myth and poetry

Day Log/ Athene's Mirror/Athena Sex and the City Series Pt. 4

The Chryselephantine Athene*
by Maggie Macary, Ph.D. publishing date 29 November, 2007

........... I thought it might be interesting to consider the voice of the peplos from another perspective, through that of the Chryselephantine Athena Parthenos. I also thought it would be refreshing to explore the image from the vantage point of another cultural mythologer and poignant essayist, Maggie Macary. (1954-2006)

The following essay was first published to and posted to Arrows by Maggie@ 8:44am on March 6, 2006. The essay has been edited for republication. It originally appears under the title "Transcending the Leaky Vessel". Permission to reprint the essays of Maggie Macary has been granted by the executors of the estate of Maggie Macary. wishes to thank Doug Macary and Martin Macary for their generousity in making her essays available to you.

From the earliest Greek myths which form the basic mythic structure of Western thought and imagination, women and their uncontrollable bodies have formed the basis for what is abject in culture. The abject is a term defined by French philosopher, Julia Kristeva in The Powers of Horror, and it refers to that which breaks and erases the borders of civilization, disturbing identity, systems of control, and moral order.

How does Greek myth set women up to be abject? It is through the myth of Pandora who is a trick thought up by Zeus, to plague mankind as a punishment for the theft of fire by Prometheus. Pandora is externally pleasing, but hollow inside with insatiable appetites that will destroy a man’s security. She is the jar (pithos) that contains all the evil within.

Woman is a creature different from man. She gives birth. She regularly bleeds without falling ill. She is by nature softer, curvier, and fatter than man. Woman is fluid in nature, subjected to the tides of her own cycles which mysteriously match the moon and the ocean tides. Woman is the leaky vessel of man’s imagination and story telling, the creature who looks fair but brings evil to mankind.

Imaginally, the myth of Pandora as recorded by Hesiod in the 9th century BCE is at the core of Western civilization’s attitude toward women and femininity and is vital in constructing the dominant fictions of sexual difference. Adriana Cavarero argues in an essay, "Thinking Difference," that Hesiod’s myth of Pandora not only gives some sense of the “meaning” of sexual difference, but that this myth also “….decides to translate that difference into a symbolic order that ascribes the presence of evil to the female sex precisely inasmuch as it is this sex that generated life”(121). This idea of sexual difference, Cavarero concludes, is one of the discriminatory keys of a social order which delineates masculine centrality and establishes the male gaze as the dominant subject in Western culture (123). What that means folks, is that Pandora establishes once and for always the central idea that men are the subjects and unpredictable, leaky woman, are the objects in Western culture.

The myth of Pandora is essential for women to understand because the Greeks believed that all women descended directly from Pandora who is not the mother of humankind, as Eve is in the Garden of Eden myth, but is only the mother of women, the genos gynaikon or race of women. Women leak from the body and if not carefully guarded, their insatiable appetites will deplete material well-being from a man, either by demanding his seed and then wasting it, or demanding food and money and depleting a man’s estate. Women, according to Hesiod's myth, are not truly human.

How then do women achieve any sense of equality when they are perceived to be something less than human? The Greeks found a mythical solution in the figure of Athene who is closely associated with Pandora in the Hesiod myths. Athene veils Pandora, giving the woman a semblance of parthenos or virgin nature. The veil is significant because it seals the virgin vessel, ensuring there is no leakage until she is given to her husband. The word for veil in Hesiod is krêdemnon, which signifies the veil for a woman, a “headbinder,” the battlements that crown the city, fortifying the city against invasion, and the lid or stopper of a bottle.

It is important to remember who Athene is. She is the goddess of the polis, the civilization and she is in all things, “for the father.” In Athens, she was the most important deity, but also a deity of great mystery because although female, the Athenians greatly feared her femininity. Athene was often referred to as h? theos (the female god), rather than thea (goddess), a masculine name with an almost institutional denial about the sexuality (or asexuality) of the goddess.

Chryselephantine Athena ParthenosAthene does not accept femininity. She is the archetypal virile female, the virago who denies feminine values. Nicole Loraux writes in The Experiences of Tiresias: The Feminine and The Greek Man that the Athenians actually feared the discovery of Athene’s feminine nature, hidden beneath her external armor (216-217). What lies hidden beneath Athene’s peplos and armor, articles she is born with and by which she is continually identified? Loraux writes:

Athena’s garb and weapons are consubstantial with her to such a degree that one sees less and less how the word gumnos [naked] could be employed to denote Athena’s nakedness. (Tiresias, 221)

In other words, Athene is one with what covers her, her armor, her peplos, her aegis. Her naked femininity is not conceivable because they could not conceive of her having a female body. She is her outward appearance of a virile female and what hides within, covered against the male glance, is unknowable and must stay unknowable.

The ultimate image of these two ideas of femininity, Pandora the leaky vessel and Athene the feminine covered and in denial of her body and her sexuality, merged in Classical Athens as the great chryselephantine statue of Athene Parthenos that sat in the Parthenon. The statue of the warrior Athene sat atop a base that is decorated with the myth of the birth of Pandora.

Athena Parthenos reproduction, Nashville Parthenos

The image of that statue, long gone but still represented in art, haunts my imagination of women in the polis. In order for women to leave the controlled environment of home and family, she must seal herself up and appropriate the image of the virile woman. She must transcend her sexual difference, by erasing it.

The erasure of sexual difference is an erasure of femininity from the heart of culture. This was Plato’s message of equality in the Republic. The lesson for women has been for centuries is this: to achieve any sense of equality with men, women must erase their femininity and take on the attributes of the masculine.

In other words, transcend the image of a leaky vessel by taking on the armor of Athene and denying feminine body. The belly (gaster) is a symbol of femininity and is our measurement of equality. To have no belly is to have no abjection and thus no femininity. To have a belly marks one as inferior. This puts women at a clear disadvantage since women’s bodies have a number of biological differences from men which makes leanness and hardness more difficult.

Despite these inherent, biological differences, women who seek political, cultural and sexual equality must abandon a feminine body and adhere to a virile model of body. Like Plato’s idea in the Republic, sexual equality is equivalent to wiping out sexual difference in America. The best leaders are manly men, hard, firm, directed, competitive, and controlled in their appetites.

There is so much to this, but I have to stop here because I’m out of my space limit. I suppose I’m really happy that I can once again look at this topic without wanting to throw up. It is an important topic that is not just about fatness, but is about the erasure of what is feminine in culture and its importance is not just to women of substance, but to all women who wish to be substantial. Transcending femininity is a transcendence of the body, something that the West is seemingly obsessed with.

People have asked me what the solution to all this is and I honestly don’t know. My personal solution has become immanence, living within this fragile, abjected body and through it, rather than trying to transcend and abandon it.

posted by Maggie to Arrows @ @ 8:44 AM, March 6, 2006

additional links

For the essays by Maggie Macary published to this site click here

Athene Series Pt 5

Athene Series Pt 1
Athene Series Pt 2
Athene Series Pt 3
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