Greek Goddess of Wisdom and War
Athena is a Greek goddess known as both Pallas and Athene. In ancient Greek mythology, they often associated her with both warfare and wisdom as well as handicraft, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, strategic warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy, the arts, and skill.
She also shares some things in common with Minerva from Roman mythology. Many refer to her as a protector or a patron of major cities such as Athens.
She is known most specifically for her strategic skill in warfare and is often portrayed as companion of heroes and is the patron goddess of heroic endeavour.
Athena was born from Zeus after he experienced an enormous headache and she sprang fully grown and in armour from his forehead.
She has no mother but one of the most commonly cited stories is that Zeus lay with Metis, the goddess of crafty thought and wisdom, and then swallowed her whole as he feared she will give birth to a child more powerful than him because of a prophecy – but she had already conceived.
Scholars believe that her name comes from the city of Athens. Legend says that she was the leader of Athenai. This was a group of women who followed and worshiped her.
There is some debate as to whether the citizens named Athens in honor of her or if she received her name after the city already existed. Many believe that she earned her name as she lived and led in Athens.
As early as 407 BC, Plato mentioned her name and claimed that others followed her due to her wisdom and knowledge. He further claimed that her name came from the Greek word Athenoa, which can mean moon and earth or air.
Unlike other Greek goddesses and gods, there isn’t as much known about the early life of Athena. Early tablets called the Linear B tablets mention her name and refer to her as Lady of Athens. Some translate phrases in the Linear A tablets to mean Athena of Zeus as she was the daughter of Zeus.
There are also multiple fresco pieces that show her as a warrior. In one, she holds a shield in her hand and with two women nearby.
The other shows a woman standing in front of multiple rows of women. Some believe that this piece depicts a different or early version of the warrior goddess. Historians also found some early artwork that shows Athena as an owl, which might explain why she is occasionally called a bird goddess.
Though not a patron saint, Athena is a goddess. Known for many years as a war goddess, she helped prepare men for the fighting ahead and provided them with the necessary tools and supplies.
She was unlike other gods and goddesses from ancient Greek tales who thought anything was worth a fight. Goddess Athena believed that people should only go to war as a last resort and only if they fought for a noble or just cause.
In later years, scholars associated her with both Hestia and Artemis. They also referred to her as Parthenos, which means virgin. Not only did she never marry, but she never took a lover either. Many today believe that the name of the Parthenon comes from the term used to describe her virginity. Citizens chose this name to honor the sexual modesty she had. They believed that her virginity paved the way for other women.
Outside of Athens
Though usually associated with Athens, Athena had followers in other cities. Known as panhellenic cults, these groups consisted of women who followed traditional rites. Most of her followers were young women who believed in socializing with others both in their hometowns and other cities.
While some used these events in the hopes of meeting a suitable man for marriage and citizenship, others simply wanted to make friends and connect with others. Her cults established several sanctuaries in her honor.
One of those sanctuaries is the Spartan Acropolis, which has an epithet dedicated to her. Originally made from bronze to show her connection to metal workers, locals later replaced it. The acropolis also has large bronze and terracotta bells.
Athena Polias is another dedicated to her, which Pytheos of Priene designed. Alexander the Great was on hand to dedicate the temple. An inscription that bears his words is now in the archives of the British Museum. This museum and others also have many sculptures of the goddess.
As one of the most famous Greek goddess figures, Athena has multiple epithets such as Polias, which shows that she was the protector of Athens. She earned the Ergane name to reflect her role as the helper of artisans. When Orestes faced charges of killing his mother, Athena served as the judge who oversaw his case.
After finding him not guilty, she became known as Areia. There were others who simply referred to her as the goddess. Other epithets used in ancient Greece for her include:
-Hippa, which means equestrian. This refers to the bridle and her similar inventions.
-Aethyia is the name given to her by followers who lived in Megara
-Hygieia, which means health as she was a healthy woman.
Many of the descriptions of Athena come from Homer. He described her as a beautiful woman with bright or gleaming eyes. Later translations changed this to mean her eyes were gray or blue and green. Historians believe that she likely earned her association with owls due to his description as it showed that she had the same type of face.
Others believe this association came from the artwork that shows her holding an owl in her hand. Not only did the owl become the Athenian mascot, but it also became associated with knowledge.
Athena appeared in the Odyssey as well as Homeric Hymns. Hesiod mentioned her in Theogony where he gave her an epithet that meant born in Triton. A popular myth claims that after Zeus abandoned her, Athena wandered the world and found Triton.
Triton took her in as his own child and raised her with Pallas, his biological daughter. This led to some questioning whether who her father was, but most now claim that she was the daughter of Zeus and the adopted daughter of Triton.
Early myths also use the terms third born and triple born to describe her. This can refer to the fact that she was the third child Zeus had. Though she did not have a mother, the terms may refer to the idea that it took both her father and Metis as well as herself for the goddess to come into the world. A later legend claimed that the terms came from the idea that three necessary things vital to human life all came from the goddess.
There are many legends surrounding her birth, but most claim that she was the third child born to Zeus and that she had no mother. The most common legend claims that she came into the world as an adult and sprang from his head.
Another story claims that the Greek god worked with the goddess of counsel, a woman named Metis. She was pregnant with Athena when Zeus swallowed the women, which led to her coming from him. Almost all stories and legends say that she was his favorite child and that he loved her more than his other children. The Iliad states that she was his favorite because she was the only one he birthed.
Yet another version of her birth claims that Zeus and Metis had a relationship that led to marriage. When he learned she was pregnant, the god worried that he would lose his position to her due to an old prophecy. This prophecy claimed that any children born to the women would be smarter and stronger than their father. He swallowed her not knowing that she was already pregnant with his child.
There is also a story that says Metis was an unwilling partner and tried multiple things to escape the god but eventually became a victim to his wraith.
Legend says that the god had several other wives before settling down with Hera. He developed a headache so bad that he begged someone to cut open his head to relieve his pain. Stories dispute who it was that grabbed the cleaver and ranges from Hermes to Ares.
Athena burst forth and was such a beautiful sight that grown men dropped to their knees in front of her. Helios was so impressed with her beauty that he came to a complete stop in the middle of the sky.
Unlike his daughter Artemis who was the goddess of the outdoors and often shown as wild and unruly, Athena was more civilized and spent much of her time in urban areas. She did not have much of a relationship with her family. Some say that Hera disliked her because she served as a reminder that another woman had his child. Others say that she loved the new woman as if she was her own daughter.
She also had a complicated relationship with Ares, especially in regard to war. While Ares had a blood lust and would fight for any cause, she believed in only fighting for causes she believed in and had merit. This also made her a better fighter in battles because she could keep a clear head. Her victories led to her adopting a breastplate that showed her commitment to combat and the heroic ideal.
She eventually became such a strong fighter that others turned to her for advice before battles. One legend claims that she and Poseidon had a deal where they would each grant the other a favor. When she needed his help, he rose from the sea and created a saltwater well to help her people.
Pallas is a Greek word that has several different meanings. It can mean someone who holds and uses a weapon or a young woman. Legend says that Pallas was the close friend and adopted sister of Athena after Triton adopted her.
The two women held a sparring match as a fun way to see who was stronger, but an accident led to Pallas’s death. Athena was so upset that she began using the young woman’s name in her honor.
A different version of the story claims that Pallas as a giant or a Gorgon. Goddess Athena traveled to his region and fought with him. When she won, she turned his skin into a cloak that she wore to show others of her victory.
There are also legends that claim this was one of the names given to her father. In this version, they fought to the death. She had a cloak made from his skin to show that she was the champion.
Most historians believe that the first legend is the oldest. She had a statue built and added to the Trojan Acropolis that showed her as her dead friend. Locals viewed the statue as a talisman and believed that it had mystical powers.
Legend said that no one could destroy the city as long as her statue was there. During the Trojan War, Cassandra hoped to save the statue and refused to leave its side. Ajax the Lesser carried her away from the statue, which infuriated Athena so much that she released a storm that nearly wiped out the soldiers.
The Dark Side
The Greek goddess also has a connection to Medusa. Legend says that she was a young woman who followed Athena and worked in her temple in Athens. Poseidon was so obsessed with her that he ignored her vow of chastity and brutally raped her in the temple.
Athena was so upset at what he did to both the young woman and her temple that she transformed Medusa into the classic mythical creature with snakes for hair who could turn men to stone.
Her dark side also appears in a poem written by Callimachus. Called Hymn 5, it tells the story of the Greek goddess bathing in secret on Mount Helicon. Tiresias, who was the son of one of her close friends, spotted her in the spring by accident and attempted to flee.
She was so upset at the thought of him seeing her naked that she turned him blind. Even when her friend begged her to reverse her decision, she refused. She instead gave the young man the gifts of seeing the future and communicating with birds.
There are also stories of her taking men to Mount Olympus for judgment. Athena only did so when she felt she couldn’t deliver judgment. She would take the men directly to Zeus. Some claim she had no concerns over what happened next.
Facts about Athena
- Athena was the Goddess of War, the female counterpart of Ares.
- She was the daughter of Zeus; no mother bore her. She sprang from Zeus’s head, full-grown and clothed in armor.
- She was Zeus’s favorite child.
- According to Homer’s account in the Iliad, Athena was a fierce and ruthless warrior. In the Odyssey, she was angry and unforgiving. In the course of the Trojan War, she struck Ajax with madness.
- Known for protecting civilized life, she was the Goddess of the City.
- According to some sources, Athena was praised for her compassion and generosity.
- Athena was a patron of the arts and crafts, especially when it came to spinning and weaving.
- In later poetry, Athena embodied wisdom and rational thought.
- Athena served as a guardian of Athens, where the Parthenon served as her temple.
- Zeus trusted her to wield the aegis and his thunderbolt.
- Her most important festival was the Panathenaea, which was celebrated annually at Athens.
- She is referred to in poetry as “gray-eyed.”
- The owl was her bird, and the olive tree was hers.
- She turned the weaver Arachne into a spider after the mortal woman insulted Athena and the Olympian gods.
- Athena reared Ericthonius, son of Hephaestus. He was half man, half serpent. Athena put the infant in a chest and gave it to others to watch over, forbidding them to open it. When they did, she drove them mad as punishment.
- She is one of three virgin goddesses; the other two were Hestia and Artemis.
- Athena invented the flute, but she never played it.
- Hermes and Athena went to the aid of Perseus in his quest to kill Medusa. Looking directly at Medusa would turn any man to stone, so Athena provided Perseus with her polished shield. Using it, he was able to see Medusa as if looking in a mirror. Again, Athena guided his hand as he cut off Medusa’s head with his sword.
- Hera and Athena fought against Paris in the Trojan War since he had awarded the Golden Apple to Aphrodite.
- The sacred image of Athena, a wood statue called the Palladium, protected the Trojans as long as they had it.
- Odysseus and Diomedes executed a plan to steal the image, greatly encouraging the Greeks in their hopes to end the long-suffering war.
- Athena helped Hercules when, as a part of his penance, he was required to drive away the Stymphalian birds. She got them moving, and Hercules shot them.
- The Feast of Bath was a ritual held in honor of the goddess in Panathenaea. It took place at the end of the season and ran for five days. The festival required the removal of her clothing from a statue built in her honor. After washing the clothing and purifying the status, guests would take part in various crafts.
- Bryn Mawr College has a large sculpture of her on display as she is a patron of universities.
- Phi Delta Theta calls her their official goddess and uses an owl as their mascot in her honor.
- In addition to the owl, her other official mascot is the olive tree.
- Legend says that Athena invented the flute but never attempted to play it.
- Though she never had any children, she adopted Ericthonius who was both a serpent and a man. She kept him safely tucked in a chest.
- When Paris gave Aphrodite the Golden Apple, both Athena and Hera took the opposing side in the Trojan War.
- She appeared on a silver coin, which is one of the earliest depictions of her from around 380 BC.
- Many refer to her as the patron goddess of heroes and those who act heroically.
- Among the crafts that she enjoyed doing include weaving and spinning.
- Not only did she enter the world fully grown, but she also wore clothing and armor.
- A famous sculpture shows her standing with one had on Nike to show their victorious nature.
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