Athena, Medusa and the Sun-Goddess

During my research for my post on Medusa and the Gorgon, I  constantly ran into the idea that the Gorgon was a faint echo of an early Mycenean sun-goddess, depicted face-front with radiating (snaky) hair. I could see how that idea might arise, but Athena as sun-goddess struck me as a bit of a reach. After all, Athena wears the Gorgon on her breast as a symbol of the triumph of cunning (metis) over elemental powers. (Deacy: 47)

It must be tempting, though, to invert the Greek beliefs that shaped patriarchal culture, with its binary of sun/reason/male vs. night/emotion/female. Especially in the form of its most complicit goddess, Athena, who upheld father-right against the Furies’s desire to avenge a matricide. (Although kicking Bachofen and his followers comes about 150 years too late.) Feminizing the Greek sun, and connecting it to those elemental powers, may feel like sweet revenge.


The Sun-Goddess of Arinna

Athena does have a connection to a bona fide sun-goddess; an Anatolian deity who protected the city of Arinna, and so was generally known as the Sun-Goddess of Arinna. Just as Athena was the protector of Athens, so the Sun-Goddess, 1 000 years earlier, was leading the king into battle, and granting him victory.

The Sun-Goddess was indigenous to the Hattic people of Anatolia, and when the Indo-European Hittites took power, they adopted her into their pantheon. For 500 years kings proclaimed her divine favour, and saw it as legitimizing their rule.

Teffeteller suggests that Athena, in later times, had the same function of war-goddess, protector of king and city, and defender of her people as the earlier Sun-Goddess. She also suggests that Arinna lent her name to Athena, known to Homer as Athana, and to the Cretans as Atana. She further speculates that the way that Athens had both Athena and Poseidon as protectors may echo the Sun-Goddess and Storm-God of the Hittites, who were joint protectors of king and people.

I am not qualified to comment on the linguistic evidence, but given that the Near East was a major influence on Greek religion, it seems likely that the Sun-Goddess of Arinna probably did influence the development of the early Minoan goddess Atanapotinija, the Lady of Atana.

But is Athena a Sun-Goddess? And does it matter?

The only hitch is that there still is very little that is solar about Athena. Her golden lamp was an important part of the cult in Athens, and Zeus rained down gold on Rhodes to celebrate her birth, and perhaps her “bright-eyed” title points towards some solar aspect, but otherwise there is very little to suggest that she was ever a sun-goddess.

But perhaps attempts to make Athena “fit” as a sun-goddess are misguided. As Susan Deacy puts it:

there may be echoes of the earlier protectress of the Hittite kings, but if so, she will have been transformed in the process as befitted the peculiar local circumstances of the Greek world. Athena has elements in common with other goddesses, but if we attempt to seek a perfect fit, we are asking the wrong questions.

It seems, sometimes, that despite all the evidence for sun-goddesses among the Hittites, Celts, Norse and Balts, there is still some lingering feeling among spiritual feminists that unless we can include a major Greek goddess in the list, all our efforts have been in vain. (In Monaghan’s book, for example, she tries for Artemis, Athena and Demeter as sun-goddesses.)

The Greeks may have believed themselves to be the epitome of civilization, but there’s no need to take them at their own valuation. After all, in their own setting, the Greeks were the outliers: the Ugaritic, Hittite and possibly Minoan civilizations had different ideas about the gender of the sun and moon, as did many Western Indo-European civilizations.

It may be their rejection of Near East style royal worship that caused them to downplay the role of the sun and moon in their religion, and their gender politics that led the Greeks create a male sun and female moon. But perhaps it is time to turn the question around, and not ask why other peoples worshipped a solar female, but why the Greeks did not. (Rea)


What about Medusa?

For some, the Gorgon on Athena’s breast points to her origins as a sun-goddess, or else is the lingering trace of an earlier sun-goddess covered up by patriarchal culture. If there was any element of a sun-goddess in the Gorgon, I think the ancient Greeks sidelined it as irrelevant to a culture that viewed the sun as male. And unimportant.

To the Greeks, worshipping the sun and moon was a Persian or barbarian practice, while they venerated gods who put culture over nature, like Athena and Zeus. (This also helps to explain their uneasy relationship with Poseidon, an important god, but a disturbingly elemental one, and the minor role of Helios.) Athena wears the Gorgon to show her victory over the dark, elemental forces that the Gorgon and other monsters embodied for the Greeks. (That Medusa’s name means guardian or protectress suggests that she also helped Athena in her role as protector of Athens.)

The Gorgon owes a lot of her imagery to the Persian demon Humbaba, but the various stories about Medusa suggest connections to both the Indo-European horse goddess and sun goddess. Both of these topics would need their own posts, which will be coming up in the next little while.

1. “Proto-Indo-European Sun Maidens and Gods of the Moon”. Mankind Quarterly 25:1 & 2 (Fall/Winter, 1984): 137–144.
2. It also has an amusing suggestion that like the good Bast and dangerous Sekhmet in Egyptian myth, Athena and the Gorgon may be two halves of one sun-goddess (239). It’s one answer to the question: why does Athena wear the Gorgon over her heart?

Deacy, Susan 2008: Athena (Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World), Routledge.
Frothingham, A.L. 1911: “Medusa, Apollo and the Great Mother”, American Journal of Archaeology 15/ 3 (Jul-Sep, 1911): 349-377. (JSTOR)
MacCrickard, Janet 1990: Eclipse of the Sun, Gothic Image.
McGrath, Sheena 1997: The Sun-Goddess: Myth, Magic and Mystery, Cassell.
Monaghan, Patricia 1994: O Mother Sun! A New View of the Cosmic Feminine, Crossing Press.
Robbins-Dexter, Miriam 1984: “Proto-Indo-European Sun Maidens and Gods of the Moon”. Mankind Quarterly 25:1 & 2 (Fall/Winter, 1984): 137–144.
Rea, Katherine 2014: “The Neglected Heavens: Gender and the Cults of Helios and Selene in Bronze Age and Historical Greece”, Augustana Digital Commons. (pdf here)


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