Athena the Misogynist

AthenaGo online, and it is easy to find scores of sites dedicated to Athena as the patron Goddess of good feminist neo-pagans. In my opinion, however, Athena was more of a product and purveyor of “the patriarchy” than any other Goddess in the Olympic pantheon. There was no other goddess with such power in the (Athenian) populace, and this came from the very fact that her power was not that of a feminist revolutionary, but rather the embodiment of the patriarchy as the parthenogenic daughter of The Father (Zeus). The oppression of women had been Athena’s realm since she founded Athens (and decreed that women shouldn’t vote or be citizens). Sex was an important tool for that oppression (keeping in mind the fact that gender identity and erotic desire can and should be distinguished) as illustrated in the myths surrounding the House of Athens.

Perhaps it is best to begin with the birth of the House in Erichthonius. Erichthonius was the son of Athena, but, for a number of important reasons, his mother remained a virgin. The most obvious of them is the reason Athena was a Virgin Goddess in the first place, because it leaves her loyalty to her father undivided by that she would have for a husband. This concept is furthered by the fact that Athena was the parthenogenic daughter of Zeus, thus leaving her loyalty and connection to him unbroken even by a mother. This makes Athena the perfect female heir of her father; she carries all of her father’s strong character traits in herself, untainted by other blood (more on this On Being a Virgin). In being a virgin mother, she imparts all those traits to her son, without the dilution of a lesser god in the mix. Thus Athena becomes a mere bridge* between Zeus and Erichthonius.

How Athena stayed a virgin despite motherhood is equally important to understand. She could have tried to copy Hera, to try to conceive wholly without the aid of a man, but this is an attempt at destroying the patriarchy, which defeats the whole point of Athena’s virginity in the first place. There is another point, Athena must not wish to conceive, because that, too, would take her from her father. So the only option left is a muddled rape – but what kind of god would muddle a rape? Hephaestus, the pathetic crippled son demonstrates exquisitely the folly of Hera in her own attempt at parthenogenic conception. Heph is everything Athena is not. Where Athena is pure patriarchal power, Hephaestus is nothing but wussy weakness. His seed, too, as a result of his birth, must also be the least manly seed there is – which is perfect for their union, as the goal is to keep Zeus’ line the strongest, poor Hephaestus does not seem to be much of a threat.

The same goal appears in the Ion. The Athenians desire an heir with all the qualities and blood of Erichthonius, the patriarch of the House, this has been maintained one generation in Erechtheus, but now Creusa is the only child. She is married to a foreigner and so the throne is at risk, and cannot possibly be saved without divine intervention. The rape of Creusa is the only way that Apollo and Athena can see to appease at once all the demands of a patriarchal society when a woman is the only direct line. In that way, the blood of Xuthus does not taint the heir of Athens, but remains purely that of Erichthonius and the God (with Creusa serving as the same sort of bridge between her patriarch and son as Athena did with Zeus and Erichthonius).* At the same time, the Godly rape keeps Creusa’s intentions pure, it wasn’t her fault at all, and no one can blame her for her bastard son. And the rape also requires the abandonment of the son, so that Xuthus can, at last, claim it as his own, thereby fulfilling the last of the requirements (that lineage be reckoned through the father).

The hereditary system is clearly gender oppressive. Even when women are the last direct inheritors, they only hold inheritance for their future sons. But this system also depends on sexual oppression. To remain loyal to her House, Creusa must marry a man she isn’t exactly thrilled with, as well as submit to rape from a God. To remain loyal to her father, Athena is denied any sexuality at all. The power of patriarchal control lies in sex. With whom one is allowed to have sex, with whom one isn’t allowed to have sex, and with whom one is forced to have sex are all constant questions for women, all to support one’s House (an equally relevant concern for women serving in noble houses, as discussed in Slave-girls’ Goddesses).  Sex in these myths, and indeed in most myths, is a tool for subduing women and appropriating their power – whether it is condoned, denied, or forced. Athena, who is such a powerful female image, is – especially for the Athenians – as patriarchal as the rest and is more respected for it.

*The concept of a father being the only true genetic (if I can mix it up so anachronistically) parent is not one that I made up to suit this essay, but is also apparent in descriptions of the creation of children as depending on the father for seed and the mother simply as the incubator in ancient Greek medical texts.


4 responses to “Athena the Misogynist”

  1. I’ve never taken to Athena – always seen her as a purely patriarchal construct.
    That she was ‘always for the male’ makes me avoid her.
    Thanks for giving me more detail into her background.
    Is there a possibility that she is a twisted version of a more ‘goddessly’ goddess? I’ve always wondered.
    Terri in Joburg

  2. I’m sure that you have answered this in other blog entries, but being male (and therefore lazy), I’ll ask and hope that you’ll forgive me. Who do you think is the best goddess for feminist representation? I will not even venture a guess myself since I was told already by a professor in college that since I was male, I would always be wrong in feminist studies.

  3. Terri – I am actually gonna write another entry on Athena because I think there are instances in which she IS “a more ‘goddessly’ goddess” – they’re just not particularly Athenian. Thanks for reading!

    Mark – I am HORRIFIED by your professor’s comment. What an incredibly sexist thing to say! My best feminist professor in college was a man (Kirk Ormand) and I shudder to think what he might have done with his career if he’d been told that. Ridiculous! To answer your actual question, however, I don’t think there’s a perfect answer to that question. Greek mythology, as you know, varies greatly depending on the time period and the location of the mythographer. Thus, as I mentioned in response to Terri, there are some examples of Athena being just as rockin’ a rep for women as anyone might be. On a personal level, however, I prefer Aphrodite, principally because my particular brand of feminism has a bent towards gender and sexual agency, and she was definitely involved on those fronts. On the other hand, I used to think that she was the WORST, so there you go. When it comes down to it, ancient Greece was a patriarchal society and the myths were recorded by people who benefited from that system, so it’s not the best place to go looking for feminist figureheads (unless you want to reclaim them and reinterpret the myths, which some do)!

  4. Fascinating post. I’ve always though Athena had a patriarchal spin to her. I think it’s completely plausible to think she was “reinvented” later by more patriarchal forces and was at one time more “Goddess-y”, but I don’t know if we’ll ever really know for sure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *