Wednesday, 15 October 2014

You can't sew when you're angry

I arrived in work this morning frustrated at a journey that took twice as long as usual thanks to heavy traffic. But there was one interesting upshot - I got to hear one of the guests on Midweek on Radio 4 mentioning support he has given to a charity that helps prisoners turn around their lives by doing activities including needlework.  This will soon start being relevant to a blog on Athena. I was half listening while also musing on what to blog on in response to yesterday's Athena the Trickster class. The guest mentioned a comment by one of the prisoners which went something like: 'you can't sew when you're angry'. This sounds perfectly right and got me reflecting on how the goddess has been viewed through many lenses - where what she keeps being construed as is a power of restraint, moderation - a power that complements, civilises and tames elemental power, and also a power that offsets a series of more elemental (including angry) deities associated with a particular field of activity.  For instance, Detienne and Vernant's structuralist vision of Athena is as the power that offsets powers like Demeter as crop goddess by providing the inventions that let men toil the soil. Or Athena is identified as a power through which humans master the power indicated by Poseidon in relation to horses or the sea by enabling the horse to be tamed or the sea to be navigated. If there is a field of operation that is properly that of Athena - one that she is principally associated with as opposed to one where she enters into the sphere of another deity, this is going to be weaving - an act that requires patience and skill - where Athena is Ergane (Worker) in a field where she is the key operator.
How to read Athena as a power of wookworking....
One possibility: as a woolworker, Athena brings to bear the same kind of restraining power that Detienne and Vernant focus on - and they are hardly alone there. I could add a host of other scholars who, though some different lenses, have made the same argument for the goddess as the reconciler and harnesser and mediator.  A weaver can do subversive things (Arachne... Persephone... any symbolic weaver of wiles...) but through planning rather than spontaneous action. So any anger will be channelled.  Weaving can be a source of contention.
That said (with Athena there is always a 'that said'), weaving can be associated with power struggle - the contest between Athena and Arachne is called by Athena angered at Archne's claim to be a superior weaver; Athena's anger fulled by Arachne's subject matter - scandalous divine stories - causes Athena to turn her into the permanent weaver: the spider.

There is a really good fit with what we discussed yesterday concerning how Athena was thought to 'take action' - in Detienne and Vernant's phrase - in a variety of spheres of activity as a varied but logically coherent deity that recurrently emerges as a power of order and restraint. However, if one homes in on different evidence this model doesn't work. Another starting point for an analysis of Athena would be her anger - that leads to terrible consequences - for example the death/suffering of the Greeks after the sacrilege of Little Ajax in her sanctuary that calls up a storm at sea to wreck their homecomings; this is Athena in the role of a sea power like Poseidon.  There's also what happens to Big Ajax when he refuses the patronage of Athena on the battlefield at Troy; there's also the anger of the goddess at Zeus's actions that leads her to disobey her father in the Iliad. What Clay calls the Wrath of Athena is an organisating motif of the Odyssey. The woolworking Athena of the contest with Arachne is an angry goddess as much as a weaver of a beautifully-skilled artefact.
The conclusion I think: depending on where one starts, one will get a particular sense of what or who Athena was.  The Detienne/Vernant vision of Athena, or any deity, as a networker within a complex system of divine relations is but one way of looking at that deity.  But in another respect, Detienne and Vernant were right. They were on a mission to show that the quest for deities as coherent individuals with peculiar histories, myths and cults was misguided - this was the approach taken before they started investigating the pantheon as a network. They show this approach will take the scholar on a wild goose chase because no single divine unit exists in isolation from others.
Or: the conclusion is this: Athena does sew when she's angry. The result: she is outdone in a weaving contest.
A brief bibliography:
Clay's book - details here
A sample of Detienne and Vernant's work - Detienne on Athena 'of the horse' (Hippias) can be read here.


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