Heavy Reflections on Athene and Arachne

When I think of Athene, I think of strength, determination, and stubborn tenacity. She is the Goddess born from Zeus even after he swallowed Metis, her mother, and her birth is a symbol of the resilience and persistence of birth, life, and womanhood in the face of tremendous adversity — being swallowed by history and swallowed by time, forgotten as contributors and creators.

The above image is the Athena of Velletri, held in the Louvre.

Because she is a Goddess, she was able to retaliate against a woman who tried to belittle her for not being feminine enough and having too many interests stereotyped as masculine. She is the one who capitulates to femininity in dress, but who wears armor over it; she is the Goddess whose personality is gender-nonconforming.

When people nowadays denigrate Athene, they often call her a traitor to women, usually after a large media franchise releases some kind of movie. Even in the academy, Deacy’s Athena compared her to Margaret Thatcher, and every few months, people discuss some of her wrath myths with the implication that, at least mythologically, she is a tool of men who doesn’t have her best interests in mind. She is a Goddess who keeps women in our places, and her gender-nonconformity hides Hephaestian chains that bind women to patriarchy.

Because I am a polytheist, I worship many Gods. Because I am Platonizing, I believe that every God is good, and to pull from the Chaldean Oracles, that being too trapped in myths requires one to sober up to divine realities. As a Platonizing polytheist, the fact that Arachne fixates on obscene myths is an allegorical way of discussing how the soul binds itself ever-deeper into embodiment to the point of becoming inhuman (bound to the irrational) because the psukhē/soul ensnares herself in the beautiful lies of the poets instead of the stark, redeeming truths of the Goddess who awakens the soul to holy wisdom; the takeaways from the myth are similar to what Proclus wants us to take away from his comments on interpreting poets in his fifth and sixth essays on the Republic. As a gender-nonconforming woman, the traces of my current life have ensnared me in Athene’s myths in another way, and that is where this piece becomes first-person, contextualized, and non-generalizable.

Hearken to me, child of aegis-bearing Zeus, sprung forth
from the paternal source and from the top of your series,
male-spirited, shield-bearing, of great strength, from a mighty sire,
Pallas, Tritogeneia, lance-brandisher, golden-helmeted,
hearken; accept this hymn, mistress, with a kind spirit,
do not just leave my words at the mercy of the winds,
you who opened the gates of wisdom trodden by the gods
and overcame the tribe of the earthly Giants which fought the gods;
you who guarded the unconquerable girdle of your virginity
by fleeing the desire of the amorous Hephaistos; […]

lines 1-11 of Proclus’ hymn to Athene, translated by van den Berg

In the Arachne myth and in others, I feel so many cuts women make against her for having a stereotypically masculine personality. After dealing with decades of passive-aggressive and hostile digs from other women, regardless of how much I try to stamp out my anger because being angry is wrong, a part of me just wants to scream.

I usually dissipate the anger by crying uncontrollably once I am in a private space where nobody can see it so they cannot use my tears explain to me why I am a bad person who could be making more of an effort to fit in. On occasion, I have wondered if the way I dress is actually the problem. Maybe if I didn’t wear knee-length dresses or blouses with pants, people would be more psychologically prepared for me to not act femininely, and they wouldn’t expect me to be into makeup (which I believe is a scam that prematurely ages the skin) or nail polish (my nails are short and the paint flaking is gross) or heels (which are correlated with preventable mobility issues later in life).

I do like the aesthetic of dresses because they remind me of the movie Carol, but apart from that, my main goal is to look as polished as possible in five minutes, which is also why I have short hair. I saw myself as “femme” for part of my mid/late 20s, and I ignored the dissonance between myself and that label; I was so mistaken about what it meant. “Femme” wasn’t about wearing dresses and being tolerant of floral patterns; it was about personality, too, and I was becoming increasingly aware that my personality didn’t pass and that this betrayal of expectations was a major source of interpersonal friction.

Male and female,
shrewd begetter of war,
she-dragon of the many shapes,
frenzy-loving, illustrious,
destroyer of the Phlegraian Giants,
driver of horses,
victorious Tritogeneia,
O goddess, you free us from suffering,
day and night,
ever into the small hours.

Orphic Hymn to Athene, ln. 10-14, trans. Athanassakis

I’ve fed writing passages into AI — the same kinds of AI that munch on public content to figure out how to advertise to us — and learn that I am a “the epitome of masculinity” in how I write, with a 95% probability. I did a gender stereotype assessment once and found that I was in the far upper right corner of the square, with a lot of masculine traits and a fair number of feminine ones.

Poking at those assessment brought back unpleasant memories of being the only girl in physics and calculus in school — the only average-intelligence person there, too, because I was taking classes with gifted boys — and how I had learned to argue aggressively and speak forcefully in order to be heard while feeling immense pressure as the only girl to show that I was capable of understanding the content. It reminded me of all of the comments boys would make about girls’ bodies and intelligence and agency. (“It smells like fish in here,” “give her the license at 20 and take it away at 40 because women need to take care of the kids but are bad drivers,” “you can’t do math,” “you were created from a rib and are less than men” {yes, in public school}, and “all that matters is being capable enough of managing your children.”) It reminded me of the time my youngest sister, who had just started wearing makeup and dating, screamed at me in the yard while we raked leaves about how I was secretly a boy before she listed every sin against femininity I had ever made. It reminded me of the woman who became my supervisor during a reorg who went on about loving something called “jewel tones” and tried striking up conversations about hot celebrities and who was so unhappy with my personality (and, to be honest, the habits I learned when being the only girl in high school classes; some of those habits were bad habits, and it is correct for me to work on them) that she made me feel like I was walking on glass shards. There was one particular time that I walked home, closed the door, and collapsed against it in tears. While she was my supervisor, I learned to use more qualified speech (it may be, perhaps we could, we might recommend, if I understand), to ask fewer questions, and to avoid eye contact, and she praised this as positive personal development.

Most of the feminine-coded traits I selected on that second quiz were related to being aware of others’ emotions and being willing to do emotional labor, but I am also a prude, which likely contributed to the score based on several questions. I tried fitting into a peer group in college and never understood how to be less prudish, but I recall feeling a lot of shame whenever people laughed at me for being sheltered and very desperate to prove that I wasn’t as childlike as they seemed to think I was while simultaneously being completely clueless, so the end result was a disaster of cringe. I honestly think I fundamentally lack some understanding that they all shared. In graduate school, a roommate and I were discussing a webcomic, and my roommate said that the way the friend group talked — filled with references to sex, desire, and the like — was how women actually talked to friends and that I was just bizarrely reserved. I didn’t know if she was joking or if she was telling the truth, so I decided not to ask.

And she is a friend to war indeed, because she is allotted the summit of separation; but she is a lover of contrarieties, because these are in a certain respect congregated through this goddess, in consequence of better natures having dominion. On this account likewise, the ancients co-arranged Victory with Minerva.

If therefore, these things are rightly asserted, she is philosophic indeed, as being demiurgic intelligence, and as separate and immaterial wisdom. Hence also, she is called Metis by the Gods. But she is philopolemic, as connecting the contrarieties in wholes, and as an untamed and inflexible deity. On this account likewise, she preserves Bacchus undefiled, but vanquishes the giants in conjunction with her father. She too alone shakes the ægis, without waiting for the mandate of Jupiter. She also hurls the javelin,

Shook by her arm, the massy javelin bends,
Huge, ponderous, strong! that when her fury burns
Whole ranks of heroes tames and overturns.

Again, she is Phosphoros, as every way extending intellectual light; the Saviour, as establishing every partial intellect in the total intellections of her father; Ergane, or the artificer, as presiding over demiurgic works. Hence the theologist Orpheus says, that the father produced her,

That she the queen might be of mighty works.

But she is Calliergos, or the beautiful fabricator, as connecting by beauty all the works of the father; a Virgin, as exerting an undefiled and unmingled purity; and Aigiochos, or ægis-bearing, as moving the whole of fate, and being the leader of its productions.

Thomas Taylor’s seventh book of the Platonic Theology in which he pulls in a lot from Proclus

Plato’s dialogues, during sections that discuss reincarnation, place incarnating as a woman below incarnating as a man because womanhood is somehow a boot camp for virtue development. Sometimes I wonder if those statements were compassionate, a recognition of both suffering and the tenacity required to be functional when faced with challenges that were once even harder than the ones I have described here.

Where I’ve landed in my early 30s is the realization that most of these stereotypes are absolute bullsh–t. They matter in the sense that there are certain expectations I need to meet, but apart from that, the people trying to enforce standards of femininity when I was younger were insecure or instinctively knew that I was an easy target due to learned helplessness from school bullying and a bad home environment. It still cuts when people (usually white men with body language that reminds me of the assholes who bullied me in school) maliciously call me sir in the grocery store or when people react badly when I stop using qualified speech. I have also realized that I am not alone — many of us experience friction just like what I have described long into our adulthoods, and regardless of how aware we are that a community guideline is bullsh–t, rejection causes psychological pain because human beings are a social species and our brains just do that.

There are, therefore these three vivific monads, viz. Diana, Proserpine, and our mistress Minerva. And the first of these indeed is the summit of the whole triad, and which also converts to herself the third. But the second is a power vivific of wholes. And the third is a divine and undefiled intellect, comprehending in one ruling manner, total virtues. Timæus, therefore, manifests this, calling the third monad (Minerva) philosophic, as being full of intellectual knowledge, and true wisdom; but philopolemic, as the cause of undefiled power, and the inspective guardian of the whole of fortitude. And again, the Athenian guest calls her Core, as being a virgin, and as purifying from all conversion to externals.

If, however, you are willing, we will survey the triad of Core, from what is said in the Cratylus concerning Pherephatta [Persephone]. She is called, therefore, wisdom, and is said to come into contact with that which is generated and borne along: she also produces fear in those that hear her name, and excites astonishment in the multitude. With respect to the appellation of wisdom, therefore, it is evident that it is a sign [of the characteristic property] of Minerva, and the summit of virtue. For if in us all the sciences are the first of the virtues, how is it possible that wisdom should not be rightly denominated, the first-effective cause of all the virtues? And if philosophy pertains to her, so far as she is wisdom, and immaterial intelligence, but not because she is [lacking] wisdom, (for no one of the Gods, says Diotima, philosophizes), on this account, therefore, she is not [destitute] of wisdom; and the intellectual good of the ruling order entirely pertains to her. 

Proclus, Platonic Theology, Book 6, Ch. XI, trans. Taylor

My reaction also points to the power of myths that we can all have such visceral personal responses to them. They are etched into us in a million and one ways, and the seeds of our interpretations are germinated in us as children. At the same time, like Arachne, we can risk becoming ensnared by myths’ images instead of diving to the core of them, oxygenated by the holy words of the wise and our own souls’ guiding compasses, newly empowered to unlock the puzzles left to us by poets who were just as swept away by ambient cultural currents as we are today. It is also easy to be trapped in a hall of rumination like a mirrored maze with no clear way in or out, our self-reflection becoming poison rather than leading us to constructive places.

Athene is the Goddess of holy wisdom who unlocks purifying philosophy, working alongside her half-brother Apollon, and she is part of the triad in the quotation above. She is also depicted as a woman, gender-nonconforming in her intellectual and warlike interests, yet the patroness of the types of work and industriousness women and girls were trained to do from an early age in Ancient Greek society. She gets a lot of flack for that in the myths — joked about, reviled, or put onto a pedestal, depending on the disposition of who is doing it. Yet, truly, she is the Goddess who teaches us to look beyond appearances and stereotypes, to exhaust ourselves learning how to weave and unweave anything uttered in sound, image, or song, and to prepare our minds for opulent light.

And ultimately … do we really want to cling that much to something the way it was transmitted by Ovid?


13 thoughts on “Heavy Reflections on Athene and Arachne

  1. I just want to say that I absolutely love this. I haven’t thought too hard about Athene or Her myths in the past, but I might have to pick it up again. Thank you for being so frank and willing to speak about difficult topics within your own life. Just absolutely stunning writing. As always. :]

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really resonated with the bits in this post about people attempting to enforce gender norms upon you. I didn’t receive anything nearly as bad as that but I recognize the patterns all too well. It’s sad that this happens and that women are among the enforcers (and you’re 15 or 20 years younger than me but presumably from a more conservative part of the world).

    On myths: I tend to assume that the myth was distorted by patriarchal culture but if we look deeper we can find the meaning. I certainly wouldn’t assume that Athena herself was at fault. I suppose that accusing her of being a “tool of the patriarchy” is part of the general tendency of some (so-called) feminists to throw nonbinary, butch, and trans-masc people under the bus.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was a girl when Women’s LIb became a thing, (‘A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle,’) and remember how livid my mother was. She was no longer an active Mormon by then but I found out later that my Mormon aunts and grannies were all staunchly with her- how DARE those hairy lesbos demand that good women leave their children and neglect their husbands to find careers? I sure wish my mom had lived long enough, cuz I have to hope and believe she’d have ended up an ardent feminist. But Mormom women were and remain implacable foes of the ERA and anything else that would put them on even footing with men.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Feminism was discouraged in my school, and there were constant comments about women’s bodies and capacities by both fellow students and teachers informed by conservative Christianity and 19th century medicine. Most feminists in that area wanted equal pay for equal work, legal protections for things like pregnancy, and easier ways to get divorces or leave abusive husbands, so college was a bit of a culture shock, as nobody seemed to care about those issues. Others thought I was exaggerating and not telling the truth about how things were when I was a kid until Trump was elected and they learned about the views of the majority in the area where I grew up. I live in a liberal area now, and the difference between red and blue states is really just the overt vs. covert stuff. Most people in New England wouldn’t dream of saying that women need to be deferential and meek or that we’re stupid, and yet meek behavior is rewarded in our performance reviews and being intellectually curious is seen negatively.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Yes I remember people (a) commenting that I was very assertive;
        (b) commenting on the fact that I wear trousers all the time, and never wear heels or makeup;
        (c) claiming that web usability is a “soft skill” so anyone could do it — after directing me down that path.

        In case it wasn’t clear, my comment was intended to affirm your experience while acknowledging that I hadn’t experienced quite such a horror-show as that.

        Southern Britain is much more secular than parts of the US, but can still be sexist (and with the rise of conservative populism, it’s probably worse now).

        Liked by 1 person

      3. LOL web usability is not easy. My workplace is currently redesigning our library website and the amount of work and human coordination (staff and user testing) that goes into that requires a lot of skill. I’m cringing that someone(s) said that to you. 😬

        Yes, I figured I was giving some more context. Progressive suburbs and cities in the USA often take the progress they’ve made for granted and don’t realize how much others in the same states or in the country as a whole lack what they take for granted, which skews a lot of progressive social media conversations. A lot of white conservative Christians do FGM, for example, and there’s still child (teen) marriage in many places.


      4. Yes I think it’s true that people are unaware of just how conservative it’s possible to be. Some of the stuff that goes on among far-right Christians is eye-watering (Quiverfull, Silver Ring Thing, men beating their wives, all horrific).

        They do FGM? Oh my gods, I had no idea. That’s terrible.


  3. Also, this actually touches upon something that always pisses me off: how so many so-called “pagans” say the most terrible things about the Gods. “Athena is a tool of the patriarchy!” I’m sorry but do you really not think She would have said something by now if She didn’t condone the stories about Her? She’s a Goddess. If you believe in the Gods then you believe the Gods can actually do stuff. Don’t you think She would comment on an entire society getting the wrong idea about Her? A society that engaged with the Gods far more than we do now, mind you. The way people talk about the Gods is rife with the subconscious belief that They don’t really exist and are just characters in a story. Characters are tools for the patriarchy that are corrupted to keep women down. Goddesses are beings that have something to teach us and are more than willing to correct us when we’re not on the right track. That is if we are able to properly sit down and listen of course…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The reason why people look to myths exclusively instead of engaging with the Gods is something I’ve mentioned before. Basically, if people treat religion like fandom, they’re treating it as a bottom-up materialist construction based on myths and “merch.” At least Platonically, that is not tenable, but it tends to be the kind of adoration people are most familiar with.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Oh yeah. They’re definitely treating it like a fandom. Polytheism is becoming an excuse to pretty much be quirky and different while not really rocking the social boat and all of this is being sanctioned in their eyes by super-powered imaginary friends. It’s cringey beyond belief

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I always saw it like this: Athena was right to smite Arachne because Arachne’s work was the inferior piece. It might have been prettier but it was meant as an insult to Athena’s family. It had physical beauty but it was not virtuous and for that reason it is the inferior piece to Athena’s piece that is both excellent and pious. This isn’t a betrayal of women. It’s an acknowledgement that physical excellence is only one part of the equation and that for something to be truly excellent it must be virtuous more holistically

    Liked by 1 person

  5. OMG. This is so good.
    This particular passage is really ringing my chimes.
    ‘At the same time, like Arachne, we can risk becoming ensnared by myths’ images instead of diving to the core of them, oxygenated by the holy words of the wise and our own souls’ guiding compasses, newly empowered to unlock the puzzles left to us by poets who were just as swept away by ambient cultural currents as we are today. It is also easy to be trapped in a hall of rumination like a mirrored maze with no clear way in or out, our self-reflection becoming poison rather than leading us to constructive places.’
    I’m so glad you wrote this.

    Liked by 2 people

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