(Essay 1) The Snake Goddess Reborn by Harita Meenee

The Varvakeion Athena Parthenos, 3d c. CE. National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece. Photo by the author.
The Varvakeion Athena Parthenos, 3d c. CE. National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece. Photo by the author.

Sometimes what we most fear is precisely what we need to face. What may seem as impending doom may in fact be a propelling force towards a much-needed process of renewal. Which brings us to the topic of this blog post: for a very long time, the snake has been a powerful symbol of death and rebirth. Interestingly, it was also sacred to Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, the patron goddess of Athens, which is now the capital of Greece.

I’ve always felt a special affinity to the snake. As a teenager, I used to draw a serpent coiled around my ring finger. This much maligned animal seems to carry a message: facing your fears can be a path to regeneration and wisdom. Exploring the hidden meanings of the snake has become a source of inspiration for me. Allow me to share with you a part of an essay I wrote about Athena as Snake Goddess.

Pallas, only-begotten, venerable offspring of the great Zeus…

wisdom, ever-changing forms, huge female serpent…[1]

Orphic Hymn to Athena

One would hardly think of the radiant daughter of Zeus upon hearing the term “Snake Goddess.” Instead, the mind travels to much more ancient deities, such as the serpent-holding, bare-breasted figurines of Minoan Crete, dating from approximately 1600 BCE. These were most probably manifestations of the Goddess of Nature, perhaps related to Gaia, the Earth Mother, whose sons often took the form of large reptiles. “What could be further removed from the protectress of Athens?” one might think.

A goddess of wisdom and justice, a warrior and mentor of heroes, Athena seems detached from the chthonic world associated with the snake and the earth. Yet, for some reason, serpents often seem to crawl on or next to her youthful, strong body. In fact, they are an integral part of her iconography. They frequently emerge from her aigis cloak, which was also adorned with the monstrous head of the snake-haired Gorgon.

Moreover, the colossal gold and ivory statue of Athena Parthenos made by the famous sculptor Pheidias around 440 BCE featured a large serpent rising from the ground and resting against the inner side of her shield. This masterpiece once decorated the goddesses’ most renowned temple, the Parthenon on the Acropolis of Athens. Today we can get a glimpse of what this amazing work of art must have looked like through a much smaller marble copy of it, the Varvakeion Athena Parthenos.[2] An impressive modern replica of Pheidias’ sculpture can be seen in the Nashville Parthenon, in Tennessee.

What was this mysterious snake that has such a prominent place next to the goddess? Pausanias the traveler sheds some light on the matter: it’s probably Erichthonios (alternately spelled Erichthonius), he claims.[3] Few people today have ever heard of this obscure figure, one of the mythical early kings of Athens. Yet his story brings Athena in close proximity with an older world of magical transformations:

Athena came to Hephaestus, desirous of fashioning arms. But he, being forsaken by Aphrodite, fell in love with Athena, and began to pursue her; but she fled. When he got near her with much ado (for he was lame), he attempted to embrace her; but she, being a chaste virgin, would not submit to him, and he dropped his seed on the leg of the goddess. In disgust, she wiped off the seed with wool and threw it on the ground; and as she fled and the seed fell on the ground, Erichthonius was produced. Him, Athena brought up unknown to the other gods, wishing to make him immortal; and having put him in a chest, she committed it to Pandrosus, daughter of Cecrops, forbidding her to open the chest. But the sisters of Pandrosus opened it out of curiosity, and beheld a serpent coiled about the babe; and, as some say, they were destroyed by the serpent, but according to others they were driven mad by reason of the anger of Athena and threw themselves down from the Acropolis. Having been brought up by Athena herself in the precinct, Erichthonius expelled Amphictyon and became king of Athens; and he set up the wooden image of Athena in the acropolis, and instituted the festival of the Panathenaea [in her honor].[4]

According to a common, Erichthonios’ name comes from erion, “wool”, and chthon, “earth,” which is another name of Gaia’s.[5] It’s far from surprising then that in ancient vases Gaia herself is shown emerging from the ground, offering her baby son to the virgin goddess.[6] Virgin? Not necessarily so. True, her chastity is often emphasized in ancient texts, yet the Greek word parthenos (“virgin”) originally simply meant “unmarried woman.”[7]

George Derwent Thomson, an older scholar of classical studies, has proposed an intriguing theory: since Athena is closely associated with serpents, she may have originally been herself the mother of Erichthonios, who according to some ancient writers said was half-human and half-snake.[8] Perhaps the myth of his bizarre birth was invented at a later time when the physical virginity of women (and goddesses) had become a primary concern in society.[9] Thomson also points out the possible connection between Athena and the Minoan Snake Goddess, which has also been noted by other scholars, like Arthur Bernard Cook and David Reid West.[10]

Today one might cringe at the thought of assigning the protection of an infant to a snake as Athena did. To the modern mind the serpent is associated with lethal poison, danger and evil. Yet in Greece very few snakes are actually poisonous. With the notable exception of the viper, all other species are considered totally harmless and occasionally can even make themselves useful by eating mice.

[1] Orphic Hymn 32, 1, 10-11, translated by the author.

[2] Date: 2nd-3rd c. CE, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece, Catalogue Number: Athens NM 129.

[3] Pausanias 1.24,7.

[4] Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3.14,6. Translated by Sir James George Frazer, Apollodorus, The Library, Loeb Classical Library, vol. 121 & 122 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1921). Online at Apollodorus, Library 3, http://www.theoi.com/Text/Apollodorus3.html.

[5] Some ancient writers derived the first component of Erichthonios’ name from eris (strife) while others from erion (wool). See note 296 in Apollodorus, Library, 3.14,6, by Frazer, http://www.theoi.com/Text/Ap3d.html#296.

[6] One example is an attic red-figure stamnos, dated at 470–460 BCE, painted by Hermonax, currently in the Staatliche Antikensammlungen (State Collections of Antiques) in the Kunstareal of Munich.

[7] H. G. Liddell, and Robert Scott. Great Dictionary of the Greek Language, translated by Xenophon P. Moschos (Athens: Ioannis Sideris), s.v. “parthenos.”

[8] Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 166.

[9] George Derwent Thomson, Studies in Ancient Greek Society: The Prehistoric Aegean, vol. 1, trans. Yiannis Vistakis (Athens: Kedros, 1989), 181 (originally published in London by Lawrence & Wishart, 1949).

[10] A. B. Cook, Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion, Vol. 3, Part 1 (Cambridge, 1940), 189, cited in David Reid West, Some Cults of Greek Goddesses and Female Daemons of Oriental Origin, (dissertation submitted for the degree of PhD, University of Glasgow, 1986-1990), 169. West agrees with Cook (ibid., 170).

To be continued.

Read Meet Mago Contributor Harita Meenee.