This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is an Orphic Hymn to the ancient Greek goddess Athena:

“Only-begotten, noble race of Zeus, blessed and fierce, who joyest in caves to rove: O warlike Pallas, whose illustrious kind, ineffable, and effable we find: magnanimous and famed, the rocky height, and groves, and shady mountains thee delight: in arms rejoicing, who with furies dire and wild the souls of mortals dost inspire. Gymnastic virgin of terrific mind, dire Gorgon’s bane, unmarried, blessed, kind: mother of arts, impetuous; understood as fury by the bad, but wisdom by the good. Female and male, the arts of war are thine, O much-formed, Drakaina, inspired divine: over the Phlegraion Gigantes, roused to ire, thy coursers driving with destructive dire. Tritogeneia, of splendid mien, purger of evils, all-victorious queen. Hear me, O Goddess, when to thee I pray, with supplicating voice both night and day, and in my latest hour give peace and health, propitious times, and necessary wealth, and ever present be thy votaries aid, O much implored, art’s parent, [bright]-eyed maid.”

[#32, The Hymns of Orpheus. Translated by Thomas Taylor (1792). Modern edition: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.]

The second reading is from Pseudo-Apollodorus, a Greek mythographer of the second century of the common era. It tells the story of how the ancient Greek city of Attika came to choose Athena as their special goddess:

“Kekrops, a son of the soil, with a body compounded of man and serpent, was the first king of Attika… In his time, they say, the gods resolved to take possession of cities in which each of them should receive his own peculiar worship. So Poseidon was the first that came to Attika, and with a blow of his trident on the middle of the acropolis, he produced a sea which they now call Erekhtheis. After him came Athena, and, having called on Kekrops to witness her act of taking possession, she planted an olive tree, which is still shown in the Pandrosion. But when the two strove for possession of the country, Zeus parted them and appointed arbiters, not, as some have affirmed, Kekrops and Kranaus, nor yet Erysikhthon, but the twelve gods [and goddesses]. And in accordance with their verdict the country was adjudged to Athena, because Kekrops bore witness that she had been the first to plant the olive. Athena, therefore, called the city Athens after herself, and Poseidon in hot anger flooded the Thriasian plain and laid Attika under the sea.”

[Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3.14.1, trans. Frazer.]


This is the second of a short series of sermons on Greek goddesses. This morning I would like to speak about Athena, goddess of wisdom and of war; but before I do so, let me remind you why I think it is a good idea to preach about Greek goddesses in a Unitarian Universalist church.

Beginning in the 1970’s, we Unitarian Universalists began to realize that, when it comes to religion, women were often “overlooked and undervalued.” We actively worked to root out sexism from our shared faith. In the 1980’s, we rewrote our principles and purposes using gender-neutral language, and in the 1990’s, under the influence of ecofeminism, we added a principle about our commitment to respect the interdependent web of all life. In 1993, we published a new hymnal that included feminist hymns and songs. And many of our congregations were very active in addressing sexism at the local level. Over the past thirty or forty years, we have changed our selves and our attitudes, and have done away with a significant amount of sexism within Unitarian Universalism.

But of course the surrounding culture is still dominated by the idea of a male father god, and it is very hard for any of us to escape this idea. It is easiest to see the effects of the surrounding culture on our children: like it or not, they do learn the idea that God is a white man with a white beard sitting on a cloud somewhere up in the sky, and it can b e hard to talk t hem out of that idea. Thus we find ourselves devoting a significant amount of time in our Sunday school presenting the children with alternative ideas about God;– last year in the Sunday school, we spent much of the year with the children’s book “Hide and Seek with God,” a book which presents alternative God-images from the Christian tradition and from other world religions. This is the kind of thing we do so that our children can get past the idea that God is an old white man with a white beard sitting on a cloud.

Of course, as much as we don’t want to admit it, we adults are also influenced by the surrounding culture. Sometimes we catch ourselves making the assumption that the dominant male images of God are in fact the only images of God. For example, I have noticed that when people talk about the pro-atheism books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, the discussions of these books tend to assume that God is singular, all-powerful, all-knowing; in other words, assume that God is the typical patriarchal male God of traditional Christianity. Both the atheists and the supporters of God weaken their arguments when they ignore the fact that there is more than one god-image out there.

In spite of recent scholarship which has uncovered female god-images in the Bible, and in other world religions, too many of us adults cleave to the old god-image of a white man with a beard sitting on a cloud somewhere up in the sky. Yes, even we Unitarian Universalists fall into this trap. We forget that Unitarian minister Theodore Parker was addressing his liberal Christian prayers to father God and mother God back in the 1850’s; and we Unitarian Universalists often forget that god-images can be either male or female, or gender-neutral, or differently gendered, or that gender does not even apply to the divine.

To keep myself from falling into the trap of thinking that the divine must be male, I like to spend some time thinking about the goddesses, like the Greek goddesses, who are a part of our Western culture. It’s not that I’m going to worship or believe in these goddesses; but remembering that our Western culture has lots of female god-images helps keep me from falling into the cultural trap of assuming that all god-images must be male. It’s a way of examining and challenging my unconscious assumptions.

Now you know why I’m preaching a series of sermons on Greek goddesses. Now let me turn our attention to Athena, a goddess who challenges many of our assumptions.

And to begin to tell you how Athena can challenge our assumptions, I should begin by telling you the story of Black Athena. Back in 1987, a scholar named Martin Bernal published a book titled Black Athena. In this book, Bernal stated his belief that the roots of Greek culture — and therefore the roots of all the Western European culture that sprang from it — the roots of ancient Greek culture lay in Africa. On the face of it, this is not a particularly remarkable thing to say. All the cultures of the ancient Near East, all the gods and goddesses of the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean world, seem to have been interrelated. Certainly the African culture of Egypt is an older culture than ancient Greek culture. So to say that the Egyptians had tremendous influence on the later cultures of ancient Greece should not be very controversial.

And the ancient Greeks knew that Athena herself had a connection to Africa. Plato, in his dialogue the Timaeus, tells us that in Egypt, there is a city called Saïs, and the citizens of that city have a guardian goddess: “The citizens have a deity for their foundress; she is called in the Egyptian tongue Neith, and is asserted by them to be the same whom the Hellenes call Athena…” [Timaeus 21e, trans. Jowett]. Thus Plato said that the Greek goddess Athena was somehow related to the Egyptian goddess Neith. It was an obvious connection to make: both Athena and Neith were goddesses of war and goddesses of weaving, and they shared other characteristics as well.

But when Martin Bernal wrote his book Black Athena he created a storm of controversy. One of the things that made his book controversial was Bernal’s image of a dark-skinned Athena. In our world, which is so conscious of skin color and race, it was shocked some white people, and some people of color, to think that the goddess Athena might have been black,– when for all these years most of us in the Western world have thought of Athena as being white.

We sometimes try to erect hard-and-fast boundaries in realms where there are no hard-and-fast boundaries. Racial and cultural boundaries appear to have been more permeable in the ancient Near East than we may want to believe. Ancient Near East gods and goddesses moved from one culture to another, and from one religion to another. Indeed, when I hear Wisdom revered in the Bible as a female figure of goddess-like importance, as in the responsive reading this morning, I wonder what other goddesses she was related to, and even if she was perhaps related to Athena, who was also a goddess of wisdom.

I imagine there was a web of cultural connections throughout the ancient Near East: connections between various goddesses and gods; connections between the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa; connections between peoples of all different skin colors from black to white to various shades of brown. In our minds, we have divided the world into distinct continents, and people into distinct races, but some of the divisions that we make are too arbitrary.

I started out saying that Athena might help us to be aware that the divine might just as well be female as male, or have no gender at all. The image of an African Athena can help us be aware that the divine might have black, brown, or white skin color, or be utterly beyond human racial categories. So this is another way in which thinking about Athena helps us to challenge our assumptions about our god-images.

One of the things that has bothered me about Athena is that she is both the goddess of wisdom, and the goddess of war. Since I think of war as a kind of madness, it seemed to me that Athena was combining two contradictory elements within her. How could she embody both war and wisdom?

The poet Robert Graves gives us a clue as to how this might be so. Graves says that although she is indeed the goddess of war, Athena “gets no pleasure from battle, as [the god] Ares and [the goddess] Eris do, but rather from settling disputes, and upholding the law by pacific means.” [The Greek Myths]

What particularly interests me is that Athena does not reject violence altogether. But when she does go to war it is for good reason; and should she decide to go to war, she uses her wisdom to develop adequate strategy and tactics, so that she never loses a battle. Ares, the male god of war, likes violence for the sake of violence, and he is often defeated because of his inability to plan out his strategy and tactics. [Graves, Greek Myths, 25.a] By contrast, Athena does not like to go to war, but she will do so if justice requires her to do so. Athena’s attitude towards war has helped to challenge my assumptions about peacemaking.

Last June, Rev. William Schulz gave a talk on his Unitarian Universalist theology of peacemaking. Schulz, a Unitarian Universalist minister, was president of Amnesty International from 1993 to 2006. Schulz said that in his years at Amnesty International, he “was exposed on a daily basis to the most sordid and gratuitous violence.” He saw, over and over again, and sometimes first-hand, the results of torture and government-sanctioned violence. In the face of such acts of violence, he felt that he could not uphold the ideal of complete and utter pacifism. He said he could not believe in what he called the impossible ideal of complete pacifism; instead, he believed that sometimes true justice requires military intervention.

As an example, Schulz said that if the United States military had enforced a no-fly zone over Darfur over the past three or four years — and such enforcement would include the possibility of shooting down aircraft which violated the no-fly zone — then much of the genocide now going on in Darfur could have been avoided. For that reason, Schulz does not support the way the war in Iraq has been handled because he believes that the Iraq war has so over-extended the United States military that we have been unable to respond to other, more urgent, humanitarian situations such as the genocide in Darfur.

William Schulz might get along quite well with Athena. Like Athena, he believes that any use of violence has to be guided by justice. Like Athena, he also believes that any use of violence has to be guided by long-range strategy and tactics, so that one’s military forces don’t become overextended. When I say that Schulz would get along well with Athena, I don’t mean that literally of course; to the best of my knowledge, Schulz is a humanist, and I don’t believe he is a goddess-worshipper. But like Athena, Schulz challenges us to move beyond the traditional Western Christian notions of religious pacifism, to go beyond the old Christian teachings on “just war theory.” Both Athena and William Schulz value practical wisdom over abstract adherence to principles, and they challenge us to consider the possibility of a theology of peacemaking that allows for limited use of violence in order to prevent more violence.

Athena has led us quite far afield, hasn’t she? First she challenged us to rethink our religious images of race and gender. Then she challenged us to rethink our religious notions of pacifism and peacemaking. Where will she lead us next?

In the second reading this morning, we heard how both Poseidon, the god of the sea, and Athena tried to take possession of the city of Athens. Poseidon laid claim to Athens by striking his trident on the ground, which opened up a well filled with sea-water; but this salty water was not of much use to the Athenian citizens. Then Athena came along and planted an olive tree; this tree produced food, cooking oil, and wood for the Athenians. Presumably, no one living in Athens had ever seen an olive tree before, because cultivated olives are not native to Greece. Not surprisingly, the Athenian citizens said that Athena had made the best claim to their city, and she became their ruling goddess. This is why we call the city Athens even today; it is the city named after Athena.

In the past few months, I have found reason to think about this story of how Athena gave the olive tree to Athens. On January 19, the New York Times ran a story titled “A New Global Oil Quandary,” the opening paragraph of which read: “Rising prices for cooking oil are forcing residents of Asia’s largest slum, in Mumbai, India, to ration every drop [of cooking oil]. Bakeries in the United States are fretting over higher shortening costs. And here in Malaysia, brand-new factories built to convert vegetable oil into diesel sit idle, their owners unable to afford the raw material. This is the other oil shock.”

You see, for much of the world, particularly the developing world, cooking oil represents an important source of calories. Even if you grow your own food you almost have to go out and buy cooking oil because it is hard to make it on your own. Right now, the price of cooking oil is rising very rapidly around the world. All food prices are rising rapidly; in the past year, the worldwide price of food has risen more than fifty percent. In some places, people are spending more than eighty percent of their income on food. Food riots have been taking place from Mexico City to Haiti to Indonesia. Military analysts tell us that the rising price of food is contributing to global insecurity.

When we first hear the story of how Athena gave the olive tree to the people of Athens, it sounds — quaint. How nice! the people get a tree from Athena, and they make her the goddess of the city. But in a world with shortages of cooking oil, suddenly the story doesn’t sound so quaint. The gift of a tree that provides both food and cooking oil is a gift of survival, a gift that prevents starvation. In the modern world, such a gift could prevent wars and violence. We are already seeing violence and instability resulting from rising food prices; whereas access to reasonably-priced food and cooking oil would tend to lead to a peaceful world.

The story of Athena and the olive tree challenges us to think about the relationship between food and war and peace. No wonder those ancient Athenians prayed to the goddess Athena: they were praying for food security, which meant that they were also praying for peace. Athena challenges us to understand the relationship between food and security; she challenges us to consider food supply in any theology of peacemaking.

These old stories about the goddess Athena challenge our religious ideas of race, gender, war and peace, and food security. And these various issues seem to me to be interconnected, that they are woven together in the larger religious issue of peacemaking. True peacemaking requires us to have the wisdom to understand the underlying causes of violence; as much as I might prefer the complete pacifism of Jesus of Nazareth, true peacemaking in today’s world may well require us to have enough wisdom to know when it is appropriate to use limited military force in order to prevent further violence.