Monday, 23 June 2014

Is Athena boring?

Federal University of
Rio de Janeiro
When I mentioned to a friend who has a sound knowledge of ancient Greek culture, religion and myth that I was writing an article on Athena for an encyclopedia of Greek comedy, his response was that surely this would be a very short piece – as Athena was too boring for comedy.  This resonated with the view I held back in the early '90s when I was trying to get my head round as many aspects of perceptions of Athena as possible in an attempt to try to work out what the core meaning of the goddess might have been for the Athenians.  At least: I never considered that Athena might have been thought boring – quite the opposite. I was seeking to make a case that Athena, a topic had stimulated my interest sufficiently to want me to write a thesis on it, was a deity regarded by the Athenians as the most interesting of the gods, such that her representation went had in hand with the development of the city.  The Athenians considered themselves to be interesting and likewise they regarded the goddess thought to have named the city just as interesting. 

One proof of this, was, I considered, the richness of Athenian mythmaking about the goddess, including the popularity of her birth, itself among the most striking of myths, and the involvement of the goddess in another exceptional birth – here with herself as the progenitor – that of Erichthonios.  These were serious myths about the origins of the goddess, and the origins of the goddess’s child who was in turn the Athenians’ ancestral hero.  Athenian mythology – which I read in line with the 80s and 90s interest in civic mythmaking and identity – was, I thought, a serious business that depicted the goddess as appropriately serious. When I discovered that Hermippos had written a play that may well have poked fun at Athena’s birth – or possibly at the birth of Erichthonios, I found it hard to make this fit my vision of Athena: the title, Athenas Gonai could mean either ‘Athena’s birth’ or ‘Athena’s children’. 

Twenty plus years on, my view of Athena has moved on as follows – to see Athena as too boring for comedy is to make assumptions about the goddess that are belied by the evidence. Such notions of a 'boring' Athena are shaped by the postclassical reception of a specific aspects of the ancient goddess as, for instance, the patron of such 'serious' businesses as city-protecting - as received in the array of modern uses of the goddess on emblems, coins and and so forth. This posting is headed by one such 'serious' appropriation of the 'boring' goddess, on the seal of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

When I was going to give a paper on Athena beyond Athens in Nottingham in 2005, Alan Sommerstein suggested the title ‘multiple Athenas’ to capture the range of uses of the goddess across the Greek world.  Why not extend such an approach beyond how Athenian representations of the goddess differ from those of say Corinth or Sparta or Argos or Boiotia or Tegea to differences within Athens itself?  If I had started out in 1991 looking at how each particular genre, and each particular example, constructs the goddess, I would not have been held back for so long by a quest to understand one particular thing that the goddess ‘meant’ which I could then apply to the array of evidence.  My response to the array of previous attempts to pin the goddess down which I’d found limiting was to try to add my own – hopefully correct – one.  So I put the evidence that did not fit to one side.  I was playing the game that others had played - of trying to push understandings of Athena on by showing what was wrong about previous models before advancing my own.  The trouble with this approach is that it assumes that there is ever going to be some key to unlock the meaning of the goddess.  Hovering here is a sense that a deity is akin to a person, with a coherent, however complex, personality.  Deities are akin to persons, but such a model reduces them to this very specific meaning.  Athena has been skewed to fit the image modern scholars desire to hold – an image of a serious, boring, prude that says a lot about modern perceptions of the deity but little – and perhaps even nothing – about how the ancients constructed the goddess.
In this posting, I've shown why the concept of a boring Athena reveals more about modern uses of the goddess by serious institutions such as universities than it does about the ancient goddess. I've not said anything much, however, about what role Athena does actually play in comedy.  In the next posting, I plan to set out what I'll say in the encyclopedia entry - I'll show how aspects of Athena were exploited for comic effect in Aristophanes.  I'll also show how, as well as showing that the Athenians were not offended at humourous uses of their goddess, this shows just how seriously they took the public roles linked with the goddess that are coming in for comic treatment.

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