The Shield of Athena

Swami Sivamurti Saraswati

Athena is a manifestation of the divine wisdom of shakti. She sprang fully formed from the crown of the head of Zeus, her father. This would equate with the yogic teachings that she was born from the crown chakra of sahasrara, and was endowed with perfect wisdom and insight from birth. She did not need to reconcile dualities, therefore was a virgin goddess.

Symbology of the myth

In Greek mythology we usually find Athena portrayed as a warrior, in her role as defender of heroes and of the city of Athens. However, there is another image of the goddess where she appears wild and awesome, wreathed in snakes. Even when she is in her warrior role, Athena still carries the image of the snakes on her aegis (shield) with the severed head of Medusa. This image harks back to an early time before patriarchy. It refers to the Minoan snake goddesses. Snakes are not thought of here as symbols of sin and evil, as in Christian mythology, but as symbols of divine wisdom. Athena is the goddess of wisdom, so it is apt that she is accompanied by snakes as well as the owl. The snake is also the symbol of the kundalini which, in the case of Athena, has already travelled to its destination. From this vantage point she guides the destinies of her followers.

The famous aegis originally belonged to her father, and he passed it on to her rather than to any of his sons. The head of Medusa, before she was slain, turned men to stone. Her hair was full of snakes. Medusa was originally one of the guardians of a cave of Gaia. She was her granddaughter. Medusa means ‘queen’ or ‘mistress’. She protected the uninitiated from entrance to the goddess’ mysteries. Zeus gives this shield to Athena because, with her power of self-disciplined awareness, she can transform the terrifying face into a protective shield. Through the use of the aegis, Perseus was saved from being petrified by Medusa’s gaze (petros means ‘stone’). Here we can see again the use of reflection rather than direct confrontation. By reflecting Medusa’s gaze, Perseus could act with detachment and dispassion, and overcome the obstacle on his path. He did not become destroyed by being overwhelmingly involved in the situation.

Medusa did not really die however. Blood from her body was given to Asclepius, the god of healing. With blood from her left side he slays, and with blood from her right side he heals. This later became manifest in the symbol of the caduceus. The same symbol is seen in the passage of kundalini, from its base in mooladhara chakra to its summit at sahasrara. Through the nadis of ida and pingala, and via the chakras, it twists like the energies of Asclepius. These overtones of healing, as well as protection, are associated with the aegis. It was usurped by Zeus and rightly returned to the goddess Athena. One of her aspects was as Hygieia, the goddess of health.

The aegis is the symbol of divine sovereignty. It also refers to the potential destroyer aspect of the goddess, similar to the attributes of the Indian goddess Kali. Within the divine are the three energies of creation, preservation and destruction. But above all, the aegis signifies wisdom. Athena was the guiding female energy of the Greek pantheon in her role as Sophia or wisdom. She was the teacher of humanity. From her city, western civilization spread to the rest of Europe. She can, therefore, be seen not just as the goddess of Athens, but of the whole western world as well.

Athena is the principle that brings about civilization. Within her are balanced the male and female polarities. She is not only the goddess of war, but also of peace. Her gifts suit the occasion and the needs of the times. She introduced to humanity the plough and the olive, which are looked upon as part of the origins of civilized life. Her wisdom was not only spiritual, it was also immensely practical. Her energy is marked by spirit and intelligence. It comes straight from sahasrara, but embraces all the chakra energies beneath and within it. In Jungian psychology she is seen as the highest manifestation of the anima.

Wisdom, as well as artistic achievement, is also conveyed in her guidance of craftspeople, particularly women who wove her beautiful peplos or drape. Wisdom is also imaged in weaving, as the warp and weft threads mesh together to implement the vision or sankalpa of the devotee. Weaving can be seen as the manifestation of our resolve.

Athena is a personal protector to her friends and to Athens. Like other virgin deities she does not have any children of her own, so she can give all of her maternal energies to the well-being of her disciples. She is known as the goddess of nearness. This is clearly illustrated in the tales of the Trojan war and the journey home of Odysseus. The close relationship she had with her heroes was similar to the relationship many people have today with the Virgin Mary.

She is a goddess of restraint, lucidity and high intelligence. Her flashing grey eyes can see beyond the surface of the situation into the meanings that lie beneath. With her helmet on, and spear in hand, she gazes out towards the future, and helps us plan our strategy to achieve the goals of life. Metis (meaning ‘counsel’ or ‘practical wisdom’) was her mother before Zeus swallowed her. Athena has similar attributes of counsel, and thinking carefully through situations with practical foresight.

She is the image of the human ability to think rationally and give reflective judgement. To the ancients this was considered a divine attribute, as it raised humanity above the beasts. Her chastity can be seen as a symbol of the purity of this reflective faculty, which is not influenced by personal desire. She battles for principles rather than passions. This springs from her ability to hold the instincts in check, and make choices made on impartiality, reason and detachment.

Balanced femininity

How can the Athenian energy help today’s woman? Primarily she is associated with awareness, which is the prime quality advocated by yoga. With her detachment and awareness of a situation, Athena, and the woman who imbibes her qualities, can keep a clear head in conflict and, from that stance, is able to work out good tactics to solve a difficult situation. She is the epitome of vairagya, dispassion, and viveka, discrimination, the two main attributes a sannyasin tries to emulate. When a woman realizes these qualities, she has a positive and creative attitude towards a situation and the people involved. She emerges as a leader. She is not swayed by her emotions, but has developed the left side of her brain, to focus on a situation with reason and a cool concentration. Athena is the goddess of feminine maturity. She never had to experience childhood or the confusion of adolescence. She came into being as a fully mature woman, with her masculine and feminine energies harmonized so that, from that point of unity, she could inspire and lead others to victory through her mental clarity.

This Athenian energy is often used by modern women to run their homes with efficiency, so they can manage a career as well. In their work it helps them compete with men, and rise to the top of their profession. In particular, her energies thrive in the fields of law, business, academia, scientific research, the military and politics. Her logical and analytical mind helps her manage the economic side of her life and plan long-term strategies. She can further her own career, or excel as a consultant to other men and women. The Athenian energies of consultation are of the companion-advisory kind. Her advice is pragmatic as well as highly intelligent.

The energies of this goddess excel wherever diplomacy is called for. She is able to keep a cool head and listen with objectivity to all sides of an argument. She is the daughter of Zeus, the god of justice, and is able to give a sound judgement when called upon.

Discerning and moderate

The woman with well-developed Athenian energies is able to research effectively and draw conclusions. She is not preoccupied with herself, but has an overview of the situation. This attitude complements the selflessness required in seva, selfless service. She is able to work in teams and committees, and is an accomplished mentor to others. She uses her discernment and understanding to make the correct decision.

Moderation is a hallmark of yogic teaching, and it is also an attribute of the Athenian energy in a woman. She lives within the ‘golden mean’. She recognizes that intense feelings or needs belong to the passions, and are not associated with her rational nature. Her energies support others when they are in the midst of emotional chaos. With her aegis and spear she protects us, and leads us out of our quagmire to the safer ground of reason and common sense. Athena is dressed in full armour, and from that vantage coolly assesses the needs of every situation. She does not rush into situations; she is always prepared.

Goddess of sadhana and awarenss

Women who feel they may be lacking in Athenian energies can cultivate them through training of the mind. Mental training demands that we discipline the manifestations of the mind and that we also study. Discipline is also part of yoga, and yoga itself is described as a discipline. Through the discipline of sadhana or spiritual practice we progress and develop towards our goal in a gentle, but effective manner. Athena can be seen as the goddess of sadhana. She urges us forward when we slacken, and protects us when we encounter challenges. She helps us move away from only subjective and emotional thinking to one governed more by reason.

Athena is the shakti of awareness. Development of awareness is a discipline of yoga through which we can learn all there is in life to learn about ourselves, others and the world we live in. With awareness we develop the capacity to observe the present moment as it unfolds. We learn to view it as an impartial witness. This is the energy of Athena and of the conscientious yogi and sannyasin.

Restraint is the hallmark of Athena’s advice and this we learn through awareness and detachment. She was the ‘ever-near’ goddess to the Trojan heroes. She stood behind them, invisible to others. She whispered her advice; she was not possessive or manipulative. The woman with well-developed Athenian energies knows how to use her power wisely for the good of all.

Becoming Athena

Today’s woman and yogini is right to honour Shakti in the goddess Athena, and include her attributes in sadhana practices to develop the goddess’ energies within herself. The energies of Athena are those associated with pingala nadi and are largely masculine in nature. By endeavouring to make these predominately male energies her own, the modern woman becomes fully equipped to take her place in today’s world, in times of conflict and in times of peace. Eventually she achieves a balance between both polarities, and becomes the type of leader the world needs today, as we move from a patriarchal culture to one less gender-orientated.

Today’s world is crying out for women with the energies of Athena. It is time for all women to arm themselves with her qualities, and step forward to serve humanity, as Athena has been doing throughout the ages. Her spear, aegis and helmet personify the same energies that are to be found in yoga. Athena used her energies to bring forth western civilization. The women of the twenty-first century should arm themselves not only with the hallmarks of western culture but also, through yoga, with those of the East as well, to bring about a world that is united not in its sameness, but in the richness and splendour of its diversity.