The birth of Athena from the head of Zeus, as it is represented on black-figure pottery.

A. Zeus.
The way in which Zeus is represented is not characteristic: neither the position, nor the cloting, nor the size of the sitting figure in relation to the standing figures is characteristic, since evry sitting person could have been represented in the same way. Often the gods is represented grasping a staff in one hand, a thunderbolt in the other hand, sitting on a throne. Of these attributes only the thunderbolt is typical of Zeus. The throne is the attribute of rulers: many other monarchs are represented sitting on a throne. The staf is the most insignificant attribute because almost everybody, both deities and human beings, can be represented with a staff. In the more extensive representations Zeus without exception is seen on the central position. Furthermore he usually is represented in profile to the right. The position Zeus takes up has to do with the role he fulfils in the myth: not Athena, but Zeus is the key figure in the myth! So for clarity's sake it might be better to speak about the myth of Zeus giving birth to Athena. The fact he is reepresented to the right might have had a symbolic meaning: in fighting scenes of the same period the final victors preferably are represented to the right.; on pictures of the murder of king Priamus he usually is represented in opposite direction.

B. Athena.
Athena can be identified easily by her attributes: helmet, spear and aegis. [The aegis is described in the Iliad, the second book: "..and with them went Athena of the flashing eyes, wearing her speldid cloack, the unfading everlasting aegis, from which a hundred tassels flutter, all beautifully made, each worth a hundred head of cattle.] Usually she is represented in a very smaal size above the head of Zeus. For lack of space the small figure of Athena often verlaps the ornamental border at the top of the picture and some details often are difficult to distinguish or even omitted. Sometimes only a bust or a helmet is seen. No doubt it is also lack of space that made artists represent Athena standing on the lap of Zeus or omit her completely. In the case Athena has represented standing on the lap of Zeus there is something to be said for the idea this is a matter of contamination with the birth of Dionysos.

C. The other deities (Viz. Summary I: the deities).
C.1. The gods.
Only five gods occurs frequently: Ares, Hermes, Apollo, Poseidon and Hephaistos. Hephaistos, the only god playing a certain role in the ancient literature about the birth of Athena, is seen the least frequent. When we leave aside the fragments of pottery and the vases on which Athena is not seen, we at once remark the material can be divided in two groups: one group of pottery (pottery belonging to Group E ~ Exekias) on which Hermes, Apollo and Ares are seen on fixed positions (Viz. Summary II: The [male] gods); each of these gods can be substituted by Poseidon. Hephaistos doesn't occur at all; an other group of vases, distinguished by the fact that Ares doesn't occur at all, Apollo only rarely and Hephaistos often. This group is less uniform then the first group (Group E).

C.2. The goddesses.
Because it is difficult to identify the goddesses there can be said not much about them. Far too easy the goddesses on both sides of Zeus have been considered as Eileithyai (midwives). They should be characterised by their gestures. But a comparison (Viz. Summary III: The Gestures of the Goddesses) shows no argument can be token from these gestures about the identity of the goddesses: at least eight different gestures are found, and it would be incorrect to go as far as to say one of these gestures can be considered as a "gesture of delivery" and so is a distictive feature for Eileithyai. It would be not very difficult to point to other pictures with figures, meeting each other and making identical gestures.

The pictures on vases belonging to the second group show a tendency to symmetry: usually there is a goddess at each side of Zeus, and they are each other's mirror image. Has this be done to characterize them as Eileithyai? The pictures belonging to the first group usually show only one goddess, seen at the right side of the picture.

Only in very few cases a goddess aside of Zeus can be identified: when het name has been added (Eileithya 2x, Demeter 1x). Probably two times Hera can be identified (no C15, group E; C21, group E; viz. descriptions). In general can be concluded the artists didn't expend considerable effort to characterise the goddesses.

D. Some attributes.
D.1. The thunderbolt.
Usually the thunderbolt is represented by two lotus flowers, the bottoms against each other joined together with two double volutes forming a handle. Different types occur although on pictures belonging to group E fewer differences are sen than on those which do not belong to this group.

D.2. Thrones.
On representations belonging to group E Zeus is represented sitting on a throne, except for one. On pottery not belonging to this group Zeus usually is seen sitting on a chair.

D.3. Figures underneath the throne.
On almost all representations with a throne a little figure is seen under the seat. Possibly these figures originally have been meant as ornaments of side and/or front panels of the throne, as we know them from ancient Egypt and the Near East. It seens as if these figures have come to live in Greece. For, although it is not always possible to establish if such a creature is situated under the throne alive and well or not, there are also cases in which it is beyond doubt: the owl, seen on nr. C1 is the same as the owl seen under the throne of nr. C16; and there is not any indication the goddess positioned under the throne of nr. C23 is a part of this

throne. Since we meet such figures positioned under chairs as well (viz. Richter, Furniture) it is clear that at least some artists by these figures have thought to living beings. Stylistically these figures remind to the lions, birds, persons and other creatures on pottery belonging to the Corinthian style: possibly these beings owe their continued life to artists, who felt annoyed at the empty space underneath these pieces of furniture. If these creatures have a symbolic meaning is hard to say; the question can only be answered in general: of course some of these motives have been chosen with purpose: so for instance the owl, referring to Athena. Possibly this goes for other figures as well, but we do not know it by lack of information.

D.4. The owl.
The owl occurs five times: in all cases it concerns pottery belonging to group E. The owls look like each other and are the spitting image of the owl seen on the most ancient coins of the citu-state of Athens. Without any doubt these owls refer to Athena and to Athens. Ther has been stated "the owl is Athena", but this conclusion passes over the significance of the owl as a political symbol of the city-state.

E. Spatial planning.
One has to imagine the deities, present at the miraculous birth of Athena, standing in a ring around Zeus. Some of them are standing further back from the throne than others. It is clear that the vasepainters had a three-dimensional concept in mind when painting their pictures, as it can be seen by many details. For instance: always when there is a goddess at each side of Zeus the goddess left of Zeus is seen more from the front then the goddess on the other side, thus rousing the impression they are not positioned before and behind him. That this impression is correct is confirmed by the fact that the goddess at his left is overlapped by the throne, the footstool, the arm of Zeus or another part of the picture of the god.
To reduce a three-dimensional concept into a picture involves problems which have to be resolved when one doesn't content oneself with a photographic reproduction. The Greek vasepainters from the sixth century B.C. didn't as may be clear from the fact they, like the Egyptian artists, didn't reproduce what they saw but what they considered to be essential. That's why they didn't like to represent figures from the front: the goddess underneath the throne on nr C15 is represented partly in frontal view, partly in profile; head and feet are seen in profile, the wings in frontal view. Her cloth consists of a doric peplos, which is open at the sides. Only when one realizes the upper part of the body is represented in frontal view and the lower part of the body in profile it becomes clear she really wears a doric peplos. As already said: Zeus is not always represented sitting on a throne (Viz. Summary IV: Thrones, Chairs and Foldingstools). Thrones usually are represented in profile: because a side view of a throne is the most characteristic view. Ancient thrones, which have been recovered, show the palmette ornamentsm, as reepresented on many of the thrones on which Zeus is sitting, at the front and the back side. The artist also in this case felt free to give the legs a quarter turn for clarity's sake.
When we want to transpose the pictures from the flat suface into a three-dimensional image, we have to bear in mind the mentality of the ancient vasepainters. It's beyond doubt that Zeus is sitting in the middle of the gods. But in fact he also is turned to us, the spectators - just like the painter of nr. C14 has represented him. Striking is the fact that also in this case the ornaments, made on the back, are visible for us.
We may take for granted that the throne, seen on nr. C14 in fact didn't differ from the throne which is represented on nr. C8. Only when we assume this spatial planning it becomes comprehensible how it is possible that all the gods of nr. C18 raise their hands in amazement; and why it is a mistake to suppose the gods are running away, when their feet are seen turned away from the throne: these gods are not walking at all! In fact the feet are positioned side by side. Imagine two gods, standing together, turned to each other because they are busy talking to each other, while at the same time they are looking to Zeus: how to transpose this situation into a flat picture? There is only one solution: to represent them with the feet turned to each other and with their faces in profile turned to Zeus. Often the formation of groups can be derived from the way in which the feet are represented (viz. for instance nr. C18).

When a sitting figure is seen we can only be sure he can be identified with Zeus if he is grasping a thunderbolt or if he is surrounded by deities. Since not every picture with a sitting Zeus can be connected with the myth about his giving birth to Athena, we put forward the proposition that only in case the new born goddess is seen we can be certain the representation can be connected with the birth of Athena. Most of these pictures belong to a group of vases which have been painted by Exekias or after the fashion of this potpainter (Group E). The most distinctive features of this style are an abundance of details and an almost lack of variety in the composition; gods are clearly identified by their attributes. The remaining representastions of Zeus, giving birth to Athena show less uniformity. In general Zeus is seen in a central position; usually there is a goddess at each side of Zeus. These pictures show a tendency to symmetry. Now and then Hephaistos occurs on these pictures.
There are several so called "Birth of Athena" representations without Athena: possibly because there is one representation without the goddess which nevertheless has to be considered as a "Birth of Athena" (viz. nr. C36), the idea has settled there also exists a series of representations of Zeus, during the "prenatal stage".
A more plausible explanation of these representations is the artist didn't really care about the motive he painted: it didn't matter as long as people recognised gods, assembled on Mount Olympus. Only when Hephaistos is seen, this fact might be an argument to suppose the artist intended to represent Zeus tormented by headache preceding the birth of Athena.


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Birth of the goddess Athena
© A.E.J. Kaal