“I begin to sing of Pallas Athena, the glorious goddess, bright-eyed, inventive, unbending of heart, pure virgin, saviour of cities, courageous, Tritogeneia.”
~From Homeric Hymn 39 to Athena~
Over the last several weeks (since late June), I have been struggling to find the energy and desire to complete certain duties and tasks. This struggle has included everything from cleaning my apartment to working on scholarly manuscripts for publication. Needless to say, this struggle has caused me some distress. Enter Athena.
Her first appearance was subtle. I did not expect her to be so stealthy. Actually, I did not realize her initial approach as such until about two weeks after the fact! Athena’s overture was at PSG 2011, the week before period of distress began. There was no fanfare or chorus to announce her presence, I just lost my glasses. This is a very big deal for me, not because I do not have contact lenses but because contacts are not convenient at 4am on a camping trip when I have to get up in the middle of the night to use a port-a-potty and everything from tents to guy-lines to mud hills stand between me and that simple goal. I was very annoyed and very upset and very annoyed and did I mentioned upset, but this major glitch in the matrix did not smack of anything divine. I chalked it up to carelessness on my part and huffed my way in the dark to my nightly destination with one blurry contact to not so clearly show the way. This nightly ritual of course contributed to my second vision-related concern which was that I only had one pair of contacts to last me for eight days in the woods where anything from a wayward flying insect to a strong gust of debris-filled wind could have taken out my only source of sight. Not to mention the problem endemic to putting in contacts in the dark with less than immaculately clean hands! Again, this problem was big, so needless to say I surprised myself when I neglected to check the campgrounds and visit the lost and found in search of my glasses. However, in the interest of full disclosure, let it be known that I had those glasses since my sophomore year of high school (which was nearly 15 years ago!). The prescription was almost useless. The glasses afforded me just enough perception to avoid stubbing my toe on obvious obstacles but the ability to visually sense the fine details and nuances of my world – the subtleties that elevate the work of the eyes from mere seeing to sight – were essentially gone. And so, I accept that it was long past time for those glasses to leave me in the rearview mirror because I had not instigated the separation on my own.
Why is this story about my glasses relevant? Athena has a special and pronounced affinity for the eyes. The Greeks associated her with the eyes themselves, eyesight, keen perception, and foresight. A few of her epithets are related to these areas of jurisdiction. For example, Athena Oxyderkes (sharp-sighted) was honored at Argos. At Sparta, Athena Ophthalmitis (of the eyes) was glorified. Pausanias tells of a man who, having lost one of his eyes, prayed to Athena and was saved from losing the other. In gratitude the man erected a temple to Athena Ophthalmitis. Athena Ophthalmitis seems to have glanced in my direction. I say this because my eyes and my sight have always been a major concern for me. Not only is my vision generally poor, but I was also born with amblyopia (colloquially referred to as a lazy eye). Every doctor I saw as a child warned my mother to guard my
“good” eye. I was regularly reminded to be careful when playing and to wear my glasses in order to maintain decent vision. Also, when I began wearing contact lenses, my doctors told me to be especially attentive to any discomfort – however mild – because it could be a sign that I needed to stop wearing them and go back to glasses exclusively. Luckily, I have done very well with contact lenses but I neglected to update my prescription for my glasses which I was wearing at home and on short excursions. Anyone who wears glasses knows that an inadequate prescription can cause strain on the eyes, ill-advised for the one-eyed. So, I think Athena was doing me a favor and helped my glasses get lost. The absence of my glasses had the added benefit of provoking a lot of thought about my poor vision as a metaphor for what I was not seeing clearly (or not seeing at all) in my life. Given my state of distress, that thought project was both a blessing and a curse but a necessary first step to making so much…much needed changes. And, anyone who has changed, knows that change is work.
Fortunately for me, hard work/labor is another area that Athena patrons. In her capacity as a hard-working builder of crafts, systems, and institutions that edify both the individual and society, she appeared to me in a dream on July 11th. In my dream, Athena was accompanied by Erikhthonios (born of Gaia, fostered by Athena) in the form of a black serpent and by Hephaistos, whose presence in the dream was more implied than stated. He appeared more abstractly as the raging fires, cool waters, and billowing smoke of the craftsman’s workshop. Together they are Athens’ inventor trio, the gods of craft, work, and civilization. They support the labor of building a civilization, of painstakingly crafting tangible tools, edifices, and monuments, tangible resources, the foundations for accomplishment. Both Athena and Hephaistos have titles specifically associated with crafting and work. Even Erikhthonios, their child, was the mythical first king of Athens said to have brought a host of tools, techniques, and institutions to the Athenians, pulling them out of wildness and into the Greek ideal of civilization. Athena’s appearance in my dream along with Erikhthonios and Hephaistos was incredibly heartening in my time of trouble.
By this point in mid-July, I was beginning to feel a little better but I still had (and have) a few more miles to walk yet in terms of feeling like I am on my A-game again. So, much to my delight it turns out a friend of mine who lives in the DC area wants me to come visit her (I leave later this week!). Travel always cheers me up! She and I had discussed the visit in mid-June before I left for PSG but we had not made any concrete decisions. Our plans did not firm up until July 13th. It was not until July 21st when I actually booked the tickets and started researching attractions in DC that Athena shifted from talking to me to shouting at me! Here’s how things progressed during the early stages of planning my trip: “DC is none other than the US capitol, the civic center of my nation. Hmm, I should go see the Capitol building. Oh, very cool statue on the top. Wonder what it is. Holy crap! It’s an Athena inspired statue, the Statue of Freedom. Shut up! Hmm, Library of Congress would be cool to visit too. Get out! You mean to tell me there are two statues of her there. Just hush!”. So, the goddess of labor and state is calling me to my capitol.
Now here is the real kicker. While processing the experiences with my glasses, the dream, and the fast approaching visit to the capitol, I was also researching Athena via some websites and several books and articles on Greek religion in general and Athena in particular. In the process I even discovered a few interesting travel destinations; it turns out Nashville, TN has a reproduction of the Parthenon (!)…but I digress. As a part of all this research, I grabbed Parke’s Festivals of the Athenians, the book opened to page 93, and I found out about two holy days important to Athena in ancient Greece and I thought to myself that it might be great to try to celebrate at least one, if it was upcoming. So, I noted the two festivals on the page: Khalkeia (also sacred to Hephaistos!) and Panathenaia. Then I scooted over to Temenos and to Hellenion and found out that Panathenaia was not just happening soon but during the entire last week of July, which coincides with when I am going to be in DC (Thursday afternoon to be exact). In addition to being the biggest festival in the Athenian calendar, it focused (focuses) on crafting, on work, and on the birth of the city and of Athena herself. In ancient times, it even included – wait for it – a procession from outside the city walls into the Acropolis, which maps nicely onto my trip into DC.
I have a lot of work to do in the coming months and it seems that Athena may be willing to offer her blessings during that process. She and I have a lot more communicating to do about future direction, but I hope, at the outset of this new task-oriented partnership, that I can show my gratitude for current and future blessings in ways that are pleasing to her.