Home Who Was the Real Athena?

The Greek tragedy trilogy the Oresteia, by Aeschylus, drops an unforgettable bombshell: the goddess Athena, sitting in judgment on Orestes for killing his mother, decides in his favor, justifying that decision by arguing that he had avenged the murder of his father by his mother, and that a woman's life was worth less than a man's.  What also seems strange to the modern mind is that Athena, arguably the most highly respected ancient Greek goddess, lacked any feminine attributes: she had no mother and was born by springing at maturity from Zeus' forehead.  She isn't a realistic role model for any woman today, at least in America. How did this strange figure emerge from Greek mythology?

My theory is this: there once was a real woman named Athena, who lived in Athens (or whatever it was actually called at the time) when it was an ordinary small town inhabited mainly by subsistence farmers and fishermen. She cultivated olive trees, and knew how to make olive oil. She probably also knew that olive oil kept well. Maybe she was the first olive producer to have the bright idea of taking advantage of this combination of information and skill by shipping olive oil to other city-states. After some time, the olive oil trade became very profitable and Athens' wealth grew. Other city-states began to see Athens as a potential military target, or maybe Athens decided to use its wealth to conquer them. At any rate, Athens eventually became a great naval power and its young men were eventually expected to become warriors. As the warrior's status increased, woman's did the opposite. Eventually, women, children and slaves assumed a similar debased status supporting the work of warriors.

But how could women be persuaded to accept their inferior social status when Athena had set such a glorious precedent? The Athenian government apparently decided to rewrite history. Athena wasn't human; she was a goddess. To make sure no parallels to the real Athena could exist, the government developed the other unfeminine characteristics, and perhaps assigned playwrights to represent Athena as such. Thus the Greek tragedies served as a method for keeping women in their place by spelling out this official government position.

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