The Athena Archetype
Athena is the goddess of strategic arts.
In times of war, this means she’s a strategist. She helped the Greeks during the Trojan war, and she was the goddess who supported the wily, intellectual Odysseus and his son Telemachus in the Odyssey.
In times of peace, Athena’s strategic arts and ability to design and plan things are put to different uses. She’s the patron of artisans and craftsmen, and she’s an excellent businesswoman. She really shines when she can take an artsy creative endeavor and turn it into a business.
In both cases, times of war and peace, Athena is a woman who thrives in a man’s world. In both the battlefield and the board room, she’s often surrounded by men, supporting those she respects and admires the most, and also learning from them at the same time—such as she did with her father, Zeus.
Athena is often seen wearing armor, which is primarily to do with her love for battle strategy and guiding men to victory. (She’s not on the battlefield herself; that’s Ares. Athena is the brains behind Ares’s brawn.)
It’s also because she herself is armored against attack. There are several reasons she can’t be easily hurt. First, because she does not put weight on her emotions the way other women do. Second, she’s too smart to outwit. Third, she is whole and self-sufficient. She doesn’t need you or anything you have to offer; she can get what she needs her own damn self.
Another of Athena’s symbols is the owl. This symbolizes the depth of her wisdom—her ability to read the hearts of men and create strategies that bring about success. The owl sees well in the dark, which is one of those obvious symbols that sometimes springs up in mythology. It basically means Athena can see and understand what others can’t, even from afar and in the dark. Her intellect is on par with that of Apollo, the archetype of peak physical and intellectual performance. (By claiming Athena as their patron, the citizens of Athens were making a statement about themselves as great thinkers—capable in the arts and sciences and, if need be, capable of turning that great intellect towards war.)
Another one of her symbols is the spear and aegis—and the aegis is one of those less obvious symbols in mythology. We don’t exactly know what the aegis was. It may have been a shield, a magic cloak, a shamanic bag full of badass shamanic objects, or something else entirely. What does seem sure is that the head of Medusa (the gorgon whose gaze could turn men to stone) was positioned smack in the middle of the aegis.
I tend to think the aegis was less about the object itself, and more like a “stamp” of some kind, or a “magic logo” that could be put on different things, such as a cloak or a breastplate. If the aegis was on Athena’s shield, then she would be able to protect herself while turning her enemies to stone. It would be intimidating.
And there is definitely something intimidating about the Athena archetype.
She’s a woman who relies on her yang energy, her intellect, and who has no patience for more yin qualities, such as emotions or intuition. (Think of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, or Claire Underwood in House of Cards.) If you come before her (like for a job interview or something) without having your shit together, she’s going to make you feel like an idiot. If you try to reason with her but you haven’t thought out your arguments, she’s going to out-logic you and make you feel small and stupid. This is the person in your life who sees herself as 100% practical, a self-described “realist,” who will dismiss you if you don’t have your facts straight. And if you don’t have those facts straight and try to appeal to her humanity or ask her to “cut you some slack,” she’ll sneer and tell you to go back to the kiddie table until you’re ready to use your brain like an adult.
It takes a lot of freaking strength of self to stand before Athena and not flinch. She could turn you to stone if she doesn’t like what she finds.
This doesn’t mean she’s cruel. It’s just that, like Apollo, she has high standards. She doesn’t want to hear your complaints; she wants you to do something about the things that make you unhappy. She will call you to think things through more thoroughly than you ever have, to stop lying to yourself about what is there and what is not—stop dreaming, and open your owl-eyes and SEE for god’s sake!—and to create a strategy for bettering your life.
If you’re not ready to do that, you’re not ready for Athena.
It’s been pointed out that Athena is not really a feminist goddess—she doesn’t have a problem with the patriarchy. In fact, she gravitates toward men in power to learn from them, adopting them as mentors and partners on her own climb to success. She will go so far as to defend them against accusations of misogyny.
Athena didn’t even often acknowledge the existence of her mother, Metis.
Here’s why: When Metis was pregnant, Zeus swallowed her whole (because he was afraid that the child would be stronger than him and kill him . . . you know, typical father stuff). That was the end for poor Metis, but the child Athena began giving her father one bitch of a headache. Eventually she sprung, fully grown and fully armed, from Zeus’s skull. Turns out she’d been banging on the inside of his skull with her spear.
So Athena kind of sees herself as existing independently from her mother.
As for defending men, that’s basically what happened in the myth of Arachne. Arachne challenged Athena to a weaving contest (mistake #1), then she wove a brilliant tapestry that happened to depict a few of the times when Zeus had raped women by cleverly disguising himself as various things like a shower of gold or a swan (mistake #2). Athena didn’t punish Arachne for challenging her to the contest, or for doing a great job—she punished Arachne for depicting Zeus, Athena’s beloved, respected father, in a bad light.
(There’s another interpretation of this, though. Yes, it’s true that these myths reflect a patriarchal culture that did not respect women. But it’s also true that myths and symbols stem from something much deeper than culture. There is a wisdom in the interplay of the symbols that transcends culture. Haven’t you ever felt like there was something calling to you, perhaps a part of yourself that you’ve been avoiding for years, but which you know holds a great deal of transformative power if you would only turn and face it . . . perhaps even embrace it? You can’t run from the god—it will always find you, ALWAYS. And when the god finds you, it will change you and birth a new force in your life. It could very well be that Athena punished Arachne because Arachne failed to understand the transformative divine power of the god. Instead, she saw him as a simple, crude, violent rapist. And what was Arachne’s punishment? You know this one: Athena turned her into a spider.)
Artemis, by contrast, is a much more feminist goddess. In some of her forms she actively hates men. In other forms, she’s likely to demand that a man impress her, rather than the other way around—Athena likes to impress men and to support them. She sees them as brothers, partners, equals, mentors, and even students (but not usually as lovers).
In Goddesses in Every Woman, Jean Shinoda Bolen groups Athena among the “virgin goddesses,” along with Artemis and Hestia. The virgin goddesses were not defined by their relationships with men. They were never vulnerable, and never suffered.
They’re different than the “vulnerable goddesses,” Demeter, Persephone, and Hera, who were more relationship-oriented, and who suffered by those relationships. They were more evolutionary (as opposed to the virgins, who were more static and didn’t change much).
As a virgin goddess, Athena was self-sufficient. She didn’t rely on anyone else, and did not suffer due to her relationships. She was achievement-oriented and goal-directed. It wasn’t so much that Athena didn’t have emotional attachments. She could have them. It’s just that she never let them distract her from her chief priorities.
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