Athena is famous in Greek mythology for being one of only three Goddesses who were considered “virgin”. It was said in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite that alone of all creation these three Goddesses, Hestia, Artemis, and Athena, were immune to the arrows of Eros and the seductive spell of Aphrodite. But for Athena being a virgin ran deeper than simple immunity to romance. Athena was, rather surprisingly, a mother figure in Classical Athens, and is linked to Hephaestos in what could be an ancient heiros gamos festival.
Athena's legendary virginity begins with conflicting stories of her birth. In the most famous version, attributed to Apollodorus, Athena is born fully grown from the head of her father Zeus. Zeus had been warned that his bride Metis, wise counsel, would bear him a child greater than himself, so he chose to swallow Metis whole. Nine months later he was stricken with a terrible headache that served as the birth pangs which brought Athena into existence. Just as later Catholics would claim that their divine virgin Mary was conceived Immaculately by the will of the Father God, so was Athena born, not of a womb or woman, but from the perfect mind of Zeus.
A second and less well known birth story comes to us from Lycophron, in which Athena was fathered the winged giant Pallas. This Pallas later attempted to rape his daughter. In a rage the young Athena killed her father and flayed him, taking his skin for her breastplate – the aegis – and his wings for her own use. In the oldest known depictions of Athena, such as at Sparta, she is shown winged. This was the first, but not the only threat to Athena's chastity in myth.
When Zeus ached and moaned with the labor pains that would bring forth Athena we are told that Hephaestos took up a labrys and split mighty Zeus's head asunder in order to release the pain. Thus, Hephaestos was the first of the theoi to catch a glimpse of the newly formed Athena. We can only guess from later events what Hephaestos must have thought when he saw the radiant goddess for the first time. Perhaps Eros launched one of his famous arrows at the lame craftsman. Maybe he was taken in by the earth-shaking war dance she performed immediately upon her birth. As a smith, he may have just been impressed with her excellent taste in armor, since she was born fully armed. In any case, Hephaestos desired Athena and contrived to win her for his wife.
After Hephaestos set out to trap his mother Hera in a golden throne he fashioned for her he demanded the prize of either Athena or Aphrodite as his wife, according to many sources, notably Hyginus. If Athena rejected his proposal it is not recorded. Regardless, Hephaestos won Aphrodite as his bride rather than Athena and according to Homer [Odyssey 8.267] he regretted the decision. Aphrodite proved to be a lovely but unfaithful wife and Hephaestos harbored secret lust for Athena.
Athena came to the forge of Hephaestos seeking arms. What she received instead, according to Apollodorus, was an attempted rape by Hephaestos. In disgust it was said that Athena wiped Hephaestos's semen from her thigh with a fillet of wool that she then flung to the ground. The fertile earth, Gaia, became pregnant by this seed and bore the child Erikhthonios, king of Athens. Gaia gave the boy to Athena, who she claimed was his true mother. Ashamed, Athena hid the growing child in a kista, or chest, that she kept in the folds of her aegis.
Why was Athena ashamed of Erikhthonios? Why would she keep his existence a closely guarded secret? Erikhthonios was said to have the form of a serpent from the waist down. Is this deformity alone enough to cause Athena to shut away her fosterling, and, where did Erikhthonios gain this peculiar serpentine aberration?
Since the earliest recorded times Athena has been identified with the snake. This is demonstrated in her serpent-tasseled aegis, and in her special role as the guardian of the city, just as the snake served in ancient Greece as a symbol for the guardian of the home. Athena has deep roots in the prehistoric craftswoman serpent and bird goddesses that Marija Gimbutas documented in her work. Just as Gaia claimed that Athena was the true mother of Erikhthonios, so do Erikhthonios's defining features point to Athena having been his mother.
Athena guarded Erikhthonios with obsessive caution. It was said by Pseudo-Apollodorus that she sent the kista he was kept in to Pandrosos, the daughter of Kekrops, forbidding her to open the chest. With curiosity that echoes the fall of Pandora – who Athena had a hand in making – Pandrosos opened the chest and beheld Erikhthonios, at the sight of which Athena drove Pandrosos mad. Pandrosos then flung herself to her death from the Acropolis. These horrible events were commemorated each year at the Athenian festival of the Arrephoria. During the Arrephoria maidens were given a secret kista at the temple of Athena on the Acropolis filled with “unspoken things”. The maidens were strictly admonished not to look inside of the kista but to deliver it to the garden shrine of Aphrodite, below the Acropolis. The maidens then returned to the temple of Athena bearing a second kista, also filled with secret contents, from the garden of Aphrodite. I have concluded that the kista bore knowledge of Erikhthonios as the son of Athena and Hephaestos, just as it held Erikhthonios himself when Pandrosos kept it. It is telling that Athena sends knowledge of Erikhthonios to Aphrodite, the wife of Hephaestos, whose charms and seductions she was supposed to be immune to.
Thus I have deduced that, just as Gaia claimed, Athena is the true mother of Erikhthonios, making her one of the number of that fabulous mythic trope of virgin mothers. But how chaste was Athena's relationship with Hephaestos? Were they ever linked beyond one incident of attempted rape? To answer these questions I look again to the festival cycle of Athens, this time to the festival of the Khalkeia, which translates to “bronze chamber”. The Khalkeia was a festival of Hephaestos and Athena as patrons of craftsmanship. Throughout Athens Athena and Hephaestos were paired. Athena has a statue in the Athenian temple of Hephaestos that overlooks the agora, while the ever-burning lamp in the temple of Athena Polis is regarded by Burkert and others as the presence of Hephaestos.
Karl Kerenyi deduces in his Athene: Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion that during the Khalkeia festival Athena and Hephaestos joined in a heiros gamos, or sacred marriage rite, in a bronze chamber. The month leading up to the Khalkeia was a time for young Athenians to prepare themselves for marriage. Athena even takes her “husband's” name in Robert Parker's Polytheism and society at Athens which lists Hephaisteia as one of Athena's epithets, specifically related to the Khalkeia festival.
The marriage of Athena and Hephaestos bore rich fruit depending on which sources are sought. Both Apollon [Müller, Dor. ii. 2. § 13.] and Lychnus [Spanheim, ad Callim. p. 644.] are cited as being sons of the union of Athena and Hephaestos. I find that the idea of Apollon, Lord of the Arts, being the son of the theoi of craftsmanship to be an inspiring and illuminating twist in their collective mythologies.
Even with her yearly Athenian marriage to Hephaestos and a proliferation of sons, Athena still remains virgin. She is a virgin in the oldest sense of the word: ever a maiden beholden to no man. It was this virginity that allowed Athena to exist in realms outside of those typically open to Greek women. Now that we live in a society where women and men are recognized as equals it is time to restore Athena's roles beyond that of the eternally chaste daughter.
Theoi Project: Athena
Theoi Project: Hephaestos
Burkert, Walter: Greek Religion.
Gimbutas, Marija: The Language of the Goddess.
Kerenyi, Karl: Athene: Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion.
Parker, Robert: Polytheism and Society at Athens.