Wednesday, 23 November 2011


The tendency to anthropomorphise gods throughout history is intriguing.
Why, when humanity looks to gods as superior beings, who provide guidance and an explanation for existence, we envision them as human? Why do we limit their capabilities – if we cannot do the things we rely on the gods for, how will they succeed?
Despite asking these questions, I consistently picture them in human form without really thinking about why I am doing so. I’ve learnt that Athena and Ares are figureheads of war, but are also war itself, and that Zeus’ true form is lightening, too powerful to be witnessed by human eyes, as portrayed in the story of Semele in Apollodorus’s Library and Epitome.[1] But when I envisage these divine forces, I restrict them to a human form. I want to confront the representation of these diverse divinities, and question why these gods – so powerful and very much inhuman – are depicted in the same form as mortals. Perhaps it says less about the gods themselves and more about humans who struggle to worship something so daunting and other.  

Athena's anthropomorphic portrayal is unusual. Unlike Zeus, whose supremacy and strength is mirrored in his masculine human form, Athena is a female virgin, clad in armour. This doesn't fit the mortal female stereotype and highlights her difference from humanity. Athena is not the docile, domestic woman, she's formidable, Glaukopis. Glaukopis has been translated in many ways, including darting/gleaming-eyed, grey/blue-eyed and owl-eyed. Like Zeus’ eagle, the owl (the glaux-hence glaukopis being translated as owl-eyed) was Athena’s key attribute. Athena was often depicted holding an owl, or manifesting as one and they embodied the same qualities, for example wisdom. Athena Polymetis (wise in many ways) absorbed the wisdom of Metis whilst inside Zeus. Even now, the owl is recognised as a symbol of wisdom, and both Athena and the owl’s darting eyes suggest awareness and are unnerving and potentially fearsome:
Homeric Hymn 28: To Athena
‘Golden, all-gleaming; every immortal was gripped with awe
(…)At the might of the bright-eyed goddess Olympus reeled.’

Athena Tetradrachm.
Athens, approx 450 BC. British Museum
Athena is portrayed as powerful, awesome, Glaukopis. This image is of an Athenian Tetradrachm, depicting Athena on one side and an owl on the other. In our lecture the anthropomorphic image on this coin raised the question ‘why is Athena ugly?’ Her features are pronounced; her large nose and wide eyes could be compared to the eyes and beak of her owl. Perhaps the use of anthropomorphism to comprehend the gods goes further-animals are used to understand individual traits. This is true for other deities, for example, Hera is referred to as Bo-Opis (Doe-eyed,) suggesting her femininity and demure, modest nature.[3] Perhaps what is construed as Athena’s ugliness in images like this accurately reflects her attributes. As Athena Glaukopis, her gaze was formidable and uncomfortable.[4] The goddess of war was fearsome and intimidating.
As a maiden, she did not need to be beautiful. Llewellyn-Jones argues that ‘she takes no pleasure in her own nudity; she is born clothed and armed and presumably only removes her clothing for her first bath.’[5] Although the body of the virgin is attractive to men, Athena’s primary purpose was not as a sexualised goddess. However, that said, sexualisation of the goddess did occur from the fourth century BC onward. Eithne, Quelin and I saw Immortals directed by Tarsem Singh; a film based on the adventures of Theseus and the battle of the gods to prevent the release of the titans. In this, the representation of Athena really struck me. (Athena in Immortals: Obviously the silver screen demands beautiful people, but at first we thought her to be Aphrodite; she was delicate, blonde, feminine, wore none of her typical attire - the aegis, her armour - and was dressed in provocative golden fabric instead. As she fights, her skin is on display, and in particular her legs are revealed which links to a point raised by Llewellyn-Jones regarding the aforementioned rape by Hephaistos. He comments that as Athena tries to escape, she lifts her skirt for ease; ‘it is this gesture that enables Hephaistos to ejaculate over (her) otherwise decently covered leg.’[6] Bare flesh is associated with sexuality, and the portrayal of Athena in Immortals reflects this.

In contrast to my confusion over Athena's beauty, Ritter reflects on Aphrodite's warlike appearance. He considers Blomberg's study of a Greek goddess on Corinthian coins which concludes that 'the helmeted goddess could only be Aphrodite.'[7] As can be seen in all the images of Athena included in my blog, the helmet, signifying readiness for war, is Athena's attribute. But Blomberg argues that the Corinthians wouldn't choose Athena over their patron deity and that perhaps the helmet had different associations in Corinth. As Athena's portrayal becomes more sexual in both ancient representations and modern cinema, Aphrodite could potentially gain a more masculine dimension through Corinthian coinage.

In Greek myth, the presence of gods was usually kept hidden from mortals; they were dangerous, formidable, and indeed other. Anthropomorphising deities made them familiar, easier to understand. As I mentioned, humanity fears that which is unknown and different so making the gods appear human made them more accessible. Quoting De Visser, Buxton wrote in his study of Greek metamorphosis that ‘nowhere did anthropomorphism achieve a greater state of completion than among the Greeks.’[8] Images of the deities in human form are distinguishable to us and would have been recognisable in ancient Greece through clothing and facial features. Furthermore, not only were these human forms depicted on vase paintings, but also on currency, in the same way we have our leaders and monarchs. I agree with De Visser – anthropomorphic images of the gods were as important as the gods themselves, and worshipped as such.   

Lefkowitz wrote that ‘many Greeks traced their own families back to a god or hero.’[9] For example, Spartans believed they were directly descended from the demigod Heracles. In Christianity, Jesus was the human son of God. Anthropomorphic deities are convenient-they look human so can therefore be the parent of a human child.

Marble, n.d, Altes Museum,

Whilst considering the importance of anthropomorphic depictions, I can’t help but liken Zeus to the Judaeo-Christian God. Zeus, head of the pantheon can manifest in various ways but is frequently depicted as a man. God is omnipotent, the sole ruler and the creator of the universe but is restricted to the normality of the human form and worshipped in this state. Conjure an image of an older man; strong, bearded, robed, deep voice. Is this God, Zeus, or is it both? Ancient Greek statues depict this image, the Romans took elements from it and in turn Christianity developed; the gods remained similar. 

Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel,

[1] Apollodorus, (c. 2th Century BC) Library and Epitome, found of Perseus Digital Library, available from (accessed 19.11.11.)
[2] Crudden, Micheal, (2001) The Homeric Hymns, UK: Oxford University Press, 88.
[3] Deacy, Susan, (2008) Athena, UK: Routledge, 84.
[4]Morrison, Lesley, (2011) The Healing Wisdom of Birds: An everyday guide to their spiritual songs and symbolism, USA: Llewellyn Worldwide, 14.
[5] Deacy, Susan and Alexandra Villing, eds, (2001) Athena in the Classical World, Leiden: Brill, 247.
[6] Ibid, 257.
[7] Ritter, S. in Deacy, Susan and Alexandra Villing, eds, (2001) Athena in the Classical World, Leiden: Brill, 144.
[8] Buxton, R.G.A, (2009) Forms of Astonishment: Greeks Myths of Metamorphosis, UK: Oxford University Press, 189.
[9] Lefkowitz, Mary, (2003) Greek Gods, Human Lives, USA: Yale University Press, 31.

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