One of the variations in the myths of 6) Tiresias is that 7) Athena blinded him as punishment for accidentally seeing her bathe naked. This seems to have been first written down by the poet Pherecydes in the 450s BC.
Both Tiresias and Athena also appear in the epic poem “The Odyssey” by Homer, both taking on the role of advisor to Odysseus. Tiresias appears when Odysseus summons up the spirits of the dead in the hope that they may provide directions to get him back home. He had been advised that he must not speak to any ghost, even that of his mother, until he had spoken to the spirit of Tiresias first.
Tiresias explains to Odysseus that his difficult journey home was being manipulated by the god Poseidon as punishment for blinding his Cyclops son. He offers advice on how to tackle future dangers and warns Odysseus of the difficult affairs back home with the many unwanted suitors of his wife Penelope.
Athena was also keen to advise Odysseus, as well as his son Telemachus. On several occasions she appeared to them in the form of a man. The Greek gods were frequent shape-shifters. Only on very rare occasions did they change gender temporarily. This is in contrast to several Asian deities whose transgender manifestations tend to be permanent.
Athena’s transformation was to disguise her identity rather than as an expression of her sexuality. She chose to appear in the form of one specific person, a friend of Odysseus called Mentor. The two friends had served in the army together, and when Odysseus went off to fight in the Trojan War he left Mentor to watch over his palace, his wife Penelope and is son Telemachus.
Whether the real Mentor was any good as a guardian is uncertain, but it was Athena in his form who encouraged Telemachus to stand up to his mother’s unwanted suitors. She, as Mentor, also suggested to Telemachus that he should find out what had really happened to his father.
The role of Athena as Mentor came to be regarded as a model for the type of personal advisor that now bears his name. I wonder how many people who regard themselves as a mentor realise they are following in the footsteps of female deity who transformed herself into a man for the purpose.
Athena also had an important influence as the patron of the city of Athens. A legend tells how the founder of the city, rather unusually, didn’t name it after himself but said it would be named after the god who gave the city the best gift. Athena and Poseidon stepped up to the challenge. Poseidon hit the ground with his trident and produced a never-ending supply of water – salt water. Other myths say he created the first horse. Athena, on the other hand, created the first olive tree. The citizens chose the olive tree as the best gift and named their city Athens.
Athens is the home to one of the most magnificent temple sites in ancient Greece dedicated to Athens, and the most famous. The Parthenon stands proudly on top of the Acropolis and had several huge statues of Athena which have long since been destroyed. At least three statues of Athena were made by the same artist, 8) Phidias (living 5th century BC), often stated to have been the greatest sculptor in ancient Greece, and the man who created a style that is still being copied in modern buildings.
Phidias acted as chief architect and designer of the temple complex on the Acropolis. It is his most famous work, but another work that has also long since been destroyed, earned a spot on the famous list of the Seven Wonders of the World. This was another massive statue, this time to Zeus, in the temple at Olympia where the ancient Olympics took place. During my 2012 Olympic Countdown series I wrote about this statue and the fact that Phidias carved a little inscription onto it saying “Pantarkes is gorgeous”. Pantarkes was one of Phidias’s apprentices, aged around 12, who was also his eromenos – boy lover. Pantarkes was also the boys wrestling champion at the Olympic Games of 436 BC, the year before Phidias completed his statue of Zeus.
Today the Seven Wonders are well-known. Before Phidias’s day, however, only three of the Wonders on the traditional list were in existence – the Great Pyramid at Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. No-one listed any Wonders until over 300 years after Phidias died and there was never any consensus of what went on the list until the Renaissance and the invention of printing and the spread of printed books. There may easily be some long lost list of Ancient Wonders that included Phidias’s temple complex on the Acropolis and its huge statues in addition to his statue of Zeus.
Some ancient writers, however, didn’t share the view that these structures were anything to wonder at. They regarded them as evidence of the tyranny of rulers. One of these writers was the famous Aristotle. He criticised the construction of all huge monuments and buildings, even temples, because their construction meant taxing the citizens to pay for them. That’s not entirely true and Aristotle is over-simplifying the motives of the rulers who constructed them. But it’s a criticism that is still often levelled in modern times when new, big construction projects begin.
Among the structures Aristotle criticised were the pyramids, the monuments in Corinth and the statue of Zeus in Athens (not the same at the statue at Olympia by Phidias), among others. Aristotle singled out one tyrant by name in his list, 9) Polycrates of Samos (d.522 BC).
Next time of “80 More Gays”: We develop a psychological complex and visit the opera to see the revival of an ancient king.