Queer Folklore: Athena and Hestia Bring the Asexuality to Olympus

The Ancient Greek pantheon, though upsettingly low on the lady loving women considering the rampant male bisexuality going on, does has a surprising wealth of asexual and aromantic goddesses. Here are two of the most important.

Athena

Like Dionysus, Athena had an unusual birth. The child of Zeus and Metis, goddess of wisdom, Zeus swallowed her mother during pregnancy as an alternative to abortion. There’s a parable here about the modern anti-choice movement, but I digress. Athena somehow made her way to Zeus’ cranium where she had to be extracted by way of a combined caesarian-trepanation. Unfortunately, because the ancient Greeks couldn’t imagine women who weren’t also cartoonishly evil actually being angry with men, Athena never held the whole ate her mother thing against him. Instead she became Zeus’ most loyal and useful child, actively rejecting sisterhood with women in order to champion the rights of men.

“For there was no mother who gave me birth; and in all things, except for marriage, whole-heartedly I am for the male and entirely on the father’s side.”
Aesch. Eum. 711/

The reference to marriage there is, sadly, not a sign that she supports battered wives but rather her steadfast refusal to marry and submit to husbandly authority. (That quote is actually an extract from a speech about how she feels men may murder their female relatives with impunity but murdering those men right back is the greatest crime of all, because Athens was a terrifying place to be a woman).

Athena is the goddess of war and wisdom, which might seem like an odd combination to us but insert joke about classical Athens voting for Trump here. She was also their patron goddess, which, as the most misogynistic of the Greek city states, seems like a bit of a head scratcher but is probably a result of their having started out with only the standard level of patriarchal foolishness before evolving into the farcical woman haters we know and love.

(If it seems like I hate ancient Athens, it’s because I do. They stopped letting women go to funerals or have their own names for fucks sake. Up Sparta)

Like Artemis, Athena achieved a promise of perpetual virginity from deadbeat dad Zeus. Unlike Artemis, who immediately absconded with a band of polyamorous murder nymphs into the mountainside (for the ancient Greeks remember, girl on girl sex was both compatible with virginity and a grave threat to society), Athena seems to have no interest in sex or romance at all. Her favourite companions are men, preferably clever or funny ones like Odysseus, but she always retains a certain degree of detachment, preferring to act as a patron or mentor rather than bosom companion. While there is one frieze from the parthenon that tried to portray her and Heracles, her mortal half brother and one of her mentees, as flirting teenagers this reimagining of her character and their relationship doesn’t stick. As much as Athena preferred the company of men she had no interest in hand holding, kissing or staring lovingly into any part of their anatomy.

For all of the internalised misogyny Athena was rocking you cannot deny her stone cold competence. Whether you’re starting a martial arts class or you need help with your crochet Athena’s got you covered, along with anything else that requires skill or practice. Trouble with your homework? Pray to Athena. Really not interested in the man talking to you on the subway? Well, probably call on Artemis for that one but still, that’s a hell of a workload.

Hestia

Seen as the most pointless goddess by probably the same people who think housework isn’t real work, Hestia is the goddess of the hearth and home as well as the mythic embodiment of ancient misogynists’ mommy issues.

Hestia served the same function on micro and macro levels for the family and the state. The hearth was the symbolic tie binding those groups of people together and so if her sacred fire ever went out it was a portent of disaster. This is also why, even though she’s the goddess of housewifery, Hestia never marries. She never has sex and she never gives birth.

One of the many psychological crises ancient Greek men had around women was anxiety over where their familial loyalty lay. Obviously a son would be loyal to his father and so on but women — ah, women! — they left their natal family to join another. And then they made more humans inside of them that belonged to that new family they’d joined. Women, to the ancient Greek mind, suffered from an inherent conflict of interest, and would probably side with the family that bore them when push came to shove.

To be a Good Woman mortal women had to marry and bear legitimate children. Hestia does not because as the archetypal good woman and embodiment of domestic harmony she cannot have the conflict of interest that marriage creates. She’s a nice, uncomplicated way for men to view ideal womanhood – an ideal that mortal women cannot reach because they lack the extenuating circumstances of her divinity. Hestia is perfect because she doesn’t have to be. Mortal women cannot be perfect because they do.

But at the same time Hestia is wildly subversive — it’s just that Greek male society never noticed. Hestia is everything that a woman should be except that she isn’t. Hestia is soft and gentle and homely. Hestia is the embodiment of home. Hestia refuses to become a vehicle for men’s reproductive wealth. Hestia is in control of her own body, her own reproductive experiences and her life. She refuses to reduce herself to an incubator to increase a man’s wealth — and that’s not my own view of reproduction, it’s explicitly the Greek’s, and one that we carried forward from them for centuries to come. According to the Greek philosophers a child had no relation to his mother; women were merely the fertile soil in which men’s children could grow. Hestia has no desire for a child and no desire for romance. She’s happy as she is, with the love of family and friends and useful work to do.

Hestia is a femme who says that her femininity is not for male consumption, is not for anyone’s consumption at all. Hestia is a femme whose identity and actions are for her own pleasure and her own needs, even where they involve caring for other people. She’s a femme who embodies everything that the patriarchy says was built to serve it while refusing to submit to that yoke because it doesn’t serve her. She’s a feminine, femme woman content with her own company who doesn’t want or need romance to be complete.

Siobhan has degrees in information management and medieval history making her lots of fun at parties. She's written for Dirge, Biscuit and Diva and is currently working on a book on the supernatural women of Ireland for Wolfenhowle Press (and if you want to help feed her while she works on it you can check out her patreon here.

Siobhan has written 25 articles for us.

64 Comments

  1. I love how you shut Greek shit down with your articles! While I’ve always been fascinated with mythology, I’ve always gotten a bad vibe from all their stuff, and you don’t mince words when talking about it!

    Also, I want to be Hestia when I grow up.

    • Seconded, especially the part about wanting to be Hestia. In an ideal world, every family would have an asexual aunt who keeps the house from failing down as the rest of the family squables.

  2. Question I feel inclined to ask, what does asexuality have to do with queer women? A lack of sex drive doesn’t make someone queer. Love your writing and humor, not so keen on the idea that abstinence includes someone in the lgbt community. Asexuality does not negate heterosexuality.

    • Many people on the asexuality spectrum identify as queer. People can also be asexual and homo/biromantic. And Autostraddle has never been the type of place that promotes the gatekeeping of identities.

    • If “queer” is defined both by majority attitudes toward the Q person and by the Q person’s self-definition, there is definitely something queer about individuals who refuse the cultural imperative to form sexually active heterosexual couples.

        • I don’t know what word or neat little phrase to toss out to inform you of your wrongnessbut you are wrong and you suck at reading comprehension. Or you’re just regurgitating some argument.

          Cause like straight cis poly folks are individuals who are sexually active heterosexuals.
          They’re not refusing a deeply held norm.

          You can try to quibble with me on the forming couples part but monogamy, real monogamy, is a new concept in the scheme of human history and you’ll look silly.

          Sex and romance are treated like human needs to not want them is be broken and in need of fixing.
          Does that sound like a familiar rhetoric? Not wanting a normal and being considered broken because of the unwant?

          Why fear shielding aces? Why push them into the rain? Do you believe bi women should be left out too?

          • Not wanting a very specific type of sex and romance is considered wrong. You make it sound as though gay sex and romance is somehow privileged- it really isn’t. If anything, the conservative Christian circles I was raised in thought it was best for gay people to not desire sex and romance, because to do so was to buy yourself a one-way ticket to hell.

            I’m not saying ace people don’t have problems. I’m literally just saying that they don’t experience homo- or transphobia (which bi people do, please stop making assumptions about my politics because I disagree with you on this one point) and that, if they’re straight and cisgender, they are in a position of privilege over people who do (ace or allowed). That’s it.

          • (Just to clarify: LGBT ace people are absolutely targeted by those things, and have every right to reclaim the word queer and any other slurs which would be applied to their specific group within the community. Just not straight cis ace people.)

        • Let’s spell it out. An adult woman who doesn’t make an effort to fit into the expectation that she actively seeks male attention or defers to men in a “feminine” manner, is considered by 99% of heterosexual men as being lesbian, even if she presents in feminine apparel.

    • Our sexual orientations aren’t about how much sex we’re having. Some queer women–including asexual women–choose celibacy. Some queer women–including asexual women–have lots of sex. Asexuality is neither abstinence not low sex drive.

    • You obviously know nothing about asexuality, which is neither a lack or a sex drive or abstinence. Maybe educate yourself before commenting on something you know little to nothing about. You can find out with a simple Google search.

    • As a bisexual woman, I find my queer experiences often overlap more with those of my ace friends than with lesbians and other queer women. The fact that we’re constantly being erased and told we don’t exist (even in our own queer communities!), that we recognize and celebrate that our identities exist on a continuum or spectrum, and are subject to insulting and intrusive questions about what we do in bed is just the tip of the iceberg. We have a lot in common, and consciously work to be allies to each other.

      And as others have said above, having an asexual or aromatic identity is not the same as celibacy or abstinence from sex, which are behaviors. I consider ace & aro people included in the term queer, but comments like yours have made me shift toward actually spelling out who’s included instead of relying on the umbrella term–someone’s always trying to shove some of us out into the rain!

        • A very quick and easy perusal of Google will confirm that yes, in fact, it does. Some organizations use it to mean asexuality, some ally, and some both, but the fact remains that it is most often understood to mean asexuality.

          Several people here have now given many valid reasons for including asexuality under the queer umbrella. Even if you personally believe that only homo/biromantic asexuals are allowed to “count”, they still deserve visibility and representation here, just as other queer women with other intersecting identities do. There is literally no reason to continue this tiresome campaign of contrariety against this one article out of how many hundreds that happens to focus on an identity different from yours. Please stop.

    • I really could relate to Zahara’s comment. I’m 30 and STILL figuring this whole thing out. But, it’s sure a lot more difficult when people tell me I am not valid, or not welcome.

      I’m going to share some personal stuff, and it doesn’t bother me. I’m not embarrassed by it because it’s my reality and it may help the conversation. And I also want to point out, sometimes the lines are not all that clear. Also, sexuality can be a fluid, ever changing force for some people.

      I’m pansexual, but depending on my hormone does, I’m straight. That scares me, because queer is who I am. I also am celibate due to certain factors beyond my control. I first thought I identify as asexual, but then because I realized I still felt enormous feelings of sexual attraction and sexual frustration – but no way to act on them. I’ve tried sex in the past, but genital dysphoria makes it impossible, so romantic foreplay is my world, which sometimes makes me think – if I can’t do the sex, but still have these feelings, what does that make me? Does it really matter?

      The dismally low percentage of people willing to try sex with a trans woman makes it a pretty lonely world. I really would appreciate the queer community not adding to that loneliness.

      Hugs to you all ^___^

    • Yeah, I was wondering much the same thing. The idea that being ‘outside the patriarchal norm’ somehow makes you queer is… kind of insulting, honestly, given that queer is a specific term used to denigrate gay/trans people . And like, if you can have gay/bi ace people, surely you can have straight ones too?

      • A little historical perspective missing here – due to sexism, it was always OK for women to be “asexual”/abstinent if they 1. married men and performed their “duty” 2. stayed with natal family and did childcare / eldercare / housekeeping for the parents or siblings 3. married God (nuns). In all cases, they were not claiming independent sexuality or independent action.

        On the other hand, there were only two legitimate reasons for male abstinence 1. married to God (priest) 2. inability to support a family (and even then, men were expected to at least want to have sex with a prostitute). In the past, inability to support a family was expected during the men’s 20s. The advent of effective contraception has made financial capacity optional for men in this culture.

        From the mid-20th century onwards, people who failed to be in a visible heterosexual and presumably sexually active relationship were considered to be losers and/or mentally sick. Women were more protected from judgement than men, due to a cultural expectation that women were “naturally” less sexual than men. However, refusal of / avoidance of heterosexual activity by women or men is generally considered to be evidence of closeted homosexuality, according to most heterosexuals (at least most heterosexual men).

      • the original commenter said “asexuality does not negate heterosexuality” so assuming you’re a woman, if you’ve only dated women, it’s obviously not talking about you.

    • Question I feel inclined to answer, lack of sex drive and asexuality are not the same thing. Asexuality means you are not sexually attracted to any gender, and is thus different from heterosexuality, which means you are attracted to the same gender. Also, asexuality and abstinence are not the same thing. Some asexuals have sex, for a myriad of reasons, some do not, for a myriad of reasons. Asexuals can be heteroromantic, which means they’re still queer, or any other romantic orientation. Hope I gave you something to think about, for more info, go to asexuality.org, the site is full of stories of asexuality in all its different appearances.
      On another note, absolutely stoked to see some asexual content on here, and in one of my favourite subjects too. Thanks for writing this!

    • Asexuality is not the same thing as either a “lack of sex drive” or “abstinence”. Perhaps you should do some basic research on the topic before you comment in future?

    • Asexuality isn’t abstinence. Asexual people can and do have sex, they just don’t experience sexual attraction. And there are plenty of lgbt asexual people because; surprise! Sexuality is really complicated and multifaceted. Please don’t bring your exclusionary attitude here, there’s enough of that nonsense in the world as it is.

  3. Previously I have always rather disliked Hestia. I always found her a little smug and complacent, a sort of goddess of good housekeeping! Thank you for directing me to her more likeable side. On the other hand Athena I have always really liked. 🙂

    • That’s funny–I think of Hera as the usual “smug and complacent” goddess, with her emphasis on marriage following the established (misogynistic) rules.

      But if you like Greek mythology and YA beach reading, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series makes great use of Hestia, playing up the fact that she’s overlooked and forgotten for her very feminine role, and using her to counterbalance the machismo present in other Greek myths.

      • I mean the thing about Hera is she’s far from smug and complacent because Zeus is such a dick. She’s always fighting with him, occasionally tries to usurp his power because he won’t stop being horrible to her and is basically treated as if her desire for basic respect in her marriage makes her a horrible and ludicrous person. She is also horrible, but that’s more to do with her repeated attempts at child murder than her behaviour towards her husband.

  4. This is great. The hating on Athens’ institutionalized misogyny reminded me of some words of wisdom from Hesiod:

    “Don’t wash in a woman’s bathwater,
    Which for a time has a bitter vengeance in it.”

  5. I oppose Hellenic and Roman ideals in general, so I’m not going to hop on the Sparta train with you! 😉

    Great article though. If you need me, I’ll be in the Egyptian cheering section… particularly during periods of feminine power. 😀

  6. Great article! 🙂 I didn’t know this was a thing in Autostraddle.

    I always thought Artemis was ace; but I guess queer makes more sense.

    Also, as far as I know, Spartans institutionalised pederasty and while they allowed their women to dance high and shout, the end result was still the same as Athens (limited autonomy).

    They did worship Helen though.

    Athena’s attitude towards Zeus and women in general has always disappointed me. 🙁 But, I guess, she was like me before I became a feminist. And she probably had more of an excuse for misogyny having been created by men (and brought up by Zeus).

    Wasn’t there a story that Athena loved Pallas (a woman)?

    • Nah Pallas was a bff Athena accidentally killed and was real upset at having done so.

      Sometimes I hear it was a man, sometimes a woman.
      The book I grew up with said it was a man and there was a training accident with spears.

      • her friend pallas was a woman. maybe there was a book that made her a man but in every myth she is a woman, and her death so upset athena that she took on pallas’ name in tribute. whether they were actually lovers is debatable, but it’s still a pretty glaring omission if someone’s going to be all “athena was a misogynist who hated women and only hung out with men but not in a romantic or sexual way because she was aroace” imo

        • Gosh you really have it out for aces and such. Is there something better you could focus your devotion on?

          Also just because your head cannon of Athena doesn’t match the facts of her upholding the patriarchy doesn’t she didn’t nor that is major aspect of her in all accounts. She’s daddy’s girl, that is the core of her.

          Pallas is not a woman in all accounts, or even human.
          Greek mythology isn’t something where one book at random decides a figure is a man not a woman.

          I’m done with what I feel is uselessly fanning flames here, but someone with a degree in folklore or something wants to explain why the record of minor character in a gigantic mythos could have contradicting accounts please do.

    • I think Pallas was a childhood friend, or in some vesions of the story, a relative that was accidentally killed by Athena after which Athena took the name Pallas Athena in her honour.

  7. My favorite Athena trivia was that she used to hang out with Artemis and Persephone all the time playing with nymphs (Homeric Hymn to Demeter).

    Artemis and Persephone are my OTP. From Valerius Flaccus, Argonautica 5. 344 ff (trans. Mozley) (Roman epic C1st A.D.) : “Proserpine [Persephone] in spring-time led the dance over Hymettus’ flowery ridges or beneath the cliffs of Sicily, on this side stepping close by Pallas [Athene], on that side hand in hand with her beloved Diana [Artemis]”

    Also a lot of early myth made Artemis and Hecate interchangeable so in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter having Hecate suddenly spring to action to find Persephone with Demeter and basically delving into the underworld after her to lead up to this bit “Then Hekatê approached them, the one with the splendid headband. And she welcomed back the daughter of holy Demeter with many embraces. And from that day forward, the Lady [Hekatê] became her [Persephone’s] attendant and substitute queen.” is telling.

    I want a cool comic book about Artemis and Persephone as a couple with their badass asexual but homoromantic (because Pallas) friend Athena ruling the underworld and Mount Olympus together. Heck, in a lot of early myth Hades made Persephone actual queen of the underworld (as in just as/more powerful than him with the dead) so this powerful queer pantheon is basically canon.

  8. I’ve been loving this series from the start, and I couldn’t wait for you to cover Hestia! Alongside Artemis and Persephone, Hestia was the goddess I felt closer to when I studied Greek myths:
    Thank you Siobhan, can’t wait to read the next articles!

    P.S. Will you be covering other pantheons outside the Western ones?

    • I’m planning on doing Egypt but other than that no. I studied Egypt as part of my undergrad (classics and medieval history), but I’m not familiar enough with other non Western pantheons to feel comfortable writing a queer reading of them.

  9. Okay this article is bad and I don’t want to be over sensitive but Athena is my Patron Goddess so… I’m a native of Athens, Greece and I worship the Pantheon with the Mother Athena as the principle focus of my worship…I normally find these articles to be off regarding their interpretation, but none as egregious as this…This is a VERY bad interpretation of Her character. Athena has love, has feelings, incredibly so, and actually for women only… Please, look into her love of Myrmex, her only true love that she has experience! Simply because she is a very rational thinker, Athena does not like to get too caught up in the nonsense of love or romance etc. This is why when Myrmex betrayed Her, Athena turned Myrmex into an ant. She cannot deal with the nonsense of love, being the Goddess of Wisdom, and though She does feel it quite strongly, it becomes too much for Athena– Her domineering, more logical and yes, more masculine personality overcomes Her, forcing Her to shut these feelings out…..You know, I wish this series was written by someone who actually worships the Pantheon instead of someone who looks at this from a “”””mythological””” standpoint … EMAIL ME,I would love to write them 😉

    • While you are entitled to your opinion, I am sorry but I have to disagree with you. I think it is a very interesting, well researched and well written, thought provoking article. I like the series because the author is revisiting ancient literature and exploring it in a modern context which makes a refreshing change to be honest.

      In your critique you have made a few points.
      I am curious because you use the title “Mother” Athena, yet Athena was a virgin. Where does this come from?

      I am more than a little puzzled by your statment that “Athena has love, has feelings, incredibly so, and actually for women only…” Do you have a citation for your version of the Myrmex story – that she and Athena were lovers? I have never seen this version. The versions I have come across were not love stories, but that Athena gave Myrmex the gift of a plough, but Myrmex took the credit for inventing it, so Myrmex was turned into an ant.

      I think that most people would agree that Athena is portrayed as asexual in the literature from the time.

      Lastly I am wondering why you have arrived at the conclusion that the author is only looking at this from a mythological standpoint? The author has not actually stated that this is the case. We do not know anything about her beliefs and we should not make assumptions.

    • Informed, intelligent pagans (the author included) understand that neither UPG nor birthplace can replace actual scholarship.

      The fact you not only fail to comprehend such basic requirements, but conflate asexuality with inability to emote AND want to worship an explicitly virgin deity who shunned motherhood as a Mother is not going to help you scalp jobs from people who are actually qualified.

      Neither will the rank arrogance and petty jealousy needed to demand it win you respect.

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