“I wasn’t born of a mother. Apart from being physically female,
I identify in every way with the masculine, and with my father.”

This might be a line from ‘Lara Croft Tomb Raider’, but it’s from a 6th/5th century Athenian playwright* who puts these words into the mouth of Athena.

Athena is a product of her father, Zeus, and mother, Mētis, whose name means clever at thinking. Zeus incubates her in his head, having first swallowed Mētis, thus ingesting both her ability to think, and her ability to give birth: a fascinating symbol of fusion with the feminine. Similarly, he consumes the nymph Semele with his fiery presence and places the child she was carrying (Dionysus/Bacchus) in his thigh. Unsurprisingly, both children produced by this fusion of male and female express the characteristics of both genders. One of their functions is to symbolise a range of gender identity.

So, what were her powers?
Athena leaps fully armed from Zeus’s head. Inevitably she’s brainy. She’s implacable in carrying out the will of her father (whom she knows how to manage), a cunning strategist in war and in peace a guardian of justice.
She is the goddess of potters and metalworkers, of all crafts and technology: someone you appeal to to solve a problem. (She doesn’t actually do the work herself, of course, it’s Hephaistos who spends his days at the forge.) She operates by persuasion and negotiation, which modern convention considers feminine virtues (though they are far from exclusively so, in my experience.) She is often described as ‘glaukopis’, usually translated as grey-eyed, but a glaux is a little owl with big eyes: so Athena has exceptional vision, the ability to have an overview of mortal fates, but if encountered, she has the impenetrable, otherworldly look of an owl.

Once she takes off her armour and puts on the peplos, she becomes more womanly. She is the patron goddess of weaving. A special team of Athenian women wove a cloth for dedication to her at Panathenaic festivals, and women in childbirth prayed to her, despite her lack of softness. In extremis though, don’t you want the most powerful being on your side?

Indignant feminists
Stories of her fury against mortal women who dare to cross or compete with her have profoundly upset feminists. Jane Harrison says “she marches on, spoiling to betray her kind” and Susan Deacy calls her “Mrs Thatcher”. She is not, however, a historical figure, nor a character in a novel; she’s a divinity. Underlying these stories of retribution is an awe of exceptional artistic skill, and in consequence, an anxious concern to maintain a proper separation between the human and the divine.

Like Athena, Lara Croft fulfils the purpose of her father and defeats her opponents by superior strategy and skill (yes, they are male – it’s Hollywood). The archaic forces of nature unleashed by a magic symbol work through her, and a change of attire marks a change of persona to a more feminine mode.

Like Lara, Athena’s power straddles the masculine and the feminine. She is, in effect, the goddess of social cohesion. To impose a contemporary rationale or narrative upon her is to do violence to the very nature of myth. Myths are vehicles of complexity, of nuance and contradiction. Like repetitive cultural dreams, they acquire layers of symbolism: of natural forces, of physical and mental geography. They are literary coral reefs where the monstrous and the exquisite, the fantastic and the familiar flourish in a time-honoured, mysterious symbiosis.

* Aeschylus. The Eumenides.

• Find earlier HIP Classics at: ulyssesdove.wordpress.com

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