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Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome

Page: 21

The safety of cities depended on her care, for which reason her temples were generally built on the citadels, and she was supposed to watch over the defence of the walls, fortifications, harbours, &c. A divinity who so faithfully guarded the best interests of the state, by not only protecting it from the attacks of enemies, but also by developing its chief resources of wealth and prosperity, was worthily chosen as the presiding deity of the state, and in this character as an essentially political goddess she was called Athene-Polias.

The fact of Athene having been born clad in armour, which merely signified that her virtue and purity were unassailable, has given rise to the erroneous supposition that she was the presiding goddess of war; but a deeper [45]study of her character in all its bearings proves that, in contradistinction to her brother Ares, the god of war, who loved strife for its own sake, she only takes up arms to protect the innocent and deserving against tyrannical oppression. It is true that in the Iliad we frequently see her on the battlefield fighting valiantly, and protecting her favourite heroes; but this is always at the command of Zeus, who even supplies her with arms for the purpose, as it is supposed that she possessed none of her own. A marked feature in the representations of this deity is the ægis, that wonderful shield given to her by her father as a further means of defence, which, when in danger, she swung so swiftly round and round that it kept at a distance all antagonistic influences; hence her name Pallas, from pallo, I swing. In the centre of this shield, which was covered with dragon's scales, bordered with serpents, and which she sometimes wore as a breastplate, was the awe-inspiring head of the Medusa, which had the effect of turning to stone all beholders.

In addition to the many functions which she exercised in connection with the state, Athene presided over the two chief departments of feminine industry, spinning and weaving. In the latter art she herself displayed unrivalled ability and exquisite taste. She wove her own robe and that of Hera, which last she is said to have embroidered very richly; she also gave Jason a cloak wrought by herself, when he set forth in quest of the Golden Fleece. Being on one occasion challenged to a contest in this accomplishment by a mortal maiden named Arachne, whom she had instructed in the art of weaving, she accepted the challenge and was completely vanquished by her pupil. Angry at her defeat, she struck the unfortunate maiden on the forehead with the shuttle which she held in her hand; and Arachne, being of a sensitive nature, was so hurt by this indignity that she hung herself in despair, and was changed by Athene into a spider. This goddess is said to have invented the flute,[21] upon [46]which she played with considerable talent, until one day, being laughed at by the assembled gods and goddesses for the contortions which her countenance assumed during these musical efforts, she hastily ran to a fountain in order to convince herself whether she deserved their ridicule. Finding to her intense disgust that such was indeed the fact, she threw the flute away, and never raised it to her lips again.


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