This research and web post is based on my research of the topic of Athena in art, we will be discussing quite a few stories and the analysis of some pieces of art. At first we will look into the Birth Of Athena, there was a fragment found of the birth.Then we will discuss the meaning of the statues of Athena found and the meaning of different object that have been associated with her, and that are important to her cult such as a olive tree. Then I will discuss a theory that Athena is the Gorgon, wether if I think it’s true after looking at the academic evidence. Then we will take a quick look at what Athena is show as in Classical Art. I wanted to research how Athena is depicted in art and how the stories and explanations go along with the art.
Birth of Athena
The first piece of art that we will be discussing is the “Birth of Athena” on a fragment of black figure poetry. “A fragment in the Fogg Art Museum, from the bequest of David M. Robinson, shows a sixth century birth of Athena in black-figure technique. Roughly shaped a like a trapeze, it is about five inches high and four and half inches wide at the broadest point” (Balmuth, 1963, p.69). The fragment itself has been the picture associated with a story coming from Hesiod’s Theogony line 886-900.
In Hesiod’s Theogony, it is said that Athena was born from Zeus’s forehead, after he swallowed Metis, who was pregnant with Athena. After he had swallowed Metis, he began to have headaches which prompted Hephaestus (maybe Prometheus or Hermes depending on which version of the story is being read), to hit Zeus’s head with an ax and out came Athena, fully grown, fully clothed for battle with a shield. Zeus’ motivation to swallowing Metis was because she was destined to have two children, Athena and a son who would be more powerful than Zeus and would over take his father’s kingship (Brown, 130-131). With Zeus who gave birth to Athena he could absorb the knowledge Metis had given their daughter, so Athena could not become more powerful than her father (Brown, 134). In “The Birth Of Athena” by Norman O. Brown we find his analyses of Hesiod’s Theogony and the actions take by Zeus with some explanations of the story. He also explains on how the myth has evolved into another myth, on how Athena became the goddess of the state, Athena Polias. Brown’s analysis of the myth seems to focus more other aspects than Athena herself, so for the most part this concludes Hesiod’s Theogony version off Athena’s Birth.
Two Different Athena Stances
Athena in Greek art can be divided into two different categories, the first one can be described as her being war-ready, She is standing up in a war like pose with her shield and spear. The second category is a more calm, gentle pose, she is is sitting down without her weapons. (Luyster, 133). Athena is often associated with a snake, which is her foster son, he is the result of an attempted rape on her, by Hephaestus. His semen fell on the earth and Impregnated the earth and that is how Erichthonius is born. Erichthonius is said to be half snake half boy, which brings us to the point that snakes are something that represent Athena. Not only was there a snake guarding the Acropolis but a snake was also a sign of fertility and as mentioned above, Athena is seen as a goddess of fertility which would make sense. In addition there are some sculptures of her standing with spear and shield and is accompanied by a snake. Since Athena herself is the daughter of Metis(Wisdom) and her father was Zeus, it only make sense that she would be associated with a snake, she would be powerful because she has all knowledge available to here through her parents and the snake. There is also the olive tree she had planted in front of the Acropolis, to signify tat it belonged to her, and not Poseidon (Luyster, 150). Although it was burnt along with the Acropolis by the Persians. Owls are also associated with Athena, the before the final battle against the Persians, saw a small owl fly over them. They took this as sign as they were protected and looked after by Athena. (Luyster, 151) The second type of statues representing Athena, are as I mentioned at the start of this paragraph, are the war like stances with her spear and her shield by her side. Within the this category, there are two other sub categories of type of sculptures, “The first one of these was historically first and in it, Athena stands rather quietly and with feet together. this is know as the Palladium type” (Luyster, 156) and there is also the second type, “Promachos type, in which the feet are apart and striding forward” (Luystr, 156). The second type was sort of an upgrade from the first statues, they were created by Attic artists (Luyster, 156).
Luyster goes on to talk about how Athena is commonly called Medusa, and that she shares similar traits to Medusa. For example the eyes, it is said that Athena had the eyes of the Gorgon, that no one could handle her stare. There is also a tale where she is wearing the Gorgon’s face on one her peplos and a man made eye contact with it, he turned into stone (Luyster, 159). Not only was Athena considered to maybe be the Gorgon herself but she also wore the Gorgon on her shield (Marx, 233). Since the text by Marx says the Perseus brought Medusa’s head to Athena so she could place the head on her shield, it would make no sense that she could the Gorgon/Medusa. Although I understand where Luyster is coming from, since Athena has a strong glare that it could be threatening to look at her, and it instilled fear into the entire population. But it would still make no sense if Athena herself was Medusa. But this is still a mystery because some called Athena ‘Medusa’ since the word meant queen, and she was their queen. On top of that being nearly impossible, Medusa was herself a priestess of Athena before she broke her celibacy vow and Athena turned her into the monster she was known as. The Gorgon is often worn on the Aegis, which is a garment worn for extra protection in battles, as seen worn by Athena in the statues in the section above.
Athena in Classical Art
As I mentioned in a couple of paragraphs before Athena was often portrayed in a war like stance with her spear and and shield, and in the paragraph we discussed the Gorgon being on the shield. The shield is described to be a a bright golden colour with golden tassels, especially in the Decay and Filling piece. Athena herself is often portrayed in sculptures, but also appear often enough in the black-figure poetry that i mentioned in the first paragraph. According to pictures on her Wikipedia page and some information on the page, she is often sculpted with an owl on her shoulder. As I mentioned above, the owl is often a representation of her as a symbol that she is looking after the troops and that she is protecting them.
To conclude this paper, I would like to think Athena is pretty well represented in the arts, the stories seem to flow along with the art pretty well. She is represented from her birth out of Zeus’ head to her war like stances statues. She is shown to have many different versions of herself to fit where she is, since the are Athena’s of certain palaces and the Athena Polias. We looked into a variety of different objects and things associated with Athena and their meaning of the time and her ties to her. We also looked into if she was also Medusa, which i find it could be impossible, but I will not deny that her gaze is pretty strong and can be intimidating and make people not look her way. But also, i found information on just Athena hard to find, when I found the report bin the Birth of Athena, it seemed to talk more about everyone else than her and the story itself. Which can be a good thing, but not when you are focusing on just Athena. Also there are not many academic sources that talk about Athena and her being represented so it was particularly hard to prove what I was trying to convey. In the end, I achieved my goal in finding artwork that represents the stories of Athena accurately.
Balmuth, M. S. (1963).The Birth of Athena on a Fragment in the Fogg Art Museum. American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 67, No. 1 (Jan., 1963), p. 69. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/502704
Brown, N. O. (1952) The Birth Of Athena. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 83 (1952), pp. 130-143. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/283379
Decay, S. & Villing, A. (2009) What was the Colour of Athena’s Aegis?. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 129 (2009), pp. 111-129 Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20789894
Marx, P. A. (1993) The Introduction os the Gorgonieon to the Shield and Aegis of Athena and the Question of Endodios. Revue Archéologique, Nouvelle Série, Fasc. 2 (1993), pp. 227-268
Luyster, R. (1965) Symbolic Elements in the Cult of Athena. History of Religions, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Summer, 1965), pp. 133-163 Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1061807
Special on Athena’s Birth. Retrieved from https://goddessnike.com/nike_story_on_athenas_birth.php#
Classical Art, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athena#Pallas_Athena
All pictures used are from the Athena Wikipedia page, there fore can be used for public use. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athena#Pallas_Athena