Thursday, October 18, 2007

Athena, Goddess of the Serpent


The identity between Athena and the snake was explicitly stated in ancient Greece. The historian Herodotus reports that in Athens "they have a great snake which guards the Acropolis and to which each month offerings of honey cake are made, and graciously received. But at the time of the Persian invasion, the snake refused to eat the offering. And when the priestess announced this, the Athenians deserted the city the more readily because the Goddess herself had deserted the acropolis."


However, Archaic Athena is not a Greek goddess, she predates them and her name does not have a Greek etymology. She is an echo of an ancient goddess, perhaps a bird goddess. In the classical Greek period, Athena was associated with an owl, "wisdom" (perhaps a remnant of her bird goddess origins). In poetry from Homer onward, Athena's most common epithet is glaukopis, which is usually translated "bright-eyed" or "with gleaming eyes." It is a combination of glaukos ("gleaming," "silvery," and later, "bluish-green" or "gray") and ops ("eye," or sometimes, "face"). Glaux, "owl," is from the same root, presumably because of its own distinctive eyes. The bird that sees in the night is closely associated with the goddess of wisdom: in archaic images, she is frequently depicted with an owl perched on her head.


Another archaic myth relates that a god named Pallas, with wings attached either to the ankles or to his back, like the archaic winged goddesses, was Athena’s father. He tried to rape her. She killed him and tore his skin off to make the Aegis of "goat skin." A question remains – just what was Athena’s Aegis? In some verisons of her myth, it is the great god Zeus’ shield that comes into Athena’s possession; in other versions of her myth, the Aegis is a cloak or cover, trimmed with serpents (later depicted as "tassles") that she throws over her shoulders and can be used as a protective covering.


The association of the Goddess Athena with the serpent remains for all to see. As stern guardian of the Acropolis, the Goddess is accompanied by the great snake which encircles her shield, thought to be Erichthonios himself - the babe born under "mysterious" circumstances, and nurtured next to the Goddess's own breast, wrapped in her great goatskin.


The red-figure vase featured at the beginning of this article is from ca. 420 BCE. It depicts the birth of the 'Earth-born One' (Erichthonios). Earth (Gaia) presents the new-born child to Athena, who represents the reborn serpent-friendly Eve after the Flood. The figure to the left of Gaia and the child is Hephaistos, the eldest son of Zeus and Hera, the deified Kain. According to one version of the myth surrounding this event, Athena obtained the sperm, or seed, of Hephaistos (Kain), and placed it into the Earth, and out of Earth sprang the rejuvenated line of Kain after the Flood. The essence of ancient Greek religion is very simple. After the Flood, which caused the line of Kain to disappear into the earth, Athena, the reborn serpent-friendly Eve, nurtures the reborn line of Kain which re-emerges from the earth into which it had disappeared. Another, darker version of the myth says Erichthonios is Athena’s own child, born after her father, the winged-God Pallas, raped her.


Notice the checkerboard decoration on Athena's garb: her helmet and cuirass are checked black and white. The helmet is feathered, harking back to Athena’s archaic origins as a bird goddess, and the owl is prominently featured, hovering above Athena’s right shoulder. Although it is a little unclear in the image, the black edging or trim on her gown (possibly meant to represent the Aegis) ends in the heads of two serpents.


Here, all wrapped up in one image: an ancient Goddess associated with the bird, the serpent, wisdom – and the checkerboard pattern. The powerful totemic magic of this prehistoric pattern was repeated over and over in ancient board games drawn into the dirt, used for divination and sacred rituals, and then erased after being used. In a very few cases, bits and pieces of these ancient game boards are still preserved today - in stone boards discovered in ancient tombs, in a few carved wooden boards miraculously preserved through thousands of years in arid climates, and depicted in tomb paintings, on pottery, and in sculpture. The true origins of chess are discovered in such images.

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