of the egalitarian, old Crete) and creatively transforming them into the Eumenides (kind and defanged women – got to tame that feminine energy and imprison it or “god knows” what will happen…).

Athens is the first city. It is urban life emerging with the traces of the soil and its snakes (ochia – a common kind of viper then) clinging to it, coiling from it. It is patriarchal life (full of erect things) to counter the life of the Greek islands, women-led (at least a partnership society in Riane Eisler’s phrase, contrasted with the domination of a warrior or warriors), marked by the Cycladic sculptures of women with breasts and vaginas, and circular religious objects ("frying pan sculptures") of waves, spirals or snakes, ships and stars, and vaginas and pubic hair as well…

As I remarked last year, Heidegger sought the rural Greek soil which he called the polis to contrast with and erase democratic Athens, looked to hierarchy and the stronger – the big lions sculpted right at the beginning of the second floor, rending a fallen bull. See here.

The bull was a symbol of the goddess culture of the Greek islands for several thousand years, perhaps a symbol of masculinity within it(of equality or partnership). Heidegger (and Leo Strauss, his imitator about how urbanism leads to Marxism and a fellow admirer of an expurgated soil – see “An Introduction to Heideggerian Existentialism” in The Restoration of Classical Political Rationality, ed. Thomas Pangle) couldn’t have gotten autochthonous Greece more wrong. That soil was full of snakes, the “dominion” an egalitarian, unweaponed, unwarlike one in which women were decisive in spiritual life.

Questions go a long way, can sometimes take one on a journey.

What we can see here is that Athena is a snake goddess. “Oh,” I ask Vasilis, “are there any other snaky representations of Athena, hidden away perhaps (not so much has been exhibited or even discovered yet) that Vasilis has come across? “Yes,” he said, “I am working tomorrow at the National Archaelogical Museum and you must come in the morning and see the new exhibit there” (I postponed leaving Athens overnight to stick around). The National Archaelogical Museum had a fabulous exhibit on the main gods of Athens and the Hellenes, including subsidiary gods like Asclepius – see here - and Hecate.

The most beautiful piece was a large representation from the third century A.D. of Phidias’s now destroyed, grand Athena from the Acropolis (in “Lapis Lazuli,” William Butler Yeats tells us that the statues of Phidias are gone, and yet someone here has “built them” again; one must think “his eyes, his ancient glittering eyes, are gay”). In the Erechthion on the Acropolis, Athena was 12 meters (40 feet high), her son Erecthonius, a serpent and first King of Athens, 2 meters or about 7 feet, rearing along side her. At the National Archaelogical Museum, this Athena wears a cloak – an aegis – on which 24 snakes curl. They are not aggressive because she is not dispensing with the giants just at the moment. The famous medallion of Medusa, with snaky hair which freezes you if you look at her (the medallion is now perhaps her head removed from her body or perhaps retaining its power, if Athena chooses to turn it on. Consider the later story of Perseus and how Athena helps him with a mirror to conquer Medusa see here). The name Medusa is in Greek a variant of Metis, the mother of Athena whom Zeus swallowed here...Athena was a woman and a snake woman to boot.

An earlier myth is that Athena made the beautiful Medusa into a monster for taking her lover into Athena’s temple. But the power of Medusa is now on the breast of Athena (in legend, Perseus brought back a flask of venom for Athena and another for Asclepius). Athena is an enormously powerful goddess who will take the enemies of Athens (or those who displease her) down with snakes.

So the snake story is the story of the Acropolis and extends on even into the patriarchy and patriarchal Athens, once again, the first city. It is a negative and killer female energy, not the only one…

The nurturing, healing energy, that which leads to the “grace of life” as archaeologists speak of the 3600 to 4000 year old Cretan murals, is present in the mysteries in Athens. The National Archaeological Museum also has two large marbles from Elefsina (Eleusis) which show the mysteries. There Demeter and Persephone, robed, offer wheat to the naked little king Triptolemus, his penis hanging down, extending the heritage of free women into Athens…See here. Poppies and opium also seem to have played a role in the Mysteries, growing redly out of the earth, and were ingredient in the culture of Crete and the other Cycladic islands.

In another myth, when Aphrodite – married to Hephaestos - took off with Ares, Hephaestos was distraught. He had once opened the head of Zeus with his axe, been present at the birth of Athena. Being a male Athenian god (Socrates was later put to death for disrespecting these gods, and in some way, it is not hard) and lonely, he jumped on Athena. But raping Athena was no simple thing. She tossed him off. His sperm, however, got on her thigh, and dripped onto the earth, Ge,the mother. And out from the earth popped up a snake, Ericthonius for whom the Erechteion on the Acropolis is named (named for the rising of snakes, perhaps the emergence of the people – Athena’s many snake defenders (h/t Jonilda Dhamo) – and sexual erection). Snakes, flowers (poppies) and women goddesses are in the underworld, rise up out of the earth, are the soil of the country rising into the first city. Athena, too, was such a goddess. Better put her up top on the new Acropolis among the sky gods – strip her of her snakes, arm her for war, make her a virgin of no woman born - if you want to masculinize her.

Athena, though a virgin, took Ericthonous as her son. He rises beside her, the smaller serpent. As for the parentage, Athena is part snake (not that Ge isn’t snaky; in the older and deeper tradition, however, Athena is profoundly snaky). So Hephaestos and Athena, plus Ge (the Athenian virgin birth prefiguring Mary and Jesus) give rise to a snake who becomes the first king of Athens, stares out at you, just eye level, with big eyes (her statue is set on a pedestal, and rises, you have to look up….).

In Crete where I just finished teaching, the snakes were intense enough, but the civilization, led by women or with women at least as equals and as spiritual representatives (consider the Cycladic marbles here and here, the second even farther into the Cycladic past) was characterized by “the grace of life” in the words of the archaeologists of Crete, the surviving frescos of crocuses and birds fluttering among the red and gray rocks, of blue monkeys and delicate blue birds, of women their breasts exposed (sexuality more natural), the peaceful pleasures of existence and work highlighted, the need for war nonexistent for an epoch of thousands of years (no weapons survive, it was not a military, but a trading regime).

But that doesn’t mean that all was at peace. There is the ritual of the bull vaulting, boys and girls participating equally. See here. A clay libation vase figurine of a bull in case 2 has three small somersaulters between his horns from Koumasa, Mesara (two are each grabbing a horn from behind, one swinging between the horns). Here the bull seems almost nurturing of them, not a bull that will kill some of them. The figurine also hints at this practice far into the Cretan past and far more widely, not just in the “palaces” of its last 500 or 600 years (and those were 3 millenia ago). This was a very old egalitarian ritual which Plato’s Republic satirizes in its account of women and men wrestling naked in the “city in speech,” “the beautiful city.” See here. All the beauty here as well as the danger is with the earlier civilization, not this rather creepily patriarchal aspect of Plato’s/Socrates’s retelling.

In the reconstructed “palaces” by Sir Arthur Evans and modern Greek, mainly male archaeologists, the settings are imagined for this event (keeping the bulls out of the crowd of observers…). But a lot of girls and boys would have been gored by the bulls. They did not learn to or were not lucky enough to grab their horns, flip over their backs, land on the other side, get out of the bull’s turning, turbulent way. A surviving fresco, a metal sculpture and the older (prepalatial”) pot of these rituals survive in the Heraklion museum in Crete.

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