The Gray-Eyed Goddess
Posted on June 8, 2018 Posted by Athena Scalzi 40 Comments
Ever since I was little, I’ve loved Greek mythology. And since the beginning, Athena has been my favorite being in all of mythology. You may say I’m biased, but today I’m going to tell you all the reasons why Athena is literally the best. And to be fair, I’ll also mention the times she was kind of not great. So buckle up, kids, we’re learning about the greatest goddess in all mythology.
Athena is the goddess of wisdom and battle strategy. Those are her main things, but she is also the goddess of crafts and weaving, so she has a little bit of an artsy side to her. She is often referred to as “the gray-eyed goddess”. She has a lot of symbols, but her most common are an owl and an olive tree/branch. Athena was an inventor: she created a variety of things that benefited mankind greatly, such as the chariot, bridle, rake, and the first ship, and some that things benefited people a little less but are still cool, like the flute.
Though she was the goddess of battle strategy, she didn’t really like war and often preferred peaceful resolutions. When she did have to fight, though, she was damn fierce and even bested Ares twice. She is almost always wearing a helmet and carrying a shield and spear, she was even born in full armor, and was exceedingly good at getting warriors amped up to fight, as we can see in the Iliad: “Athena marched down the ranks, arousing their will to attack. In every heart she injected new courage to fight to the end, and suddenly war seemed sweeter than sailing in hollow ships and making safe return to their own dear native land.”
There are many versions of every myth, and usually one of these versions portrays whoever they’re about as awesome and amazing, and another will portray them as kind of a dick. I think the most famous myth like this that comes to mind is the story of Athena and Medusa. In one version, Medusa, devoted follower of the virgin goddess Athena, is raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple, and to protect Medusa from men, she transforms her into a monster whose gaze turns men into solid stone. Though this story puts Athena in a better light, it doesn’t add up to why she aided Perseus in slaying Medusa by giving him a reflective shield. It also doesn’t make sense why Athena would have the head of Medusa on her shield if she was just trying to protect her. Because of this, the myth that says Athena turned her into a monster as punishment for defiling her temple is probably more true (not that any of these myths are true, but, you know). However there is also the version of Medusa’s story that says Poseidon turned her into the monster for not sleeping with him because she was a follower of Athena. So either Athena was just trying to protect her, trying to get revenge, or she didn’t do it at all.
A lot of the gods were known for going overboard on their punishments. For example, Dionysus was upset that the king of Thebes, Pentheus, didn’t want to worship him, so he had Pentheus ripped apart limb from limb. Greek gods aren’t particularly known for their mercy, and the story of Athena and Arachne is a good example of this. Arachne claimed she was as good at weaving as Athena herself, so they have themselves a competition to see who is better. In some versions, Arachne ended up being better than Athena and Athena was a sore loser and turned her into a spider. In other versions, Arachne portrayed the sexual scandals of the gods in her tapestry, and Athena was pissed off she was making fun of the gods, so she turned her into a spider. I believe the latter more, because I personally think it’s unrealistic that a human could beat the goddess of weaving at weaving, but no matter which version you believe, turning her into a spider was probably not totally deserved.
So, yes, Athena had her faults. All of the Greek gods did, some were just a lot worse than others. Aside from the bad things, Athena helped basically all the famous Greek heroes, like Odysseus, Perseus, and Jason, and she directed the building of the Argo and the Trojan Horse.
In a lot of ways, she was like Prometheus, constantly giving gifts of invention to humans. She taught them to cook, spin wool, sail, and gifted them with one of the Greeks most valuable trade items, olives. Oil was a huge thing back then, man, and Athena was cause for it!
She is seriously awesome, and even though she isn’t faultless, she is still my favorite. There are plenty of gods who have done far worse things than her and given a lot less to humans.
If you want to learn more about her or just like her as much as I do, here’s a book you should check out!
Who is your favorite Greek god/goddess? Or do you prefer a different type of mythology? Let me know in the comments! Have an awesome Friday!
Cassandra. Who could not like someone who tells true prophesies that no one ever believes.
Fun read. Well told.
Minerva is a favorite of mine, just the Roman version of Athena. My current car is named MINERVA ONE…
Around here, Madame Pele is da bomb; just don’t get on her bad side. She has a temper.
Another goddess I appreciate is Brigid, who has three aspects: poetry, healing, and smithying. She can fix what’s broken, and write a song about it later!
I’ve always had a fondness for Athena, Artemis, and Bast.
I’m wondering if you ever read Percy Jackson (Rick Riordan’s) books? I read them as an adult purely because I loved Greek Mythology as a kid and it was amazing to revisit them in their current YA form.
Hephaestus, the blacksmith of the Gods. As for other mythologies, in Egypt my favourite is Bastet (or Bast), the lioness goddess of warfare that became the protector of cats. The Aztech mythology is fascinating. Coatlicue, the primordial earth goddess and mother of many goddesses and gods has a ton of myths related to her.
I’ve read the Spanish translation of the Illiad and the Odyssey a long time ago. Now I’m curious about the new English translation by Emily Wilson. It’s the first one in English done by a woman. It seems that previous translations suffered from academic sexism. Mrs.Wilson translation is free from that bias and closer to the original. Here’s a review from The Guardian in case you wanna check it: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/08/the-odyssey-translated-emily-wilson-review
Athena was always my favorite also. Wise, bold, deadly, partisan – if not for her, Odysseus would not have gotten far…
Do you think Athena would still be your favorite goddess had your parents named you Artemis or Hera instead?
Have you read Madeline Miller’s new book, Circe? I think you’d enjoy it. Same with her earlier book, Song of Achilles. Both really,. really good.
Have you read Madeline Miller’s new book, Circe? I think you’d really like it, it’s fantastic. Also her earlier book, Song of Achilles. They’re both excellent.
Dang it, I thought the first comment didn’t post.
I think someone before me mentioned both Brigid, goddess of the forge, poetry and healing, and Madame Pele. They’re both pretty cool goddesses.
Athena’s not as awful as some of the Greek pantheon, but ain’t no way she is the best either, as you note. Which reminds me: I recommend you check out the podcast Spirits, subtitled “a boozy podcast about mythology, legends, and lore”. The hosts are a pair of twenty-something childhood friends from Long Island, and every week they sit down, make drinks, and talk about mythology and legends. It’s entertaining af, and the one place that my limited Patreon funds go to. (They rag on Zeus like crazy and with reason; once one of them said “rating fuckbois on a scale of zero to Zeus …” which kinda summed him up.)
Athena is a good goddess. A couple of sightings of her: I saw a production of Monteverdi’s opera The Return of Ulysses 10-15 years ago. Athena was very much calling the shots in that one. And she got lots of great music.
Athena shows up as a character in Jo Walton’s Thessaly series as well. She is more than a little petty when crossed – a typical Olympian.
My favourite of the Greek gods is Prometheus (if you allow Titans) – his selfless sacrifice saved humanity. And boy, howdy did he pay for it.
If you allow for humans who become gods, the fourth Roman Emperor, Claudius, has a fun couple of books written in his voice by Robert Graves, the second of which is Claudius the God. The RL Claudius was nowhere near as nice as the fictional Claudius would have you believe, of course.
My explanation for the slaying of Medusa:
When Athena transformed Medusa into a gorgon, she did it to protect her priestess from further trauma and harm, but, being a goddess, she missed the little quirk where gorgons are actually immortal (the original ones were born out of the blood of Cronus, when Zeus killed his father) but Medusa, being born human, wasn’t set up for immortality. So after about a century of surviving, seeing everyone she knew die, and losing all those people who had actually known her as a person, not just as a monster, Medusa got very miserable and depressed, and prayed to Athena for an ending.
The goddess heard her prayer, and contracted a suitable hero (Perseus) to do the job, providing him with the equipment he’d need for the task, and supervising his progress. When Medusa died, she preserved the visage of her priestess on her shield forevermore. I see Medusa’s death as a mercy killing.
One other little thing in all of this: Athena held grudges. Oh boy did she hold grudges! And her grudge against her uncle, Poseidon, for what he’d done to Medusa, was one of the strongest and longest lasting. Consider, for example, the bride Perseus won (while still using the equipment Athena had borrowed from Hermes for him; you can’t tell me Athena didn’t know what was going on). Perseus rescued Andromeda from a sea serpent – that is, she was staked out as a sacrifice to Posiedon. “Oops, sorry uncle, you know what those heroes are like…”
Plus, of course, there’s the Trojan war to consider. The city of Troy was under the protection of Poseidon. Guess who’s side Athena was on (“Oops, sorry uncle, you know what those heroes are like…” redux). The idea of using a horse (one of Poseidon’s symbols) to sneak Greek troops into Troy and end the siege came to Odysseus in a dream from Athena (he was one of Her chosen followers).
(Athena is one of my goddesses; along with the Fates and Norns)
Thanks for the information about the Spirits podcast. That sounds like fun. I’ll have to check it out. Appreciate the heads up!
Re: Medusa… I personally believe that Athena realized that Medusa was suffering in her monster form and used Perseus to relieve that suffering.
Google Medusa Dollmaker or check out her store on Etsy. She has wonderful tee shirts and needlepoint kits of Athena & Artemis. Actually, I don’t know if she has a needlepoint kit for Artemis, I was too busy squeeing over the shirts.
Been low key obsessed with Greek mythology since I found a book in the school library in 3rd grade. Athena has always been my favorite. A friend and I would pretend play as goddesses and I was always Athena.
If you like Greek stories, read Gary Corby. He is excellent.
Athena was invented as the patron saint of Athens. Like many of the gods, her origin was in politics as much as in anything else. My feminist friends always point out that she was the perfect goddess for a misogynist state like Athens since no female played a part in her creation. She was born from Zeus’s head and had no mother, human, goddess or otherwise. I used to like her more when I was much younger.
I always had a soft spot for Prometheus, possibly because of my STEM proclivities. He was a tragic figure who created a tragic race. Appropriately, he is linked with Pandora, another tragic figure. I also like the Ugaritic El. Unlike its masculine counterpart interested in war and its feminine counterpart interested in fertility, El was inhuman, just as nature is inhuman. Again, that’s probably my STEM proclivities. (El was the god in the Book of Job. Jehovah was probably out of town.)
I’ll second Mary Ellen and recommend Miller’s Circe too. It’s a great retelling of the old stories with Circe, a nymph and a witch, at the center. I really enjoyed Miller’s Song of Achilles, but I’ve warmed to Circe who is often portrayed unsympathetically. In Miller’s telling, she is a witch, and witchcraft is something not limited to the gods but is something that even the gods fear. If you like fantasy, you might give either book a try, but I’ll doubly recommend Circe.
Miller is a classics scholar, so she knows the stories forwards and backwards. She isn’t the first to mine the great stories of Greek mythology, but she does a great job giving them a sense of the divine and depth of character. There’s a lot of really good stuff in the mythos. It’s like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a vast collection of characters and narrative just waiting for a proper retelling.
P.S. For a great book on the history of the ancient Greek gods from early history through the Roman era and past the Renaissance, I’ll recommend The Gods of Olympus.
I had never really studied the Greek Gods or Godesses, but this really interested me. This is a great article and I really enjoyed it and now of course, I want to read more about Greek mythology :) Thank you Athena and btw you are doing a wonderful job as your dad’s intern. You can let him know I said that :) take care !!
Athena was a far older goddess than the protector of Periclean Athens. She was part of the Minoan and Mycenean pantheon; her name appears on Linear A and Linear B tablets in Knossos and elsewhere. Also, she had a mother: Metis, the goddess of Justice. You can read the rest in any encyclopedia that doesn’t go the Campbel/lite route.
I’ve always been a fan of mythology, starting with Greek and Norse, and moving into Egyptian and indigenous Australian. One of my favourite concepts in roleplaying games (initially hinted at in RuneQuest, eventually published in Hero Wars/Hero Quest, and now making its way back into RuneQuest – but easily translatable to any RPG) is the concept of “hero questing” – where your characters go on to the God Plane and live out the mythology. This concept works best when there are multiple versions of the myths – the players can either choose which one they want to ‘reinforce’ or discover that what they had thought was true was not true, or some combination of the two. The various versions of Athena are not something I’d thought to use before – I might well have to adapt that.
Athena has also been my favorite deity, God or Goddess, for decades. I’ve often wondered what you thought of your namesake, I figured you would either love her or hate her. Now we know, thanks. Another of my favorite authors, Neal Stephenson, (it’s ok to have two favorite authors, right?), pointed out that the Greeks had two gods of war, Athena and Ares. It was pretty common for polytheistic cultures to have a god of war, but two of them? What were the Greeks thinking? Stephenson’s answer is the knot that ties his book Cryptonomicon together.
Typo in second paragraph: and some that things benefited people
Should be: and some things that benefited people
If you’re a Greek myths fan there are some delightful modern retellings of myths out there. One of my favorite people doing this is http://mythologymondays.tumblr.com/
They do modern renditions of welsh, greek, norse and other myths. They’re hilarious, meme ridden, and a jolly good time.
Yeah I think my favorite of hers is
Cockblocking yourself because of dogs: pre-Medieval etiquette 101
Which is a spoooooky halloween tale from Welsh Mythology.
A lot of the discrepancy between the interpretations probably comes from the greek/roman mixup. The Greeks by and large /loved/ Athena, whereas the Romans considered themselves descendants of Ares, which means they were more or less obligated to take his side.
And yeah, the Arachne thing is pretty much the one major blemish on Athena’s record, but I’ve been thinking about that one a lot, and here’s my take.
In the most elaborate version of the tale I’ve found, Arachne wasn’t just incredibly skilled, she was also openly bragging that she was a better weaver than Athena. This is generally an unwise claim to make, true or not (tip: Don’t ask Niobe about her kids, or Midas about his ears), but Athena decided to give her a chance to not be a suicidal idiot and showed up in the guise of a wise old woman to caution her against hubris.
Arachne, being entirely too full of herself, mouthed off /again/ and Athena finally had enough, revealing Herself in full glory and laying down the challenge, which Arachne accepted. Two looms were prepared, and Goddess and Idiot both went to work.
Athena, determined as anything to convey some wisdom, made breathtaking tableaus of the various punishments given to mortals who gave offense to the gods — Prometheus chained to the mountain having his liver pecked, Tantalus forever starving with food and water eternally just out of reach, Sysiphus pushing a boulder, and so on. Hint, Hint, This Could Be You.
Arachne, in full idiot spiteful “don’t tell me what to do!” teenager mode decided that if she was going to be insulting the gods she might as well go all out. Her work was breathtaking as well, but the subjects were… Unflattering: Zeus’ infidelity and philandering, Hera’s tendency toward disproportionate retribution on Zeus’ paramours, Artemis having Actaeon torn to shreds by his own hunting dogs for stumbling onto the lake she was bathing in, Ares’ cuckolding Hephaestus with Aphrodite and getting netted in flagrante delicto, the list went on and on in exquisite detail.
Now, this being an official challenge laid down by Athena Herself, how many of the gods do you think were paying close attention – or at least, bored interest – to goings on? If your answer is “All of them, probably” then we’ve come to the same conclusion. And we’ve already discussed how they tend
to respond to disrespect from mortals. So yeah, Arachne almost certainly was a dead woman walking at that point regardless of the actual outcome; if Athena hadn’t done something drastic yet appropriate to her, one or more of the other gods would have, and “turned into a spider to weave in perpetuity” is frankly getting of mildly compared to Prometheus, Tantalus, Sysiphus, and all the rest…
Another reason I like Athena is because while all the other gods were basically looking at the Trojan War as ways of scoring points on one another by proxy (I think pretty much every single one had at least one or more ‘favoured mortals’ on either side) over a decade of siege and attrition, Athena sponsored the one who actually ended it.
(Yes, you could argue that a better way of ending it would have been “Hey, let’s sit down and talk this over, because no one woman, no single insult or kidnapping, can possibly be worth ten years of siege warfare” but when everyone around you is bound and determined to be prideful idiots you do what you can…)
Among Olympians Athena is definitely my favorite with Hermes and Hephaestus coming in second and third but my favorite figure of Greek mythology isn’t an Olympian but the Titan, creator and champion of mankind, Prometheus.
And why no love here for the Norse Pantheon? I prefer them actually to the greeks because while long-lived they could be killed but faced Ragnarok with courage anyway.
Great post, it would be more complete if you have a photo of you with the Athena Parthenos in Nashville since it’s not that far.
My daughter wouldn’t pose for a photo, she only had eyes for the griffins so I have her next to them. But they are her size and they look good together..
I must leave the Greeks and travel north to find my favorite Goddess, who is, of course, Freya.
Among the Greeks, I have always liked Artemis and among the Egyptians I have to go with Bast.
My favorite god? Alanis morissette.
It’s a near draw between Coyote and Loki.
Besides the obvious, “Athena” is also a great tune by a (formerly local) jazz band, Turning Point. Hard to find the album (Matador) that it’s on and harder to find it for download. As you might expect the two brothers who are the core are of Greek ancestry.
I’ve been trying to track down a legit copy to send you and your excellent daughter and may yet, mostly for grins.
Trickster Gods for the win!
Also Sun Wukong, or Son Goku as he is more commonly known in Japan and the West.
Favorite god/esses: Athena, Bast/et, Amaterasu (Japanese Sun goddess), and Valkyries (even if they are more Demi-goddesses rather than full goddesses…). It’s interesting to note that the reason Athena’s mom was swallowed by Zeus was because it was foretold that a son of Metris and Zeus would eventually replace Zeus as King of the Gods…
It is possible that Athena was mentioned in Linear A, but no one has managed to decipher it. Athena does not appear in Linear B. An earlier version of her, known as the Mistress of Horses does, and as is often the case when a god is renamed and repurposed, the original name appears among his titles. Athena by her name was associated with Athens. This kind of thing happens all the time. Did you think that the eagle on a cactus eating a snake was invented by the Aztec conquerors?
I was struck while reading the Odyssey: While we have only somewhat become nonbinary in this latest century, Athena, way back when, had no hang ups about appearing as a male, and she had no ageism either, since she would appear as an older male or old woman.
Note: Just yesterday, in 2018, Alberta driver’s licences finally allowed you to put M, F or X for your gender. (Alberta is in the Bible belt) And the news did not even make the front page.
I’m a Persephone person. I relate all too well to needing to keep your SO and your family apart from each other. Truly, for me it was the best solution when I was dating.