Athena, Serpents, Shapeshifting, Human-form - From a link supplied by Jon Hurst - HiddenMysteries ThE~Magazine

Athena, Serpents,
Shapeshifting, Human-form
From a link supplied by Jon Hurst

Athena - Mother, Mistress and Protectress

It is a characteristic feature of Greek religion that the Goddesses, who make up a significant number of venerable maternal and virginal forms, maintain an equal balance with the masculine supremacy among the Gods. Preeminently this is done by Pallas Athena: as no other, she is the daughter of her father, the Highest God, and unites virgin and mother in one and the same divine person. In the cult of Hera, who again and again becomes virginal in order to offer her virginity to her divine husband, and who bears children, children without a father, one awaits in vain the epithet "mother." This cultic epithet is also absent from Artemis, even though in Asia Minor she was identical to the Great Mother. In Greece she never signified mother. Precisely this contrast with Artemis, whose cults were sometimes most unchaste, demonstrates how significant it is that Pallas Athena was worshipped in both aspects: as Parthenos, in the sense of a chaste, almost masculine maiden, and as mother. In Greece the relation to sex is not exhausted by the alternatives of chastity and unchastity. There are many combinations and mixtures: "chaste" is not always identical with "virginal," nor even with "temperate." The study of religion must go beyond the general concept of "cultic chastity," as also beyond the abstract concept of "fertility," if it is to avoid gross simplification. The question always arises as to what is supposed to be understood concretely by these concepts. In the case of Athena one has the opportunity, first of all, to speak more concretely about the phenomenon of fertility.

If the chorus of old Athenian men (Euripides, The Heracleidae) addresses the Goddess "Mother, Mistress, and Protectress," one might suppose that she were named "Mother" in an unusual, or perhaps a merely poetical, sense. The Athena Meter of the Elis cult, however, bore this epithet as Goddess of motherhood in the truest sense. She brought about conception, which was not simply the self-evident and inevitable result of men uniting with women; and she entered this realm, which from the viewpoint of Hera must be looked at in a completely different light, not only for the sake of fertility. According to cultic legend, the women of Elis once prayed to the Goddess, when all the men of suitable age had left the country, that they might conceive immediately upon being reunited with their men. Because this prayer was granted, they founded the temple to "Mother Athena"; and because the men and women had particularly enjoyed their reunion, they named the place where it happened and the stream that ran in front of the place Bady, which means "sweet." The action of Athena is given here a different telos, a different meaning for the love union than this union receives in Hera's sphere of action. Here conception belongs to fulfillment: in the ideational world of mother-right, on the other hand, which was attached to the wife of Zeus, not obvious motherhood but the woman's completion through the man is sought for and found -- this is a viewpoint that may be called matriarchal. The fulfillment that may be attained only in being impregnated by the man signifies the subordination of the woman to a higher goal, namely, the securing of offspring, and for this reason it conceals within itself a typical patriarchal standpoint.

As it appears in connection with Athena, motherhood must be understood in terms of father-right. For this there is a late but nonetheless valuable testimony in the privileged city of the Goddess. In Athens the priestess of Athena visited the newly married women wearing the aegis, the sacred goatskin, which had been removed from the cultic statue. As such she appeared as the representative of the Goddess, and because -- not being a virgin herself but a married woman -- she mediated a sort of epiphany of Athena and placed the new marriage under the protection of the existing patriarchal order. This order above all else required descendants. The occasion for this ceremony was the common wedding celebration for all the couples who had married during the year. It was probably no different in Elis. The meeting of all women and men at a stream -- the stream (or river) God played a precise role in wedding rites in Greece -- probably takes the place of the annual communal wedding festival.

In her character as "Mother," Athena was above all a wedding Goddess, though not in the same sense as Hera. The evidence suggests a middle stage between the order of mother-right, as this is reflected in the cult and mythology of Hera, and the patriarchal world in Greece. Three stages of Greek cultural and religious history are evident. This conclusion is reached independently of Bachofen's schema and without reliance on broad generalizations. One can find analogies in other places, but the Greek conditions, insofar as they allow for reconstruction from the concrete Greek materials, are at least equally instructive from the general human point of view. The transitional stage between the orders of mother-right and father-right was characterized in Greece by male societies, which in the course of history more and more lost their character (well-known in ethnology) as secret societies. What remained in the end were classifications of men into "brotherhoods," the phratries. In this final, purely formal condition, the phratriai of Athens had practically no other task than assuming responsibility for the early maturational ceremonies, by now very faded in form, for young boys at the feast called Apaturia, and then for leading them step by step toward the stage of marriage. They also registered the marriageable maidens and accepted them into the phratrie as wives. As Phratria and Apaturia, Athena is the Goddess of these ancient male societies. Among the male Deities, Zeus Phratrius stands in the first position beside her. Hephaestus was especially revered among them, being also a "marriage candidate" for Pallas Athena. We will often meet representatives of the male sex in the realm of this virginal, and in a special way also maternal, Goddess. For now, just one particularly instructive example has been selected.

There is the cultic legend from a small island not far from Athens, across from Troezen. Appearing as an apparition, Athena sent the maiden Aithra there, where she could be taken by Poseidon. Having celebrated her involuntary wedding, which had been desired by the Goddess, she founded a temple there to Athena Apaturia and gave the island a new name. Earlier the island had been called Sphairia, "the round," but since that event it was called Hiera, "the holy." This legend explains the custom of the Troezen maidens offering their girdles to Athena Apaturia before their weddings. For this purpose they went to the holy island. The Athenian maidens, too, were led by their parents to the Acropolis on the day before their weddings in order to make an offering to Athena. Athena protectively surrounds the wedding event with her presence and secures the conception of a child. In the heroic legend this had to do with an heroic child: Aithra became the mother of Theseus. What is striking in this is the importance attached to conception, which highlights the patriarchal viewpoint within the Athena-inspired union.

In the antique tradition there are explicit testimonies of a certain amount of consciousness about the transition which took place under the protection of Athena. The transition from the matriarchal mode of thought (that left fatherhood to incalculable powers) to the patriarchal order, which consecrated specific institutions to conception and thereby concretized fatherhood, was expressed in the language of the saga, that primal mythological history of Athens. During the period when the Goddess seized possession of her property on Attic soil, when she struggled for it against Poseidon and single-handedly fortified the Acropolis, there reigned the earth-born, half-serpent primal man Cecrops, the first king of Athens: this is the one "of whom it may be said that he first revealed the two elements of the father and mother" (Plutarch). This remarkable assertion was supposed to explain the epithet for Cecrops, diphues, with a different strand of the saga than the fantastic one that he had a two-fold form, which is what the word actually means. This less fantastic, but by no means obvious, explanation was further substantiated by the assumption of general promiscuity in primal times, in which the father had to remain anonymous; to counter this Cecrops would have introduced monogamy. In this pseudo-historical construction of a rationalistic era -- it originates with the historian Klearch -- there thus appears, as an element of the explanation, a tradition of the introduction of the patriarchal order. In agreement is another tradition contained in the form of a saga, according to which women, under the reign of Cecrops, lost the right to name children after their mothers, i.e., metronymically and not patronymically.

Cecrops belongs to Pallas Athena not only in saga; he is also bound to her in cult. His tomb is alleged to have been located in the sanctuary of the Goddess on the Acropolis, which was named the Erechtheum after Erechtheus, another kingly worshipper of Athena who was born from the earth and later transformed into a serpent. Both of these kings who were connected with Athena have archaic outward forms, which in the same temple were objects of religious veneration, concretely as animals -- i.e., as the "home-protecting serpent" (oikouros ophis). In Attica, however, Zeus too bore the form of serpent as Meilichios -- an epithet of the paternal God of the underworld, as well as of Dionysus in this aspect -- and as Ktesios, who is mentioned with Athena Ktesia in one and the same prayer formula. In the rich theriomorphism of the mythology of Pallas Athena, the association of the Goddess with the form of the serpent certainly belongs to the most ancient stratum. The assertion is even put forward that the serpent -- at once "palace snake" and "Palace Goddess" -- was the prehistoric predecessor of the Goddess herself. On the Acropolis of Athens it appears as the masculine complement to the Fortress Goddess, as the most archaic in the line of masculine beings whose most ancient representatives had the form of serpent, or took on the serpent form, or like Zeus removed it by degrees: the primal kings Cecrops and Erechtheus and the divine child Erichthonius. As the closest analogue, one thinks of a similar role for the serpent in the case of the Minoan "Palace Goddess," particularly if one avoids its relation to the sphere of fertilization. The possibility of a mythical wedding of serpents, in which the bride would also take the form of serpent, must naturally be considered in this connection. As one can infer from the Orphic tradition, such a mythologem exists in connection with Rhea and Zeus, mother and son, as a prelude to a second serpent wedding between Zeus and Persephone, father and daughter, wherein only the masculine portion of the incest -- and therefore archaical pair -- appeared in animal form. A prehistoric serpent cult and serpent mythology, which most likely had their early forms in Crete and their analogies in Egypt and in still more southern, snake-infested lands, project themselves into the Attic cult of Athena, not amorphously however, but in the form of archaic mythologems. Over against the mother-son mythologem, which is connected to Crete through the image of Rhea, the patriarchal tone of the Athena religion creates something definitely new; it creates nothing new, however, in relation to the father-daughter mythologem. Despite this, however, a graduated transition does become evident.

Within the cultic domain of Athena the serpent is the complement of the maternal aspect of the Goddess and simply refers to the fertilizing masculine sphere, to the father and to his continuation, the son. Another tradition points in the same direction. The same Cecrops, whose respect-commanding authority as arbiter in the dispute between Athena and Poseidon provides evidence that he belongs to a more ancient stratum of religion and culture in Attica than the disputing Deities themselves; this serpentine partner of the Goddess, who in the realm of the Athena religion also plays the role of husband and father, was also according to Athenian tradition supposed to have introduced the patriarchal Zeus -- and Athena -- cult. He is supposed to have first given a name to Zeus and to have first erected a statue to Athena; perhaps more precisely he was the first to name Zeus "Hypatos" ("the highest"). This epithet is the first to allow the patriarchal Sky God in Zeus to step forward fully. In nearby Marathon it was precisely in the marriage month of Gamelion that sacrifice was made to Hypatos.

The Birth of Athena

From the very first the mythology of Athena seems to contradict every human analogy. In what sort of family is it conceivable that a daughter be born without a mother? That she sprang forth from the head of her father? Such a miraculous birth is presented already by Homer and told by Hesiod, and from a purely theoretical standpoint it suits an absolutely patriarchal order better than would a natural birth. But only theoretically, since the mythologem assumes no human proportionality whatsoever. Considered from the viewpoint of that beautiful anthropomorphism, the epiphany in human form, which the Greeks preferred in every other appearance of the Divine, this one contains such a grotesque conception that one must wonder how it could have held its ground despite the prevailing views of Homer and of those after him. The closest analogy to this conception stems from the archaic mythology of the Polynesians. There a similar story is told, not about a God but about a primal Goddess. The Earth Mother, having been impregnated by the Sky Father, gave birth to the God of fishes and reptiles through her arm, or "directly through the head." Archaic mythologies do also show, then, a kind of anthropomorphism in which prior events that are not thought of in anthropomorphic terms, such as here the origin of fishes and reptiles, are presented in the form of human, though not humanly normal, events.

The mother is not completely missing from the mythologem of the miraculous birth of Pallas Athena. According to Hesiod's account of the weddings of Zeus, whose sequential ordering is most likely the invention of the poet of the Theogony, the King of the Gods chose Metis as his first wife. She was of all beings "the most knowing" (as the word metis is interpreted), or "of many counsels" as translated in the sense of the Homeric epithet polymetis. As she was about to give birth to the Goddess Athena, Zeus deceived his pregnant wife with cunning words and assimilated her into his own body. Mother Earth and Father Sky had advised him to do this so as to prevent any of his descendants from robbing him of his kingly rank. For it was destined that the most brilliant children were to be born to the Goddess Metis: first, the daughter Athena, and later a son, the future King of Gods and men. Hesiod, following the patriarchal line of thought, bases this inhuman, non-anthropomorphic deed of Zeus -- swallowing his wife -- upon the fear for the son, heir to the throne. Yet even here the viewpoint of mother-right retains some of its force. The feared heir to the throne is to be born from a particular mother. This motif, wherever it appears in mythology or heroic saga, betrays matriarchal thinking. Not even the extremely unfeminine father's daughter, Pallas Athena, is born to the father alone. Even she has a mother who carries her to term within the body of Zeus and enables and forces the devouring husband to deliver the child.

The Mysteries of Athena

Four Athenian maidens were chosen for the service of the Goddess and lived on the Acropolis. Between the ages of seven and eleven, they were selected from among the noble families. All were called Arrephoroi. Only two, however, are mentioned as executors of the secret rite of the Arrephoria. It was also said in connection with the choice of the four Arrephoroi that two persons were chosen to direct the work on the peplos of the Goddess. Not only maidens but also mature women helped in the weaving of it, just as the priestess of Athena was herself not a virgin. We do not know if the two directors of the work on the peplos were chosen from the four Arrephoroi. The question which concerns us relates only to the appropriateness of the four (or two) Arrephoroi on the one hand, and the three daughters of Cecrops, who functioned as examples for the conduct of the later Arrephoroi, on the other. The story was told to these girls when, at about the age of seven, they entered into the Arrephoria festival. Two of the three daughters, one of which was Aglaurus, were killed because they opened the basket which the Arrephoroi were not allowed to open. On Aglaurus falls the shadow of Pallas Athena's darker aspect, the one bound up with the underworld. This shadow, however, was no longer an obvious factor for these small servants of the Goddess, all dressed in white and wearing golden ornaments. Only their number -- two, or twice two -- still implied the two aspects of their mistress. How are we to square this duality with the number of the three sisters?

In the midst of the serving girls belongs the priestess, the actual representative of the Goddess herself. The function of this threesome is expressly declared: the priestess of Polias has two assistants, one of them being called Trapezo ("she who brings the table") and the other Kosmo ("she who sets the table"). Of the three daughters of Cecrops, the middle one, Herse, comes to the fore less often than the first and third, Aglaurus and Pandrosus. Both of these are equated with the Goddess, the one as Athena Aglaurus, the other as Athena Pandrosus. Each possessed her own special sacred precinct: the Pandroseum lay up on the Acropolis, leaned directly against the Erechtheum, and surrounded the sacred olive tree; the Aglaureum lay below, on the north slope of the fortress. It was the place where Aglaurus supposedly had jumped to, in self-sacrifice according to one version, or out of insanity at having glimpsed the forbidden content of the basket according to another. Herse shared the wrongdoing and the punishment with her, while Pandrosus remained the faithful servant of the Goddess. Herse owned no particular sanctuary, yet the ceremony of the Arrephoria was associated with her name, or with what this name concealed within itself, by giving it a new interpretation or even by revising the name to Errephoria. She may be the figure in the middle who carries the essence of Athena -- not so much one of her externally active aspects as her mystery -- and for this reason had no other sanctuary than that in which the city Goddess was worshipped among mysterious cultic objects, i.e., the Erechtheum.

The cultic mysteries of the Erechtheum, which was the sacred precinct on which a unique building was constructed in classical times, are best compared to the mysteries of the vestal temples in Rome. Here, as there, we find the worship of a virginal and simultaneously maternal city Goddess. Here, too, we find virgins selected from among the most noble families to serve the Goddess. In this, the Roman cult distinguishes itself by rigorous consistency, while the Athenian cult comes closer to a contradictory, more concrete reality through a seeming inconsistency -- the divine Virgin has a mortal married woman for her priestess. Here, as there, we find associations to the elements: to earth, represented on the Acropolis by the Goddess Ge; to water, which came into the Erechtheum from a bitter spring and was considered to be sea-water; and most importantly to fire, which not only glowed in the eschara but also burned in an eternal lamp. And finally, here, as there, we find the cultic presence of the masculine in unmistakable forms. With Vesta it was the fascinus, the phallus, but in the sacred precinct of the Erechtheum, aside from the precisely analogous object which was a "Hermes" covered with myrtle branches, a whole series of Gods and heroes expressed the same things in different historically conditioned variations.

In the three sisters -- Aglaurus, Herse, and Pandrosus -- and in the many forms of the divine "Man," who was the companion of the Goddess of the Erechtheum, we have the plan of a dramatically dynamic and yet firmly outlined mythologem, which plays itself out on several stages at the same time. The stage of the cult must be considered together with that of the mythological tales. The calendar of festivals leads over onto the cosmic stage, and yet we will move on it in a purely human way. Pallas Athena is on all stages without fully revealing herself in any single appearance on this or that stage. The myths and rites of the Athenian Acropolis, above all those associated with the Erechtheum, would teach us the most about Pallas Athena -- precisely because they had no intention of instructing -- could we but reconstruct them. But the cultic activities which guaranteed the existence of a city and the cultic objects with which these activities were carried out, were kept no less secret than the Arreta of other, now famous mysteries. The myths that were told about these at once hint at the inexpressible and veil it. It is veiled through many devices: through numerous variations on the same theme, and through names that are nothing more than code-words. Intentionality and spontaneity are difficult to separate in this game, in which telling is combined with not surrendering.

Just as people of the south [of Europe] today switch into rapid dialect when they do not want strangers to understand them, the Athenians said Arrephoroi and Arrephoria instead of Arretophoroi and Arretophoria, since even the word arreton ("unmentionable," "secret," "sacred," "horrible") betrayed more of what the maidens were carrying in the basket than was seemly for the service of the virginal Goddess. Playful variations, like Aglaurus beside Agraulus (which has a more concrete meaning) or Cecrops instead of Cercops (a word in which the serpentine tail becomes too prominent), were supposed to deceive us. And they have actually deceived the educated people and romantic souls who have taken great pleasure in the "dew sisters." The name of the second sister, Herse, does indeed actually mean "dew," but dew can be a metaphor for fertilizing semen and also for the resulting child. The masculine form of Herse would be a reference to Apollo and Zeus as divine children, who were given the epithets Hersos or Erros; in its feminine form the name intimates the receptive one and at the same time conceals this. Who would have dared raise the veil had it not been for the fact that the fate of semen is spoken of explicitly in the wedding mythologem of Athena? Pandrosus, too, seemingly had a merely poetic name ("the one completely bedewed" or "bedewing everything"), and here the bedewed olive tree and the moon, which dispenses dew, become visible in a many layered image. Wherever three mythological sisters appear, the cosmic background of the three lunar phases enters the picture, just as these played a part in Hera's three forms of manifestation.

The calendar of Athena's festivals provides some further hints. The monthly birthday of the Goddess was always the third of the month, called Tritomenis, which through a false etymology was related to Athena's epithet, Tritogeneia. During the festival of Panathenaea in the summer month of Hekatombaion, the birthday was celebrated in Athens as the new year. The Great Panathenaea was celebrated with great magnificence every fourth year. The most important day of the Panathenaea fell on the third day before the end of the month. Accordingly, late antiquarians set the birthday on the third day before the end of the month, or simply on the day of the hidden moon. This mistaken but not completely groundless opinion can be explained: the day of the new moon, the menon phthinas 'emera, being the chief day of the festival, received as much important as did the actual birthday, which was the third day after the disappearance of the moon. The most important day of the Panathenaea and the birthday were associated but were not identical. The distance between them was not supposed to be greater than the time between the disappearance and reappearance of the moon. It became larger on the calendar, however, which preferred fixed numbers. The twenty-six to twenty-eight days during which the moon appears, along with the one-and-one-half to three days during which it does not appear, had to be extended in order to make up the thirty days of the calendar month. The month could be extended either at the beginning or the end. If it were done at the beginning, the crescent of the new moon would appear on the evening of the month's third day. The birth of Athena remained connected to this day. If the month were extended at the end, the date of the moon's reappearance could occur as early as the twenty-ninth, i.e., the second day of the Panathenaea. The festival could have begun previously, on the nights of the twenty-eighth, with the dancing, singing, and noise-making of the young men and women. This is how the hidden moon was invoked in archaic times and by archaic peoples. On the evening of the second day, the crescent of the new moon would become visible in the evening sky, as though having sprung from the head of the sun, a phenomenon in which we recognize the cosmic referent in the birth of Athena. The greatest festival of Athena thus contained two cosmic situations: the time of the conjunction, the night of the new moon, which is shrouded in darkness and during which the sun and moon seemingly encounter one another, and an epiphany.

More than once already we have confronted among the aspects of the Goddess an image that reaches into the darkness. This is Aglaurus, and like her two sisters, and in them Athena herself, she appeared on several stages at the same time. On the divine stage of mythology she occupied the periodic existence of a dying and eternally rising, immortal Goddess; on the human stage of cultic legend, she appeared as servant and priestess, the sacrificed and dying one. It is self-contradictory and yet suitable to the essence of this autonomous aspect of the Goddess that Euripides speaks of the three sisters sometimes as deceased and sometimes as alive, as dancing nymphs. Pandrosus, like Pallas and Nike, is a name for the bright aspect, the aspect of epiphany. Aglaurus, on the other hand, plays a tragic role in that mystery in which Pallas appears in need of purification. There was express mention of mysteries of Aglaurus and Pandrosus. This does not refer to the Panathenaea, but to another festival in which the sinister side appeared in frankly tragic tones as the sacrificial death of a maiden, the festival of Plynteria. The cleansing of Pallas belonged to this festival. The cleansing was completed toward the end of the month of Thargelion on a dark day during which all other activities were forbidden, an apophras emera ("ominous day"). This was preceded by a brighter act, the Kallynteria, which had to do with ornamenting the maiden who was supposed to enter into the darkness. This could only have been Aglaurus, who by the ornamentation was characterized as a bride. "Agraulus," the original form of her name, means "the one spending the night in the field" and evokes the scenario of her Persephonian fate, which took place outside the fortress, presumably at the location of the Aglaureum. The playful transformation of the name -- Aglaurus, probably not unintentionally, harmonizes with the name of the Charity Aglaia -- elevates the image into a higher sphere, while that original nocturnal scenario in the field reminds us also of the fate of the Locrian maidens for whom the men of Troy lay in ambush with murderous intentions. But to whom did Agraulus fall?

The masculine is related to this aspect of Athena in two historically consecutive manifestations. Sophocles alludes to the oldest of the masculine partners when, imitating the form of the name "Agraulus," he gives the three sisters, or one of them, the epithet drakaulos. The explanations for this are varied. Was it because Athena allowed the serpent to live with her? Or because she lived with the double-formed Cecrops? Or was it because one of the sisters used to spend nights with the serpent of the Acropolis and days with the Goddess? Translated into the language of saga, this relationship was spoken of as follows: Agraulus became the wife of Cecrops and the mother of Cecrops' daughters, who were then also called the daughters of Agraulus. She is associated to Cecrops in two ways: as daughter and as spouse. The dual relationship was corrected in a pseudo-historical genealogy, where the spouse of Cecrops was given another father, one who had been especially invented for her. Another tale of incest comes to the fore in connection with the name Aglaurus. According to this story, Procris, a daughter of Erechtheus, bore a child named Aglaurus to her own father. The third instance of it comes up in the birth mythologem of Athena herself, since she possessed the characteristics, under the name of Metis, of a wife of Zeus. The fourth instance is connected to Gorge, who bore Tydeus to her father Omeus. Athena, to whom the name Gorge refers as much as does Gorgyra in the stories about Ascalaphus, then became the maternal Protectress as much of Tydeus as of his son Diomedes, whom we come upon in an obscure cultic connection with Aglaurus on Cyprus. Pallas provides the fifth instance, who as father waylays his own daughter Pallas, even if the act of incest does not succeed in the diluted form of this mythologem. It is to the father, then, that the daughter falls victim in this mythic region -- at least in the stories, though not in the cult. He allows her to descend into the darkness. And it is the daughter who offers the sacrifice: she descends into a paternal-masculine darkness. When the last crescent disappears before the approach of the first fully moonless night, it is the situation of the vanished Metis. The strange image of the devoured wife of Zeus also corresponds to a purely human situation: the binding of the daughter to the father, out of which the patriarchal family order, as opposed to the matriarchal, could most easily arise. The darkness here, as when Persephone is seized, is hardly purely cosmic -- i.e., mythologically and cultically bound up with the time of the dark moon. That to which one succumbs and falls defenselessly always has a lethal aspect, the more so here where the masculine appears not graciously and paternally but aggressively, like the father in the father-daughter mythologem. This mythologem lies at the foundation of the Athena religion. In the second form, whereby the masculine determines the fate of Aglaurus, the aggressive element comes even more into the foreground, and with it too an institution which, one must believe, introduced the formation of the patriarchal family. The presupposition for this development was the father-daughter mythologem, which is the mythological correlate to that mutual alliance that can exist with such uncanny force between father and daughter. To put it in more general terms, it is the bondedness of the feminine portion of humanity, and of the feminine part of each individual person, to the paternal origin. Against this stands the mother-son mythologem, which is the mythological correlate to the alliance between mother and son; or, the bondedness of the masculine portion of humanity, and of each individual, to the maternal origin. This is the basis of every kind of matriarchal organization. Both mythologems are, in themselves, timeless. As tales of actual incest, they make an archaic impression. They may both be present at the same time. Also present at the same time may be the mother-daughter and father-son mythologems, which are two identity-mythologems, while the former are conjunction-mythologems. The chronological sequence of the mother-son mythologem as the older, followed by the father-daughter mythologem as the more recent, and the passage from the first over into the second, would be easy to grasp psychologically. It would also be easy to call the basic mythologems archetypal.

Erichthonius - the divine child of Athena

The name Erichthonius (the "very chthonic one"), a playful interpretation of the name Erechtheus, and used in further playful interpretations, remained the name of the mysterious child . It would perhaps be incorrect to say that this added the aspect "son" to the earlier aspects of the masculine partner of the Goddess, i.e., "father" and "husband." The reason for this is that in the mother-son mythologem, which preceded the father-daughter mythologem also on the Acropolis of Athens, the "son" became the husband: the father was in no way yet present at the beginning of a divine genealogy that began with the mother. Without father or brother, virginity would have been meaningless, since it is a form of the most intimate connection with either one or the other of them, even when it appears as absolute independence. At some point the third aspect, "father," was added to "son" and "husband," and at this same moment the aspect "maiden" was added to "mother" and "wife." From that moment on Pallas Athena was present.

Present as well was the son, who was always called by the pseudonym Erichthonius. There was a secret tradition concerning him, which Aristotle exposed and systematizers of Greek mythology after him retained. According to this, Athena is explicitly assigned a son by Hephaestus with the name Apollo, and the two of them are described as protective Deities (tutela and custos) of the city of Athens. An inscription in the vicinity of the city celebrates Apollo with the epithet Hersus, which associates him (as divine child) with the Erechtheum. If the reading of "Lethe" in a passage by Plutarch is correct, then there stood in this same sanctuary an altar to the recognized mother of Apollo, who instead of openly being named Leto was hidden behind a playful pseudonym.

Shining through all this mystery is a "sun child," neither more nor less sunlike than Apollo himself on Delos. The Athenians decorated and handled their newly born children in accordance with this example. When they gave the infants a serpentine golden necklace and placed them in round baskets, as Euripides tells of Ion (the son of Apollo and Creusa, daughter of Erechtheus), the practice represented a repetition of what happened to the divine child on the Acropolis. That child was guarded by serpents, but it was also represented as having the form of a serpent or serpentine feet. The color of gold, suited to a sun child, also has a mythological meaning, which comes to light in various remarks that have come down to us. Aglaurus loves gold, and Hermes can bribe her with gold to let him in to see Herse. The serpent of the Acropolis, too, is supposed to have been especially fond of gold, and for this reason the Athenians wore their characteristic golden hair ornaments. But the golden ornamentation became sacred only after the servants of the Goddess, the Arrephoroi, put them on. It was these same Arrephoroi, who, imitating the daughters of Cecrops but less curious than they, carried the basket with the unknown contents out of the fortress into a sanctuary on the north slope of the Acropolis. Supposedly neither they nor the priestess herself to whom they turned over the basket knew what it contained or what they brought back as they returned to that other sanctuary on the Acropolis. But the rite becomes intelligible through the story which the Arrephoroi were told to keep them from opening the basket.

As one of the disguised stories tells it, Athena wanted to feed the child secretly whom she had taken from the Earth Mother, to make it immortal. She turned the infant over to Aglaurus and her sisters in a locked basket with the strictest prohibition: they must not know and must not investigate what the basket concealed. This would be understandable if the child was Athena's, a child no less mysterious than the Underworld Goddess's child whose birth was celebrated at Eleusis. This placing of the child under lock and key would not be understandable, however, if it had actually to do only with its nourishment. The Arrephoroi had to do something similar to what the daughters of Cecrops did: before the great festival they had to remove something from the fortress which corresponded to the newly born divine child. The time of their doing this is given by Pausanias as the night before the "festival." No one would think of any other festival than the Panathenaea had the month of Skirophorion not been stated explicitly for it. This was the month of the great bull sacrifice and the "mysteries" preceding it, i.e., the festival of Skira, in which the priestess of Pallas, the priest of Poseidon Erechtheus, and the priest of Helius all participated. That a secret unmentionable object (Arreta) was carried in a sealed basket in rites held outside the fortress also at this festival cannot be doubted. During the night before the Panathenaea, however, there took place a mysterious basket-carrying (an Arrephoria) also, and probably this one was distinguished from the other by naming it with the playful variation Hersephoria.

A natural calculation sets aside any doubt about the meaning of the basket-carrying during the night preceding the Panathenaea. Athena and Hephaestus were celebrated together at the festival of Chalkeia, earlier called Athenaea. This day, the last day of the month of Pyanopsion, was celebrated like a wedding: the artisans presented grain swingles to the Goddess. It was the custom to carry these about at Attic weddings, and they would otherwise actually have been out of place here. Nine months after this wedding celebration, the Panathenaea (also earlier called the Athenaea) was celebrated. This nine month interval, about which we earlier knew only that it served the purpose of weaving a new peplos for the Goddess, now becomes intelligible. Before the birth of Athena as virginal daughter of her father is celebrated in the fortress, two servants leave with a locked basket. On the basis of new excavations, their path can be traced precisely: they left the Acropolis via an underground stairway which led northwest into the Aglaureum. The maidens, however, had to bend from this path eastward, and there they came upon the grotto sanctuary. According to Pausanias, their goal was supposed to be the sacred precinct of "Aphrodite in the Garden." Whether this name should be attributed to the grotto sanctuary remains an open question, The cavern was a sanctuary of Aphrodite and Eros and full of cultic monuments to both of these Deities, among them stone phalluses and representations of the divine child Eros. After the maidens had returned to the sanctuary of the virgin Athena, carrying another and again mysterious burden, they were removed from service and others were chosen to replace them.

On the basis of everything we have presented here, we must assume that the basket contained symbolic objects which at least on the way down, signified the divine child. It has actually been handed down that the Arreta of the basket were serpents and male members made of dough. Whether distinct objects are meant here or a single form, made of cake, that united and could be conceived of in this way or that, remains beyond our current knowledge. Perhaps on the way down it was a serpent figure; it was said explicitly that Athena had given birth to a serpent and that Erichthonius was a serpent, and the form of a serpent was also not incompatible with the name of Apollo, who could as well appear as divine serpent. On the way back up, the basket could hold differently shaped cakes, i.e., those of which it was said that they had been baked for the basket-carrying maidens, for the Arrephoroi: the anastaoi, whose name indicates a phallic shape. Perhaps the servants were given these when they were removed from service after the festival, having been initiated into future motherhood through the mysteries which they carried.

The removal of the divine child prepared things for the second phase of the festival, i.e., the rebirth of the Goddess in victorious virginity as Pandrosus, Pallas, and Nike. The human analogy is not easy to find for this rapid sequence of motherhood followed by rebirth as maiden, which is the most peculiar paradox of Athena's nature. Even if every woman and every soul has something irreducibly virginal within, which is restored after every pregnancy and period of fruitfulness, this still does not occur as an epiphany immediately following the birth of the child. Here we must observe not only the human, but also the cosmic, time-frame. In the familiar Attic calendar, the Panathenaea follows the Chalkeia by an interval of nine thirty-day months. The human period of pregnancy may be mirrored in this. But if the months all contained thirty days, the two festivals could not possibly occur during the same phase of the moon. In this calendar the agreement is only approximate. In the same month of Pyanopsion, whose last day was the day of the Chalkeia, there occurred a festival which was supposed to prepare for the wedding celebration of Athena and Hephaestus, the Apaturia. At the Apaturia the marriageable young men sang the praises of the fire God. The moment of conception, i.e., the festival that would correspond to the Christian celebration of the Annunciation, and that had a significance only on the human, not on the cosmic, level, had to follow soon after, even if it was not a new-moon festival. The character of the Panathenaea as new-moon festival and as preparation for the birth of Pallas Athena allows the conclusion that there was a correspondence between the mythological transformation of the Goddess and the transformation of the moon. But one has to consider this cosmic transformation from the standpoint which is yielded from the essence of the Goddess Pallas Athena.

With Hera the correspondence of the mythological and cosmic transformations extended to all of the three phases in which the Greeks saw the moon: she corresponded to the waxing moon as maiden, to the full moon as fulfilled wife, to the waning moon as abandoned, withdrawing woman. The phase which showed Hera's essence in its fullest development was the full moon. From the viewpoint of Athena, the most essential phase is the exact opposite, the darkest night preceding her birth. Corresponding to her essence is the blackest darkness in which only the eyes of the owl can grasp the hidden light, wherein from the conjunction of the sun and moon both luminaries once more proceed forth: first the sun, a divine child, then the new moon, the virgin. On the cosmic stage, birth follows conjunction immediately, without pregnancy. Now in the heavens the Goddess is manifested as bright and virginal, again shining after the dark period like a winged Nike or a martial Pallas and recognizable by the shield. Thus we can understand the assertion of the ancients, attributed to Aristotle himself and repeatedly stated: Pallas Athena is the moon, although she is much more than only the moon.

The humanly impossible, rapid change out of dark motherhood into bright virginity is discernible against the cosmic background. The inner tension and opposition between motherhood and a maidenhood that is dedicated to the father and signifies a prohibition against all other men is a human reality. If we have understood the peculiar birth of Pallas Athena through the epiphany of the new moon, we must not forget the bondedness of a real fathers daughter to her progenitor, to the dominant spirit of the father. The incestuous character of this bond is explicit only in archaic mythologems and stories and in collective dreams, phenomena which fall outside of that order which the Greeks called Themis. Within this order the same bond became the foundational pillar of the patriarchal family. The father's daughter among the Gods stands beside the sons of the father, delivering over to the young men the maidens so that they will become mothers, but the lordship of the paternal spirit perdures above everything else.

Excepts from
Athena, Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion (1952)
Karl Kerenyi








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