Temple of Athena Pronoia in Delphi

Temple of Athena Pronoia in Delphi. Photo: Peter Maerky

There I stood before the Goddess. As her timeless gaze fell upon me, I shuddered. She was a pure combination of power and gentleness. At once fierce warrior, undefeated, and gentle guardian, bestowing her love and wisdom upon her people. Beyond anything else, in that instant, I realized I was receiving an image of the feminine I had forgotten existed.

As I stared up at the monumental bronze statue, crafted by blessed hands more than two thousand years ago, I wondered what our lives would have been like if we too, as a civilization, had grown up to cherish and worship such an image of woman. Strong and courageous, intelligent and wise, protectress of arts and science, crafts and inspiration… she embodied the fierce strength of nature, the utmost refinement of the mind, and the all-seeing wisdom of an open heart. All in one being. Whole.

Who wouldn’t want her as a role model? Where had that image and the felt truth that accompanied it disappeared?

The night before going to her city I had dreamt of an owl. White and awe-inspiring, she had flown straight at me, swooshing down silently over my head to drop a feather before disappearing into the night. I had picked up her gift, and wondered upon awakening what omen I had been graced with.

And here I was, a few hours later, in a museum by the sea, staring at the Goddess, whose companion - engraved on either side of her plumed bronze helmet - was none other than the owl. A mystical ally who helped her see in the dark, unravel the secrets held by human hearts, and lift the cloak upon the mysteries of time.

Athena is her name. She of the brilliant eyes. Standing before her in that room charged with energy, I felt an urge to trace her footsteps, and bring back to light the majestic roots of what she embodied from under the fallen pillars of our patriarchal history.

And here is what I found. Athena’s origins can be traced many thousands of years back, to Minoan Crete, a civilization known for its reverence to the Goddess. There, she was a Sun Goddess. In her later and better-documented appearance in ancient Greece, she became the respected and beloved Goddess of wisdom.

The Greek legend has her spring fully formed and armor-clad from the head of her father Zeus, to take her place among the twelve Greek Gods that lived and ruled from Mount Olympus. Yet she retained the Cretan Sun Goddess’ brilliant eyes and mastery of the cosmic fire, as she alone was allowed to wield her father’s sacred lightning bolt that was said to steer the course of all things.

In many ancient cultures across the world, the lightning bolt grants one the ability to see, the gift of journeying beyond the boundaries of our limited consciousness and retrieve the messages waiting for us beyond the apparent. This is one of Athena’s facets and gifts.

She held a special place in the hearts of the Greeks of 500 BCE. It is the name of her sisterhood - the plural form of Athena - that gave its name to Athens, a city imbued to this day with the ethereal shreds of magic that continue to float down from her temple, the majestic acropolis.

Since I first wandered amidst those ruins as a child, I have been fascinated with Athena. Perhaps because if we humans are to be fashioned in the image of a God – or vice-versa… I wanted to find a Goddess who was worthy of my devotion, in whose image I would be proud to be fashioned. Perhaps because my name is related to Nike, the winged Goddess of Victory that Athena holds in her right hand, which is none other than an exalted emanation of her own power.

But there is so much more. As I started tracking the past and present of this form of the Goddess, I quickly found myself in Delphi, the ancient site renowned for its famed Oracle, whose words influenced historical decisions and mythological figures across the centuries.

The journey to Delphi feels like a journey deep into the feminine. And the further one walks, the more incredibly coherent the puzzle starts to become. The myth tells us that the name for Delphi comes from the word for “womb”, and that this sacred shrine of stunning beauty lies at the navel of the world – the ultimate feminine vessel of creation, where all is in potential waiting to be manifest.

The site was chosen as the place where two eagles, released by the God Apollo, crossed in the sky. Interestingly, modern scientists have discovered two geological fault lines that intersect right under the temple, bringing myth and science together in an eerie way. This could also plausibly explain the trance-inducing gases that were said to have risen from cracks deep within the earth, just below the Oracle’s stool – until centuries of earthquakes shut them.

Below the ochre cliffs glowing in the evening sun, amidst a few remaining columns, I could easily imagine the women who sat on the three-legged stool in a time long past, voicing the truth for those who came from afar. They were chosen from the neighboring village, generation after generation, to become the temple priestesses, and be initiated as the Oracle.

The Oracle may have inhaled mind-altering vapors, or she may have chewed bay leaves, as different versions of the story suggest. In any case, she learned to journey through the far reaches of her consciousness and bring back powerful prophecies. The fall of kingdoms, the crafting of laws and the fate of Oedipus were equally spun from her sometime cryptic messages. And just like Athena, the Oracle could see into human hearts, and unravel the mysteries of time.

It is of no surprise then, that the famous maxim, “Know Thyself” was inscribed upon the lintel of the temple, for all to ponder as they prepared themselves to receive the Oracle’s truth. Two words that survived the march of the centuries and still ignite the power of our imagination, prompting us to revisit what it means to “know”.

For the knowing that the Oracle invites us to, reaches far deeper than the workings of our intellect. It is the knowing of Athena. The knowing of the owl. The knowing of a deeper truth. The innate connection to all there is that pulsates at the heart of our being, begging us to remember who we are.

As I meandered through these ancient ruins, going deeper and deeper within, I wondered about Athena. The Oracle certainly had her foresight. But what about the Goddess? Why were these priestesses speaking in the temple of Apollo? Where was the divine feminine, in this sacred site dedicated to a male God of reason, a God that seemingly represented the blinding light of the intellect?

The interesting part of the story lies not in that which is recorded and displayed on the panels that dot the ancient site. The interesting part of the story pulsates beneath the apparent, in the empty spaces that have been omitted.

As the ancient pilgrims embarked upon the last stretch of their long and sometimes perilous journey to Delphi, skin burned by the sun, the taste of salt lingering on their tongues, their eyes were suddenly soothed by a forest of greens and silver: a grove of olive trees – Athena’s sacred tree and gift to her people. A vast sea of emerald that stretches to this day along the ancient paths, from the shore up into the hills.

As they emerged from beneath the treasured branches, with their questions and offerings, the first temple they came upon was not the temple of Apollo. Neither was it the sacred spring where they would wash away all impurities of heart and mind. No. It was none other than the circular shrine to Athena Pronoia – Athena of foresight. In other words, Athena, the One Who Knows.

Ironically, no one knows much about this circular temple, a masterpiece of ancient Greek architecture. What is certain is that when we modern seekers stumble upon that forlorn site outside the main gates of the archeological compound, we suddenly find ourselves in a field of soft stillness, absorbed in a spiral vortex of intense energy cleansing heart and soul, awakening memories of a distant time; leaving us with a taste of nostalgia for what we once knew.

We are prompted to start digging into the past, going further back in time. And we find that the temple of Athena Pronoia was built upon an earlier shrine devoted to the Mother Earth. We find that there was a time before the Greek history that we know, when the Oracle at Delphi was the Oracle of Gaia. When women priestesses served our Mother Earth, connected to the primordial well of creativity from whence all life comes into being.

A time when the snake-like son of Gaia who guarded the entrance to the shrine of Delphi gave his name to the Oracle – known as the Pythia. A time when this same snake, companion of the Cretan Sun Goddess, reappeared on Athena’s shield.

Somehow, at this powerful site in nature, the energy of Athena and that of Gaia – Sun Goddess and Mother Earth – came together, weaving a mysterious tapestry of feminine form and energy that still works through us when we open ourselves to their presence.

And while the details remain shrouded in mystery, what is clear is that we belong to a lineage that pre-dates the age of enlightenment and its austere excesses, plugging us back into the awesome beauty and power of the feminine.

Snake and owl, earth and sun, we carry in our bodies the memory of a tradition rooted in the Earth as our mother, where the brilliant eyes of Athena unveil our hearts to ourselves, and bring back to life the power and grace of the feminine.

Where we can behold the Goddess that is an image of all we can be.

All we already are.