(Originally published in Llewellyn’s Witches Companion Almanac, July 2015)
It is dark. The lights are off. The mysterious moon is high in the sky. There is no glow from television, computer, nor even phone. Melatonin should be working its slumbering magic. The sandman should have visited by now. Fluffy sheep have proven to be of no use whatsoever. Stretched out on your place of rest and restoration under the blanket of the quiet night, the thoughts which have been playing at a low thrum all day rise to a twisted cacophony. You feel like the embodiment of the nine of swords card in the Tarot. You sit up in bed, head in hands, overcome with despair. Again.
An estimated 70 million people in the U.S. suffer from insomnia. Though eating habits and physical discomfort can impact on an ability to fall asleep, worry insomnia is a major contributing factor. When the bustle of the day recedes, concerns around health, finances, relationships, jobs, children and countless other aspects of life can easily come to the fore, keeping much yearned-for sleep a distant hope.
Worry is negative visualization. When we worry, we are creating frightening scenarios in our heads. We imagine the worst possible outcomes and tell ourselves that these will happen. How we worry about different areas in our lives gives insight into a far more important element. Worrying shows us what we believe about ourselves to be true. Action follows emotion which follows belief. What we believe to be true creates an emotional response within us. Emotions inform our choices, either consciously or unconsciously. The actions we undertake are always in response to the feelings that flow through us, positively or negatively. Uplifting emotions such as courage, hope, love, passion, and joy are not an issue. They are wonderfully supportive and provide vital energy to carry us through many a challenge. It is emotions such as fear, anger, resentment, despair, and bitterness that can jam our circuits, leading to negative thinking and possibly depression.
Grabbing hold of one of the swords which hangs so precariously over the head, you find it represents the rumors regarding company downsizing. Night after night, instead of falling into a blissful, healthy, body-revitalizing sleep, you lie awake scaring yourself with scenes of being called in to Human Resources, of clearing out your office, of not being able to find other work, of not being able to pay the mortgage, of having to cut out children’s extracurricular activities and lessons. The music track of these terrifying scenes consists of the almost-indiscernible chant “You are powerless. You are helpless. You are ineffective.” Anxiety knots your stomach and you feel helpless, powerless and ineffective. You continue to jab at yourself with an endless loop of thoughts that you feel powerless to address or change. There is nothing you can do. It is inevitable. Everything is going to fall apart. Each morning you arise, a little more exhausted and a little more discouraged.
The goddess Athena holds domain over wisdom and just war. She is the guide in justice, inspiration, strategy, and the development of skill. She is the patroness of heroes and the champion of heroic endeavor. Known primarily as Zeus’ daughter, she does have a mother – Metis, the Titan goddess of advice, planning and cunning. Prophecy held that Zeus would be overthrown by the son he had with Metis. As this outcome was simply not conceivable by Zeus, he decided to thwart the prophecy by removing Metis from the equation. In true Greek god-like form, he swallowed Metis whole. But he did not realize that Metis was already pregnant. Not long after Metis settled in his stomach (from where she continued to give him counsel), Zeus developed an excruciating headache. One can imagine that, with head in hands, Zeus did not manage much sleep either. When it became too much to bear, he asked to be struck by a labrys (the Minoan double-sided axe), a task undertaken most tales say, by Hephaestus, the blacksmith god. What a surprise then when, out from the wound made in Zeus’ head, stepped Athena, fully grown and fully armed.
There is wisdom to be gleaned from the painful thoughts in our heads. When the inner negative thought cycle becomes too much to bear and we finally turn into the pain instead of trying to ignore or avoid it, what gift of wisdom and prudence steps forth? What tools does Athena offer that can help us cleave negativity open, providing new avenues of opportunity?
Owls and Athena go hand in hand. Owls have long been associated with wisdom, but in particular, the wisdom that comes from being able to see in the dark. Almost all owls are nocturnal and their ability to find the tiny creatures to nourish them in the blackest of nights is remarkable, particularly given that owls do not rely on echolocation. They actually do see in the dark. Owls are far-sighted and have the ability to see 270°, due to the fourteen neck vertebrae they have (compared with the seven found in humans). We become stuck when we can only see things from one perspective and feeling stuck always leads to a negative thought cycle. Wisdom comes from being able to see in unlikely places, with the expanse of long-range understanding and the flexibility of many angles.
Snakes are intertwined with Athena with their presence on her aegis. As a shield of protection there are two versions of Athena’s aegis. One variation of her story presents that it was made for her by Hephaestus of highly polished bronze and was used by Perseus to slay the snake-haired Gorgon, Medusa (who actually became snake-headed in punishment by Athena herself). The other variation holds that it was crafted by Athena out of the skin of a monster she had slain. In both versions, the aegis is emblazoned with snakes. In later myths, Athena fastens Medusa’s head to the front of the aegis in order that her enemies may be turned to stone. Snakes enjoy a rather convoluted reputation in myth, oft-times representing the entrance to a dangerous path (as in the snakes that make up Medusa’s hair). But snakes are also our guides to wisdom through transformation. They are associated with regeneration and awakening. Being able to shed old patterns, limiting beliefs and inner critical messages opens us to live from a place of authenticity and empowerment.
Less prominent perhaps is Athena’s association with the olive tree. When both Poseidon and Athena vied for patronage of a beloved city, they each bestowed a gift upon the citizens to win favor. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident, revealing a spring. But, being god of the sea, the spring water was salty and of little use and benefit. Athena gifted the city with the olive tree which provided wood, oil and food. It was Athena’s gift which was accepted and thus, the city Athens was named in her honor. Not only does the olive tree offer the practical elements necessary for basic survival, its branches have long symbolized peace – the invitation to release conflict and confrontation.
Owl, olive, snake and aegis. Each one is a powerful tool for combating negative thinking.
Clarity comes with the light of the day, but deep wisdom comes in the depth of night. It is human nature to want to avoid the dark. But, if we allow ourselves to sink into the dark and peer at the shadowy corners of our minds, what will we find? What lies beneath the worrying scenarios that play out in our minds? Owl gives us the sight to look beyond the initial vision that swims before our eyes. From the heights of the sky, Owl helps us pierce the thoughts to see the truth beneath. Snake teaches us to shed the skin that has become too constricting. Snake’s perspective low on the earth guides us to be grounded and practical in our approach to transforming our circumstances. The olive tree brings peace of mind and opens us to become clear on what really matters. And the aegis offers us protection, particularly from external detractors who might criticize, belittle or shame us.
Grabbing hold of the sword which hangs so precariously over the head once again, you turn it over in your hands, observing it from all angles. You are aware of all the feelings it brings up in you – the anxiety, the hopelessness, the bitterness. You hear the taunting inner chant which urges you to feel small and incapable. With Athena by your side, you call upon Owl’s far-reaching wisdom and Snake’s practical resilience. Beyond the vision of the HR discussion, you see options for actively addressing the potential situation – a proactive meeting with a recruitment firm, a resume filled with your skills and experience, a negotiation that results in a settlement package, even the reassurance that it is only rumors that are circulating and, if it does become fact, you will be well-prepared. You hear the undercurrent chant of “You are capable. You are effective. You are valuable” which wraps around you like a protective aegis, knowing that, no matter what comes your way, you have the power to make the best decisions for yourself in every moment. No matter if the company presents that you are no longer a necessary part. No matter if economists herald doom and gloom. Both of those may very well be true, but your truth is that you are valuable and you alone are capable of finding the niche that can appreciate your value. The outside situation may be uncertain and changes may very well be in the air, but you know you have what it takes to provide for your own survival and, within your own mind, there is peace.
Athena was born out of fear and pain. But, in spite of the elements contributing to her appearance in the world, not only did Zeus claim Athena as his daughter, she became his favorite. In times of chaos and uncertainty, when the possibility of spiraling down into self-destructive negative thinking threatens physical and emotional health, Athena’s discernment is a gift and a balm. When you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, dismayed or depressed, seize the the shield and release your concerns to Athena. Allow her wise guidance to come to you on owl-wings and snakey slither. And feel the peace grow within you like a hardy, resilient olive tree.
Bright-eyed Athena, stately and proud
Guide me to my highest truth.
Guide me to my greatest strength.
Guide me to prudence in thought and action.
Wise Goddess of discernment
Connect me ever to the source of my wisdom within
And awaken in me the fire of courage and the flame of empowerment.