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ATHENA (or Athenaia, Ionian Athenaie, epic Athene ; in the Roman world, she corresponds to Menerva/Minerva ) was the Greek goddess of war, the arts, and feminine works. According to the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (5.815) she "has no pleasure in the works of golden Aphrodite, but delights in war and the works of Ares; she first taught human craftsmen how to build chariots and work the bronze, but she too teaches young girls in the house, putting in their mind knowledge of splendid art" (compare Iliad 5.733737, where, in arming herself for war, the goddess takes off the splendid robe she had made with her own hands). These diverse aspects of her nature manifest themselves in her iconography: according to Apollodorus (Bibl. 3.12.3), the Palladion, the extremely ancient wooden statue of the goddess that had famously fallen from the sky and was venerated in Ilion, portrayed her with a spear in her right hand and a distaff and spindle in the left. These two aspects may be reconciled under the capacity for rational organization. Both in war and in craft the goddess refrains from excess and impulsivity, and she privileges rational, intelligent preparation. As such she is indeed a goddess of the arts of war and of creative intelligence, and a protectress of the city, closely tied to its social organization.

Athena is certainly a very ancient divinity: it is possible to recognize in her a pre-Hellenic protectress of the Mycenaean citadel atop the Acropolis. An atana potinija is attested in the dative, together with Enyalios, Paiaon, Poseidaon, and the Erinyes in a linear B text from Knossos. The interpretation commonly accepted, even though by no means certain, is "mistress of (place-name) Athana." Athena is indeed unique among Greek gods in being connected, via her name, with a specific city, Athens. This connection is underlined by the fact that in early Attic inscriptions her name appears in the adjectival form, Athenaia (the Athenian goddess), as in the Homeric formula, Pallas Athenaie. However, the linguistic relation between place and goddess is difficult to define; if the Athenians, both in myth (the gift of the olive tree, the birth of Erichthonios) and in cult (the Panathenaia festival), stressed their privileged relation with the goddess, in Panhellenic mythology she shows no special interest in Athens or in Athenian heroes. Thus, according to Pindar (Olympian 7.3453), the Rhodians believed Athena to be particularly associated with their island. In many Greek cities she appears as Polias or Poliouchos, citadel and city-goddess (this is also true of Troy: legend had it that until her Palladion had been stolen from the city, it would not fall); very often her temples are on the central, fortified hill of the city.

Athena's emblems are the owl (glaux, compare her epithet glaukōpis, "bright-eyed"), and the snake, living among the rocks of the Athenian Acropolis (Herodotos VIII 41.23). These have been taken by some modern scholars as signs of the close connection between her, the Minoan snake goddess, and the Mycenaean palace goddess. Athena's main weapon in battle is the aegis (as the name implies, a goat-skin): when she raises it, panic overtakes her enemies. On it, she wears the petrifying head of the Gorgon.

Her centrality in the Greek pantheon is expressed by her closeness to Zeus. The story of her birth (an Oriental motif, which finds a parallel in the Hittite myth of Kumarbi) forcefully underlines the strong relationship between the two divinities. Zeus, after having received the power to rule among the gods, married the Okeanid Metis, the "most knowing of the gods and men" (Hesiod, frag. 343.15; Theogony 886900); then, in order to avoid being overthrown by a more powerful son, he swallowed her. Some time later, Zeus gave birth from his head to a grown-up and fully armed goddess, Athena. Other versions have Zeus call on Hephaistos to help relieve him of labor pains. Hephaistos with his ax split Zeus's head open, and out of it, in full armor and with a war song on her lips, sprang Athena. This is the version usually depicted on Attic vases.

Zeus's courageous, self-confident, clear-eyed daughter became his favorite child, the only one to carry his aegis and thunderbolt. She in turn revered him and boasted of being the child of him alone, of being motherless (thus in Homeric Hymn 28; similarly, in another passage of Hesiod's Theogony 924929, the birth of Athena from Zeus is paralleled by the story of Hera giving birth alone, out of anger against Zeus, to Hephaistos). Athena and Zeus share exclusively between them the cult epithet Polias/Polieus. At Sparta, the rhētra attributed to Lycurgus mentioned a Zeus Syllanios and an Athena Syllania (the meaning of this term is unknown). The unique relationship between Athena and Zeus finds its best literary expression in Aeschylus (Eumenides 736738): Athena appears there as the great reconciler between men and gods, and, because of her peculiar birth, between male and female. At a deeper level, however, it can be claimed that by her refusal of marriage the goddess paradoxically destabilizes the patriarchal and civilized order that she apparently champions.

The most frequent among her other epithets are Tritogeneia, which may allude to the circumstances of her birth, even if the precise meaning of the term is disputed, and Pallas. One of the ancient explanations for the latter is that Pallas was a childhood friend whom Athena inadvertently killed during a fencing match. Athena erected a wooden image, a palladium, to commemorate her foster sister, an image that came to represent Athena herself in her role as protectress of the polis. Of this Palladium, originally situated in Troy, many cities boasted of possessing an exemplar (Athens, Argos, and Rome, among others). According to another version, Pallas was a giant and an adversary of Athena in the Gigantomachy, out of whose skin the goddess made herself the aegis (a local, Athenian variant of the Gigantomachy myth has Theseus fighting against a rival king Pallas and his fifty sons). Yet others interpreted Pallas as "the one who dances," or "who brandishes weapons" (Euripides, Ion 209211; Plato, Cratylos 406d407a), or pallas simply as "maiden" (Strabo, 17.1.46, with the approval of modern etymological dictionaries). Particularly important in fifth-century Athenian ideology is the goddess's connection with victory: as Athena Nikē she had a priestess and a temple at the gate of the Acropolis.

Athena's central concern is the wellbeing of the community. As Aelius Aristides (Or. 37.13) puts it, "Cities are the gifts of Athena." As a patron of civic institutions, she has a role in the socialization of youths of both sexes. Thus, in Athens, in her quality of Phratria, the goddess is, together with Zeus Phratrios, the patroness of the Apaturia festival, in which young men were introduced into the phratry; these were the gods that defined Athenian citizenship. The ephebes took their oath in the sanctuary of Aglauros, one of the three daughters of Kekrops, regarded as the first priestess of Athena; among the principal divinities invoked were Ares and Atena Areia. Every year, they escorted Pallas (so report the epigraphic texts, with a striking personification: the wooden Palladium must have been intended) to Phalerum and to the sea for a ritual cleansing (the occasion of this ritual is disputed: it may have been the Plynteria). Conversely, an Athena Apaturia is attested at Troizen, to whom young girls offered their girdle before their wedding.

More generally, the goddess nurtures the children on whom the city's future depends and encourages its citizens in the arts and crafts so integral to civilized existence. Her foundational role in Athens is clearly expressed by the story of her victory over Poseidon through the gift of the sacred olive tree, and in the connected local Athenian myth of the birth of Erichthonios. According to the legend, Hephaistos tried to rape the goddess; she flew, and in his pursuit, his semen fell on her thigh. The goddess in wiping it off threw it to the ground, and the earth gave birth to the boy Erechtheus/Erichthonios, whom Athena raised (already attested in Iliad 2.547551). She then gave him over to the care of the daughters of snake-tailed Kekrops, the autochthonous king of Athens, warning them not to open the chest in which the boy lay. They however opened the chest, and, overcome with madness at what they saw, threw themselves down the cliff of the Acropolis. Erichthonios later became king of Athens, and instituted the Panathenaia; the story of the Kekropids was remembered in the rite of the Arrhēphoria. Two (or four) young girls of noble family, aged between seven and eleven, were chosen annually by the archon basileus to serve Athena Polias on the Acropolis. At the end of their year, at night, the arrhēphoroi were given covered baskets, which they had to carry down to the temple of Aphrodite "in the garden." There they were given something else that they had to bring back to the Acropolis. The meaning of this ceremony is disputed (transition or fertility ritual), but it has clearly to do with the story of the daughters of Kekrops, since the arrhēphoroi are said to accomplish their duties in regard to Athena Polias and Pandrosos, one of the Kekropids. The myth encapsulates Athena's care for Athens, and more generally for the raising and education of both boys and girls, as well as the Athenians' rootedness in their landscape.

Athenian maidens and women wove a peplos for Athena; the loom for the weaving was set up by the priestess of Athena Polias and the arrhēphoroi at the Chalkeia. The peplos (embroidered with scenes from the Gigantomachy, and thus once again exposing the other side of the deity) was offered to the goddess nine months later at the Panathenaia, her most important festival at Athens. At this same festival male citizens competed in contests reserved for Athenians which, just as the Panathenaic procession, stressed the force and the sense of common identity of the polity. There were also contests open to foreigners; the prizes for the quadrennial contests of the Great Panathenaia were the so-called Panathenaic amphoras, filled with olive oil from the sacred olive trees and bearing on one side the image of the fully armed, striding Athena Promachos.

Athena is particularly identified with the womanly arts of spinning and weaving, and is often called, in this connection, Erganē (the maker). As such, she also protects carpenters, metalworkers and more generally artisans: "Be on your way, all people who work with your hands, you who entreat Zeus' daughter, Erganē of the terrible eyes, with baskets placed before her, and by the anvil with the heavy hammer" (Sophocles, frag. 844 Radt).

Like many spinning goddesses, Athena is a virgin; at Athens, she is addressed as "the" parthenos. Yet her virginity implies no withdrawal from involvement with males, but rather an easy companionship undisturbed by sexual tension. Loyal and resourceful, she is a friendly mentor to many of the heroes of Greek mythologyPerseus, Bellerophon, Herakles, and above all Odysseus, whose skeptical prudence and practical cunning so resemble her own. Although in late classical times the goddess came to be regarded as a personification of wisdom in the abstract, her mētis ("wisdom") is rather common sense and the technical and artistic skillfulness she encouraged in her protégés. She is glaukōpis, bright-eyed, like her emblem the owl. At least until the end of the fifth century, Athena was not seen as a contemplative being, but rather as "spirited immediacy, redeeming spiritual presence, swift action." At least until the end of the fifth century, Athena was not seen as a contemplative being, but rather, as Walter F. Otto memorably put it, a "Göttin der nähe" ("goddess of nearness"), "spirited immediacy, redeeming spiritual presence, swift action."

See Also

Goddess Worship, overview article.


Athena is an important presence in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey ; Aeschylus's Eumenides is the other most important ancient source. The goddess is frequently invoked in drama: for instance in Euripides' Children of Heracles 748783 and in Aristophanes' Knights 581594. A somewhat darker aspect of her nature emerges from Sophocles' Ajax. Callimachus in his Hymn 5 illustrates a ritual in honor of the Argive Athena; for the perception of the goddess at the time of the second sophistic, see Aelius Aristides' Hymn to Athena (Or. 37).

Modern scholarly treatments include Lewis R. Farnell, The Cults of the Greek States, Vol. 1 (1896; New Rochelle, N.Y., 1977), pp. 258320; Walter F. Otto, Die Götter Griechenlands: Das Bild des Göttlichen im Spiegel des griechischen Geistes (Bonn, Germany, 1929), translated by Moses Hadas as The Homeric Gods: The Spiritual Significance of Greek Religion (New York, 1954), pp. 4360; Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Der Glaube der Hellenen (Berlin, 19311932), Vol. 1: pp. 234237, Vol. 2: pp. 162168; Károly Kerényi, Die Jungfrau und Mutter der Griechischen Religion: Eine Studie über Pallas Athene (Zurich, 1952), translated by Murray Stein as Athene: Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion (Dallas, Tex., 1978); Martin P. Nilsson, The Minoan-Mycenean Religion and Its Survival in Greek Religion, 2d rev. ed. (Lund, Sweden, 1950), pp. 485501; Walter Burkert, Griechische Religion der archaischen und klassischen Epoche (Stuttgart and Berlin, 1977), rev. ed., translated by J. Raffan as Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical (Cambridge, Mass., 1985), pp. 139143; Robert T. C. Parker, "Athena," in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed., edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (Oxford and New York, 1996), pp. 201202; and Fritz Graf, "Athena," in Der neue Pauly, Vol. 2 (Stuttgart, Germany, 1997), pp. 160166.

On her importance in Athens see specifically C. John Herington, Athena Parthenos and Athena Polias: A Study in the Religion of Periclean Athens (Manchester, UK, 1955), and his "Athena in Athenian Literature and Cult," in G. T. W. Hooker, ed., Parthenos and Parthenon, Greece and Rome, Suppl. 10 (Oxford, 1963), pp. 6173; Nicole Loraux, Les enfants d'Athena (Paris, 1981), translated by Caroline Levine as The Children of Athena: Athenian Ideas about Citizenship and the Division between the Sexes (Princeton, N.J., 1993); Jenifer Neils, ed., Goddess and Polis: The Panathenaic Festival in Ancient Athens (Princeton, N.J., 1992); and Jenifer Neils, ed., Worshipping Athena: Panathenaia and Parthenon (Madison, Wis., 1996). The goddess's connection with Athenian democracy is explored by Irmgard Kasper-Butz, Die Göttin Athena im klassischen Athen: Athena als Repräsentantin des demokratischen Staates (Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1990). The most complete discussion of Attic rituals for Athena is still Ludwig Deubner, Attische Feste (Berlin, 1932), pp. 939.

Specific aspects are explored in Susan Deacy and Alexandra Villing, eds., Athena in the Classical World (Leiden, Netherlands, 2001), which also provides an extensive bibliography. In a series of articles, Noel Robertson proposes a global reinterpretation of rituals for Athena: see in particular "Athena as Weather Goddess: The Aigis in Myth and Ritual," in Deacy and Villing, eds., Athena in the Classical World (Leiden, Netherlands, 2001), pp. 2955, and "Athena and Early Greek Society: Palladium Shrines and Promontory Shrines," in Matthew Dillon, ed., Religion in the Ancient World: New Themes and Approaches (Amsterdam, 1996), pp. 383475. In this same volume, Daniel Geagan, "Who Was Athena?" pp. 145164, charts the development of the cult of Athena in Athens across a wide chronological period. On the cult of Athena at Troy/Ilion, see Alexandra Villing, "Athena as Ergane and Promachos: The Iconography of Athena in Archaic East Greece," in Nick Fisher and Hans van Wees, eds., Archaic Greece: New Approaches and New Evidence (London, 1998), pp. 147168. Her role as a goddess of mētis and practical cunning is examined in Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant, Les ruses de l'intelligence: La mêtis des Grecs (Paris, 1974), translated by Janet Lloyd as Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society (Hassocks, U.K., 1978; Chicago, 1991). A wealth of material on the diverse aspects of the cult of Athena in the Greek world is to be found in Gerhard Jöhrens, Der Athenahymnus des Ailios Aristeides (Bonn, Germany, 1981).

A detailed survey of the iconography is offered by Paul Demargne and Hélène Cassimatis, "Athena," in Lexicon iconographicum mythologiae classicae, Vol. 2.1 (Zurich and Munich, 1984), pp. 9551044.

Christine Downing (1987)

Paola Ceccarelli (2005)


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Alternate Names

Athene, Pallas Athena, Minerva (Roman)

Appears In

Hesiod's Theogony, Ovid's Metamorphoses, Hyginus's Fabulae


Daughter of Zeus and Metis

Character Overview

In Greek mythology, Athena (pronounced uh-THEE-nuh) was the goddess of wisdom, warfare, and crafts. She was the favorite child of Zeus (pronounced ZOOS) and one of the most powerful of the twelve Olympian gods. Although Athena was worshiped in many cities, the Athenians considered her to be their special protector and named their city after her; no other Greek god has such a specific association with a city. Many rulers sought her wisdom in both government and military matters. The Romans called her Minerva (pronounced mi-NUR-vuh).

Like Artemis (pronounced AHR-tuh-miss), the goddess of the hunt, Athena was a virgin goddess. Unlike Artemis, she did not reject men. Athena took an active part in the lives of many heroes and enjoyed their bravery in battle. As a goddess of battle, she stood alongside warriors she favored and gave them courage in the fight; she particularly favored those warriors who were both strong and intelligent. Her main weapon was the aegis, a shield that inspired panic in her enemies when she raised it in battle.

Balancing her role as a goddess of warfare is her role as the goddess of the arts and domestic crafts such as sewing. In both aspects of her character, Athena represents rational organization, moderation, and intelligent preparation. She is therefore closely associated with social organization in its ideal form, and the welfare of the community was of particular interest to her.

Major Myths

Athena was the daughter of Zeus and of the Titan Metis (pronounced MEE-tis), known for her knowledge and wisdom. Metis had tried to avoid Zeus's advances by changing herself into different animals, but her tactic failed, and she became pregnant. Zeus learned from an oracle (or person through which the gods communicated with humans) that Metis was expecting a girl. The oracle also predicted that if Metis and Zeus had a male child, the boy would overthrow his father when he grew up, just as Zeus had overthrown his father. To protect himself from this possibility, Zeus swallowed Metis after she changed herself into a fly. Some sources say that Zeus did this mainly because he wanted to possess her wisdom.

Time passed and one day Zeus developed a terrible headache. He cried out in pain, saying he felt as if a warrior were stabbing him from inside with a spear. Hephaestus (pronounced hi-FES-tuhs), the god of metalworking, finally understood what was wrong and split Zeus's head open with an ax. Athena sprang out, fully grown and dressed in armor. By all accounts she was a dutiful daughter. For his part, Zeus tended to indulge Athena, which made the other gods jealous and angry.

The goddess was active in the lives of many warriors, kings, and heroes. She gave Bellerophon (pronounced buh-LAIR-uh-fun) the magic bridle that enabled him to ride Pegasus (pronounced PEG-uh-suhs), the winged horse. She showed the shipbuilder Argus how to build a magic ship for Jason and then protected the boat on its travels. She helped Perseus (pronounced PUR-see-uhs) kill the monster Medusa (pronounced meh-DOO-suh). She supported Heracles (pronounced HAIR-uh-kleez; also known as Hercules) through the twelve labors he was made to perform.

Athena also played a role in the Trojan War. She was one of three goddesses who took part in a beauty contest that led to the war. During the conflict, she fought on the side of the Greeks. In particular, she inspired Odysseus (pronounced oh-DIS-ee-uhs) to come up the idea of the Trojan Horse, which brought about the defeat of the Trojans. When the fighting was over, she helped Odysseus return home. Although Athena favored the Greeks, she was also important to the people of Troy. They erected a statue of her and called it the Palladium. The Greeks believed that as long as it remained in Troy, the city could not be conquered. Before they were able to win the Trojan War, the Greeks had to creep into the city to steal the statue.

To become the protector of Athens, Athena had to win a contest against Poseidon (pronounced poh-SYE-dun), god of the sea. The clever Athenians asked each god to devise a gift for the city. With his trident (a three-pronged spear), Poseidon struck the Acropolis, the hill in the middle of the city, and a saltwater spring began to flow. Athena then touched the Acropolis with her spear, and an olive tree sprang forth. The people decided that the goddess's gift was the more valuable and chose her as their protector. To avoid angering Poseidon, they promised to worship him too. In ancient times, visitors to Athens were taken to see Athena's olive tree and the rock that Poseidon had struck.

Despite her virgin status, Athena ended up raising a child. According to one myth, Hephaestus became attracted to her and tried to force his attentions on her. The powerful Athena resisted him, and Hephaestus's seed fell to the ground. From that seed was born the half-man, half-snake Erich thonius (pronounced ir-ek-THONE-ee-uhs). Athena put the baby in a box and gave him to the daughters of Cecrops (pronounced SEE-krahps), king of Athens. She told them to care for him but not to look in the box. Two of the daughters looked inside and, driven mad, jumped off the Acropolis to their deaths. Athena then took Erich thonius to her temple and raised him herself. Later he became king of Athens and honored her greatly.

Patron of Crafts, Civilization, and Wisdom Athena created many useful items, including the potter's wheel, vase, horse bridle, chariot, and ship, which explains why she was regarded as the goddess of handicrafts. She was the patron (meaning protector or supporter) of architects and sculptors, too, and the inventor of numbers and mathematics, which influenced many aspects of civilization. Athena took a special interest in agricultural work, giving farmers the rake, plow, and yoke, and teaching them how to use oxen to cultivate their fields. Athena also invented spinning and weaving.

Athena even tried her hand at musical instruments. She created the flute to imitate the wailing of the Gorgons , a trio of beastly women with snakes for hair. When the goddess saw her reflection playing this new instrument with her cheeks puffed out, she was disgusted with her appearance. She threw the flute away and put a curse on the first person to pick it up. The satyr Marsyas (pronounced mahr-SEE-uhs) picked up the flute and suffered the consequences when he dared to challenge Apollo to a musical contest. Some sources say that Athena threw away the flute because the other gods laughed at her for looking so ridiculous.

Athena was generally a kind goddess. She promoted good government and looked after the welfare of kings who asked for her guidance. Athena was a goddess of justice tempered by mercy. Her work led Athens to adopt trial by jury.

Like the other gods, however, Athena did not tolerate lack of respect. She turned Arachne (pronounced uh-RAK-nee) into a spider after Arachne boasted that she could weave more skillfully than Athena. She also blinded Tiresias (pronounced ty-REE-see-uhs) when he happened upon a stream where she was bathing and saw her nude. Because his fault was accidental, she softened his punishment by giving him the gift of prophecy, or the ability to see the future.

Athena in Context

The Acropolis is a hill rising 500 feet above the city of Athens. On it stands the remains of some of the finest temples of ancient Greece. The largest and most famous of these temples is the Parthenon (pronounced PAR-thuh-non), which was built to honor Athena. This magnificent white marble building is surrounded by columns. A huge statue of Athena, made of gold and ivory, used to stand inside. Athena, as the protector of Athens, was no doubt a figure whose importance was tied direcdy to Athens's importance as a Greek center of power. Her qualities reflect the qualities that Athenians saw in themselves, as well as the qualities that they aspired to achieve.

Several festivals, some tied to the growing season, were held in honor of Athena. Processions of priests, priestesses, and other members of society, particularly young girls, often formed part of the celebration. The goddess's most important festival was the Panathenaea (pronounced pan-ath-uh-NEE-uh). Started as a harvest festival, this annual event gradually evolved into a celebration of Athena. A great parade of people from Athens and surrounding areas brought the goddess gifts and sacrifices. Athletic competitions, poetry readings, and musical contests rounded out the festival. The Panathenaea came to rival the Olympic Games in popularity.

Key Themes and Symbols

Athena is one of the most well-regarded deities in Greek mythology. Although she sometimes struck down those who showed arrogance or disrespect, she was generally considered a wise and dutiful protector. She is often associated with owls, a traditional symbol of wisdom. Athena is also described as having gray eyes, which Greeks considered to be a sign of wisdom. The olive tree is another important symbol of Athena, representing her gift to the people of Athens.

Athena in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

In works of art, Athena is usually portrayed as a warrior. She wears a helmet and breastplate and carries a spear and a shield adorned with the head of Medusa. An owl generally sits on her shoulder or hand or hovers nearby. The Romans frequendy depicted the goddess wearing a coat of armor.

Athena inspired numerous paintings and statues. The great Athenian sculptor Phidias (pronounced fi-DEE-uhs) produced several works in the fifth century bce, including a thirty-foot bronze piece and an ivory and gold statue that was housed in the Parthenon. The statue of Athena kept in the Roman temple of the goddess Vesta was said to be the Palladium of Troy, taken by the Trojan prince Aeneas (pronounced i-NEE-uhs) when he fled the burning city.

Athena and her stories appear in many literary works as well. In Greek literature, she is a prominent character in Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey, and her influence is felt throughout the plays of Aeschylus (pronounced ES-kuh-luhs), Sophocles (pronounced SOF-uh-kleez), and Euripides (pronounced yoo-RIP-i-deez). The goddess also plays a leading role in the works of Roman writers Virgil and Ovid.

In the realm of science, one genus of owls has been classified under the name Athene, an alternate spelling of the goddess's name.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

Bright-Eyed Athena: Stories from Ancient Greece by Richard Woff (1999) is a collection of eight of the most popular myths associated with Athena. In addition, the book features photos of many ancient artifacts related to Athena.

SEE ALSO Arachne; Artemis; Bellerophon; Helen of Troy; Heracles; Iliad, The; Jason; Medusa; Odysseus; Pegasus; Perseus; Poseidon; Titans; Zeus


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One of several virgin goddesses in ancient Greek religion, Athena was nonetheless most frequently associated with males. Already at her extraordinary birth from the head of her father Zeus (who swallowed his pregnant consort Metis, or wise counsel), she assumed a military aspect that would be her most identifiable iconographic feature. Although in physique and dress a female, her image bristles with masculine attributes: shield, spear, helmet, and the protective aegis given to her by Zeus, onto which she later attached the fearsome head of the gorgon Medusa. In literature as well as art she is often at the side of heroes (e.g., Odysseus, Hercules, Theseus, Jason) as an adviser and goddess of warfare. In Aeschylus's play Eumenides, she states: "There is no mother anywhere who gave me birth and, but for marriage, I am always for the male with all my heart, and strongly on my father's side." Athena made her first appearance in the Bronze Age as a goddess of the citadel, and she continued as the guardian of high places such as the Athenian Acropolis or the Capitoline in Rome (as Minerva). Later she is often depicted fighting alongside her father and the hero Hercules, fending off the mighty giants who threatened to take control from the Olympians. Because of her strong allegiance to males, namely her father and most mythological heroes, Athena was always a popular deity in the patriarchal, male-dominated world of ancient Greece.

Although her first loyalty was to men, Athena also had numerous female associations. Her reputation for technical skill (sophia) derived not only from warfare but also from handicrafts, as in her contest with the weaver Arachne. At the Panathenaia, her chief festival in Athens, her cult statue was presented with a new robe, or peplos, specially woven by select girls and women of the city. As tutelary goddess of the city she was associated with its small owls (one of her epithets is "owl-eyed") and the olive tree, her winning gift to the city in a contest with the sea god Poseidon. Although steadfastly a virgin, Athena served a maternal role in the rearing of the earth-born Athenian king Erichthonius, who was the result of her attempted rape by the smith god Hephaestus. In one temple in Athens, the Hephaesteum, they were jointly worshiped as patron deities of craftsmanship.

Not without Near Eastern and Indo-European parallels, Athena has affinities with the Egyptian goddess Neith and the Indian war goddess Durgā. After antiquity she has lived on in images of armed females such as the personifications of Roma and Britannia. In modern psychology as formulated by Sigmund Freud, the gorgon head on Athena's aegis was intended to make her unapproachable and to repel all sexual desires. Combining as she does the characteristics of the male world (rationality, wisdom) with those of the female realm (creativity, practicality), Athena is a goddess of polarities, a complex figure of female power and authority.


Deacy, Susan, and Alexandra Villing, eds. 2001. Athena in the Classical World. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.

Kerényi, Karl. 1978. Athene: Virgin and Mother in Greek Religion, trans. Murray Stein. Dallas: Spring Publications.

Neils, Jenifer, ed. 1996. Worshipping Athena: Panathenaia and Parthenon. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

                                                 Jenifer Neils


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Athena In Greek mythology, the goddess of war, wisdom and patroness of the arts and industry, identified with Minerva. Athena emerged from the head of Zeus fully grown and armed; thereafter, she was her father's most reliable supporter, and the sponsor of heroes such as Heracles, Perseus, and Odysseus. In the Trojan War she sided with the Greeks. She helped Argus build the ship Argo for Jason and the Argonauts. She received special worship at Athens, where her main temples were the Parthenon and the Erechtheum.


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