Erasing Athena, Effacing Hestia
by Alex Conall
Originally published in Invisible 3 ed. Jim C. Hines and Mary Anne Mohanraj
How old was I when I first encountered the mythology of the ancient Greeks? Six? Seven? Was it as late as eight? My father is an amateur astronomer, and I’ve always loved the stars: the names of the planets and constellations, and many moons and asteroids, are Roman, and so many of the Roman myths are borrowed wholesale from the Greeks. Perseus and Andromeda; Hercules; Callisto—Ursa Major—and her son by Zeus.
Not all of Jupiter’s moons are named for Zeus’s lovers, but the four most prominent, the ones Galileo observed in 1610, certainly are. Io, Europa, and Callisto are mothers of Zeus’s children, but Ganymede, he whom Zeus made cupbearer of the gods, and who, by being Zeus’s lover, proves something about that god—
What if I had known, when I was six or seven or eight, that the king of the gods is bisexual?
Callisto herself, per one version of her story (Ovid tells this one in the Metamorphoses), was seduced by Zeus disguised as Artemis, and Callisto seems not to have seen anything odd about ‘Artemis’ seducing her until well after the fact. Now Artemis is famous for being a virgin, just as Athena and Hestia are, but there’s an argument to be had over whether that means Artemis never has sex or simply never has sex with men. And maybe this is a stretch, but if there’s nothing odd about the idea of Artemis having sex with one of the women of her retinue—
What if I had known, when I was twelve or thirteen or fourteen, that the goddess of the hunt is a lesbian?
Hestia is unarguably a virgin: she refused offers of marriage from Apollon and Poseidon so resoundingly that she swore an oath to be a maiden forever. (The Greek gods take their oaths very seriously.) Zeus’s response to this oath, granting Hestia the central role in home worship and a share of every temple sacrifice, ranks Hestia as the greatest of the goddesses, above even Hera, queen of the gods. English has a few different words for someone who never has sex. “Virgin,” outside of the ancient Greek context, usually implies a state expected to end, and “celibate” usually implies a state of denying oneself fulfillment of sexual desire. There’s a third word, though; flexible in meaning, but in its common use—
What if I had known, when I was fifteen or sixteen or seventeen, that the goddess of the home is asexual?
I suspect Athena is also on the asexual spectrum, somewhere in the gray-ace “I have so many better things to do with my life” section. She governs many arts and crafts, education—and there is always more to learn—and strategy and tactics in war. She’s always been regarded as the most masculine of Greek goddesses, and often adopted by modern mythmakers as the most feminist of goddesses for precisely the same reason: she is the warrior woman, the activist, the glass-ceiling breaker. But the Orphic Hymn to Athena (as translated by Thomas Taylor; Apostolos Athanassakis reverses the phrase) describes her point blank as “female and male.” As though these are not immutable and mutually exclusive states. As though one can be both at once, or vary between the two—
What if I had known, when I was nine or ten or eleven, that the goddess of war is genderqueer?
These interpretations, though using modern terminology, are not modern interpretations. The Orphic Hymns date from sometime between the third century BCE and the second CE. Ovid’s Metamorphoses date from a narrower slice of the same timeframe; variations on the Callisto story are older. The Homeric Hymns—Hestia’s oath of virginity is in the long Hymn to Aphrodite—date from the seventh to fourth centuries BCE. The earliest reference to Ganymede is in Homer’s Iliad, from about the eighth century BCE; the Iliad, which as originally written down was probably a transcription of older oral tradition, is one of the two oldest pieces of Greek literature. The first explicit reference the Theoi Project provides for Zeus’s love for Ganymede is, granted, from the sixth century BCE. But a story twenty-six hundred years old, saying in so many words that Zeus fell in love with Ganymede, can hardly be interpreted (in modern terms) as saying Zeus is a straight man.
These aren’t even the only such stories. Dionysos Androgynos. Leto’s blessing of transformation for Leukippos, born Leukippe. Perhaps Teiresias. For the love of Athena, Hermaphroditos! (That name is the origin of a certain—admittedly deprecated—term for intersex people, among whom Hermaphroditos is unmistakably numbered.)
And yet. How many people are certain that all the Greek gods are heterosexual and cisgender, and none of them could be otherwise?
(Probably about as many as are certain that all the Greek gods, like all the Greeks, are white as snow. Andromeda is consistently described as an Ethiopian princess; all the paintings of her being whiter than my very white self are certainly wrong. She’s the great-grandmother of Heracles, the deified hero; he can’t be totally white either. The Greeks simply didn’t think in modern racial categories. And like the ancient Egyptians, in modern terms they weren’t very white.)
I have been reading the stories of the Greek gods since I was six or seven or eight.
I first figured out I wasn’t straight when I was eighteen. I figured out I wasn’t cis about when I discovered that genderqueerness exists, at twenty-two. I am, as it happens, a gray-asexual genderqueer lesbian and Hellenic polytheist.
But I have been reading the stories of the Greek gods since I was six or seven or eight.
That is how thoroughly all queerness, all transness and genderqueerness, all polytheism, even all melanin has been purged from popular awareness of Greek myth. That is how thoroughly we have been erased. How thoroughly we have been made invisible.
But like marble statues, we endure. Let’s restore our narratives.