Sexual Serpents: Ruskin's the Queen of the Air

By Gregory, Brian | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Sexual Serpents: Ruskin's the Queen of the Air


Gregory, Brian, Nineteenth-Century Prose


This article examines the treatment given the goddess Athena by John Ruskin in his series of published lectures entitled The Queen of the Air. The article argues that guskin's depiction of Athena is a very personal one that enables the reader to see into Ruskin's dreams, nightmares, and ultimately into his views on gender issues, especially in his relations with Effie Gray and Rose La Touche.

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In 1869 John Ruskin delivered a series of lectures purporting to be A Study of the Greek Myths of Cloud and Storm. Later that year, the lectures were gathered together and published under the title The Queen of the Air (Figure 1). This title proved to be a much better choice, for while the lectures do concern themselves with mythical tales of atmospheric conditions in Ancient Greece, the true subject of the lectures is the goddess Athena, whom Ruskin sees as governing these phenomena. Ruskin's depiction of Athena has often fallen under attack for its departure from the more standard reading of the deity, traditionally the goddess of wisdom, warfare, and craftsmanship. While much criticism concerned with The Queen of the Air has pointed out the many discrepancies between traditional mythical interpretations of Athena and Ruskin's idea of her dominion over the elemental realm of the air, very little of it has asked why these differences occur. Ruskin was well read in classical mythology, so to dismiss his re-evaluation of Athena as a lack of awareness or understanding of the traditional myths is misguided. Ruskin's interpretation of Athena, and perhaps more importantly his emphasis on Athena over the other deities of the Greek pantheon, springs from very personal desires on Ruskin's part, in addition to his more intellectual concerns. Ultimately, Ruskin's relationship with Athena becomes a personal struggle to incorporate the contradictions between the goddess he desires and the darker side of the goddess he believes exists into a vision that is capable of saving both society and himself.

Of all the figures of Olympus, Athena is by far the most dualistic in nature. Remaining a virgin throughout her existence, she is born from the head of her father, Zeus, fully formed and armed for war. Her birth from the head of her father rather than from the womb of her mother prepares students of mythology for her two-sided reign over the traditionally feminine spheres of wisdom and needlework as well as the masculine sphere of warfare. It then seems quite appropriate that Ruskin should find Athena interesting, given his theories of the separate spheres of the masculine and the feminine in British society. The difficulty comes as a result of these two spheres existing simultaneously in the same figure (Figure 2 and Figure 3). Athena is by her very nature subversive. The Oxford Dictionary of World Mytholagy describes her as both "Glaukopis (owl-eyed)" as well as "Gorgopis (Gorgon-faced)" (I46). The owl-like eyes are symbolic of Athena's wisdom while her ability to appear Gorgon-like reminds us that she is also a wrathful and vengeful goddess.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The Queen of the Air, while recognizing both aspects of Athena, initially pays far more tribute to the goddess' kinder and wiser aspects. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that Ruskin obviously desires Athena to be "like the living air" who "breathes the calm of heavenly fortitude ... into every human breast that is pure and brave" (9). For the most part, this is exactly what he believes her to represent. However, he cannot ignore the "righteous anger" (9) she possesses and delivers to others. Thus, The Queen of the Air can be seen as a struggle between these two aspects of Athena's character for what will emerge as Ruskin's final vision of her. Ruskin identifies two animals as being symbolic of these aspects of Athena's constitution: the bird represents her wise and beautiful aspect, while the serpent represents her darker properties. …

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