Metamorphoses Project:
Tracing Mythology through Time and Place


Laurie, Stephanie, Alex, and Lynette

Part 2

Late Versions of the myth:

"The Combat of Mars and Athena" This painting (1771) by Jacques-Louis David shows Athena triumphant over Ares, the god of war. The artist is showing Athena giving power back to women by showing her as strong and able to beat a man in battle.. This painting was entered in the Prix de Rome competition, winning David second prize. He claimed that he had deserved first prize and started a grudge with the winner Joseph-Benoit Suvee. This grudge was the start of David's downfall as a painter.

Jacques-Louis David was born in Paris on August 30, 1748. He was a French revolutionary artist in both a technical and political sense. He put his art at the service of the new French Republic and for a time was virtual dictator of the arts. He eventually became captivated by the personality of Nepoleon I and developed an Empire style in which warm Venetian colors played a major role. David had a huge number of pupils and his influence was felt positively and negatively by a majority of French 19th-century painters. Considered the greatest single fingure in European painting between the late Rococo and the Romantica era, admirers mourned his death on December 29, 1825.

The Dictionary of Art. "David, Jacques-Louis." Grove's Dictionaries, Inc.: New York. 1996. volume 8.

Athena has had several names throughout history, depending on who was telling the stroy, but in a Latin text, translated to English, she is portrayed as two separate people. In Confessio Amantis, she is first known as Minerva, the goddess of sapience (wisdom), and as the one who founded cloth making. Secondly, she was known as Pallas, named after her father, Pallant, a terrible giant whom she eventually killed. This version also says that she was Mars' wife, therefore earning the title "goddess of battle." Both these versions offer a totally different story than did the ancient Greek versions, but who's to say which was is right?

Gower, John. Confessio Amantis. Holt, Rinehardt, & Winston: New York, 1968. pp. 245.

There is yet another version to Athena's namesake. In theis version, she earned the name Pallas after killing the youth Pallas, her playmate. (Other versions of this same story say that Pallas was a goatish giant that tried to rape her.) During the Renaissance she was known as the goddess of reason. It was a favorite of the Renaissance humanists to portray Athena with a Centaur -- diametrical opposites. Athena was known as a genteel woman with high intellect, while the Centaur was described as a wild beast. The Centaur is said to represent man's lower, party animal nature. Centaurs were lecherous, brutal, and drunken creatures. In the paintings Athena is usually shown grasping a centaur by the hair on his head as he cringes and trys to pull away, representing the hold civilization has on the animal within man.

Earls, Irene. Renaissance Art: A Topical Dictionary. Greenwood Press: New York. 1987. pp.216

When one typically thinks of Minerva's dress and looks, he or she probably thinks of her with her shield and war gear, possibly surrounded by her symbols such as the olive or owl. However, when the painter, Parmigianino, was faced with the task of portraying her, he took an entirely different approach. Here, we see Minerva as a beautiful and refined woman. No where is there any sign of her battle experience or great wisdom. Parmigianino relflects her more feminine side, possibly drawn because of her virginity and association with pureness in women.

Freedberg, S.J. Parmigianino: his works in painting. Howard University Press: Cambridge. 1950. figure 156.

  Athena in television

This site offers a different outlook on Athena/Minerva. On this page you will find two references of interest. In Chapter 5 there is a reference to an episode of SeaQuest, where the ghosts of Neptune and Minerva are portrayed as lovers past the grave. But wait... they were immortal, how could they die? One of the many wonders of your modern day television! The second reference is in Chapter 8, about a name calling incident with Aphrodite, with whom Athena was constantly vying to be the most beautiful.

One last myth about Athena deals with the legendary king of Cyprus Pygmalion. This artist/sculptor remained a bachelor because of his disgust with all of the vices of the women on the island. Eventually he carved a statue made of ivory of the goddess Venus. He dressed the statue in robes and put rings on her fingers and pearls in her ears. Eventually he fell in love with the statue. One day, at the festival of Aphrodite, he prayed to the goddess for a wife resembling the statue in radiance and poise. Afterwords, upon returning home, he kissed the statue, and it came to life! The following poem is by poetess H.D. In her poem "Pygmalion," the sculptor is not obsessed with love but with the results of his art. He prays to Athena, patroness of the arts, not Aphrodite. To read poem, click here

The author Hilda Doolittle was born in Bethleham, Pennsylvania, in 1886. She was an American poet who lead the Imagism movement in the early 1900's. Being an imagist, H.D. avoided romantic or mystic themes, which could be the reason why she changed the myth away from love toward the arts. Her style of writing was clear, precise, and objective. She was strongly influenced by classical mythology, especially Greek verse. Many of her poems deal with Greek mythology. She died in Switzerland in 1961.

Mayerson, Philip. Classical Mythology in Literature, Art, and Music. Xerox College Publishing: Toronto. 1971. p.188.

Aldington, Hilda Doolittle. Collected Poems of H.D. Horace Liverlight: New York. 1926. p.70.

World Book Encyclopedia. "Doolittle, Hilda." World Book, Inc.: Chicago. 1995. volume 5.

"The Triumph of Wisdom" In this painting (1591) by Bartholomeus Spranger, Athena stands with her foot on Ignorance, who has the ears of a donkey. Two putti are handing her a laurel wreath and palm of victory. At her feet are Bellona, a subordinate goddess of war, and the Muse of poetry, Calliope. Around the platform are other Muses personifying painting, sculpture, and architecture. The theme of this painting is that virtue and wisdom lead to victory over ignorance.

The author Bartholomeus Spranger was born in Antwerp on March 21, 1546. He was a South Netherlandish painter and sculptor, active in Italy, Austria, and Bohemia. He was one of the most important artists at the Prague court of Emperor Rudolf II. He had a unique ability of combining Netherlandish traditions with Italian influence to achieve his own style that had a lasting impression on other artists of Prague. His elegance yet intellectual paintings embody an ideal of beauty. He died in Prague before September 27, 1611.

The Dictionary of Art. "Spranger, Bartholomeus." Grove's Dictionaries, Inc.: New York. 1996. volume 29.

Part 2B -- Analysis

In newer versions of the stories about Athena she hasn't seemed to change much at all. She has the same characteristics and qualities as she did in the early Greek stories -- embodying wisdom, pureness (virginity), and a love of the creative arts. What has changed are the details of her life, how she came to be born, where her name came from, and whom (if anyone) she married. While there are some discrepencies even among the early Greek stories, they were not as varied as what we can now read today.

One of the biggest contradictions between early Greek myth and more modern stories is deciding how Athena earned her name. Early versions give her the title Pallas Athena because of her battle strategy and war tactics. The tales printed above, however, offer completely different reasons. The translated Latin version even offers the idea that she was actually two separate people, Minerva and Pallas. In the version with the centaur, she does still receive the name Pallas because of her ability to conquer over others.

Another difference we find between early Greek myth newer stories is about Athena's marriage. Early Greek myth says she was a virgin, a quality with which she was strongly associated . Later versions say she was married to Mars, which is how she became the goddess of war. In early Greek myth, she was the goddess of war beacuse of her strong battle tactics and ability to overcome in war.

As for Athena in television, of course the story will be changed. It's TV; it doesn't have to be true! The basis of what happend is still the same, but it has been formatted to fit any situation, which is a common occurance on television shows.

The painting "The Combat of Mars and Athena" shows the final outcome of a battle between Mars, god of war, and Athena, goddess of war. Athena is standing triumphantly, while Mars is lying on the ground, his hand in a sign of surrender. David gives a marvelous power boost to women in this painting, after centuries of women being portrayed as insignificant. Athena's stance, and her body, painted larger than Mars' clearly shows that she is just as good as a man. David also shows that the strategical side of war is mightier than pure brawn and pugnacity, a side that usually is not shown in pictures of war.

Bartholomeus' painting "Wisdom Conquers Ignorance" carries an appropriate theme for the time in history in which the artist was painting. The Renaissance was a time period literally named for the "rebirth" of knowledge from the ignorance of the Middle Ages. The Muses are also shown in the picture with Athena because the Renaissance did not just overcome the ignorance of math and science, but also of literature, music, and art.

In the poem Pygmalion, the poet H.D. took considerable measures in handling the myth of Pygmalion, king of Cyprus, who swore off all types of women simply because of a few vices. Then, all of a sudden, he fell in love with a statue that he claimed was perfect. The poet's version of the myth is different from the Greek myth, but it is similar as well. Both versions are about the hardships of this legendary figure, whether it be in love or the arts. The only difference is that the king orignially prayed for help from Venus, while in Doolittle' version, he prays to Athena.. The change of this particular myth shows another example of how modern ways and beliefs of writers can manipulate myths of the ancient Greek world.

The changes in the stories of Athena have probably changed as they were adapted to different cultures and ways of life. They've been changed to what people want to hear, what they can identify with, and how it can relate to their own lives. These tales are not told only for listening pleasure, however. They can be told to help explain things, show how different people have dealt with situations that we may be in ourselves. To help the reader/listener identify, some modifications may need to be done, though the main message stays the same.

Last updated 3 September 97