Athena (gr. Αθηνη; Lat. Athena) is the great Olympic goddess with wise counsel, she is both the goddess of war and the defense of cities, of the Wisdom, protector of heroes and patron saint of artisans and crafts (pottery, weaving, sculpture…)
She is one of the twelve Olympians. The Romans assimilated her to Minerva.
The various etymologies of her name are not really satisfactory. Herodotus first identified Athena with Neith, the Egyptian goddess of Sais; this identification was later justified by all kinds of legends, such as the Egyptian origin of Cecrops.
Similarly, Athena’s assimilation with the Persian goddess Anaitis or Anâhita derives from a rather unclear passage from Plutarch.
Some have wanted to find in its name a Sanskrit root “vadh” which means “to strike”.
Greek origins such as “flower” (αθοζ) or “nurse” (τιθηνη) are no better. It seems, in any case, that the name of the goddess and that of the city of Athens are closely linked; one derives from the other”; but it cannot be said which was the first.
What is Athena the Greek goddess of?
As a personification of the Arts of Peace but also of War, Athena had a lot of different attributions.
Athena version Saint-Seiya on
Athena Parthenos’ model of Phidias
Protector of Athens
According to the legend of Cecrops, Athena and Poseidon fought over the possession of Attica. They chose Cecrops, the first king of the territory, as their referee. Poseidon hits the Acropolis with his trident and makes an invincible black stallion emerge in battle, or in other legends, a source of salt water. Athena, on the other hand, offers an olive tree symbolizing wisdom. Cecrops considers the goddess’ present to be much more useful to his people, and it is her who becomes the protector of Athens.
According to Varro, Cecrops asks the inhabitants of Athens (including women) to choose their own protector. Men prefer the horse, which can bring them victory in battle. Women prefer the olive tree. The women, more numerous by one vote, tipped the balance in Athena’s favor. Furious, Poseidon submerged Attica under the waves. To calm his anger, the Athenians had to impose three punishments on women: they would no longer have the right to vote; no child would bear her mother’s name; and, finally, they would no longer be called Athenians.
Later, Athena raised another mythical king, Erichthonius. He erected the Erechtheion, the oldest sanctuary of the Acropolis, whose first priestesses were none other than the daughters of Cecrops, Aglauros, Pandrosus, and Herse, respectively the sunny weather, the dew and the rain, all three gifts from Athena. She also created in his honour the Panathenaic, intended to celebrate the birthday of the goddess, the greatest religious celebration in Athens. As a civilizing deity, the Athenians also worship her for having taught them to use the peacock, and the ox cart. Athena is the protector deity (Πολιάς, “protector of the city”) of Athens, and this is how she is found on the currencies of this city.
Athena is, like Hestia, a virgin, and holds dear her virginity; she was therefore nicknamed Parthenos (young girl), hence the name of the great monument of Athens on the Acropolis, the Parthenon.
Like Hermes, her half-brother, Athena often takes the task of protecting heroes. She and Hera are the two allies of Jason and the Argonauts in their quest for the golden fleece. Athena advises the Argonauts through the figurehead of Argo.
In the myth of the Trojan War related by the Trojan cycle, Athena is one of the three goddesses who covet Eris’ golden apple (the Discord), but Paris gives the apple to Aphrodite when he judges in Mount Ida. During the Trojan War, Athena took sides with the Achaeans (Greek) against the Trojans. She particularly protected Diomedes. After the war, she protected Odysseus and especially Telemachus, in the guise of Mentor. She appeased the anger of the Erinyes and had Orestes acquitted by the Areopagus.
Athena also helped Perseus to kill Medusa, whose cut head then adorns her Aegis. She who advises Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, to kill the dragon and then sow his teeth to create an army out of the ground. She tells Bellerophon how to tame Pegasus. Athena sometimes helps Heracles to accomplish his twelve tasks.
Minerva at the Muses
Goddess of War, Thought, Weapons and Wisdom
It may seem strange that the goddess of Wisdom is born with arms and is also the goddess of combat. However, her epicles show it: she is Athena Πρόμαχος / Prómakhos, the one who fights in the front row, or Athena Νίκη / Níkê, goddess of Victory. Many representations show her holding Nike, a personification of Victory, in her hand, just like Zeus. The Homeric Hymn to Athena reads as follows:
“I will sing Pallas Athena, powerful protector of the cities, who, with Ares, is in charge of war work, sacked cities, clamours and melees. She protects people who go to or return from combat. Hi, Goddess! Give me the right destiny and happiness. »
It is her who advice that guides the gods during the Gigantomachy. According to some traditions, it is during this confrontation that she kills the Pallas Giant herself, using his skin as armor, and sometimes adorns his shoulders with the wings of the defeated giant. This would have earned it its name of “Pallas Athena”.
It is not insignificant that the Greek sages have clothed Athena with warlike attributes: war is omnipresent in the world of Greek cities; wisdom implies that the city is protected not only spiritually, but also physically. Athena, by its warrior side, represents more the art of protecting itself well and anticipating future battles, than the art of fighting itself, embodied by Ares in his murderous savagery. Athena embodies the more orderly aspect of war, the war that obeys rules, the war that takes place in certain places, at certain times, and between citizens.
Patron saint of craftsmen and techniques
Finally, Athena is a civilizing goddess, as we saw in Athens, who worships her for the gift of agricultural techniques, among other things. She is always the one who shows Erichthonius how to make a tank, and Danaus, in Rhodes, how to design a ship with fifty oars. Her role is similar in the legend of the Argonauts, she is the one who shows how to build the Argo. She is the protector of craftsmen and workers under her epithet of Ἐργάνη / Ergánê, “the worker”. Everything that is spun or sewn is from her domain, as shown by the fable of Spider, transformed into a spider for having dared to claim that she spun better than the goddess. The two women clashed in a weaving duel: the Arachne represented the faults committed by the gods, like the loves of Zeus, while the Athena represented them in all their splendour, in the throne room at Olympus. The goddess, recognizing that both works were of equal beauty, destroyed Arachne. The latter, furious and humiliated, hanged herself. Athena then transformed her into the first spider. Many representations show her holding a spindle or spinning wheel.
And in the midst of them was Athena with clear eyes carrying the glorious, imperishable and immortal Egidian. And a hundred well woven golden fringes, each at the price of a hundred oxen, were hung there.
Her main symbols was:
- A nice owl,
- the golden helmet,
- the aegis (borrowed from Zeus),
- the shield adorned with Medusa’s head,
- the golden spear,
- the olive tree,
- the Oath,
- the Winged Victory.
She placed around her shoulders the Aegis with its long fringes, horrible and moving. And there stood the Discord, the Force and the frightening Pursuit, and the horrible, horrible and divine head of the Gorgon monster.
Birth of Athena
According to the best known legend, Athena came out of Zeus’ skull armed and helmeted with her war cry; according to other less widespread traditions, she was born in Libya or Egypt.
Zeus coveted the Titanid, Metis, who constantly metamorphosed to escape him until she was caught and made pregnant. An oracle from Mother Earth declared that the child would be a girl and that if Metis gave birth again, the son she would bear would dethrone Zeus, in the same way, that Zeus himself had dethroned Cronus like Cronus had dethroned Ouranos.
Therefore, after dragging Metis to his bed with sweet words, Zeus suddenly opened his mouth and swallowed her, and it was the end of Metis. Although he later claimed that she was giving him advice from within his stomach.
After a while, one day, walking on the shores of Lake Triton, he was taken with a headache so severe that it seemed to him that his skull would burst and he began to shout such loudly that the whole firmament echoed him. Hermes came running, he had immediately guessed the cause of Zeus’ pain.
Zeus brought out of his head the virgin with eyes of azure, Tritogeny, an august, terrible, indomitable deity, who animated the war, who guided the armies, charmed by the cries and the tumult of the battle.
He persuaded Hephaestus (or, according to some, Prometheus) to take his mallet and make a breach in his skull, from where, with a loud cry, Athena sprang up all armed.
“We are all angry with you, Zeus, who gave birth to this foolish and fatal girl who constantly meditates on the most dreadful designs. The gods of Olympus obey you and are subject to your orders; however, you use neither harsh words nor punishment to keep Athena within just limits; even more, excited by you, father of this odious fury, she pushes the proud Diomedes to attack the immortals themselves! This hero has already wounded Aphrodite in the hand, and, like a god, he rushed at me with fury.”
Birth of Athena
But there are other much less known versions of her birth:
- In Crete, it was said that the goddess was hidden in a cloud and that she was hitting the cloud with her head and that Zeus had brought Athena out of it. This event would have taken place near Knossos, on the edge of a stream.
- The goddess was also known as the daughter of Poseidon and Tritonis.
- Some finally gave her father the giant Pallas, whom she would have killed because he had wanted to abuse her.
Athena nevertheless remained Zeus’ favorite child. He had a marked predilection for her; he showed her an extreme indulgence, which aroused the jealousy of the other gods, as Ares pointed out bitterly in the Iliad.
Moreover, this birth, in which she was not a part, irritated Hera at the highest level. She decided in retaliation to give birth alone to the Typhon monster. Athena considered herself Zeus’ daughter alone. Thus, Aeschylus rightly made him declare: “I had no mother to give me life.”
Loves of Athena
Many gods, Titans and Giants would have been happy to marry her Athena, but she remained a virgin and rejected all the advances made to her.
Athena and Hephaestus (1555)
Paris BORDONE © Kress Study Collection
Once, during the Trojan War, not wanting to borrow weapons from Zeus, she asked Hephaestus to make a set especially for her.
Hephaestus did not accept any payment and timidly said that he would do the work for her sake. In fact, Hephaestus had been the victim of a joke that Poseidon had made to him, out of malice, who had informed him that Athena was on her way to her forge with Zeus’ permission and that she had high hopes that she would have a fiery court. She haven’t understood the meaning of his words, she came one day to her forge to see the progress of the work.
Hephaestus, turned abruptly towards her, grabbed her and tried to rape her. But she fought him off. During the struggle, his semen fell on her thigh, and Athena, in disgust, wiped it away with a scrap of wool (ἔριον, erion) and flung it to the earth (χθών, chthôn). As she fled, Erichthonius was born from the semen that fell to the earth. It was Gaia who accidentally gave birth to Hephaestus’ son.
Upset by the idea of being the mother of a child that Hephaestus had tried to make in Athena, Mother Earth declared that she did not want to take charge of his education. And Athena took care of the child immediately after birth, she called him Erichthonius and, so that Poseidon could not laugh at the success of his joke, she hid him in a sacred basket that she gave to the daughters of the Athenian king Cecrops, giving them the order to take great care of him and forbidding them to open it. Pandrosus, respected this prohibition but the other two, Herse and Aglaurus, could not resist curiosity. As soon as they had opened the chest, they fled in horror, because a snake was wrapped around the child. Struck by madness by Athena, they threw themselves off the Acropolis. Erichthonius grew up and became king of Athens, where he established the solemn worship of Athena.
Facts and myths about Athena
Encelade buried in the lava
Fight against the Giants
Gaia pushed her children the Giants to revolt against the new Olympian gods.
Athena actively participated in this fight against the Giants. She killed the Giant Pallas and drove the chariot and horses against Enceladus. She finally crushed him under Etna (Sicily) as Virgil describes it.
According to legend, Enceladus’ body, half consumed by lightning, is crushed under this mass, and the huge Etna, placed on top, blows flames from its broken furnaces. Every time the giant shakes tired his flank, his rumblings shake the whole Trinacria and the sky is covered with a veil of smoke.
Dispute between Minerva and Neptune
Noël HALLE © Louvre Museum
Fight against Poseidon
She did not hesitate to fight in Poseidon for the protection of Attica. While the god struck the Acropolis with his trident and gushed out a lake of brackish water (or according to other versions, a splendid messenger), the goddess offered the inhabitants of the country an olive tree, symbol of peace and wealth.
Cecrops landed as an arbitrator in this conflict and chose the side of the goddess. Poseidon, furious, took revenge by sending a terrible storm. It was then decided to vote: all the women took up the cause for Athena, and all the men for Poseidon, but as there was one more woman, Athena triumphed and was chosen as protector of the city that took her name.
Prado Museum, Madrid
The judgment of Paris and the Trojan War
Following the events of the marriage of Thetis and Peleus and on the advice of Zeus who did not want to take sides in this delicate matter, and accompanied by Hermes, Hera, Aphrodite and Athena sought a judge to elect the most beautiful. Athena promised Paris the glory of weapons, but the latter preferred the hand of the most beautiful of women promised by Aphrodite. Jealous that they had not been chosen, Athena and Hera showed in the future a fierce hatred towards the Trojan Paris and protected the Greeks in the Trojan War.
Not only did Athena stimulate the Greeks’ enthusiasm, which she favoured, she also committed herself to the fray. She then put on her head her golden helmet, with a double projecting crest, “large enough to cover the infantrymen of a hundred cities”, threw the Aegis on her shoulders, she grabbed herself the reins of the Diomedes chariot, and threw herself against Ares, which she struck down with a spear.
Athena not only intervened in battles, but she also helped and protected her favorite heroes.
Athena attributed to the painter from Brygos
The goddess in her eyes constantly protected the great heroes of Attica and most of the Greek leaders during the Trojan War.
When Heracles, faced Hera’s hostility, undertook his painful work, Athena stood by his side to assist and comfort him. It was she who gave the hero the brass cymbals, whose sound frightened the birds of Lake Stymphalus; therefore, when Heracles had conquered the golden apples of the Hesperides, he paid homage to her tutelary goddess. She who escorted him again when he brought Cerberus back from the Underworld andafter his death, welcomed him to the threshold of Olympus.
Athena was also kind to Bellerophon: she appeared to him in a dream and gave him a golden brake, thanks to which he could tame the Pegasus horse.
She effectively protected Odysseus from all the dangers that beset her on her return from Troy, and, in the guise of the wise Mentor, she advised and guided the young Telemachus in his efforts to find his father’s tracks.
Minerva offers her shield to Perseus
Museum of the Palace of Versailles
Similarly, Athena served as Perseus’ guide in his expedition against the Gorgons and as the hero did not dare to look at the terrifying face of the Medusa, she guided her arm to strike the monster. In recognition, Perseus later gave the Gorgon’s head to Athena, who placed it on her shield.
Athena’s intervention in the Perseus adventure was so active that some traditions attributed the murder of Medusa to the goddess herself, whom she allegedly struck during her sleep. From this belief derived several legends: the duel between Athena and the Gorgon would have been a beauty contest as an occasion; the goddess would have collected the blood of her victim and would donated it either to Asclepius or to Erichthonius: blood from the left vein would cause death, blood from the right vein would bring back life.
Athena and the Centaur
BOTTICELLLI (c. 1488)
Galleria degli Uffizi Florence
- She taught the people of Cyrene the art of taming horses;
- She also taught Erichthonius to harness the first war tanks.
- She taught at Daedalus the art of metals.
- She was there when Jason’s companions built the Argo ship and fixed an oracular beam in the bow.
- She excelled especially in women’s work: the art of weaving fabrics and decorating them with wonderful embroideries had no secrets for her. The Immortals used her skill and she was the one who embroidered the veil of Hera. Very jealous of her talents, she did not admit any rivalry. Thus she transformed into a spider a young girl from Lydia, Spider, who had dared to compete with her.
Minerva in the Muses (c. 1640)
by J. STELLA
Some traditions, originating from Beotia, attributed the invention of the flute to her. She was imitated the plaintive whistles of the Gorgon slit by Perseus with the flute that the goddess had imagined into a deer bone pierced with holes. But she had not persevered in her musical training because the Olympians laughed at her distorted face when she blew into the flute. She scornfully threw her instrument away and cursed anyone who picked it up. The satyr Marsyas cruelly experienced it.
Athena also sometimes fulfilled the role of goddess of health: she revealed in a dream to Pericles the properties of a herb that saved Menelaus, said to have fallen from the Propylaea on which he worked; as a reward, she had a new statue and a new altar dedicated to Athena-Hygia.
She donated either to Asclepius or to Erichthonius the blood of Medusa; the blood from the left vein caused death, and the blood from the right vein called to life.
Mars Warrior Minerva
Musee des B-A de Lyon
Athena, although very wise, strictly enforced her rights.
- Aglaurus, and Herse could not resist the curiosity to open the chest that Athena had entrusted to them were struck with madness by the goddess and threw themselves off the Acropolis.
- Ajax, a bloody and unholy warrior, kidnapped Cassandra despite the fact that she had taken refuge in the temple of Athena while embracing the statue of the goddess. Athena, furious at the outrage suffered by her priestess, caused a storm by Poseidon to destroy her ship and sent plague and famine to ravage the Locride.
- Ajax the Great argued with Odysseus about sharing Achilles’ weapons, Athena drove him mad and he started slitting sheep’s throats before killing himself.
- Alcinoe, daughter of the king of Corinth, Polybus and wife of Periboea (or Merope) dismissed her weaver without paying her. Athena inspired her with a guilty passion and seized with remorse she threw herself into the sea.
- Spider was transformed into a spider for daring to compete with her by weaving.
- Iodama, a priestess of Athena, entered during the night into the sacred enclosure of the temple where Athena herself was found with Medusa’s head attached to her tunic; Iodama, when she saw her, was turned to stone.
- Medusa was so beautiful that the god of the seas fell in love with her charms, and she dared to profane with him the temple of Pallas Athena. To avenge her soiled altars, she turned Medusa’s hair into snakes.
- Tiresias had surprised her by chance in her bath, she laid her hands on her eyes and blinded him but, in compensation, she gave him the gift of divination.
Minerva hunting vices
of the gardens of virtue
(1504) partial of A. MANTEGNA
Cult of Athena
Athena William Russell Flint
The cult of Athena was celebrated throughout Greece and in the colonies. It was particularly developed in the islands and in Asia Minor where the feasts of theia take place, in Thessaly, Corinth, Argolida, Arcadia, Laconia, Beotia where the feasts of the Beotian confederation (pamboiotia) took place. But it was in Attica that Athena was most revered.
The main festivals dedicated to Athena were the Panathenes. They were held in Athens, every year for the Small Panathenes, and every five years for the “Large Panathenes”.
Athena in arts
Athena under the aegis of Medusa
In archaic times, Athena was depicted sitting on a throne, wearing a polo shirt with Medusa’s Aegis and head on her chest, or standing, with her lower body, sheathed, or walking, throwing in hand. Such were to be the xoanon of the Erechtheion, and the Promachos of Phidias. Phidias created the Lemnia again without a shield, bare head, the Aegis in a scarf held by a single clip, her helmet in her right hand, her spear carried to her left, and the Athena Parthenos, standing, her head wearing a helmet adorned with a sphinx and two griffins, her chest protected by the aegis covered with snakes and a Gorgon mask, her left hand resting on the shield and holding a spear and the right a winged victory. This statue, about 7.50 m high (9 m with its pedestal), dominated the acropolis and the city of Athens, and from afar at sea, you could see her helmet and the tip of her golden spear sparkling. Most of the Hellenistic Athena and Minerva are replicas of this Parthenos.
Athena still appears in many scenes: Birth of Athena and Fight against Poseidon (pediment of the Parthenon); Athena and Heracles (Olympian metopes); Fight against the giants (Pergamon frieze), etc.