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Association of Polytheist Traditions


Transcript of a talk by Nick Ford
Photos Copyright © by Nick Ford 2003

From Ovid's Fasti, commemorating the festival of Quinquatrus, Minerva's birthday

Dies admoniet et forti sacrificare deae, quod est illa nata Minerva die.
This day reminds us to sacrifice to the strong goddess, for today is Minerva's birthday.

Pallada nunc oremus. Qui bene placavit Pallada, doctus erit.
Let us pray now to Pallas, for whosoever wins Pallas' favour shall be learned.

Nec quisquam invita Pallade faciet bene licet antiquo manibus conlatus Epeo sit prior, irata Pallade mancus erit.
No one, though more cunning in handiwork than old Epeus, can do well; he shall be helpless, if Pallas be displeased with him.

Vos quoque, Phoeba morbos qui pellitis arte, munera de vestris pauca referte deae.
You too, who banish sickness by Phoebus' art, bring from your earnings a few gifts to the goddess.

Nec vos, turba fere censu fraudante, magistri, spernite; discipulos attrahit illa novos.
Schoolmasters, do not spurn her either, nor cheat her of your earnings: she will bring you new students.

Mille dea est operum. Si mereramus, studiis adsit amica nostris.
She is the goddess of a thousand works. May she be friendly to our pursuits, if we deserve it.

From the 28th Homeric Hymn


I begin to sing of Pallas Athena, the glorious goddess, bright-eyed, inventive, unbending of heart, unwedded, saviour of cities, courageous, Tritogeneia·

Image - Minerva

Before we start, I had better explain that I am not dealing with a Jungian psychological archetype, nor a modern paradigm of gender issues, nor a literary device for personification, nor with some imaginary focus of long-dead belief. Nor am I dealing with some aspect of The Triple Goddess. I am dealing with a real, living, ancient being.

She has many names and many spheres of influence. Millions of people in the ancient world around the Mediterranean and north into Britain, loved her and sought her assistance, and I do not think there has ever been a time since then when she has not had her secret devotees.

She has been my chief patron for thirteen years, to my knowledge, ever since I consciously first set foot on my current path of spirituality. Thirteen years ago I began to read the Odyssey and the Iliad of Homer, and my eyes began to open. No longer satisfied with having some of the earliest European myths and legends mediated to me by people like Robert Graves, I decided to find things out for myself. I read the magical tale of a hero named Odysseus, and of his ten-year struggle to get home after the Trojan War against all odds, with one of the mightiest of the Elder Gods trying to kill him - and how he won through, with the help of the Strong Goddess.

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed in these stories, and regarded them as ancient history. Then, in the 4th century of the Christian Era, when their rulers began to adopt the history, myths, legends and beliefs and worldview of another people, their own gods and traditions were dismissed as fiction and imprisoned as elite 'classical education'- an expensive and useless luxury, but a status symbol. Thus the Graeco-Roman culture has remained to the present.

Then, with the 19th century, scientific investigation damaged the credibility of the Bible and of Christianity forever. At the same time, the new science of archaeology proved that the Trojan War of the Homeric epics had actually happened. Now if the stories of heroes, men and women and cities and wars were true, what about the gods who were seen to play such an integral role in those historical events?

The archaeology of religion only indicates at best what people believed, of course, not whether their religious perceptions were accurate or not. But to get the most out of archaeology and history - to study and learn from your ancestors - you have to try and think like they did. So I began to act as if the Strong Goddess existed - and she does. There's no mistaking her when she wants to manifest - though she often adopts disguises, too - and she is never far away.

Anyway, I'm not here to deliver my Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis about her, but to share with you some insights into her nature as the world has known her.

Some time ago, a while after The Beginning,(probably round about the time that the humans were trying to work out how to do things with the fire they had recently acquired) the Lord Zeus, Father of Gods and Men, had a consort named Metis. She was his equal in foresight and deep thought, and as a male this both fascinated and worried him.

His grandparents, who were in fact the progenitors of just about everything, Gaia and Ouranos, knew that by Metis Zeus would father a child - a son - that would outdo him in wisdom and cunning. Now Zeus saw that Metis was heavily pregnant with their unborn child, so to prevent the prophecy from coming true, Zeus devoured Metis and the child within her womb, just as his father Khronos had attempted to eat him when he was a baby.

Zeus was just in time - or so he thought. But even as he had finished swallowing Metis down, she gave birth to the child within his belly. Metis was no more, but Zeus was now pregnant and had no way of giving birth to the child. Strangely, his labour-pains were all in his head - the Father of Gods and Men had the mother of all migraines.

At last he could stand it no more. He called all the gods to him. They tried everything to ease his pain. Nothing worked. Finally a young god strolled up with a big double-headed axe. He was Hephaistos, the Cunning Artificer.

"Who are you?" groaned The Father of Gods and Men.

" I am Hephaistos, son of the Lady Hera - your wife," he replied.

" You're no son of mine," snarled Zeus.

" No, he isn't," put in Hera. "First you were taken up with that Metis, then you kept having these headaches. So I produced him without any help from you. Anyway, be nice to him, because he's going to help you get better, aren't you, dear?"

Hephaistos nodded, flexed his mighty shoulders and hefted his axe above his head.

" What are you going to do?" asked Zeus in alarm.

"Trust me," said Hephaistos, "This will make you forget all about your headache," And he brought the axe crashing down across Zeus' temples. Zeus shuddered. There was a terrible cry that made the ears of all the gods ring, and Mount Olympos quivered to its very roots at the sound. Hephaistos dropped the axe and ran. Everyone else stood rooted to the spot.

The terrible shout was a war-cry. Rising out of Zeus' wounded head was a blazing light. It was a maiden, brilliant in armour of shining bronze, with flaming red hair, piercing grey eyes, brandishing a spear - and with an attitude. She was also wearing a dress. (She took after both her parents.) The matchless goddess Athena was born. Ever since that moment, nothing has been the same for anyone, not in the heavens, nor on the earth, nor under it.

Mention of Athena is as old as the most ancient written European language known. In the Minoan-Mycenean script known as Cretan Linear B, (in use from around 1400 to 1100 BCE) on a tablet found in Knossos dated to before 1375 BCE, she is named ATANA POTINIJA, which is very similar to the ancient Greek ATHENA POTNIA, or 'the Lady Athena'. The word Atana or Athena is also written Athenaia and Athenaie in different ancient Greek dialects, and in the early epics and hymns, like the one I began with (recorded in the Ionian dialect) where she is called Athene. The ending -ene is a place-name suffix, so some believe she takes her name from the city which, just to be confusing, is always referred to as a plural: Tas Athenas. So some say that Potnia Athana means 'Mistress of Athens (the City)'. Then again, the name of the city may equally well derive from the goddess and the adjective Athanata, meaning 'deathless', or 'immortal'. (I'll discuss her connections with death a little later.)

Now I think you are all aware that to the ancients, a 'virgin' - Ho parthenos to the Greeks - simply meant a woman of sexual maturity who was still unmarried, and who therefore under law had not voluntarily given herself up to the control of a man. Thus it is that virgins give birth, and Athena is no exception. The people of Athens took great pride in the tradition that they were directly descended from the Goddess, and from the soil of Attica itself.

The story goes like this: the god Hephaistos, the Cunning Artificer, having in a sense acted as the midwife at the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus, also felt that he had a first claim on her. He was also attracted to her because there aren't that many females with whom you can have an intelligent conversation about engineering. One day he attempted to thrust his attentions on her. He pursued her all the way down to earth and up the mountain which is now the Acropolis in Athens. He almost had his wicked way with her but she broke away from him just in time. He ejaculated over her thighs and as she fled his embrace she wiped the semen off her and it fell to the ground. In due season, a godlike man grew out of the earth at that spot whom Athena fostered on Granny Gaia and who was called Erechtheios - the founder and first ancestor of the city and people of Athens. This is why, in a double sense, Athens was known as Pallados Polis - the City of Pallas.

For the Athenians, the people of Athens, Athena was simply known as He Thea ('The Goddess'). Her other most common title, Pallas, may mean either 'maiden' or weapon-wielding', or it may relate to Polias and Polioukhos ('Of the City', 'Protectress of the City'). In the sanctuary at Mycenae, a figure of a helmeted goddess was discovered, who has been identified with the Shield Goddess of Knossos. A Greek temple to Athena later stood on the site of this sanctuary. Certainly Athena's earliest cult places are in citadels, in a central temple in the strongest point of the city, as for example at Athens, Argos, Sparta, Gortyn, Lindos, Larisa and Ilion (or Troy).

Speaking of Troy, it was said that the city could never be taken as long as the Palladion, the cult image of Pallas Athena, remained in the citadel. The Greek legend says that the hero Diomedes, king of Tiryns and a favourite of Athena's, managed to steal it with her help, after she thought up the idea of the Wooden Horse. Once removed, the city fell easily, though it had held out for ten years before. Both Athens and Argos afterward claimed to possess the Palladion. So did several other Greek cities.

On the other hand, there is a Roman legend which insists that the hero Aeneas, son of the king of Dardania and chief ally of the Trojans, escaped the sack of Troy and took the Palladion with him to Italy, whence it eventually reached Rome by the late 8th or early 7th century BCE and was kept in honour in the Temple of Vesta until 394 CE when the Christians closed it and disbanded the Order of Vestals. It is thought that the Vestals destroyed the Palladion rather than see it suffer profanation. Not long after (410 CE) the Goths arrived at the gates of Rome, and the rest is history. From reading St Augustine's The City of God Against the Pagans, written about the same time, it is evident that the Christian establishment were blaming the disaster on the pagans continuing their wicked superstitious practices and offending the One True God, while the pagan majority blamed the Christians for - amongst other, similar acts of sacrilege - causing the Palladium to be lost.

The Romans, of course, venerated Athena as Minerva. This name comes from the Etruscan Menrva, and Etruscan images survive showing a helmeted goddess in a dress and carrying a spear. The earliest of these dates back to around the mid-6th century BCE. She may have first come to Rome at about this time, when the Etruscans included Rome in their empire. In the late 6th century BCE a temple was erected to house Rome's three principal gods - Iove Pater, Iuno, and Minerva. Earlier, a different triad had been worshipped there: Iove Pater, Mars, and Quirinus (either a Sabine version of Mars or the deified founder Romulus). Now it's possible that these three cult statues were already very old when this new temple was built to house them, and that because of their worn state, Quirinus was mistaken for Iuno, and Mars for Minerva.

In the 3rd C. BCE, when the Romans were enlarging their territory by taking Etruscan cities, at each siege their priests would negotiate with the gods of the enemy city to come over to Rome, where, they promised, they would receive far better treatment. This ritual, called Invitatio, seems to have worked in the case of the city of Falerii in 241 BCE, when the Romans took the city and removed an image of Minerva, building her a new temple on her birthday on the Caelian Hill. By the first century CE Rome ended up with no fewer than five temples to Minerva inside the city boundaries, not counting the Palladium in the Temple of Vesta.

Historians used to say that Minerva is simply an importation of the Greek Athena, but if that were true she would not have her own local Italic myths, and somewhat different bias of interests. The same can be said of nearly all the major gods in the Roman pantheon, as compared with those of the Greeks. They, and the Etruscans, were for centuries neighbours with close trading links and a common culture. It's rather like looking at the Scandinavian versions of the Aesir and Vanir, and wondering if they are the same as the Anglo-Saxon gods. Of course they are. You don't become a different person when you come here, do you?

That's the history bit: but what is Athena actually like? Here's the earliest known description, from Homer's Iliad of (probably) the mid- 9th century BCE:

[Note: the verses quoted below are from a recent translation of the Iliad by Ian Johnston]

Iliad 21.391-414

Shield-breaker Ares started it, attacking
Athena first with his bronze spear, taunting her:
"You dog fly, why is it you're once again
inciting gods to fight each other,
heart prompted by your own foolhardiness?
Don't you recall the moment you provoked
Diomedes, Tydeus' son, to wound me?
We all saw it÷you grabbed his spear yourself
and drove it at me, scratching my fair skin.
Well, now I think you'll pay for all you've done."

Saying this, Ares struck Athena's tasselled aegis,
that fearful aegis which not even Zeus' lightning
can overcome. Bloodstained Ares' long spear struck it.
Drawing back, Athena picked up in her strong hand
a large, black, jagged rock, lying there on the plain.
In earlier ages men had set it there to indicate
the boundary of a field. With this rock Athena
struck raging Ares in the neck. His legs collapsed.
Ares fell. Stretched out he covered seven hundred feet.
His hair was dirtied with the dust. His armour rang.
Pallas Athena laughed, then cried in boastful triumph÷
her words had wings:

"You fool, still so ignorant
of how much stronger I can claim to be
than you, when you seek to match my power.
This is the way you'll answer now in full
your mother's vengeful rage. She's angry,
planning nasty things for you, since you left
Achaeans to support the arrogant Trojans."

Iliad 5.115-143

Diomedes spoke. Sthenelus jumped down on the ground.
Standing beside him, he pulled out the sharp arrow
stuck in his shoulder. Blood seeped through the woven shirt.
Diomedes, expert in war cries, then spoke this prayer:
"Hear me, Athena, unwearied daughter
of aegis-bearing Zeus. If you've ever
loved my father, stood by his side
in murderous combat, be my friend now.
Grant that I kill this man, that I come
a spear's throw from the one who hit me
unexpectedly and now boasts about it,
saying I won't see daylight for much longer."

As Diomedes prayed, Pallas Athena heard.
She put fresh strength into his legs and upper arms.
Standing close by, she spoke. Her words had wings.

"Take courage, Diomedes, in this fight with Trojans.
I've put your father's strength into your chest,
that shield-bearing horseman's fearless power.
And I've removed the filter from your eyes
which covered them before, so now,
you'll easily distinguish gods from men.
If a god comes here and stands against you,
don't offer to fight any deathless one,
except for Aphrodite, Zeus' daughter.
If she fights, cut her with your sharp bronze."

Bright-eyed Athena left. Diomedes charged off,
joining at once those soldiers fighting in the front,
his spirit on fire to battle Trojans, seized by frenzy
three times greater than before. He was like a lion
slightly hurt by a shepherd guarding his sheep flock
out in the wilds, when it jumps the wall into the pen.
But he's not killed it. The wound rouses the beast's strength.
The shepherd can't keep the charging lion from his sheep,
who, left unguarded, panic. Huddled in a mass,
they crowd in on one another. So the lion,
in his hot rage, leaps over the wide sheep-fold wall.
That's how strong Diomedes went to fight the Trojans,
in his angry fury.

Throughout the Iliad, Athena exemplifies one of her many epithets, Promachos, a fighter of the first rank. She fights alongside those she favours, she heals their wounds, she gives them strategic advice, and, as in its sequel the Odyssey, by helping humans accomplish their agenda she is also accomplishing her own - striving for pre-eminence among the gods by defending her human clients against all comers, and often taking on other gods themselves. Unlike Ares, who appears to enjoy war for its own sake, Athena only seems to deal in warfare which is reactive, or defensive: the idea of the 'just war', if you will.

Athene image

Early on in the history of Heaven and Earth, she acquired her distinctive Aegis: it appears to be a scaly poncho fringed with live snakes, and a grotesque head in the centre. In fact, it is the skin of the Titaness Gorgo. In the war between the gods of Olympos and the Titans, Athena cut Gorgo's throat and flayed her skin off to wear as a trophy - complete with the grimacing, serpentine-haired head and live pubic adders. The sight of the Aegis is supposed to strike insane terror into the hearts of all who behold it.

Note that Athena deals in opposites: she can lend strength and rage to inspire a fighting spirit, and she can also cause that same spirit to drain away from the enemy. This polarity extends into her role as healer too: Athena Hygeia, or Minerva Medica. When Gorgo's throat was cut prior to the severing of her head and the stripping off of her skin, the monster's blood fell to earth and Athena noticed that, as it fell in two streams, one stream poisoned all the living things of the earth it touched, while the other enhanced them. The two blood systems, the venal and arterial, the poison-laden and the revivifying, are of course well known in Western symbology as the blue and the red intertwined serpents about the staff generally associated with her friend and colleague Hermes, or Mercurius - and, later, the healer-hero Aesculapius.

Scary things, snakes. To the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean, snakes often represented the spirits of ancestors. They were seen to live in the darkness under the surface of the earth, to come forth at night to consume the food and drink offerings left at family shrines and tomb-altars. They shed their skins, which is emblematic of rebirth and renewal. They are also protective - warding off intrusion on holy places by the profane, and also against the invasion of the temple of the body by the kakodaimones (literally 'evil spirits') that bring disease. Athena's sanctuary on the Acropolis in Athens was long believed to be guarded by a python, and you can see that python coiled about her shield on her colossal cult image which once stood in the Parthenon. Snakes are also reputed to be very wise and to attack only when threatened - and then they do so with a deadly economy of power and speed that is awesome to behold. When the hero Ion is left abandoned as a baby in a basket on the Acropilis, it is Athena who protects him by placing two snakes beside him in the basket.

Her primary bird-attribute is the owl - specifically, the Little Owl - which, like the snake, prefers to live in holes in the ground and clefts in the rock, and in caves, where it is always night, like the Underworld. And again, they are creatures primarily of the night. Her association with the owl may also relate to her war-cry. Like her other avian attributes, the heron and the sparrow-hawk, the owl is distinguished by its predatory patience and the inexorable speed and accuracy of its attack.

The other beastie you might associate Athena with is the spider. As the inventor of spinning and weaving, she is said to have punished a skilful woman weaver named Arachne, who boasted that she could excel even the goddess in her craft, by turning her into a spider. Yet the spider is another creature of the night, a relentless, patient predator, who not only deals death by poison but brings healing of wounds in her cobwebs. I think this is another image of the goddess - especially when you consider that the Athenian hero Theseus was guided into the dark place of death, the Cretan Labyrinth, and out again, by the unravelling of a yarn lent him by Ariadne, who was inspired to do so by Athena. Again, like owls and snakes, spiders are defenders of cities because they are destroyers of vermin that eat up the substance men store for food and spread disease. Defensive war is much the same: death is inflicted to save from death.

Athena watches over the olive harvest. The olive was her gift to Athens, and olive oil has three main properties: it is a food, it is used to clean and preserve weapons and armour, and is also a base for many healing unguents and a form of soap - as well as being sovereign against snakebite. I am caused to wonder whether allopathic remedies in general - healing through the use of opposites, rather than complimentaries as in homeopathic medicine - is particularly Athena's province, as in the sense of protection by opposition.

Athena invented the çulos - the boxwood flute, played at sacrifices, and thus she became also the patroness of wind instruments and flute- players. Trumpets, too, as instruments of war, are also in her care.

She also presides over weaving - and as late as the 6th century of the Christian Error (er, Era), a Gaulish bishop wrote despairingly that girls and women still sang hymns to the goddess as they worked at their looms. Athena-Minerva was never going to find a place in the Christian pantheon, rehabilitated as a saint. No way was she going to sneak in unnoticed with her armour and her spear - for a Christian warrior- goddess, folk would have to wait until the 15th century for Joan of Arc.

Athena, however, is able to negotiate with Zeus Almighty as an equal, and the Christians already had a virgin mother of a hero-son to do that. To have had two - especially when one of them could pack a punch that could drop the god of war - would have been impossibly embarrassing.

[To digress briefly on the subject of gods having once been human beings - and I know that there are a few of you out there who believe that - I'd ask you to consider to what extent that kind of thinking was put about by Christians attempting to devalue the old pagan myths to make their own fictions seem more credible - by reducing the immortal gods to the status of dead people?]

Throughout the Christian period, Athena-Minerva has always been a legitimate goddess to have a cult statue of in your home, provided you are an educated upper-class male, and provided she stays in the library. During the Industrial Revolution she appears on the civic coat of arms of the mill-town of Oldham in Lancashire, as an owl. This is was commonly believed to refer to the play on the local pronunciation of the name as 'Owldom', but it relates to her patronage of textile-making.

She has traditionally been big in girls' schools, upheld as an icon of female self-determination by achieving parity with men in a man's world, through long-term education and the avoidance of sexual contact with males, so as not to be distracted or compromised. By the turn of the 19th century, several newly-founded university colleges awarding degrees to women also espoused her patronage, though her spear had to be exchanged for a hockey-stick.

Throughout the period of the Christian Error, she has been biding her time for a comeback. Even now, with the pagan revival of the West in its fifth decade, she's none too popular with the neo-pagan rank and file. The reason for this is, I suspect, because most modern pagans don't engage in the pursuits which engage her interest, and tend to devote themselves to those which don't.

She's also a goddess who tends to support the social status quo, encourages the development of technology, and believes in achieving personal success through personal effort - she helps those who help themselves - so if you're into paganism as a counter-cultural ideology, she isn't the goddess for you. She likes to work with things as they are, and with those who want things to be different, by developing what is already to hand. Indeed, in this respect you could say she epitomises the general reasons why classical Graeco-Roman spirituality is not a popular part of the pagan revival.

As a goddess who promotes and rewards mental acumen, she is also the patroness of scholars and especially teachers, as she herself is a teacher to humans. The term 'mentor' goes back a long way - to the Bronze Age and the Odyssey of Homer in fact, where Telemachos, Odysseus' son, is helped by Athena to find his father and assist his homecoming. She gives him advice in the guise of an old man - whose name is Mentor. It's interesting, in fact, that it is Athena, more than any other god or goddess, who in classical myth and legend engages in personal relationships with humans - and her regard for Odysseus comes as close to sexual attraction as she is prepared to permit.

From personal jewellery and cult images and votive inscriptions throughout the Roman Empire we know that Athena - or Minerva - was a favourite with the Army and the Navy as well, particularly in planning and support roles where problem-solving is important.

As a patroness of the State, she became a visual prototype of lesser divinities such as Roma Dea and Britannia. Celtic goddesses like Brigantia were also portrayed in the same way by the Romans, to emphasise their strength and power as female divinities not in the traditional mould of what was considered properly female.

Shining brilliance is frequently a major attribute of divine beings, and Athena is no exception - the Spartans called her Khalkoikos - 'housed in bronze' (and if you've ever seen a warrior in polished bronze armour you'll know how dazzling it is). She is also called Khrysolopha 'golden-crested', after the flame-yellow horsehair plumes on her helmet.

She can inspire an army with the confidence that brings victory - for this reason she is often portrayed holding Victory, or Nike, as the Greeks called her, in the palm of her hand. She can terrify a host with the horror and dread that brings the flight of blind panic, inviting pursuit and annihilation. After winning a battle, it was ancient Greek practice to erect a Tropaion - a trophy which marked the turning-point of the battle, at which the enemy began to falter. This consisted of a cross-tree frame on which was hung the skin of a sacrificed goat, which was then decked out with the best set of captured weapons and armour. One expert historian has suggested that the earliest images of the goddess derive from this practice.

She works on the sea in ships, as on the land. She transcends the boundaries of the elements, of light and darkness, of night and day, of peace and war, of life and death, of this world and the next, of male and female. She's at least as old as the oldest recorded elements of human religion: she has been with us humans as long as we can remember - and then some. Some have seen her as as a relic of a pre-patriarchal, Neolithic matriarchy; I see her as a being who chooses to do things her way, and transcend the limitations of age, of gender and of parentage. She also suggests to me that there is no difference between the male and the female from the neck up: Zeus proved that when he gave her birth.

She is a reconciler of opposites. She holds both the olive branch of healing peace and the spear of defensive war - because, when both are ruled by the same wise head, the one maintains the other. Hers is the cunning that seeks out a gap in the enemy's guard and flings the spear with deadly aim. Hers is also the healing skill that cleans the wound with the oil of the olive and binds it with the healing cobweb and the woven bandage. She is a fighter in the front battle-rank, and she chooses to do it in a dress. Does anyone have a problem with that?

I don't.

From the 11th Homeric Hymn


Of Pallas Athena, Guardian of the City, I begin to sing. Dread is she, and with Ares she loves deeds of battle, the taking of cities and the clamour and the conflict. She it is who saves the people as they go forth to war and return again.
Hail, Goddess, and give us good fortune with happiness!