about the birth of Athena


The first historian and archeologist to treat the theme in an objective manner was the French scholar Bernard de Montfaucon D.O.M., who in his ten-volume work “Antiquite expliquee” summarised all the knowledge that his age had of a Grecian, Roman and Hebrew antiquity (1719). In vol. I, p. 137, he discusses Athena's miraculous birth and attempts to explain it symbolically: so for instance Metis stand for “prudence”.

The wave of aestetic appreciation of Antiquity, borne mainly by the important gathering of German scholars in Rome (Winckelmann, Goethe, Tischbein, etc.) did not achieve major interpretations of our subject, but deeper interest in and a better understanding of the mythological enigmata of the past was soon reached in close concordance with philosophy and the study of Man's psyche, once the Western world had learnt to distinguish Hellenic from Roman and classical from pre-classical antiquity (excavations at Aegina, 1811; Etruscan discoveries, 1829).

In his “Elite des Monuments Ceramographiques” (1844-1851) Lenormant De Witte, dedicating a whole chapter to Athena's birth, still confines himself to descriptive studies and does not attempt explanations. Nor do Neumann (1886) or Smith (author of the Catalogue of the British Museum, Hellenic dept., 1892), but as earley as 1841 P.W. Forchhammer issued at Kiel his minor study “Die Geburt der Athena”, in which he treats the myth as a manifest example of a saga on a purely natural basis. He regards the birth as occurring from a thundercloud heavy with rain, while Athena herself represents the clear skies, the aether.

F.G. Welcker (1860), Th. Bergk (1860), W.H. Roscher (1878) and F. Dummler (1896) follow the same track in their attempts to find a fitting solution of the theme's enigma, though there are other views also. Ludwig Preller in his “Griechische Mythologie” belongs to the group mentioned above, inasmuch as he considers the myth to be a water-legend, but he also develops the view that Athena, being a “starke Tochter”, is Zeus' alter ego. Here we see the first attempt to formulate a psychological explanation of the birth myth.

After R. Schneider (1880) has stressed the fact that the myth must have had a long and important development, A. Furtwangler (1891) underlined the fertility element which must obviously play a considerable part in it. With the end of the 19th century the stage was set for a new approach to the peculiar narrative which had kept Man thinking for two or three millenia.

At this moment the names should be mentioned of the archeologists Rhys Carpenter (1925) and Charles Picard (1939), who of course handle the theme only from an archeological or aesthetical point of view. As to a further interpretation of the myth the explanation given by Gruppe (1906) and U. v. Wilamowitz-Moellendorf (1921, 1931 and 1937) is noteworthy: Zeus seen as the mountain summit (Gotterberg) personified, out of which emerges the (living) divinity.

An approach towards the totality of Athena's image through the study of detail is made by Douglas (1912) who published a fine essay on the owl, and by Deubner (1932) writing on the Dipoleia which is, in his opinion, the mythical rendering of a ritual ecstasy which was capable of tearing to pieces the object of veneration.

We also meet strange approaches, such as that of Deonna (1912) who dilates at great length on an East Asiatic analogy, whilst Ancy (1913) considered that he had discovered in the theme a great Noise, a Divine Sneeze. Plassmann (1928) returned once more to the old aither symbolism of the previous age.

Kristensen (1926) as well as Walter Otto (1929) devoted their attention especially to the psychology of the goddess. To the former she is the mistress of the realm of life as she is the mistress of death, an ambivalence since established by modern authors. To Otto she is above all the source of good advice and protection, and being so, Man's protection into the skies of his own virtues and capacities, an opinion equally accepted.

The great contributions towards solving the enigma, however, were made by L.R Farnell in his “Cults of the Geek States” (1896), Jane Harrison in her “Prolegomena of the greek Religion” (1903), M.P. Nilsson in his “Die Anfange der Gottin Athena” (1921) and A.B. Cook in his monumental study “Zeus”, vol. III (1940).

Farnell was the first to detach the goddess from the chtonic image and to distangle her from the divinity with whom the original deity was to merge. Jane Harrison must be credited for having studied every aspect of the former; Nilsson ingeniously traced back the cretan origin of the latter. Cook in his turn collected the material.

But Athena's shadow lingered on. After the second world war the discussion about her and her birth was resumed at length. Kerenyi (1951) and Laager (1957) compiled the knowledge already acquired; others like Festugiere (1948) Kunze (1950) and Berger with his new reconstruction of the east pediment of the Parthenon (1959) approached the theme aesthetically and archeologically.

Miss Levy (1946), Guthrie (1950), Onians (1951), Herington (1955), and James (1957), though their works are of major importance for deepening our insight into the Hellenic mind and the divine figures it cradled, made no attempts to formulate new explanations of Athena's birth myth. Nor did those who concentrated on detail, like Yalouris (1950) who studied the goddess' relations with the horse, Jeanmaire (1956) who investigated the presence of Metis in the story, and Mme. Marie Delcourt (1957) who wrote a fine essay on Zeus masculine midwife Hephaistos. The textual evidence of the myth was scrutinized by Miss Sigrid Kauer (1959) in a small but excellent work.

We may well finish this brief and no doubt incomplete survey of the literature concerning our subject by mentioning those publications which, in our opinion, belong to the most important studies to the theme which have appeared in the last decades: another work of Karl Kerenyi (1952) and two noteworthy contributions of Brown (1952) and Pope (1960).

Norman Brown with his “Birth of Athena”, Transactions of the American Phil Ass., takes up where Cook loses the road. He clearly discerns that originally Zeus' own labour must have produced the birth. In the author's opinion the more developed myth including the help of an assistant, must have been created in the first half of the 6th century B.C., reflecting Solon's reforms which marked the birth of a new kind of city-state.

M.W.M. Pope in an article published by the American Journal of Philology puts forward the idea of three stories of the birth of Athena, hidden in Hesiod's Theogony: the goddess as she is coming from the head of Zeus after he had swallowed Metis, is stated to be equal to her father; an older version: Athena springs from the head of Zeus after he had swallowed Metis; and finally the oldest version: Athena springs from the head of Zeus, her office being war in which she delights. In his opinion, then, the warlikeness was a primordial characteristic, and there was a gradual shifting from war to wisdom. In Homeric epics the same development can be traced: the iliad mainly depicts Athena as a warrior goddess, in the Odyssey she is predominant a person of ideas. In the Homeric hymn she is finally called ðïëõìçôéò.

Meanwhile Karl Kerenyi had published his study on Pallas Athena “Die Jungfrau und Mutter der griechischen Religion” (1952). In this work he stresses the psychological background of the godess's total image. With regard to the myth of her miraculous birth he opines that the pattern of physical deadlock (Neumondsituation) lies hidden beneath the surface of this peculiar narrative.

Birth of the goddess Athena
© research: A.H. Hondius-Crone.

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