Strange Beginnings: The Birth of Athena

| March 26, 2010

The Birth of Athena Vase Painting

One day, according to the stories, Zeus’ head was laid open to the light of day. It was split by the surgical strike of an ax, and out stepped Athena, full grown and fully armored. Some suggest that she arrived with a shout, causing the sky and earth to take notice, and by all accounts it was a strange, remarkable, even fearful event. And yet, the same accounts will often take on a matter-of-fact tone. In the hands of the vase-painters the scene will be both spatially striking and posturally quite calm. Zeus himself often seems serene or occupied with other matters, and nowhere in the written accounts do we find a reaction from him. Perhaps by the time it finds its way to being written down or painted the story has already taken on a kind of expectedness. In any event, the written references are either part of an accounting of divine geneology (Hesiod, Apollodorus), or are mention in passing, as a character note, upon evoking Athena (Pindar, Euripedes). The story is never so much told as re-told or referenced.

Or perhaps the matter of fact tone is due to the internal workings of the story itself: a result of a kind of forethought running throughout the accounts. An understanding that even if unconventional, this is a birth, like any other–perhaps even more proper, to a certain Greek mind, given the absence of female anatomy–and hence subject to the orderly flow of events.

And when the time came for the birth to take place, Prometheus, or as others say, Hephaestus, struck the head of Zeus with an ax… – Apollodorus

A birth then. Expected, and from the crown of Zeus’ head, fully equipped.

But can we begin here? Without, as Euripedes would have it, the pains of childbirth? Is there something striking in the story still worthy of remark? And if we have survived the blow, doesn’t the cry of life call us to put the labors behind us? And if the child turns out to be an adult, fully equipped, so much the better. And what, finally, would this have to do with education?

We might, with the brazen confidence of a tradition, offer up an answer to the latter rather easily. Zeus, of course, has eaten Metis, Thought herself, having been warned that she would give birth to a threat to his power. Metis sets to work inside Zeus, crafting Athena’s armor, until the clamor causes such a headache that Zeus will submit to the ax. And again, with the hindsight of tradition, we might point out that Athena is the goddess of Wisdom, and that she will become Zeus’ favorite.

We would have, then, a story of the birth of wisdom. Having consumed threatening thought, out of fear of the future, it would set to work, so that when the time came, wisdom may step out and bring power under civilized control. A prototypical educational story. That this has not, to my knowledge, been noted by the tradition, does nothing to detract from the uncanny resemblance.

But let us not be too hasty. Can we really cross back and forth so easily? Meta-phora. Can this story serve as a metaphor for education? Let us not rush to swallow it. Not because its outlines won’t continue to match any number of characteristics of a certain educational history up through the present moment. They will. But even if this story may serve as as our beginning, even if in some manner it seems originary or at least singular, and even if it matches Aristotle’s condition for a metaphoric term that it be strange, this should not keep us from attempting to grasp the emergence of this story within a much longer material history of expressions of emergence. In other words, as striking as it is, the thought that it emerged fully grown and armored, a first birth, is, well… the stuff of myths. We might tease out any number of earlier variations that would suggest that if things are being reworked, it is as part of an ongoing play of images that are themselves in the making. This does not, of course, preclude its use as metaphor, but it at least ought to cause us some pause.

Just as importantly, it would be hopelessly anachronistic to think that we can read this story itself within the rubric of education as we know it. The very idea that something like education could be said to exist outside of particular historic conditions is itself a product of an entire history of thinking that will come to be organized around the notion of learning as a crossing over. Meta-phora.
We might have trouble locating a metaphor for learning, because the history of learning is inextricably tied to the history of metaphor itself.

It is from here that we might find that we must begin to think Education. But also that beginnings are not what they seem.