Athena: A Biographyby Lee Hall
Author Lee Hall takes the unusual tack of melding the hypothetical “life” of one mythological being—the goddess Athena—into a single, chronological narrative. By drawing upon the richness of ancient history, archaeology, and classical art and literature, she follows the metamorphosis of Athena’s identity, tracing through it not only
Author Lee Hall takes the unusual tack of melding the hypothetical “life” of one mythological being—the goddess Athena—into a single, chronological narrative. By drawing upon the richness of ancient history, archaeology, and classical art and literature, she follows the metamorphosis of Athena’s identity, tracing through it not only the origins of our concepts of justice and revenge, our attitudes toward wisdom and the useful arts, but the disturbing mistrust of women inherited from the ancient world, as well as the struggle between male and female that attended the very birth of western culture.Hall traces the earliest vestiges of Athena back to the fertility and survival rituals of prehistoric Crete. She then follows this diety associated with the “mother goddess” as she migrates to the mainland. But once there, Hall finds, Athena becomes an “honorary male,” complete with helmet, spear, and sheild. The goddess once associated with rituals of nurturing and fecundity now relishes the savagery of war, even masterminds the triumph of the Greeks over the Trojans in Homer’s Iliad. Athena forsakes her elemental female virtues and identity as she is co-opted by the male-dominated warrior culture of the Mycenaeans.The third distinctive phase of Athena’s career is as the special deity of Athens, wher she makes herself felt in the great festivals, art, and architecture of her city, but here too she must betray her gender as the price of civilization. In completing the transition to urban life, one of her last acts is to drive underground the Furies, trapping and containing the ancient and angry female energy.Athena is thus a profound and often troubling exploration of the changes in human consciousness—especially with regard to gender and power—that brought humanity from fertility cults to the Age of Heroes to a time that embraced civic order and the search for wisdom and beauty. A fascinating story, is is also a boon to anyone looking for an entertaining and comprehensible narrative that effectively weaves together the Homeric epics, Greek drama, and modern archaeological discoveries.
Hall, former president of the Rhode Island School of Design and author of a biography of the de Koonings (Elaine and Bill: Portrait of a Marriage, 1993), is not a classical scholar, and her book seems aimed more at a popular than scholarly audience. The opening chapter on Athena's prehistoric origins offers a clichéd account of the evolution of religion from hunting ritual and embraces too easily the pleasing story of the ancient Great- Goddess-worshiping matriarchies. The bulk of the book, however, consists of Hall's vivid retellings of the Athena myth. While not eclipsing Robert Graves or Edith Hamilton, Hall does contribute her own novelistic flair, as when Zeus wakes up "from a snooze" to give birth to his daughter, who is pounding "the inside of the expectant father's cranium." More important, by focusing on Athena, the author transforms the goddess from a supporting character to the star she once was. In some cases, the method falters: The retelling of Homer's familiar epics gets tiresome. But many stories come off as both fresh and revealing, whether they concern Athena directly or indirectly (for example, how Hera's breast spewed out the Milky Way). Given the welter of contradictory myths, the "biographical" approach is at best a conceit: Athena's evolution from crafty, vengeful warrior to emblem of wisdom and justice makes sense not as an account of an individual's development but as a reflection of the changing times in which her worshipers lived. However, Hall succeeds in making those connections clear, right up through the religious practices of classical Athens and Athena's incorporation into Neoplatonic doctrine.
Bringing out a full-bodied Athena, Hall leaves one wanting to reread the ancients and think again about the gods.
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