Guest room : Is Wisdom Active or Passive?

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. 

Fig. 1. Pseudo-panathenaic amphora, late 6th – early 5th century B.C., Vatican museums, photo by Nirtan Pasnak

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.

Fig. 2. Pensive Athena. Marble relief, ca. 460 B.C. Acropolis museum, Athens. Photo from the museum in the light of the sunset, Nirtan Pasnak

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.

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.

6 Replies to “Guest room : Is Wisdom Active or Passive?”

  1. Hajiri

    Querido Murshid y Nirtan,
    Gracias por este bello texto, iba leyendo y sentía estar frente a la imagen. Hermosa reflexión y detalle sobre la postura de Atenea en el museo de Acrópolis.
    Esa detalle de estar apoyada en su pie derecho, lado en el que esta la acción y concreción, pero tener su pie izquierdo siendo impulso, lado donde reposa la energía de lo espiritual y creativo; me hace reflexionar sobre esa necesidad de no estar solo de un lado o del otro, que debemos crear siempre un equilibrio entre la acción y lo espiritual. Que siempre el corazón será el punto de apoyo, de impulso para la razón.

    Muchas gracias Nirtan por este viaje y reflexión que nos regalas.
    Abrazos con amor.

  2. Hajiri

    Dear Murshid and Nirtan,
    Thank you for this beautiful text, I was reading and I felt I was in front of the image. Beautiful reflection and detail on the posture of Athena in the Acropolis museum.
    That detail of being supported on her right foot, side where the action and concretion is, but having her left foot being impulse, side where the energy of the spiritual and creative rests; makes me reflect on the need to not be alone on one side or the other, that we must always create a balance between action and the spiritual. That the heart will always be the point of support, of impulse for the reason.

    Thank you very much Nirtan for this journey and reflection that you give us.
    Hugs with love.

    • Nirtan Pasnak

      Dear sister Hajiri,
      Thank you for your very poignant comment. Yes, wisdom is doing constantly that balancing act between the opposites, finding perfect harmony between action and non-action, between doing the work on the earth and for the spirit. Thank you also for pointing onto the heart. Athena inclines her head and listens to her heart. It is the heart that tells her what is right at what moment. Thank you again, dear Hajiri, it is very much to the point.

  3. Puran

    Thank you Nirtan for this wisdom about wisdom… it is a wonderful image you have given us !

    Gracias Nirtan por esta sabiduría acerca de la sabiduría… es una imagen maravillosa que nos has dado !

    • Nirtan Pasnak

      Dear brother Puran,
      Thank you so much for your kind words. I do hope that the message of the goddess of wisdom could be inspiring for many. The ancient art contains much beauty and wisdom that can teach us and elevate our spirits.

  4. huma

    Beloved sister Nirtan
    Thank you for sharing such a magnificent post .
    Your words are the breath of wisdom that brings this ancient art back to life !
    As I observed our pensive Athena a phrase from the Gayan sprung up in my mind:
    Let courage be Thy sword and patience be Thy shield, my soldier

    Sending infinite love


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