A virgin warrior goddess and later on a goddess of wisdom, Athena is the symbol of the quest, of the battle for contacting the inner Absolute and progressively submitting the outer being to it. She is an incarnation of what we know of as ‘the inner master’. This is the significance of the consonants which make up her name, Θ+Ν, the power which watches over ‘the evolution of what is born within’ – in fact she was originally named Athenaia, Θ+Ν+Ι, ‘evolving consciousness within’. Even love, represented by Aphrodite, cannot be the initial means of the quest nor direct it, for as it is conceived by men love is thoroughly mixed with the mind and the vital. This obliges us to consider Homer’s definition, which defines love as a process of evolution aiming towards union under an impulse from the supraconscient – for Aphrodite is in Homer’s texts a daughter of Zeus and Dione- rather than considering that of Hesiod, who considers Love to be present at the origin of manifestation when the goddess surged forth from the foam of the sea. This is why Sri Aurobindo states that Truth must be realised in mankind before Love is. In fact Hesiod creates the image of a Love emanating from the Absolute, but goes on to give Aphrodite several names, Cytheria, Cyprogenia and Philomedia, which suggests that he too considered love to be in a process of evolution.
Athena is the daughter of Zeus, and therefore an expression of the supraconscient at the level of the overmind, and a daughter of Metis, the goddess of divine ‘intelligence’, herself daughter of the Titan Oceanos who was responsible for generating all the currents of energy-consciousness operating in creation.
We have already discussed the conception, gestation and birth of Athena, up till the moment in which she emerged fully armed from Zeus’ head (head cleaved, according to Pindar, by the blow of an axe delivered by Hephaestus, the divine blacksmith).
The pregnancy of Metis before she was swallowed by Zeus and till the birth of Athena corresponds to the preparatory phase of the entry into the path, during which the seeker strives to discover his path or his master. As conscious as he may be at this moment of the quest, the seeker cannot yet conceive of a level of evolution beyond the highest planes of the mind. This is why Zeus is warned by Gaia and Ouranos that he will be overthrown by the second child borne by Metis; there is a certain prescience originating simultaneously from the body and from the spirit which points to the fact that the mind is not the summit of evolution.
By swallowing Metis, the supraconscient identifies itself with the ‘supreme discerning intelligence’ as a tool for evolution. This identification will be maintained throughout the time of Athena’s domination in the quest, till the moment in which the psychic being will begin to govern the three lower planes.
By extrapolation, the next stage of evolution should be preceded by a regurgitation of Metis so as to dissociate human consciousness from discerning intelligence, the latter being henceforward acquired, and allowing for the fertilisation and then the birth of the second child to be borne by Metis.
The other major unions of Zeus with various goddesses prior to the birth of Athena correspond to a call of the supraconscient for the mobilisation of the being in certain specific directions. We have also already mentioned that they probably correspond to the symbolic stages of the quest reflecting the seeker’s relationship with the Divine. We have discussed these in the study of Zeus and will only repeat the main points here.
Themis: submission to divine laws
Eurynome: submission to the right order and to divine harmony
Demeter: work on oneself aiming towards union
Mnemosyne: the reappropriation of memory
Leto: the awakening of consciousness to the psychic being and its manifestations
Hera: the adequacy of the movement of becoming, the power which ensures that nothing is left behind
When the seeker is ready Athena can come forward, forcing a return to oneself by acquiring the understanding that the world cannot be changed if one does not begin with oneself. Emerging from Zeus’ head she must prepare the groundwork between the highest level of the mind, the overmind, which will belong for a long time yet to the supraconscient, and the following stage, the supramental.
In fact, at the level of humankind as a whole it would seem that the transition towards the supramental must be carried out through the conquest of the highest layers of the mind, even if from an individual point of view this can be done through very different individual paths. To be able to establish itself, the action of the supramental seems to require that the lower layers of the being be sufficiently purified and liberated, an action which cannot take place without the assistance of the highest layers of the mind and the forces at work within them. This is the reason for the progression of the quest as it is proposed in mythology, consisting of a sequence of ascensions and integrations, a constant coming and going between the higher and the lower, between the worlds of the spirit and those of matter so as to progressively bring about a descent of the light of the newly conquered planes into the corresponding layers of the vital and the body.
The initiates of ancient times therefore predicted two stages in this transition from the mental to the supramental: the first was to be led by the warrior Athena, who was ‘at least as strong and wise as her father’ and ‘whose birth filled all the other gods with fear’. She was to allow the contact and union between the inner Reality and the Supreme above, favouring the growth of the psychic being and the submission of the external nature to the latter.
The second stage, to be governed by the ‘child yet to be born’, the second child of Metis, is to allow a descent into the lower planes by the forces of the divine or supramental planes with which the seeker will be united, so that these forces will be able to act within and transform the mind, life and body in view of a divine life within a divinised body. This stage will require the realisation of a complete transparency between matter and the supramental, hence the announcement of the supreme gods Gaia and Ouranos predicting the birth of a second child yet to be born, ‘a son of overbearing spirit, king of gods and men’. For it will then be the action of a force moving in ‘precision’ and therefore more ‘intransigent’ in the eyes of men, a force which will be in agreement with the light of Apollo and the integrity of Artemis, themselves greater gods than the children of Hera.
Athena is therefore the warrior force preparing the nature to receive the transformative supramental force from a plane of Truth situated well beyond that of the gods.
Zeus does not possess this permanent character of the Absolute. He has access only to the illuminations of Truth and Power, symbolised by the thunder and lightning given to him by the Cyclopes.
Neither does he possess a complete vision or a complete knowledge of Truth, the Omniscience which is the privilege of the Cyclopes, or the omnipotent power of simultaneous action in all directions of the Hundred-Handed Giants, the Omnipotence and Omnipresence.
When he swallows Metis, the goddess who is ‘wisest among gods and mortal men’ (Hesiod, Theogony 886), Hesiod only stated that she would help him to better “discern”.
But as nature usually takes its time, he who wishes to accelerate the process of evolution comes up against all the forces which serve to stabilise the current state since times immemorial through set habits, behaviours, habitual reactions, ways of feeling and thinking, and thousands of conscious and unconscious elements which resist the will for change. This is why the quest is a kind of battle and Athena a warrior goddess. This is also why all descriptions of the spiritual quest traditionally use the image of a warrior. Here it is of course a matter of inner rather than outer battles, even though the seeker must never flee from the latter if they are required. For the path recommended by Greek mythology and Vedic teachings alike also undergoes a plunge into the world and a participation in its battles; the seeker of truth must not flee from the world, but must fulfill the task which behooves him and engage in external combat when he is inwardly called to do so, while remembering that the results of these external battles do not belong to him. The Mother specifies that while the ancient methods of Yoga require isolation and solitude, the Absolute must henceforth be found in one’s work and in the relation with others as well.
The battle begins from the first step on the paths, from the point at which one turns inward. This is why Athena is fully armed and armoured from birth.
Soon after her birth, the goddess took from Poseidon’s hands sovereignty over Athens.
Having arrived in Attica first, Poseidon had stricken the Acropolis with his stick, causing a black stallion, invincible in battle, or according to others a salty sea, to appear. Athena arrived after him, planted an olive tree and claimed sovereignty. All the Olympian gods were called upon to arbitrate the quarrel and agreed in Athena’s favour.
The quest is often prepared for at the level of the subconscious vital, the kingdom of Poseidon, before the real work of purification is begun with Athena. The olive tree is in fact a symbol of purity, while the stallion is a symbol of a great vital force not yet mastered or at least submitted to the psychic, for the stallion is black. The quest is therefore declared by the gods as a path of purification rather than as a search for power as it had previously sometimes been. There is in fact a great number of seekers who stop once they have acquired certain vital powers and subsequently pose as gurus of different kinds.
As many other deities, Athena is knowledgeable in the art of taming horses, which is the art of vital mastery. It is said that she presented Bellephon, the tamer of Chimera (Illusion) with a celestial bridle for his horse Pegasus.
Her most widely used composite name is Pallas Athena. The meaning of Pallas is ‘to leap into’, probably in reference to her impetuous nature. Through the structuring characters that make up her name she is the goddess ‘who reunites or balances all separate elements (Π+ΛΛ)’, and in the mental plane therefore represents reason and intuition, being the one who brings ‘the stability of the liberation of the spirit’.
The Palladium was an image or figure of the goddess which protected those who owned it. In the structure of her name, the concept of unity (delta) is added to those of equilibrium and liberation. Ulysses had to steal this image from Troy at the beginning of the war, for otherwise the city could not be taken; as long as the seeker is attached to the realisation of the Divine in the spirit, and even if he has realised the inner Divine through a conscious union with the psychic, the path of evolution is closed to him.
Athena is known by a number of other names:
Athena Promachos, ‘she who brings the battle of the quest to the forefront’. It is under this name that she intervenes on numerous occasions in the adventures of the great heroes Jason, Heracles and Ulysses.
Stheneia: the evolution of the inner force.
Areia: the fighter or ‘she of the right movement of consciousness’.
Like Artemis she is also Kourotrophos, one who watches over young children and ‘spiritual emergencies’.
Ergane ‘the industrious’ and Polias ‘the goddess of the city’: the quest requires a patient, laborious and methodical work on one’s own nature and personality with its many component elements, symbolised by the city. Athena is also the protector of cities (the organisation of consciousness) and the patron deity of artisans (ability in workmanship), and also specifically the patron deity of those who thread and weave in their homes (the preparation and elaboration of inner consciousness). She is familiar with the strategy of how to best advance on the path, leads to wisdom and equality (Pallas), is a good advisor if one heeds the inner master, and is the protector of the arts and sciences, of those who search for the Absolute through the heights of the spirit and allow beauty to filter through (the arts) or seek for it in matter (the sciences).
On her shield or on the breastplate which she shared with Zeus to frighten her adversaries (the Kibisis) she fixed the head of the Gorgon Medusa presented to her by Perseus. Medusa is the symbol of fear, and Athena is therefore the power which supports the struggle against fear, the cause of all ‘attachments’.
Let us also mention the myth of Arachne as recounted by Ovid.
Arachne believed herself to be a better weaver than Athena, and challenged the goddess to compete with her, a challenge which the goddess accepted, but not without having warned her of her presumption beforehand.
Athena had nothing to criticise in Arachne’s work but was offended by her choice of subject, the amorous adventures of the gods. She punished her by beating her with her shuttle, and then turned her into a spider to keep her from hanging herself.
Each story in which a human being metamorphoses into an animal form must teach a specific lesson to the seeker. This legend demonstrates that when the right evolution of ‘the concentration or gathering of the being’ (according to the reading of the characters of the name Arachne Ρ+ΧΝ) has reached an achievement in a given domain and led to skilled realisations, this must not lead one to be presumptuous and to involve oneself with what does not relate to one’s own rightful task, such as the amorous adventures of the gods. The spider weaves its web perfectly and without any adornment, with the aim of feeding itself rather than making itself shine.
Athena’s symbol objects, the spear, the helmet and the breastplate, are symbols of the one who fights for truth: they represent accuracy, courage, control and mental silence (the helmet), discipline, intrepidity and the need for growth (the breastplate).
The tree dedicated to her is the olive tree, a symbol of wisdom and purification, and thus of liberation and of the peace which leads to equanimity. We can add to it the symbolism of fertility, insofar as the inner work bears fruits.
Athena’s symbol animal is the owl, a bird which can see in the night; the seeker of truth must learn to see the precise nature of darkness and be able to discern his path through it. Thus, while being both the goddess of reason and of intuition (the owl), Athena is also the goddess of discernment.
Mythology also tells us that the goddess rendered the seer Tiresias blind for having beheld her naked, granting him in exchange the gift of prophecy; it is only when the seeker understands the essence of the quest and is obliged to turn inwards towards his inner world that he can truly access intuition.
At the wedding of Harmonia and Cadmus, on the path of purification which leads to precision, Athena offered a robe, symbol of ‘a complete consecration in search of what is Real’.
The celebrations held in her honour are the Pan Athenian games, celebrations which ‘dedicate everything to Athena’, which is to say the awarding of the seekers of truth who devote themselves entirely to the quest for the inner Reality.
Athena within us
Athena is a warrior energy constituted of courage, endurance, determination and dedication. This energy which stimulates our quest and lays its foundations on the highest intelligence, Metis, incites us to free ourselves from fear and from all the obstacles blocking our progression and to fight against our inertia and half-heartedness. It insists on the elements which require change, and brings us back ceaselessly to our work when we drift into somnolence. It is highly exacting, demanding nothing less than a complete devotion to the quest.
It is also a great organising force of consciousness working on the integration of experiences, and always instigates a turning inwards.
It is she who, during her period of gestation, prepares us to set off on the path.
As long as the quest remains weak, the warrior cannot truly appear, and one must deeply aspire for change for it to occur.
It is Athena who makes us progress forward on the path of purification, the ‘purity’ so dearly loved by the ancient Greeks which includes a putting of each thing in its rightful place without undue mixing.