The following reflection on the Goddess Athena is courtesy of Nirtan Ekaterina Pasnak.
Is wisdom active or passive?
In ancient Greek mythology, wisdom is represented by the goddess Athena. Since in the Greek language the word sophia, wisdom, is feminine in gender, as it is also in many other Latin, Germanic and Slavic languages, it is only natural that it would be personified by a goddess. How is she usually depicted? Does she sit relaxed on a throne in light garments, contemplating the truth? Far from it. She usually wears a helmet, bears a coat of arms on her chest displaying a terrifying image of the head of the Gorgon Medusa crowned with writhing snakes instead of hair, and carries a shield in one hand and a spear in another. In fact, the spear is her identifiable emblem.
In traditional imagery one finds Athena involved in the Gigantomachia, the war between Olympic gods and Giants for the supremacy of the cosmos. The Giants were powerful creatures of the Earth, whose legs ended in snakes instead of feet, and who represented physical, material reality, while the Olympian gods, dwelling on the mountain Olympus, are symbolic of the dominance of the spirit. Athena took part in that battle of the spirit defeating matter, and she is often portrayed striding forward, striking a defeated Giant with a spear.
During Panathenaic festivities in Athens, athletic games were performed in honour of Athena, and the winner of the competition usually received as a prize an amphora filled with olive oil. Athena is believed to have given an olive branch to Athens, and an olive tree still grows on the Acropolis, where it is traditionally believed that Athena planted it. In fact, the tradition of giving a symbolic golden cup to a winner of a sport competition comes from this Greek custom.
On these amphoras Athena is again depicted with a wide stride, wearing a helmet, holding a shield and thrusting a spear in a powerful diagonal line. She stands between two columns surmounted by roosters. According to some researchers, the columns represent her sanctuary in the Acropolis, and here she is in the role of an active protectress of her city, with the roosters signifying either the combative spirit of the athletic games, or the mystical notion of wakefulness and awareness of wisdom itself.
In context of these war-like depictions of Athena, her peaceful images are more of an exception. On similar amphoras she may be shown after the battle, in her own sanctuary in front of the altar, removing her helmet. In the Acropolis museum, just above the imposing staircase, beside a window in a little corner of the Archaic gallery hangs a small marble relief of Athena. It is called ‘Pensive Athena,’ for she leans upon her spear, thinking. Light at different times of the day upon the relief creates various moods: the warm glow of the sunset softens the folds, and makes deeper shadows on her face, thus emphasizing a pensive, contemplative atmosphere; on the other hand, the bright white light of the middle of the day deprives her of the deep folds, making her image crystal clear, and this gives her a stance of decisiveness. https://www.theacropolismuseum.gr/en/relief-pensive-athena.
At first glance at the relief, it looks like Athena is in total peace, and deep in contemplation. However, if we study her body language closely, we discover that this is not so. Her right hand is on her hip, not relaxed and hanging down. It is a gesture of awareness, of being ready for action. Her feet are in profile to the viewer, while her torso is turned en face. Thus, the body is in a tense spiral. The folds on her tunic are not falling vertically according to gravity but follow the diagonal of her leaning figure creating an additional dramatic moment. She stands on her right foot, while her left foot is on the toe. In fact, it is a stance of being ready for action. If she suddenly decides to act, her left foot can make a push (for right-handed people it is the left foot that usually pushes), the spiral of the body would unwind, she could grasp the spear with her right hand and throw it at an enemy approaching from behind – all in just a fraction of a second.
Thus, wisdom is perceived by the Greeks as an inseparable part of daily life, it is the knowledge of what is right at what moment, of when to act and when not to act, of when to be active and when to be passive. These inspiring images of Athena can throw light for us to better understand of the line of the prayer Saum:
Use us for the purpose that Thy wisdom choseth.