In Greek mythology, Athena was the goddess of wisdom, of warfare, and of crafts. She ranked as Zeus's * favorite child and one of the most powerful of the 12 Olympian gods. Although Athena was worshiped in many cities, the Athenians considered her to be their special protector and named their city after her. Many rulers sought her wisdom in both government and military matters. The Romans called her Minerva.
Like Artemis (Diana), 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.
Athena was the daughter of Zeus and of the Titan Metis, 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 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 all her wisdom.
Time passed and one day Zeus developed a terrible headache. He cried out in pain, saying that he felt as if a warrior were stabbing him from inside with a spear. Hephaestus (Vulcan), 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 at times made the other gods jealous and angry.
The goddess was active in the lives of many warriors, kings, and heroes. She gave Bellerophon the magic bridle that enabled him to ride Pegasus, 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 * kill the monster Medusa *. She supported Hercules * through the 12 labors.
Athena also played a role in the Trojan War *. She was one of the 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, inspired Odysseus * with the idea of the wooden horse, and afterward helped him return home.
The Acropolis is a hill rising 500 feet above the city of Athens. On it stand the remains of some of the finest temples of ancient Greece. The largest and most famous of these temples is the Parthenon, dedicated to Athena. This magnificent white marble building was surrounded by columns. Inside stood a huge statue of Athena, made of gold and ivory. Carvings all around the building showed scenes from the Panathenaean procession.
Titan one of a family of giants who ruled the earth until overthrown by the Greek gods of Olympus
oracle priest or priestess or other creature through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such words are spoken
patron special guardian, protector, or supporter
trident three-pronged spear, similar to a pitchfork
To become patron of Athens, Athena had to win a contest against Poseidon *. The clever Athenians asked each god to devise a gift for the city. With his trident, 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 patron. To avoid angering Poseidon, they promised to worship him too. In ancient
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 semen fell to the ground. From that seed was born the half-man, half-snake Erichthonius. Athena put the baby in a box and gave him to the daughters of Cecrops, 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 Erichthonius to her temple and reared him herself. Later he became king of Athens and honored her greatly.
Other entries related to Athena are listed at the end of this article.
Although Athena favored the Greeks, she was also important to the people of Troy. They erected a statue of her, called the Palladium, and believed that as long as it remained in Troy, the city could not be conquered. To win the Trojan War, the Greeks first had to creep into the city to steal the statue.
Patron of Crafts, Civilization, and Wisdom
As goddess of handicrafts, Athena created many useful items, such as the potter's wheel, vase, horse bridle, chariot, and ship. She was the patron of architects and sculptors and the inventor of numbers and mathematics, which of course 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. In addition, she helped women by inventing spinning and weaving.
Athena even tried her hand at musical instruments. She created the flute to imitate the wailing of the Gorgons when Medusa was killed. However, 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. Marsyus the satyr did so and suffered the consequences when he dared 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.
Nonetheless, in her wisdom, Athena was generally a kindly goddess. She promoted good government, looking after the welfare of kings who asked for her guidance and advising government officials. 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 into a spider after Arachne boasted that she could spin more skillfully than Athena. She also blinded Tiresias 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.
Festivals, Art, and Literature
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. Started as a harvest festival, this annual event gradually changed into a celebration of Athena. A great parade of people from the city 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 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 frequently depicted the goddess wearing a coat of armor.
Gorgon one of three ugly monsters who had snakes for hair, staring eyes, and huge wings
satyr woodland deity that was part man and part goat or horse
prophecy foretelling of what is to come; also something that is predicted
Athena inspired numerous paintings and statues. The great Athenian sculptor Phidias produced several works, including a 30-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 * 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 the Iliad and the Odyssey, and her influence is felt throughout the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles *, and Euripides *. In the works of Roman writers Virgil * and Ovid, the goddess also plays a leading role.