Legends involving Athena are some of the most well-known in Greek mythology. As the patroness of the city of Athens, she was a favorite goddess of many Greek writers and artists.
Even though Athena is so well-known, there are still many things that are not common knowledge about the goddess of wisdom and war. Even if you think you’ve read all the legends about Athena, these five facts might be new to you!
One of Athena’s most famous legends is how she became the patron goddess of the city of Athens. The people there believed that their city was named after the goddess because she gave them the olive tree, a source of food and prosperity.
Modern scholars, however, believe that the city of Athens might have actually had its name before the goddess did.
Many Greek cities had more than one patron deity. In addition to an Olympian god or goddess who protected the city and its people, there was often a local goddess who personified the place itself.
In Mycenae, for example, there was a local goddess called Mikene. Apollo and Dionysus were the Olympian patrons of Thebes, but a local goddess named Thebe was its personification.
Some historians believe that Athena may have originally been a tutelary goddess of the same type.
One common element of these goddesses is that their names end in -ene. This is not entirely unique to these names, but it is also not typical of other ancient Greek naming conventions.
In Greek, Athena’s name is written the same way, as Athene. Her patronage of Athens and the shared name leads many historical linguists to conclude that the city was not named in her honor, but that she was named after the city.
Athena may not have originated entirely in Athens, however.
The Minoan civilization predated that of the Mycenaean Greeks. Based on the island of Crete, this early Bronze Age culture was economically and politically powerful.
The Minoans expanded beyond their own island, spreading their culture throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. Much as the later Greeks would do, they set up colonies and outposts throughout the region.
The Minoan civilization collapsed by about 1100 BC, but its culture did not entirely disappear. Many of its gods and legends were absorbed into the Mycenaean culture that emerged afterward.
The Minoans left written records that have unfortunately never been translated, so little is known about their specific mythology. Evidence from surviving art, however, has left some clues.
A figure that appears often in Minoan art is widely interpreted as a snake goddess. She is seen holding a snake in each hand.
Although no definite identification is known about the goddess from Minoan Crete, some historians have suggested that she may have been a precursor to Athena.
While Athena is remembered best as the goddess of war and wisdom, she was also a goddess of crafts. Many of her earliest cults were centered not on warfare but instead worshiped her as a domestic goddess of weaving and other household crafts.
Some historians believe that the Minoan snake goddess was also a domestic deity. She may have represented the same feminine arts and duties that the early cult of Athena focused on.
This idea is supported by the unusual identification of Athena with snakes in later Greek art.
Snakes in Greece were usually associated with gods of death, but they were often shown in Athena’s images as well. Her robes are often lined with coiling snakes despite the fact that she was not affiliated with the Underworld.
Some historians believe that this is a remnant of her early origins as a Minoan snake goddess. While much of her imagery changed in Greek culture, the snakes remained associated with Athena.
The people of Athens are remembered for their innovative system of government. Athenian law and democracy remain influential in the modern world.
One of the innovations of Athenian law that is still relevant today was the idea of a trial by jury. Although court proceedings were much different than they are today, the people of Athens were the first in the world to have those suspected of crimes judged by their peers rather than a king or ruling body.
According to legend, Athena invented this practice.
In the legend of Orestes, the Mycenaean prince was hounded by the Furies for the crime of killing his own mother. He had done so, however, on orders from Apollo because his mother had killed his father years earlier.
Apollo commanded Orestes to seek help from Athena. She agreed that Orestes should have the opportunity to plead his case in Athens.
She assembled the first jury, composed of twelve Athenian citizens, so that Orestes could be evaluated by his fellow men rather than by divine authority. The Furies acted as the prosecutors and Apollo pleaded the case of the defense.
The first jury trial ended with a tie. Six men believed that Orestes should be punished for his mother’s murder while six thought that he had the right to avenge his father.
As the judge, Athena cast the deciding vote. She set precedence by voting for clemency.
Orestes was freed of the curse of the Furies, who were pacified by being given the new mantle of goddesses of justice. Athena proclaimed that all grievances should be settled in court rather than through personal vendettas and vengeance.
Athena’s animal, the owl, is one of her most famous symbols.
In Greek art, she was often shown with a small owl at her side or on her shoulder. The bird became so closely identified with her that the Athenians adopted it as an emblem of their city.
While the owl became a symbol of wisdom because of its association with Athena, this was likely not the first reason it was used in connection with her.
In Homer’s works, one of the most common epithets for Athena is Glaukopis, or “Bright-Eyed.” This name combined the word for “gleaming,” glaukos, with ops, or “face.”
While glaukos eventually came to refer specifically to eye color, leading to Athena regularly being shown with blue or gray eyes, it originally was seen to mean that her eyes were literally bright.
According to folk etymology, the same word was the root for glaux, a word for a small owl. While modern linguists do not generally hold this theory, the linguistic connection between Athena and her owl was made by ancient people.
They believed that the owl had been given its name because of its bright, shining eyes. It was connected to Athena not because it already represented wisdom, but because they both seemed to shine light from their eyes in the same way.
Athena is well-known as a virgin goddess. Despite this, however, the Athenians believed that she had a child.
Erichthonius was a founding king of Athens who, according to legend, was adopted by Athena because she was the cause of his birth.
A child came from the earth, unbeknownst to anyone but Athena. She adopted him as her own and decided to hide him until he could take his place among the gods.
She kept Erichthonius in a small box, which she left with the king of Athens’ daughters for a time. She warned them not to look inside but they disobeyed and were immediately driven mad.
Erichthonius grew up in secret under Athena’s protection. She regarded him as a son even though she did not give birth to him.
Many years later, the throne of Athens was usurped by Amphictyon of Thermopylae. With his adoptive mother’s support, Erichthonius drove out the usurper and became the new king of Athens.
The people of Athens credited their legendary king with many innovations and inventions that made life in their city better. They counted him, and by extension Athena, as a legendary ancestor of all Athenian people.
The story of Erichthonius’s birth gave the people of Athens a way to claim their patron goddess as an ancestor even though she was believed to be a virgin. By adopting a future king of Athens, Athena strengthened her bond with the city.
Like many Greek gods and goddesses, there was much more to Athena than just her most well-known myths.
Historians and archaeologists are still uncovering new things about the famous Greek goddess and interpreting ancient art and texts in new ways. This means there is always more to learn about Athena even if most of her myths are widely-read.
By combining linguistics, archaeological clues, and ancient writings, historians are constantly presenting new facts, theories, and stories about Athena and other gods and goddesses of ancient Greece!