Athena transgressing gender expectations

Please join me in a moment of celebration: I’m now an Initiate of the Order of the White Moon! OWM is a women’s spirituality group that I’ve been studying with since about Samhain. For each level, a final project on a particular goddess is required, and for mine, I chose the goddess Athena as she is represented in the Homeric epics. One of the things I found most fascinating was the way Athena defied the gender expectations of her time.

The overall image of Athena that emerges is composed of a mass of contradictions: she is a virgin who appears and acts in masculine ways, an extremely powerful warrior who disdains fighting for fighting’s sake, and a patroness of cunning who renders judgment based on her own sense of justice, being willing to face down the Furies and deny them vengeance in the process. She is, most of all, a figure of extreme practicality, willing to use appearances to get what she wants, but cutting through what she regards as irrelevant to pursue her own goals with single-minded focus.

Although the Homeric epics do not depict women calling on Athena for their own purposes, she is a figure to whom many women can appeal today, faced as they are with shifting gender boundaries and conflicting messages about appearance and behavior. A woman could call on Athena when she needs to borrow the goddess’ talent for disguise, when she has to cross boundaries and pursue her own goals, and most of all when she is unwilling to be bound by external strictures or expectations about her behavior as a woman.

As I explored Athena’s role in the original sources, I kept being surprised by what I found in stories I thought I knew. Seeing how Athena was incredibly masculine in her roles only reinforces my conviction that gender essentialism should not be part of Wicca, and that women who are trying to imagine some kind of safe space for themselves by emphasizing biology and rejecting trans women are actually building a space that restricts them and denies them the full range of what it can mean to be a woman.

I’ll write a little bit more in the coming week about what OWM’s Level 1 has been like, but for now I’m happy, tired, and can’t wait to start Level 2, so I’d better get going.

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About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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4 Responses to Athena transgressing gender expectations

  1. Sherrian says:

    Congratulations!

    • Literata says:

      Thank you! I was really glad that the Order was interested in my work on a goddess who doesn’t fit the traditional mold. In their current development, OWM is less gender essentialist than they might initially sound, which makes me happy to be working with them.

  2. Hey, I’m over here from Slacktivist, from the links on tolerance you linked to on the Typepad page. I’m not Pagan, but Athena’s always been my favorite of the Greek pantheon. The description you wrote above actually reminded me of a real life female leader (or at least her traditional image) – Elizabeth I. It’s really interesting how these female leaders are so socially masculine, yet associated strongly with their “Virgin” status. It’s as if being with a male would make them seem less “masculine” to the followers of their time and therefore less powerful. It’s interesting to think about how this still plays out today in our female leaders.

  3. Literata says:

    *waves* Yeah, we do get something like that today, still, don’t we? If a woman in a leadership position is too strong, she’s unfeminine, but if she’s too feminine, then she’s weak and therefore unfit as a leader. I haven’t been following this closely, but it would be interesting to know how those patterns apply – or don’t – to some of today’s powerful women, from Nancy Pelosi and Hilary Clinton to Sarah Palin and Angela Merkel.

    At least one Tarot book I have describes the Empress card in terms of Elizabeth I, which is in some ways an effort to “modernize” the image, because the usual interpretation of the image is very, very much about motherhood and fertility and the “feminine domain.” So in that book, talking about Elizabeth I was actually an update to the older archetype.

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