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The Roman Goddess Minerva

From her unique legends to how she was worshiped throughout the Roman Empire, here’s everything you need to know about the Minerva, goddess of wisdom!

When the Romans created their mythology, they gave the stories and characteristics of the Greek gods to local deities. The result was that the Roman gods had names from Etruscan and other Italian languages, but were otherwise virtually identical to the Greek pantheon.

The way these gods were seen in Rome, however, was sometimes different than they had been in Greece. Because of the differences between their cultures and the imprecise association between Italian and Greek gods, some uniquely Roman qualities emerged.

Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war, had been given the name of Minvra, a Etruscan goddess. As Minerva, the Romans placed less emphasis on her role in war and saw additional influence by the goddess in trade and the arts.

As the Roman Empire grew, Minerva became even more distinct from her Greek counterpart. New stories, expanded civic roles, and the influences of the Empire’s most distant provinces created a unique mythology and identity for Minerva.

The Birth of Minerva

In most aspects, the Greek and Roman stories of Athena/Minerva’s birth were the same.

Her mother was a Titaness named Metis in both. Her father was Jupiter in Rome, just as he had been Zeus in Greece.

The Romans continued the tradition of Minerva being born from her father’s head. How this came to be, however, was subtly different.

The Greeks claimed that Metis was the first wife of Zeus. A prophecy claimed that she would have two children and the younger child, a son, would one day overthrow his father just as Zeus himself had usurped his father’s throne.

To avoid this, Zeus had turned Metis into a fly and swallowed her. He did not know that she was already pregnant with his daughter, so Athena was born from his head several months later.

In the Roman telling, Metis and Jupiter were not married. Instead, he was trying to force her to become one of his mistresses.

Metis herself initiated the shapeshifting, taking on a variety of forms in an attempt to escape Jupiter’s grasp. This is similar to other stories from mythology, such as the capture of the Titaness Thetis.

As he struggled with Metis, Jupiter remembered the prophecy and regretted what he had done. In the Roman version, the prophecy did not specify that Metis would give birth to a daughter first, so Jupiter worried that she had already conceived the son that would overthrow him.

So Jupiter tricked Metis into transforming herself into a fly so that he could swallow her. Months later Jupiter had his skull cracked open by Vulcan, just as Zeus had by Hephaestus, to release her.

In the Greek version of the story, Metis faded away after this event. In some Roman writings, however, Metis remained inside Jupiter’s head.

She was traditionally believed to be the Titaness of wisdom, a trait that she passed on to her daughter. Inside Jupiter’s head, she became the source of his own intellect.

The Trojan Connection

The Romans believed that Minerva had been one of the first goddesses brought to their region from the Greek world.

The Temple of Athena in Troy was said to have been the location of a statue of Pallas known as the Palladium. This simple wooden figure was believed to have been crafted by Athena herself in mourning for her dear friend.

Greek writers mentioned the Palladium as the protector of Troy as early as the 6th century BC. It was believed to have been in the city during the Trojan War, which had taken place several hundred years earlier.

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According to legend, the city would never fall as long as the Palladium remained in the temple. This played an important role in some accounts of the Trojan War.

The Greeks learned that the city was protected by the Palladium, so they plotted to steal it to win a decisive victory. Diomedes and Odysseus crept into the city by night, disguised as beggars, and tricked Helen into telling them where the statue was housed.

From there, the story of the Palladium becomes less clear. Athens, Argos, and Sparta all claimed to have recieved the famous statue, but Rome made their claim a part of their state religion.

According to Roman accounts, the statue taken by Diomedes had been a copy. Instead, Aeneas had smuggled the real Palladium out of Troy and taken it west on his journey.

The protective power of the Palladium remained as Aeneas established his kingdom in Italy. Throughout the Roman era, people believed that this sacred object protected their city as it had Troy.

The Palladium, or at least a statue said to be the original Palladium, was kept in the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum. It was one of seven pignora imperii, or sacred tokens, believed to guarantee the continuation of imperial power.

The statue is recorded as still being in the Temple of Vesta by at least three writers in 241 BC. When a fire destroyed the temple, Lucius Caecilius Metellus, who was Pontifix Maximus at the time, was blinded by the heat as he saved the Palladium.

Nearly four centuries later, the Palladium was said to be one of the sacred items transferred by Emperor Elagabalus to his own controversial cult temple on the Palatine Hill during his short reign. After he was killed by his own Praetorian Guard, the Palladium and the other pignora imperii were transferred back to their original locations and his temple rededicated to Jupiter.

A hundred years later, however, the Palladium seems to have disappeared. It was rumored that Emperor Constantine had the statue moved to his new capital in the East and buried beneath he Forum of Constantinople.

Whether this was the case or not, the Palladium’s protection was lost from Rome. The city was famously sacked by Vandals in 410 AD and Constantinople held itself to be the true seat of imperial power.

There is some evidence that the people of Constantinople themselves believed that Minerva’s statue had found its way there. Although the Eastern Empire was Christianized, Emperor Justinian I began the tradition of carrying similar statues into war to symbolize divine favor.

The word palladium is still used to denote such a protective icon, which since the rise of Christianity has typically been of a saint or other religious figure. The Roman adoption of Minerva’s statue continues to influence religious and cultural practice today.

Minerva and Metamorphoses

While most of Minerva’s legends were identical to those of the Greek Athena, the Romans developed some stories of their own. Some of the most famous stories that departed from Greek sources were found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Published in 8 AD, Metamorphoses collects over 250 stories of transformation from the creation of the world to the deification of Julius Caesar. While many of these tales had their roots in Greek lore, several were original to Ovid’s work.

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Tales from Metamorphoses are often included in retellings of classical mythology, even if they were unknown before Ovid’s time. In some cases, subsequent art and writing provide evidence that certain stories were incorporated into Roman belief.

Minerva often features in Ovid’s original tales, some of which are counted among her most famous myths.

One of these is the story of Arachne, a skilled human weaver who refused to give Minerva credit for her abilities. When challenged to a weaving contest, Arachne mocked the gods in her tapestry instead of showing proper reverence.

In all that work of hers Pallas could find, envy could find, no fault. Incensed at such success the warrior goddess, golden-haired, tore up the tapestry, those crimes of heaven, and with the boxwood shuttle in her hand (box of citrus) three times, four times, struck Arachne on her forehead. The poor wretch, unable to endure it, bravely placed a noose around her neck; but, as she hung, Pallas in pity raised her. ‘Live!’ she said, ‘Yes, live but hang, you wicked girl, and know you’ll rue the future too: that penalty your kin shall pay to all posterity!’

-Ovid, Metamorphoses 6. 1 ff (trans. Melville)

While Minerva spared the girl’s life she turned Arachne into a spider, doomed to hang and weave for eternity. There is evidence that this story became widespread, as Virgil later described spiders as “hateful to Minerva.”

Another of Ovid’s original tales builds off the original Greek source. While Athena had aided in the beheading of Medusa, Ovid gave a further reason for her hatred.

According to Ovid, Medusa had been born with beautiful features. Once again, Minerva was responsible for the change.

Medusa had been assaulted by Neptune in Minerva’s temple. The virgin goddess was so disgusted at this dessicration of her sacred space that she turned the girl into a hideous monster and exiled her to the far edge of the world.

Ovid’s story also explained the birth of Pegasus by claiming that Medusa had been a beautiful woman, not a monster, when the flying horse was conceived. The image of Medusa had become less monstrous through time, but Ovid gave a new story to reconcile the legends.

Another original story was that of Aglauros.

When Mercury set out to seduce a human virgin named Herse, her sister Aglauros helped him. She believed that aiding the god in this way would win her favor and, as Mercury was the god of commerce, wealth.

Minerva was furious and swore to protect Herse’s chastity. With the help of Envy, she made Aglauros jealous of Herse.

Aglauros refused to move from her sister’s doorway when Mercury came to make good on their agreement. In his anger, the god turned her into a statue of black marble.

Many of Minerva’s tales in Ovid are included in a series that show the vengeance and anger of the gods. As a virginal goddess, Minerva is not featured in the stories that center around love.

These ideas of transformation were not originated by Ovid. They played a major role in earlier mythology and the Latin poet expanded upon these themes.

Because they fit so well into the exiting framework, Ovid’s original stories are often included in modern retellings of classical mythology. In some cases Metamorphoses survived where older written legends did not, leading his stories to be passed down as primary sources though they were later inventions.

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Because of this, the perception of Athena/Minerva has been highly influenced by her appearance in Metamorphoses. While she appears in earlier myths as a protective goddess, her wrath in Metamorphoses has led to her also being seen as a particularly vengeful and temperamental deity.

The Goddess’s Roman Domains

As in Greece, Minerva was worshipped in Rome as a goddess of wisdom and war. She also had uniquely Roman domains, however.

The Etruscan Minvra was likely not a military deity, so Minerva’s association with warfare only came after the Greek stories were adopted and she was associated with Athena. Because the two goddesses had been combined, Minerva had many domains that were not part of Athena’s Greek mythology.

These included:

  • Mathematics and the calendar: According to Livy, the ritual of marking the year was conducted at Minerva’s temple because she had invented numbers.
  • Medicine: In some contexts she was called Minerva Medica and served as a patroness to physicians. In Roman Britain she was associated with the local goddess of hot springs and her healing powers.
  • Poets and actors: A guild of performers made offerings at Minerva’s temple in Rome. She was often associated with the performing arts, likely because she was said to have invented the flute.
  • Sympathy for the dead: As Mars took on a protective aspect, Minerva’s role in war was less prominent than Athena’s. She was often shown with her sword lowered in mourning for those killed in war rather than raised in triumph.
  • Crafts: Like Athena, Minerva was associated with feminine crafts like weaving. Minerva’s role was expanded, however, to make her more prominent in traditionally male professions such as carpentry and masonry.
  • Commerce: As the goddess of crafts, Minerva’s Etruscan origin made her a goddess of trade. Roman writers emphasized this in the myth of the patronage of Athens, which the goddess won by providing olives to make the city wealthy.

One ancient writer described Minerva as the “goddess of a thousand works” because of the many roles she played in Roman religion and daily life.

Minerva was one of the three deities, with Jupiter and Juno, who were worshipped as part of the Capitaline Triad. This gave her a prominent place in the state religion of Rome and a particularly close link to the power of its rulers.

There is evidence, however, that Minerva also played a role in the daily life of many Romans. Because she was a patroness of intellectuals, soldiers, craftsmen, and traders, many people in the Roman world had a reason to pray to Minerva in their household shrines as well as in her public temples.

The Festivals of Minerva

Minerva’s annual festival was one of Rome’s grandest holidays.

Known as the Quinquatria, it was celebrated on the fifth day after the Ides of March. March 19th, however, was only the first of five days of games and performances in the goddess’s honor.

According to Ovid, March 19th was the day of Minerva’s birth. As such, it was forbidden to shed blood on that day.

The often bloody games and contests of Rome were therefore replaced on the first day of Quinquadria with contests of poetry and music. Emperor Domitian appointed a college of priests to take over the traditional poetry and oration events, as well as to stage plays to mark the day.

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While the 19th of March was a peaceful day, the following four days of Quinquatria marked Minerva’s role in war. On days of “raised swords,” martial competitions were held before enormous crowds.

Differing accounts of Minerva’s festival suggest that these crowds were not originally part of the celebration. The Quinquatria probably began as a one-day event, but Julius Caesar expanded the holiday to include four days of gladiatorial combat and games to entertain and appease the people of Rome.

Minerva’s festival was also a holiday for artisans and craftsmen in Rome as she was their patroness. Many would close their shops for the day to attend the festivities.

Quinquatria coincided with the Spring Equinox, leading historians to believe that it may have originated with the worship of Minvra as a goddess of femininity and fertility. Some aspects of this remained in the celebration of Rome’s virgin goddess.

According to some sources, Minerva’s festival was still a day of particular importance to the women of Rome. Many would consult fortune tellers on March 19th to learn what the coming year would hold for them.

Mid-March was not the only time that was sacred to Minerva.

A similar celebration on a smaller scale was held on the Ides of June. On the Quinquatrus Minisculae, pipers processed to Minerva’s temple to honor her as the inventor of their instrument.

Minerva also played an important role in other annual events. In particular, she was revered at the New Year.

According to Livy, it was tradition for the Praetor Maximus to drive in a nail to mark the counting of the new year. This was done at the Temple of Minerva, where there may have been a public calendar of some sort to track the years.

Sacrifices were also given to Minerva to celebrate the new year in Rome. Multiple accounts from the 1st century AD say that cows were sacrificed to her and other gods on January 3rd to seal vows for the coming year and ensure the safety of the emperor and his family.

Individual emperors appear to have co-opted this tradition. Nero, for example, mimicked the New Year’s sacrifices on the anniversary of his rise to power.

Worship in Roman Britain

Of course, Minerva’s cult was not limited to the city of Rome itself.

Minerva was a major deity of the state religion. As the empire expanded, her cult spread throughout its holdings in Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa.

Temples and images of Minerva can be found in many regions of Roman control, but her cult was particularly strong in Roman Britain.

Julius Caesar conquered Britain for Rome in 43 AD, and England and Wales remained under Roman rule until 410. During this period, Minerva was one of the province’s most popular deities.

Craftsmen in Britain embraced Minerva as a protective goddess to an even highly degree than they did in Rome. Many tools found from the period of Roman occupation show images of Minerva as the patroness of carpenters.

Jewellry from Britain often featured Minerva’s image and iconography as well. Hairpins, brooches, and signet rings from Roman Britain often showed Minerva in profile.

She was so popular in Britain that she was even featured in contexts that were entirely unique from her Roman worship. Coffins, for example, sometimes featured her imagery rather than more traditional Greco-Roman psychopomps.

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It was common in the Roman era for residences of the provinces to associate the gods of Rome with their own local deities. The Romans religion itself had been built on the Greek tradition of association foreign gods with the known pantheon, and new citizens of the empire largely embraced this idea.

Archaeological evidence from Britain seems to suggest that Minerva was associated with local beliefs about femininity and the afterlife, for example. But Minerva’s most prominent role in Britain was as a healer.

Rome had already established the tradition of Minerva Medica, and this aspect of the goddess became particularly important in Britain. She was equated with the Celtic goddess Sulis.

To the Celts, Sulis was a mother goddess who also brought curses down on her worshippers’ enemies. Her most important cult, however, was at Bath where she was the goddess of the local hot springs.

The waters at Bath had been used for healing purposes since prehistory. The naturally heated springs are rich in minerals and are still used to provide relief from arthritis and other types of physical pain.

The Romans and Celts alike associated Minerva and Sulis with one another as goddesses of healing. The two became so closely linked that in much of Britain they were known by the same name, Sulis Minerva.

The fact that Sulis could also bring down terrible curses also likened her to Minerva, particularly as the tales of Ovid’s Metamorphoses spread. The people of Roman Britain believed that Sulis Minerva could use the waters of Bath to fully cure the cause of pain, but only if she was given full credit for the healing.

Many messages scratched on sheets of metal, known as curse tablets, have been found around Bath. Written in Latin, they call on Sulis Minerva to punish people for wrongs committed against the writer, in one case for stealing their clothes while they visited her healing baths.

The Goddess Minerva in Rome

Minerva was the Roman counterpart to Athena, and many of her myths and roles were the same. There were sometimes subtle differences, however, in stories such as her birth.

The Romans believed that Minerva’s role as one of their primary deities could be traced back to the Trojan War, when the Greek army stole the protective Palladium from Troy. Aeneas brought the statue to Italy, where it became one of the most sacred symbols of the state and its religion.

Minerva was seen as less important than Athena had been in the realm of warfare, but in other aspects her role expanded. She was a patroness of the arts, particularly music and poetry, a goddess of healing, and a deity of trade and commerce in addition to her older roles in wisdom and crafts.

Her mythology was also expanded in Rome. Ovid, in particular, wrote several stories that showed her as a temperamental and wrathful deity that are today often included in collections of Greek as well as Roman myths.

As one of the state religion’s primary deities, Minerva’s cult was spread throughout the Empire. She was particularly popular in Britain where she was associated with Sulis, the nourishing goddess of Bath’s healing springs.

My name is Mike and for as long as I can remember (too long!) I have been in love with all things related to Mythology. I am the owner and chief researcher at this site. My work has also been published on Buzzfeed and most recently in Time magazine. Please like and share this article if you found it useful.

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