Athena: Goddess of Wisdom and War
Almost every culture had goddesses of love and family. These deities were often seen as distinctly feminine, and attracted little worship from rulers and soldiers.
One goddess in Greece stands out among the great beauties and loving mothers, though.
In every city and village in ancient Greece Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom, was one of the most venerated beings in the entire pantheon. In Rome she was called Minerva, and her popularity continued.
Full of contradictions, Athena was a female deity overseeing traditionally male domains. A patroness of war, she was also known for mercy and moderation.
So how did Athena become one of the most popular members of the Greek pantheon?
While several of the Greek gods and goddesses had unusual origins, the story of Athena’s birth is undoubtedly one of the strangest.
After he defeated the Titans and cemented his place as the king of the gods, Zeus had married the Titaness Metis. Metis had helped him free his siblings from their father, Cronus, so that Zeus could overthrow him.
After he married her, however, Zeus received a disturbing prophecy about his bride. Gaia and Uranus told the new king that Metis would bear two children.
The first child would be a gray-eyed girl. The second child would be a son with the strength to overthrow Zeus and take his place.
Horrified, Zeus turned Metis into a fly and swallowed her.
What he didn’t know is that the first part of the prophecy had already been fulfilled – Metis was already pregnant with her first child.
Several months after destroying his wife, Zeus began to suffer from headaches. The pain grew to be more than he could bear.
Blinded by pain, Zeus turned to Hephaestus for help. He begged the smith to break his head open with his hammer to release the cause of the pain.
When Hephaestus brought his hammer down on Zeus’s head, a great crack formed in the god’s skull. From it sprang Athena, fully grown and already dressed in shining armor.
At her birth, Athena was said to have given so great a war-cry that Gaia and Uranus themselves quaked with fear.
Zeus was immediately filled with joy at the birth of his daughter. Her battle-cry and armor impressed him.
From birth Athena wore gleaming armor that flashed with Zeus’s own lightning. Her shield and cloak were edged with snakes and the crest of her helmet reached far into the heavens.
The people of Rhodes claimed that Zeus caused showers of gold to rain down on the island on the day Athena was born, ensuring the land’s prosperity for ages to come.
Zeus’s love of his daughter was such a common theme that in The Iliad Ares accuses the king of being biased in her favor when the two disagreed.
The other gods were nearly as impressed with Athena’s birth as Zeus. The Homeric hymns say that Helios was so in awe of Athena that he stopped the sun in the sky.
Hera, however, was less pleased with the newest goddess. Since swallowing Metis, Zeus had married his sister and Hera’s reputation as a jealous wife had already emerged.
Hera’s annoyance would play a role in many of the stories concerning Athena.
Some legends say that it was another god, not Hephaestus, who split open Zeus’s skull. In those stories, Hera created Hephaestus afterward out of jealousy that her husband had fathered a child without her.
One of the most enduring legacies of Athena is the city that took her name. Athens was one of the greatest city-states in the ancient world and today is the capital of the Greek nation.
The story of how Athens got its name illustrates the wisdom of its patron goddess.
When Athens was a new city, the gods bickered over who would be its patron. Both Poseidon and Athena wanted the people of the city to pray to them.
The two gods each offered gifts to the city. The gifts would be judged, and the greatest benefactor would win patronage.
Poseidon gave his gift first. He brought down his mighty triton and created a great sea at the edge of the city.
It was certainly a great gift. Shipping would allow the city to become a great center of trade and make the residents wealthy.
Athena’s gift seemed less impressive next to Poseidon’s great sea. She tapped her spear against the ground and grew a simple olive tree.
But Cecrops, the king of the new city, and the gods were all impressed. The olive tree would give the city wood and food.
The tree also gave the city its most important resource and commodity for trade. Olive oil became one of the greatest riches in the ancient world.
With her simple tree, Athena had won the contest. The goddess, in her wisdom, had given a simple gift that would ensure the prosperity of the city for all time.
The Athenians remained uniquely devoted to their patron goddess. To this day the Parthenon, Athena’s great temple, is the most iconic landmark in the city of Athens.
Athena and her city continued to be linked in many stories afterwards.
In one such tale, Hephaestus fell in love with the warrior goddess. Athena, however, had taken a vow of chastity at her birth and swore to remain a virgin.
Athena went to the smith for weapons, but he attacked her. He tried to force himself on her, but Athena was able to fight him off.
From this encounter, a child was born from the ground. Although he was not her son, Athena took the baby and named him Erichthonius.
Athena hoped to keep the baby a secret until he was grown and could be presented to the gods of Olympus as one of their own.
Meanwhile, however, Athena was busy with her duties. She needed to fetch limestone for the building of her great temple in Athens.
Athena needed a babysitter.
She placed the baby in a wicker box. She gave the parcel to the three daughters of King Cecrops of Athens with instructions not to look inside.
One of the princesses obeyed. The other two, Aglaurus and Herse, were overcome with curiosity.
The sisters were driven mad by what they saw inside the box. Some legends claim a snake was coiled around the baby to protect him. Others say that Erichthonius himself was half serpent.
A crow that witnessed the event flew to tell Athena about the disobedience. She dropped the rock she had been carrying, which became Mount Lykabettos.
The two disobedient sisters, driven insane, threw themselves from the Acropolis to their deaths.
Years later, Athens was conquered by the Theban king Amphictyon. By then an adult, Erichthonius overthrew him and took the throne of Athens.
Athena’s adoptive son was credited with many great inventions. He taught people to yoke horses and use them to plow the earth.
Some Athenian legends claim that, like his father, Erichthonius was lame. He invented the chariot to help him navigate his city.
Erichthonius was remembered as one of the founding kings of Athens. He created the Panathenaic Festival and erected a great statue in honor of his adoptive mother.
Erichtonius never became a god of Olympus as Athena had hoped, but the most sacred building on the Acropolis, the Erechtheum, bears his name.
While Athena was a goddess of war, her wisdom helped balance out her ferocious nature. Unlike Ares, who represented the pure violence of conflict, Athena often took a more careful and measured approach.
It would be easy to credit some of Athena’s moderation to an event that illustrates the cost of reckless violence – the death of Pallas.
According to some legends, Pallas was the nymph of salty Lake Tritonis in North Africa. She and Athena grew up together and became close companions.
Athena and Pallas both enjoyed martial arts and frequently sparred at the edge of the lake.
In a tragic accident, Pallas was killed during one of these friendly exercises.
Stricken with grief and guilt, Athena vowed that her friend should never be forgotten. She was often called Pallas Athena, a way of ensuring that the nymph’s name would live on.
Whether or not her friend’s death influenced her view of war, Athena always took a more careful view of fighting than the violent Ares. She would be associated with strategy and planning more than bloodshed.
One of the most well-known examples of Athena’s strategies was the way she ended the Trojan War.
Athena had sided with the Greeks in the war, but even after ten years of siege and battle there was no end in sight. The Greeks finally became convinced that Troy would never be defeated by strength alone.
It was under Athena’s instructions that the Greeks built the most infamous tool of subterfuge in all of history – the Trojan Horse.
Although the goddess had taken part in numerous battles, she put her wisdom and intellect to use when violence alone failed.
When Heracles and Apollo argued, it was Athena who calmed Heracles and prevented violence between the gods.
Athena was also known to take pity on victims of violence. Unlike Ares, who delighted in bloodshed, Athena helped those who were undeserving of their suffering.
When Nyctamene, a princess of Lesbos, was raped by her own father Athena turned the girl into an owl. By only coming out at night, no one could see the girl’s shame.
The owl became one of Athena’s greatest symbols and to this day is used to signify wisdom. The bird was often depicted alongside Athena and even features on coins of the era.
Like her father, Athena was a proponent of justice. Even though she was a goddess of war, she advised against violence when it wasn’t necessary.
The most famous example of Athena’s peaceful justice was the trial of Orestes. He had killed his mother, Clytemnestra, but had only done so to exact vengeance for the death of his father.
Hounded by the Furies for the murder of his mother, Orestes begged Athena for aid.
In Athens, Athena devised a trial to determine whether Orestes should be condemned to death or released from his torment. She acted as judge, with twelve citizens appointed as jurors.
The first jury trial would set the standard for Athenian justice, and would go on to influence our own legal system in the modern age.
In the end, the twelve jurors were split. Six believed Orestes should be put to death for matricide, while six believed the murder had been justified.
Athena, as judge, made the decision that when a jury was tied the verdict should always end in favor of non-violence.
Orestes was spared, and Athena persuaded the Furies to become a less violent and more constructive power. She renamed them the Eumenides – the Kindly Ones.
The goddess of war went to great lengths to avoid bloodshed when it wasn’t necessary, and in doing so established a new standard of justice.
The Greeks revered Athena as a deity that, although capable of violence, would protect those who were innocent. This combination of might and mercy was seen in hymns composed in her honor:
O warlike Pallas, whose illustrious kind, ineffable, and effable we find : magnanimous and famed … understood as fury by the bad, but wisdom by the good.
-Orphic Hymn 32 to Athena (trans. Taylor)
As a warrior goddess, Athena was particularly fond of heroes. She would play a major role in the stories of some of Greece’s greatest legends.
She came to be revered as the patroness of heroes and heroic acts for her unwavering support of those great men.
One of the heroes Athena helped in his adventures was Perseus. Sent to kill Medusa, Athena gave him use of her golden shield.
The Gorgon had the power to turn anyone who looked upon her to stone. By gazing only at the reflection in Athena’s polished shield, Perseus was able to win the fight and behead the monster.
When he returned, Perseus gave Medusa’s head to his benefactress. Images of Athena often show her displaying the Gorgon’s head on the front of the shield that helped kill it.
In addition to inspiring the famous horse, (unlike other Gods such as Hermes) Athena frequently intervened to help the Greek armies during the Trojan War. When Achilles and Hector faced off, she tricked Hector into having to face the great Greek hero without a spear.
After the war, she gave particular guidance to Odysseus in his ten-year journey home. Having helped him survive the voyage, she personally advised him on how to use his wits to win back his kingdom.
The hero Athena is most strongly associated with is Heracles. The half-siblings appear often together in myths of his heroism.
Athena aided the hero in nearly all of his famous twelve labors. For example, when he was ordered to drive away the Stymphalian birds, Athena brought bronze noisemakers to frighten them away.
The two are so closely linked that artwork often shows Athena personally escorting Heracles to Mount Olympus when he was made a god. Temples in his honor included statues of Athena to commemorate her role in his rise to power.
Often, Athena and the heroes she aided were united by a common thread – as sons of Zeus, many had been tormented and hindered by Hera. As a fellow target of Hera’s jealousy, Athena had even more motivation to help the heroes and demigods Zeus had fathered.
This was certainly the case for Heracles, who was on the receiving end of the worst of Hera’s wrath. Perseus, too, had been hindered by Hera.
Other heroes who received aid from Athena included:
- Bellerophon – Athena helped him capture and tame the winged horse, Pegasus, and defeat the monstrous Chimera.
- Achilles – The great Greek general of the Trojan War, Athena supported him in battle.
- Cadmus – When the founder of Thebes established his kingdom, Athena advised him to plant the teeth of the dragon he had slain. These teeth grew into mighty warriors, the first Spartans.
- Theseus – In a battle against the centaurs, Athena protected him from a fatal projectile.
- Jason – Athena helped to construct the hero’s ship and fitted a piece of magical wood with the power of speech into the prow to help guide the Argonauts on their journey.
- Diomedes – One of the heroes of the Trojan War, Athena went so far as to ignore Trojan women who had taken shelter in her own temple when they asked her to work against him.
As the patron goddess of heroes, the myths often include her inspiring and advising some of Greece’s most legendary figures. But some of those same men would learn that angering Athena could have terrible consequences.
Zeus was known for his horrible temper, and many myths give the impression that Athena inherited this trait from her father.
While the goddess could be merciful and protected those she loved, she had little patience for those who angered her. Wickedness or insulting the goddess could lead to terrible retribution.
One of the most famous stories of Athena’s wrath is the tale of Arachne. Although this is a later myth, not attested to before the Roman poet Ovid, it has grown to become one of the most often repeated legends of Athena’s temper.
In addition to the domains of wisdom and war, Athena was considered a great artisan. In particular, she was the patroness of weavers.
Arachne, a common girl from Lydia, was considered a great weaver but the girl denied that her skills had come from Athena. The goddess challenged Arachne to a contest.
Arachne wove well, but chose to depict the transgressions and embarrassments of the gods in her tapestry. Athena grew so angry that she tore the weaving, and the loom itself, to pieces.
Arachne hanged herself in shame. Athena resurrected the girl as a spider, to weave for all eternity.
When Alcinoe shorted a weaver’s pay, Athena made the married woman go mad with love for another man. When the woman came to her senses, having abandoned her husband and children, she was so overcome with remorse and shame that she threw herself into the sea.
Medusa herself had fallen afoul of Athena’s temper. Once a beautiful young woman, she had been transformed into a monstrous Gorgon after insulting the goddess.
Tiresias was stricken blind after accidentally seeing Athena naked when she bathed. Realizing the crime had been accidental, she later took pity on him and made him a great seer.
Tydeus had been a favorite of Athena during the War of the Seven Against Thebes. She had even thought to make him one of the immortals.
Tydeus was wounded and on the verge of death when he was brought the head of his slain enemy. Unaware of what it was, the feverish Tydeus split it open and ate the brains.
Athena was so disgusted that she withheld the gift of immortality, allowing the great leader to die.
Occasionally her violence was triggered by a desire for a greater good.
When Laocoon, a priest of Poseidon in Troy, warned his people not to trust the gift of the Trojan Horse, Athena sent serpents to kill him and his sons. The violent act allowed for a Greek victory and the end of a decade-long war.
Humans were not the only ones to suffer her wrath. When the crow told her that Erichthonius had been exposed, she became so angry that she took the ability to speak from all crows until the end of time.
Athena even vented her anger on objects. She had invented the flute, but when told that puffing her cheeks to play it made her look silly she threw it away with a curse on whomever played it.
The mortal musician who found it fell to the curse. Challenging Apollo, the god of music, the man was killed for his insolence.
The most famous examples of Athena’s violent anger, however, occurred at the end of the Trojan War. Two heroes with the same name, Ajax, fell to her fury.
Ajax the Great had been one of the chief commanders of the Greek armies. For an argument with Odysseus over who would get the armor of the fallen Achilles, however, Athena drove him to madness.
Ajax killed his army’s sheep, believing them to be enemies. When he came to his senses he was so ashamed of his behavior that he fell on his own sword.
Odysseus won the armor, and kept his life and sanity, because Athena had been pleased that his argument for it was based in wisdom instead of brute strength.
During the sack of the city, Ajax the Lesser seized Cassandra and raped her in the temple of Athena. Odysseus called for the man’s death, but Ajax swore an oath to the goddess that he was innocent.
Athena was infuriated, both by the crime committed in her temple and the man’s false oath.
Ajax had hidden in the temple, so the Greeks sailed away without him rather than damage Athena’s holy site. She was just as angry that they had failed to bring the rapist to justice, however, and asked Zeus to send a storm to destroy their ships as they fled.
As Ajax himself sailed home, Athena hit his ship with another of her father’s thunderbolts. The criminal survived, however, clinging to a rock with Poseidon’s assistance.
He finally died when he claimed that he would prevail no matter what the gods did. Poseidon was angered at the presumption and destroyed the rock he had offered for safety.
Ajax the Lesser drowned for his many crimes against the gods.
His city, Locria, also suffered. Athena sent a plague and demands for two Locrian girls to be sent to Troy to serve at her temple.
For a thousand years the Locrians supplied girls for the temple in penance for the offence Ajax had given.
Athena was a powerful goddess throughout the Greek world. Her temples were found throughout the Mediterranean and artwork frequently depicts her.
When the Romans adopted her as Minerva, they embraced the image of the warrior goddess of wisdom.
The perception of Athena changed through the years. Early Christian writers saw her as an emblem of the worst of paganism – an immodest woman who took on inappropriate male traits.
Thankfully for Athena’s legacy, this perception didn’t last.
As one of the most often depicted and immediately recognizable members of the pantheon, Renaissance artists and writers who admired the classical world embraced Athena as a symbol of ancient ideals.
As a virgin goddess who upheld justice and piety, Athena represented many of the ideals of the late middle ages.
The goddess of wisdom became an emblem of knowledge and learning. Those who looked to the Greco-Roman past for wisdom adopted Athena as a symbol of scholarship.
To this day, many colleges and universities around the world use attributes of Athena in their artwork and architecture. Her owl, the symbol of wisdom, is a popular mascot.
As a patron of arts, Athena was also a popular subject for painters and sculptors in the Renaissance and afterward. Gaining inspiration from the ancient past, great masters like Rembrandt and Boticelli saw Athena as a model of more modern ideals.
Female rulers throughout history have been fond of using Athena in their personal symbolism. Leaders like Elizabeth I of England and Catherine II of Russia encouraged comparison’s to the goddess’s feminine strength.
While she appealed to Renaissance ideals, Athena’s image has also become synonymous with modern notions of democracy and equality.
Athens, with its direct voting system, is widely viewed as the birthplace of democracy. Its patron, fittingly, became a symbol of the ideals of direct participation.
During the French Revolution, images of ancient gods and kings were destroyed. The people did not want rulers who modeled themselves after Zeus.
But statues of Athena were spared. A statue of her stood in the Place de la Revolution as the personification of the new republic.
Today, images of Athena as a figure of democracy and justice are seen everywhere from the US Capitol to the Austrian Parliament. She served as an inspiration for the Statue of Liberty and graces the California state flag.
In most of the world, Athena is no longer viewed as a temperamental goddess of war. Her wisdom and judgement have taken the forefront, in keeping with modern ideals.
Many of the Greek gods had well-known legends, but attracted only select worshippers.
Zeus, for example, was a mighty king, but common people had little reason to appeal to him. Ares was a mighty warrior, but most people dreaded war.
Despite being a goddess of war, Athena remained one of the most widely-celebrated of all the Olympic gods.
Her popularity can be attributed to the same things that made her so unique among the pantheon.
She was a warrior, but was known as much for protecting innocents from war’s horrors as leading her people to a bloody victory.
She could bring plagues and storms, but as a patron of crafts could also create beautiful things.
Athena punished those who offended her, but showed mercy when it was warranted.
Nearly everyone in the Greek world had a reason to seek Athena’s favor, or thank her for their gifts. From simple weavers to great heroes, Athena had the power to motivate and inspire people throughout the Greek world.