115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Athena Effect

Alyssa Kaufman, Western Washington University

The Athena Effect references the process in which women derive power from enacting masculinity; this is encapsulated by the mythology surrounding the Greek goddess Athena. I will examine the ways in which iconography of Athena is dominated by a Panoptic male gaze, and how she might subvert this.



The Athena Effect describes the process by which women or female-bodied individuals derive their power from enacting masculinity. The mechanism is encapsulated by the mythology surrounding the Greek goddess Athena. Athena is a virgin goddess of wisdom, warfare, and commerce, as well as weaving and craft. In Greek literature, she acts as the patron goddess of Athens, and she makes frequent appearances to aid heroic deeds and quests. She is known for being just and rational. While a quite powerful woman, Athena has very little to do with femininity. In her more popular origin story, Athena’s conception does not even involve female anatomy or action; she is born from the head of her father Zeus. Moreover, Athena is continually valued and praised for the most masculine of her aspects. While she does champion some feminine arts, such as weaving, we see imagery of her glorified for her competence in war. In one of her most famous depictions, the Athena Parthenos, Athena dons a helmet and armor; she appears to be ready for battle. In her mythology, Athena reinforces her masculinity as well. In Aeschylus’ The Eumenides, Athena (or Athene) comes to represent justice in the case of Orestes. As she gives the rationalization for her decision, she says: “There is no mother anywhere who gave me birth,/and, but for marriage, I am always for the male/ with all my heart, and strongly on my father’s side”. Here, Athena makes it clear that it is her masculinity which she values and gives her authority. Athena’s masculine power is crucial for understanding the perpetuation of masculine dominance and patriarchy. The first place one may see these ramifications is the historical reality of the women in ancient Athens. Despite having a powerful and valued patron goddess, the women of Athens were subjected to strict gender roles and duties. Moreover, in the same myths where we see Athena brandish her power, we see other women condemned for theirs (such as Clytaemestra in Agamemnon). Athena’s masculinized strength means that it is reserved only for her; other women do not benefit from it. Another facet of Athena’s power is that it’s fleeting. As the Greek’s Athena, she stars as a figure of justice and an aid to heroism. When Athena is conflated with Minerva, she does lose her Greek myths, but the Roman reiterations of these stories often stifle her ferocity. Furthermore, when Ovid casts her character in Metamorphoses, we see Minerva testing her weaving ability against a mortal, losing, and punishing the mortal anyway. Minerva demonstrates a weakness in her feminine abilities, and a flaw in her character. While the loss of Athena’s power is not explicit, it can be seen through the evolution of these myths that sourcing her power in masculinity ultimately fails Athena, and she cannot retain her position. In this paper, I will examine the different ways in which iconography and representations of Athena/Minerva are dominated by a Foucauldian panoptic male gaze, how she is used as an oppressive tool, and how she might escape this function.