Athena and “Creative Mercy”


Athena, goddess of Wisdom, serves in both the Odyssey and in the Oresteia to bring

Athena Varvakeion, Roman copy of a statue of Athena by Phidias, 3d century AD, National Archeological Museum, Athens

Athena Varvakeion, Roman copy of a statue of Athena by Phidias, 3d century AD, National Archeological Museum, Athens

“creative mercy”¹ to situations that otherwise would perpetuate blood feuds.  Vendettas–“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”– are the normal condition of being in the world, of being in duality and opposition, and can be stopped only by forgiveness.  This is hundreds of years before Christ, and in both stories it is Athena’s final form.  She leaves behind the role of goddess of war, and becomes the goddess of wisdom, of forgiveness.

In the Homeric Odyssey scroll 22, dating probably to the 8th century BCE, Odysseus has slaughtered all of the suitors (mnēstērēs) who were devouring his substance–consuming his consciousness and that of his household.  The families of the suitors are preparing to avenge their deaths when Athena intervenes and casts a spell of reconciliation–a stage beyond forgiveness–over everyone, and peace is restored to the kingdom.  Athena tells him:

“Son of Laertes, sprung from Zeus, Odysseus of many devices, stay thy hand, and make the strife of equal war to cease, lest haply the son of Cronos be wroth with thee, even Zeus, whose voice is borne afar.” (24:542-544 from

The “wrongs” are not forgotten, lest they come back, but all parties are made to realize that they hurt only themselves with their insistence on revenge.  (If you believe, as I put forth in my book The Journey Back to Where You Are that the suitors are mere products of the mechanical mind, parasites who eat away at our consciousness, then their destruction is really a non-event.)

The Oresteia was written by Aeschylus in the 5th century BCE, and consists of three plays: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides.  In the final play the Furies–Erinyes, allied with Eris, goddess of Strife–are demanding death for Orestes for killing his mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, to avenge their killing of his father Agamemnon.  The trial by jury is deadlocked, so Athena casts the tie-breaker, in favor of releasing Orestes and confining the Furies to the caves of the Areopagus.  She renames them Eumenides–‘the kindly ones’ or ‘those who have good thoughts’. It is a triumph of the art of persuasion over blind adherence to the law.

I am glad that they are zealously accomplishing these things for my land; and I am grateful to Persuasion, [970] that her glance kept watch over my tongue and mouth, when I encountered their fierce refusal. But Zeus of the assembly has prevailed.  Our rivalry in doing good is victorious forever. [975]  (from

Our rivalry in doing good is victorious forever.  Think about that for a moment.

Although the word is not used, what she is offering here is forgiveness.  The choice of letting go of the past, of returning events to normalcy before they were thrown out of whack by an original sin–in this case the abduction of Helen from Troy–the theft of beauty, like Prometheus’ theft of fire.  It comes from the realization that the “enemy” is locked in a state of anger and duality.  Rather than being pulled into the same state, we must forgive them, recognize our commonality.  This applies not only to real war with real casualties, but also to our own little schoolyard-level disputes–“but he/she started it!”

And taking it a step further, we can realize with Colin Tipping, author of Radical Forgiveness, that “Things don’t happen to us, they happen for us.”  Events in our lives, especially those that seem like burdens, are given to us for us to learn from them–to see the way we respond, usually from ego, and to let go of that response.  So that we can see our limitations, and can learn to live with forgiveness as a principle.

I’ve spoken of this previously, but it’s worth repeating some of what I said then:

We think of forgiveness as something done after the fact: someone offends us, and we in our magnanimity absolve them of it.  But “forgive,” like other “fore” words–forbear, foretell–means “before.”  We “give before,” because we know that in unconsciousness people do things that are thoughtless or selfish.  We may even acknowledge that we do too.  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Our first day in heaven will be an orgy of forgiveness.  That day can be this day.

John Vyvyan’s term for this is “creative mercy.”  In the second book of his Shakespeare trilogy, Shakespeare and the Rose of Love, he says:

In what may be called the dynamics of Shakespearean tragedy, the “ancient grudge” works like a monstrous pendulum of which the powerful swing does diminish with the passage of time.  It is not difficult to set this going, but it requires a superhuman exertion to bring it to a stop.  Lacking this higher intervention, the revenge-seeking will continue in perpetuity, although it is frequently dignified with the names of law and justice.  Shakespeare sees no hope whatever in retributive justice and the law that derives from it; and therefore repudiates the old law in favor of the new.  One thing only will bring the tragic pendulum to a standstill–an act of creative mercy.  This is not at all the same thing as condoning the offence.  It is an outflow of divine power which changes the offender, kills the enmity and leaves the enemy a living friend.

¹I believe here that the word “creative” is used not in the sense of the imagination, but rather that the mercy is used to create a greater Good in the world, as opposed to perpetuating the evils of vendetta.