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While of course descending from a diverse cultural genealogy, Greek deities appear to have become consistent with what would have been familiar gender associations to the Greeks. This can especially be seen among the twelve Olympians, with one notable exception, Athena (and an arguable second, Artemis, mentioned here for comparative purposes). Why is this the case?

I realize that the Greek concept of wisdom might have eschewed a gender role or been considered a female gender role, and I can certainly see this being the case with Hekate. It is however the combination of wisdom with Athena's prominent martial role which seems particularly strange. She holds after all, not herbs, but a spear, which I assume the Greeks would have seen as symbolism at odds with her female nature.

In trying to answer this question for myself I have consulted mainly tertiary non-authoritative sources, so apologies for that. These include:

  • This reddit AskHistorians thread. I initially found the suggestion that Athena might descend from a more “feminine and wild” (as one redditor puts it, citing sources I cannot access) mythology compelling, but it does seem incongruous with her attributes. This explanation would seem natural for the aforementioned Artemis as a goddess of the hunt, but there is certainly nothing “wild” about wisdom paired with organized warfare.
  • The relevant Wikipedia article, which showcases that the warrior goddess was not at all an uncommon phenomenon in ancient religions (another interesting, but different question), but does not address how this divine attribute in particular remained exempt from gender conformity in the otherwise conforming array of major Olympians.

The second part of the question, is what the Greeks made of this. This rationalization might of course be unrelated to the historical origin and evolution of the deity, but certainly a female figure with a spear and a helmet would have stood out from the other gods. Is there any recount of ancient Greek commentary on this?

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  • I considered that explanation as well. I.e. Athens happened to have a city goddess, and they happened to make a name for themselves with “wisdom” and “military strategy”. Given enough Athenian prominence this might also explain why their deity was introduced less organically and not molded into gender conformity. This, however, seems to be at odds with the wiki recount, and I am unsure that Athens was really as exceptional when the pantheon took shape as we consider it in retrospect. And then why didn't every city just contribute its own deity with randomly matched genders and attributes?
    – TheChymera
    Oct 25 '20 at 9:31
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    This question is unfounded. Mighty Ares ain't chopped liver but rather the true Greek God of War. Athena's warrior attributes are secondary to her intellectual attributes. Oct 25 '20 at 9:51
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    Athena was the Olympian of choice among the military. Ares stands for the unbridled rage in the mids of battle. While Athena stands for the tactical aspect of warfare and thinking about your strategy instead of mindlessly running into battle. In Homer's Iliad he's even called a whining coward.
    – Tom Sol
    Oct 25 '20 at 11:13
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    In addition to Artemis, you mention that "warrior goddess was not at all an uncommon phenomenon". Perhaps the Greeks' gender stereotypes where not what you think they might, or should, have been?
    – simon at rcl
    Oct 25 '20 at 11:14
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    @TheChymera I think you may have overestimated how coherent the Hellenic pagan religion actually was. Athena, in all likelyhood, was a synthesis of multiple prehistoric deities. One aspect of her, it has been argued, originated as a goddess of the household, hence her association with wisdom and domestic crafts. One can readily see how that evolved into guardian of the palace during the palatial period, and from there to goddess of the citadel of city-state Greece. Such roles readily evoke the image of an armed maiden, from whence she become goddess of warfare.
    – Semaphore
    Oct 25 '20 at 11:31
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+50

Athena was more or less the counterpart of Ares in all things (also in gender). For one, Ares was hated to the point where Zeus called Ares a whining double faced liar who is most hateful of all gods who hold Olympus.

Then looking at him darkly Zeus who gathers the clouds spoke to him: "Do not sit beside me and whine, you double-faced liar. To me you are the most hateful of all gods who hold Olympus. Forever quarrelling is dear to your heart, wars and battles.

Iliad, Book 5, lines 798–891, 895–898

Athena was the Olympian of choice among the military. Ares stands for the unbridled rage in the midst of battle. While Athena stands for the tactical aspect of warfare and thinking about your strategy instead of mindlessly running into battle.

Another reason is that Athena as a deity "evolved" over time from a household protector with roots in much earlier deities, they started out as a protector of homes and as homes got bigger of palaces and eventually cities. It has been argued that at that time in the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East there where many warrior goddesses as Jeffrey M. Hurwit notes in his book The Athenian Acropolis: History, Mythology, and Archaeology from the Neolithic Era to the Present

the Mesopotamians had Ishtar or Astarte, the Canaanites had Anat and the Egyptians had Neith - and there is no reason why such a goddess should not have figured in the pantheon of Bronze Age Greece. The Athenian Acropolis: History, Mythology, and Archaeology from the Neolithic Era to the Present p.14

In some versions she represents both sexes at the same time (emphasis mine)

"Only-begotten, noble race of Zeus, blessed and fierce, who joyest in caves to rove: O warlike Pallas (Athena's epithet), whose illustrious kind, ineffable, and effable we find : magnanimous and famed, the rocky height, and groves, and shady mountains thee delight: in arms rejoicing, who with furies dire and wild the souls of mortals dost inspire. Gymnastic virgin of terrific mind, dire Gorgon's bane, unmarried, blessed, kind: mother of arts, impetuous; understood as fury by the bad, but wisdom by the good. Female and male, the arts of war are thine, O much-formed, Drakaina (She-Dragon), inspired divine: over the Phlegraion Gigantes (Phlegraean Giants), roused to ire, thy coursers driving with destructive dire. Tritogeneia, of splendid mien, purger of evils, all-victorious queen. Hear me, O Goddess, when to thee I pray, with supplicating voice both night and day, and in my latest hour give peace and health, propitious times, and necessary wealth, and ever present be thy votaries aid, O much implored, art's parent, blue-eyed maid." Orphic Hymn 32 to Athena (trans. Taylor) (Greek hymns C3rd B.C. to 2nd A.D.)

Various traditions about Athena arose, from local legends and identifications of the Athena with other deities. The most widely spread common notion which the Greeks had about her is, that she was the daughter of Zeus and Metis. Her father was most powerfull and her mother the wisest amongst the gods, so Athena was a combination of the two and therefore a goddess in whom power and wisdom were harmoniously blended (that's why she is sometimes represented as both male and female).

She doesn't seem to represent any particular physical power manifested in nature (unlike some other Olympians).

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    Good answer! I feel the hypothesised evolution of Athena as a household goddess to protector of the city is the key here. Hellenic paganism wasn't designed but an amalgamation that evolved over time.
    – Semaphore
    Oct 26 '20 at 8:29
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    @Semaphore Thank you. Its probably the best way to explain how a woman could be in a that position in a civilization that moved women to the background (sparta being an exception to the rule). What people usually forget is that a deity doesn't just come into being, there is a long line of tradition and folklore attached to any deity.
    – Tom Sol
    Oct 26 '20 at 15:12
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Αthena was the symbolism that women could do the same as men coming straight from Ζeus head in full battle armour she was the reason that the Greek gods lived.

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    This is an interesting idea, however, the Ancient Greeks weren't particularly known for their feminism. Do you have anything to back it up?
    – yannis
    Jan 5 at 21:11

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