Athena, the wise “Mulan”

I have been to Athens 3 times, and each time I was impressed by the epic temperament of this city. The most memorable thing is to stand on the commanding heights of Athens, the Parthenon, overlooking the beauty of the city. This temple is dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and the name of Athens comes from Athena. Legend has it that Athena defeated the sea god and became the protector of the city, and named it after her own name. Athena often wears armor, holding a shield in her left hand and a spear in her right hand. She is equal to the hero Ares, and is Mulan among the Greek gods.

Bottle paintings of the birth of the goddess prevail
The birth of Athena is unique and is said to have popped out of Zeus’s head. The goddess Metis was pregnant with Zeus’s child. This happy event made Zeus panic because some people predicted that if she gave birth to a girl, the girl would be as brave and wise as he was; if she gave birth to a boy, the boy would overthrow his rule. In order to prevent future troubles, Zeus swallowed Metis into his stomach. One day, Zeus had an unbearable headache and asked the craftsman god Hephaestus to split his head. As a result, a girl in armor popped out of her head, and she was Athena. Zeus soon fell in love with this girl, and Athena often made suggestions for her father.

Statue of Athena in front of the Academy of Athens, Greece.

The ancient Greeks liked to draw simple patterns, animals and plants on pottery. Such paintings were called ancient Greek bottle paintings. From the 6th to the 5th century BC, the ancient Greek vase painting entered the black-painting period, the theme pattern was black, and the red color of the clay was kept in other places. During this period, “The Birth of Athena” became a popular bottle painting story.

Many museums have such bottle paintings. The exquisite and smooth picture in the British Museum’s collection, Zeus, who had a headache, was still sitting on his chest. The legs of his throne were slender and elegant, in a typical Ionian style. The throne was high, and Zeus’s foot was on the beam of the throne. He has a beard and a wreath of laurel branches and leaves on his head. The tiny Athena emerged from his head, about to run. Hephaestus was standing to the left of Zeus with an axe, a look of surprise. Zeus’s wife Hera also looked surprised.

Left: Rubens’ painting “Athena and Alacone”. Middle image: Rubens’s painting “The Education of the Princess”. Right: Rubens’s painting “Paris’s Judgment”.

The bottle painting collected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art depicts the birth of Athena in this way: Athena is standing on Zeus’s lap; Zeus, sitting on a small bench, is staring at his daughter, kind eyebrows, and a little joyful. This painting is warm and harmonious, full of paternal love. The bottle paintings of the same theme in the Louvre collection also showed the surprise of the gods. Athena, dressed in a battle robe, stood calmly on top of Zeus’s head, and Zeus sat on the throne with a bolt of lightning in her hand. Around him stood Hera, Hephaestus, Poseidon and other gods, and their surprise could be seen from their slightly opened mouth.

German feminist scholar Christine said: “Athena represents the idea that women can establish meaningful friendships with men, and not all relationships between men and women are determined to be sexual.”

The Virginia Museum of Art also has such a bottle painting: Zeus is sitting on a throne with horse statues on both sides of the throne. Zeus held a royal scepter in one hand and a thunderbolt in the other. Little Athena emerged from his head. Hermes, Hera, Ares and the fertility goddess Alicia witnessed this moment. Hera seemed to be questioning her husband: “How did you give birth to a child?” Zeus’s expression was calm, as if he was a little bit happy that it was not a son who was born.

The painting techniques of these bottles are different, but their common characteristics are restrained, rigid and stylized. Moreover, none of these bottle paintings show Athena’s mother Metis.

Rubens painted her “breasts and buttocks”
If Athena in the Greek vase painting is traditional and conservative, then Athena in the paintings handed down to the world is full of styles. In the 17th century, the Flemish painter Rubens painted Athena many times. Under his brush, Athena was sometimes wise, sometimes arrogant, sometimes plump and beautiful, sometimes brave and fearless.

The Liechtenstein royal family has a painting “Aris and Rhea Sylvia” by Rubens, with a statue of Athena in the picture. This painting shows a scene in the kitchen temple. According to ancient Greek legends, Ares was attracted to Sylvia, the priestess of the goddess Vesta. In the painting, Ares takes off his helmet and can’t wait to get close to Sylvia, while Sylvia looks panic. The Eternal Fire of Vesta, under Sylvia’s care, was burning on the altar, with a statue of Athena standing next to the altar. Obviously, Rubens knew that there was no statue of Vesta in the Kitchen Temple, only her sacred fire and the statue of Athena. Athena loves peace, and is at odds with the bloodthirsty and war-god Ares. The presence of Athena here also adds to the urgency of the picture.

“Athena and Arakne” was created by Rubens with Ovid’s “The Metamorphosis” as the theme, and it painted the story of the competition between Athena and Arakne. Athena is good at knitting. She heard that the mortal woman Araknee has a superior craftsmanship in weaving carpets, so she challenged her. Athena was very unconvinced after losing the game, and punished her for being disrespectful to her. This painting is a scene of the goddess beating Arakne. Arakne fell to the ground with his upper body naked, aggrieved. It is said that the arrogant goddess eventually turned his opponent into a spider. There is a picture in this work—Titian’s “Taking Europa” tapestry is hung on the wall, suggesting that the content of the two people’s competition is to weave a tapestry of this theme. The Athena in the painting looks righteous and awe-inspiring in armor, but why is she not like a willful and stubborn eldest lady?

“The Education of the Princess” presents a serious Athena. The princess knelt down in front of Athena, put a thick book on Athena’s lap, and was writing something in a hurry. The princess is surrounded by gods, with the sun god Apollo on the left, Hermes descending from the sky, and the three goddesses Meihui behind. This painting is one of a series of works that Rubens has painted for her imperial Luxembourg Palace at the invitation of Mary Medici, wife of King Henry IV of France. It is embodied in the blessings of the gods and Mary accepts art. The education of poetry and philosophy is a queen with both ability and political integrity.