Once in the morning of innocence Pallas and Athena were two individuals. Pallas was the daughter of the sea god Triton, and she and Athena became inseparable friends. Being inclined to a warrior’s way of life, both of them loved to practice combat together, and these shared skills only seemed to bring them closer together. They would engage in mock battles, each vying for the upper hand and the friendly victory which followed.
One day these fights became just a little too real, as mock fights perhaps inevitably tend to. As Pallas was about to strike the victory blow, Athena’s father Zeus intervened and tripped Pallas, causing her to stumble. Seizing her chance Athena instinctively struck her friend a telling counter-blow. In that terrible moment Pallas lay dead at her friend’s feet.
Overcome with the enormity of what she had done, and distraught with grief and remorse, Athena in that moment decided to take her dear friend’s name and place it even before her own. In such a way the goddess perhaps hoped that her lost friend would live on through her, and that by taking her name Pallas would always be a part of her. And so Athena the goddess became Pallas Athena, and the two became one.
The ancient story speaks powerfully still. Grief, regret and loss are part of the human experience. Like Athena the goddess we might strive in some way to recapture what has been lost to us. And that loss might be felt even more keenly if we feel that in some way we have been to blame, whether such a feeling is truly justified or not. How often we hear stories of someone who has survived some terrible accident or ordeal of survival feeling guilty towards the victims for no other reason than that they have survived while others have not. It is as if we owe a debt to the dead, even when we might not have known them personally.
And perhaps we do. Perhaps what we owe them is an increased awareness of the gift of life as it is lived in every moment. And that is something we owe even more to ourselves. Those who have passed out of our lives can be honoured by our memories of them. As with Athena, who chose to honour her dear friend by absorbing that fundamental part of her – her own name – into her own being, those memories become a part of us. To feel guilty or regretful about things which already have happened, particularly if those things involve loss, is natural. But we need not make ourselves prisoners of that grief. We are alive, and it surely is our duty, like the warrior goddess, to live our lives worthily and with a sense of wonder.
Painting Mourning Athena by Sandro Botticelli