I have walked past this statue of Athena, the ancient Greek warrior-goddess of wisdom, hundreds of time. She stands at the entrance to Athens Square, the little park in my neighborhood where the Watch Your Eyes incident took place. It’s pretty amazing how, though she never changes, my impression of Athena evolves. Sometimes I marvel at how nice it is to have a work of art standing a few blocks from my apartment, and wonder why there isn’t more public beautification in general. Occasionally I consider the poignancy of a divine figure who is no longer worshiped, appreciated aesthetically but no longer contemplated with devotion. I’m curious if it calls people’s faith into question, this god who has fallen out of favor. Perhaps it just affirms a true believer’s faith all the more. Maybe there are those who still sacrifice to Pallas Athena, what do I know?
But lately I have been wondering about her outstretched hand. She holds her right hand out, seemingly at the crowds walking by her on the sidewalk. For a time I thought she was bestowing boons, one of the chief functions of the gods. She could be offering wisdom and inspiration to us lowly mortals who pass beneath her. But there is a hint of sadness in her expression that lends her an air of longing and I began to believe Athena wasn’t presenting us with anything, she was asking for something. Maybe she holds out her empty hand hoping for some small sacrifice, remembering the days when temples and even a great city were devoted to her. Or maybe she’s just lonely, standing out there alone, day and night, in all kinds of weather. Perhaps she just wants some sign that she is still relevant, still remembered, still meaningful.
In most traditions, people give to a god in order to receive. Whether it’s in this life or the next, we mortals typically seek some reward for our offerings. Fertility for ourselves or our crops, victory in battle or sport, a pleasant afterlife, we have too many concerns and too little time to give a percentage to the divine without hoping to get something back. Even if what we seek is a sense of selflessness, or the idea that we are good, charitable people, or a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves, there’s something in it for us. And that’s OK; it’s only natural. Even if you don’t subscribe to any religion, this is still powerful and practical metaphor. And if you do subscribe to a religion, consider the dangers of confusing the metaphorical for the literal. But I digress. All the things Athena represents come with a price: wisdom, courage, art, justice, civilization. Perhaps the goddess is simply asking for the labor necessary to obtain them.
Then one night it struck me and I knew exactly why Athena holds out her hand: because she wants us to take it. She is making an offering to us, and asking something of us at the same time. The goddess seeks our trust so she can lead us by the hand. Where is it she would take us? I’m not sure, but I don’t think it’s the Elysian Fields. Maybe it’s to self-knowledge or creative courage. Maybe she looks so sad because so few reach out their hands back and take the leap.
Now, dear reader, before you go searching for a blog with a little less woo woo, let me assure you I don’t believe this statue wants me to do something. As I said, there is danger in taking a metaphor literally. But I also believe there is danger in throwing away the metaphorical simply because it isn’t literal. I don’t think this statue wants me to pursue wisdom or write things worth sharing, but something does. It is clear that this force is located within me. Yet I can also recognize it in others, and at large in the world. Maybe it’s not some attractive Greek girl with magical powers who’s going to help us out when we summon the courage or intelligence to deal with a situation, but simply the untapped resources within ourselves. But if people thousands of years ago personified this part of our psyche in a way that makes it approachable, why not recognize the utility and the beauty of their creation? Athena is an image of the nebulous force that inspires art, cultivates civilization, and summons our curiosity. And she is reaching out to us. Will you take her hand?