Minerva is the Roman goddess of wisdom. She was also the goddess of trade, the arts, and strategy in war. Her domains included medicine, poetry, and handicrafts as well. She was in charge of so many things that Ovid called her the “goddess of a thousand works”!
Minerva was highly influenced by the Greek goddess Athena. When the Romans made contact with the Greeks, they saw their gods as being similar to those of the Greeks. In fact, they decided that they were the same gods under different names.
She was often portrayed wearing a chiton, which is an ancient Greek garment, and a helmet. Many statues of her show her holding a spear and a shield, to represent her interest in war. But she can often be found offering an olive branch to the defeated. Minerva was a gracious winner in war, who had sympathy for those her armies beat.
After Athena began to influence Minerva, her symbol became the owl, which today continues to represent wisdom. She also gained a backstory worthy of a comic book. She was born when her father, Jupiter, swallowed her mother, Metis. He did this because of a prophecy that his child would one day defeat him.
While inside Jupiter, Metis forged weapons for the baby Minerva. The constant noise gave Jupiter a terrible headache. He asked another god, Vulcan, to hit his head with a hammer and split it open. Although this is a pretty extreme solution for a headache, it worked. Minerva emerged fully-grown from Jupiter’s forehead. She had the weapons and armor that her mother had made for her.
Another story about Minerva comes from Ovid’s book Metamorphosis. In this book, a young woman named Arachne brags about her weaving skills. She says that they’re even better than Minerva’s! Minerva, angry about this challenge, appeared to Arachne and challenged her to a weaving competition.
The subjects of their two tapestries were very different. Minerva, maybe with an eye to influencing any judges, wove a tapestry that featured herself beating all the other gods in a competition. Around the edges of the tapestry were figures of people who had challenged the gods and lost. Arachne, meanwhile, chose to depict the gods in various forms tricking humans.
Arachne’s work was an amazing piece of art, made with incredible skill. But, not too surprisingly, Minerva declared herself the winner. She knocked Arachne on the head three times and turned her into a spider to punish her for her unwise boast.
As proof that Minerva could win contests with other gods, though, here’s one more story about her, again drawn from Greek myths. The gods had a contest to see who could create the most useful item for humans. Neptune made a horse – definitely a very useful animal for the ancients. Minerva, however, created the olive tree. Olive oil was very important to Mediterranean cultures – as we can see from the fact that Minerva was declared the winner of the contest.
Minerva had many titles because of her many roles. Some of these titles were:
- Minerva Medica – patron of doctors
- Minerva Castitis – patron of olive trees
- Minerva Luscinia – a name that means ‘nightingale’, because she is said to have invented the flute
- Minerva Armipotens – powerful in arms and the patron of strategy
Although she was equated with the Greek goddess Athena, Minerva was actually originally from the Etruscans, who were a people that lived in the same place as Romans did but before Rome existed. This ancient goddess was called Meneswa, which means “she who measures”. This origin can be seen in one of Minerva’s other titles: Minerva Mensa, “Minerva who measures time”.
Minerva was very important to the Romans. As a matter of fact, she was part of the “Capitoline Trio”, which consisted of three gods that the Romans considered patrons of their city. The other two gods were Jupiter and Juno. These three gods were worshiped on the Capitoline Hill, which was a very important holy site in ancient Rome. As a matter of fact, that’s where we get the word “capitol,” as in Capitol Hill, from! So next time you think of Washington, D.C., you can think of Minerva.
Minerva also was one of three “virgin goddesses” in Roman tradition. These three goddesses vowed to never marry, but rather dedicate themselves to their works. Vesta and Diana were the other two in the trio.
Minerva was celebrated in a variety of festivals in ancient Rome. The most famous one may have been the Quinquatrus, which was dedicated to Minerva and Mars. It went from March 19-23. On the first day of this festival, no blood could be shed. However, the last day ended with gladiatorial battles. Women also consulted fortune-tellers, and there were speakers, poets, and plays being performed throughout the holiday.
Today, statues of Minerva can often be found in schools and libraries. Even though it’s been thousands of years since the Romans worshiped her, Minerva continues to stand for wisdom and the act of creating things.
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