14 February 2007

For the Fairest

And so, today not merely being the Feast Day of those marvellous co-patrons of Europe, Saints Cyril and Methodius, but also International Hallmark Day, it seems a fitting day to write in honour of the greatest woman who never lived.

When I was up in foggy Nelson the other week, my friend and I got talking about how the tales we read, hear, and see in our childhood tend to mould who we are. My friend's childhood seems to have been saturated by stories of teams of misfits who somehow beat all the odds and rise to the top. And as I was about to cut in, he preempted me: 'It's the Mighty Ducks, basically.'

Me, I don't think I read any books quite as often as a child as I did Roger Lancelyn Green's Tales of the Greek Heroes and King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Those battered old paperbacks came to Manchester with me, and still have pride of place on my bookshelves, defiant in their refusal to be mothballed in the attic in this, my sanctuary year in Dublin. And one way or another they've had a huge impact on my through my life - I'll talk about the Arthurian cycle another day, but the influence of Green's retelling of the Greek myths is blatantly obvious when you consider what I'm doing with my life right now.

Anyway, among other matters along the way I've become entranced by certain characters in Greek myth - Perseus, Heracles, Theseus, and Jason when I was younger, Achilles and Odysseus after starting university, and all along the way the immortals Hermes and Athena.

Hermes is all too easily ridiculed, with Ross Leckie in his Bluff your way in the Classics scorning him merely as a messenger boy, the god the other Olympians send to the shops to get cigarettes for them, but in truth he's a far more impressive figure than that, a master of trickery and illusion, a cunning and prudent negotiator who prefers persuasion to violence, and perhaps most intriguingly, the one who crosses boundaries and walks between the realms. . .

If Leckie is scathing towards the Prince of Thieves, his comments on Athena are no more flattering, and indeed decidedly unfair. 'Female bluffers,' he says, 'should be aware that if they find themselves called 'veritable Athena', they should not, whatever the circumstances or the lighting, construe this as a compliment.'

On the contrary! In fact, I'd go so far to say that when it comes to weighing up the Immortals against one another, Paris was an idiot. Who in their right mind would pick Aphrodite, pretty and charming as she no doubt was, over either the regal Hera or the surpassing excellence of Athena?

I mean, seriously, what was he thinking? Athena may not have been the sex-kitten that Aphrodite surely was, but she was tall, beautiful, graceful, and serene, with a long, slender neck and with sea-green eyes that may not have petrified people like those of the gorgon whose head Athena bore on her shield, but which fascinated the Greeks nonetheless. Glaukopsis, they called her, but did they mean her eyes were grey, green, greenish grey, blueish green, bright, silver, or even owl-like? And her appearance, magnificent though the Greeks must have believed it was, especially when rendered by Pheidias in his sadly long-destroyed gold-and-ivory statue of her in the Parthenon, was surely the least impressive thing about her.

After all, the Maiden is the goddess of wisdom, in a sense a reincarnation of her mother Metis, herself a representation of a type of resourceful intelligence. She's calm, rational, always in control - her perpetual virginity is not based on notions on purity, but on control, on self-reliance. She refuses to be the possession of any man, to be defined by any man, to rely on any man. Athena defines herself on her own terms.

And then there are her skills, for Athena is surely the most skilful of the Immortals, patron not merely of the traditional women's crafts such as spinning and weaving, but of far more masculine crafts too - metalworking, ceramics, carpentry. Patron of the arts and of industry, she was also a goddess of justice - and if you haven't read the Oresteia yet, you really need to! And she's a gifted warrior too, though a far more prudent combatant than the impulsive Ares - and her prudence extends to others too, as we see at the start of the Iliad when she restrains the greatest of the Greek warriors from slaying his leader.

Athena might not be defined by men, but that doesn't mean she doesn't associate with them - it's just that she does so on her own terms. Look at the heroes she admires and aids, standing by their sides, helping them, advising them, restraining them when they go too far and driving them when they don't go far enough - Odysseus, Heracles, Perseus, Achilles, Orestes, Bellerophon, Telemachus. . .

And then of course, she's the patron goddess of Athens, to where I'm very glad to say I shall be returning in a few weeks.

It still astounds me that the magnificent temple to Athena the Virgin - for that is what Parthenos means - was never deemed one of the wonders of the ancient world, especially housing as it did a giant chryselephantine statue by Pheidias that was surely a match for his gold-and-ivory Zeus at Olympia. I'm looking forward to standing again at the ruins of the greatest shrine to the greatest of the immortals, and looking out over the city that bears her name, to the sea over which her navy, having lost the city itself, once defied the mighty Persia to ensure the freedom of Greece. . .

The greatest woman who never lived, hands down. Happy Valentine's Day.

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