The Birth of Athena
A long, long time ago, there lived the great god Zeus. One day, he had a terrible headache and summoned the god Hephestos, who split open Zeus’s head with an axe. From Zeus’s skull leaped Athena in full armor, carrying a spear and emitting a thunderous war cry.
“Ma’am,” said Hephestos, “Welcome. You shall henceforth be known as the goddess of wisdom and war.” Athena felt proud but also a little weird, for though she had just been born, Hephestos seemed to think she looked old, like some middle-aged busy-body.
Athena and Pallas
Athena was practicing sword-fighting with her friend Pallas.
By accident, Athena struck Pallas with her sword and Pallas died. In grief, Athena made a wooden statue of Pallas and put it in a shrine by a lake.
“Ma’am? I am sorry for your loss, ma’am,” said a shepherd passing by.
“Why would someone say that word again?” Athena asked herself. Was it her relaxed-fit tunic? Athena wondered if she should have worn a little blush, like Aphrodite always said, annoyingly.
Athena vs. Poseidon at Athens
Athena and Poseidon both wanted to be the patron deity of the city of Cecropia, so King Cecrops devised a contest. “Whoever gives the city the finest gift shall be the patron,” he said, as a crowd gathered.
Poseidon struck his trident into the ground, and saltwater spewed forth. The crowd disapproved, for no one wanted to drink saltwater.
“Ma’am, now it is your turn,” King Cecrops said to Athena.
People used to say Athena looked five, nay, ten years younger than she actually was. Something had changed, but what? Maybe it was the premature grays or all that smiling she had been doing without applying a serum afterward.
Athena knelt down and planted a seed. Immediately, an olive tree sprang up, and the crowd cheered. Olive trees were useful, providing food, shade, and wood.
“You, ma’am, have won the contest. Ma’am, I shall name the city after you,” said the king. “It shall be called ‘Ma’am.’ Congratulations!” The victory was bittersweet.
Athena and Arachne
A young woman named Arachne was a skilled weaver. People traveled from far and wide to marvel at her tapestries. She boasted, “Not even the goddess Athena can weave better than me.”
From her throne on Mount Olympus, Athena heard Arachne’s gloating. She visited Arachne and challenged her to a weaving contest.
“Let us see who makes the finest tapestries,” said Athena, as villagers came to watch.
“Yes, ma’am,” said Arachne.
“Good grief,” Athena said to herself. She wasn’t that much older than Arachne. And though Athena sometimes had back pain, her spirit was youthful. Would Arachne have said “ma’am” to Aphrodite, too?
Athena and the Golden Apple of Discord
King Peleus and the nymph Thetis were having a wedding. They invited every god and goddess except Eris, the goddess of discord.
Eris stormed into the festivities anyway and flung into the crowd a golden apple, which she said was for the fairest goddess of all. All the goddesses rushed to claim it and quarreled.
Paris of Troy picked up the apple, pointed to Athena, and said, “Ma’am, I shall settle this dispute.”
Clearly, Paris thought Athena was an old biddy who liked being in charge. Why? Maybe it was her ankle-length robe — a mistake.
Paris strode to Aphrodite and laid the apple in her hands. “Here you go, m’lady,” he said with a wink.
“Of course,” thought Athena.
Athena, Jason, and the Argonauts
A prince named Jason and his crew, the Argonauts, sought the Golden Fleece, which was in a far-off land. If Jason could retrieve the Golden Fleece, he could become king of Iolkos.
The crew encountered many obstacles, including the Clashing Rocks, which crushed any ship passing through.
“Ma’am! Help us, ma’am! Athena!” The way Jason addressed Athena didn’t match how she felt about herself. Also, wasn’t “ma’am” for someone who was married? Athena was definitely single. “Miss” didn’t feel appropriate either, but it was better than being called the equivalent of Mrs. McGillicuddy. What was Jason thinking? Anyway, back to the emergency. What did they need?
By the time Athena reached the rocks, Jason and his crew were crushed. Soon word spread throughout Ancient Greece not to say “ma’am,” for it would be unsettling and cause delays that would lead to death. According to legend, that is why, even today, everyone worldwide surely knows never, ever to call anyone “ma’am.”