Pallas: A Common Name in Greek Mythology
If you know the name Pallas, you have likely heard it attached to the name of one of the favorite goddesses of the Greek world. Pallas Athena was the virgin goddess of war, wisdom, crafts, and the patron deity of the great city of Athens.
But how did Athena get the name Pallas?
The answer could be as simple as a descriptive title, but Greek mythology offered other stories for how and why Athena changed her name.
The name did not just belong to the mythology of a single goddess, however. Because of its common meaning, the name Pallas was used by everyone from Titans to minor heroes.
The monicker and its importance even lived on well into the Roman Empire and beyond!
Read on to learn about why Athena put the name Pallas before her own, and the many other connections the name had to the mythologies of Greece and Rome.
To understand why so many characters in Greek mythology shared the name Pallas, it is important to look at what the name itself meant.
As is the case in many other cultures, names in the ancient Greek world often had a specific meaning. This was especially true in mythology, where names could be used to describe a character’s personality, heritage, or function.
Mythological names with meaning could describe a character to the reader, or listener in the case of poetry, without having to give a long list of their attributes. The name itself gave clues about the person or god it belonged to.One reason so many characters shared the name Pallas was because it had a meaning that could be applied to many people. Click To Tweet
The name also had two separate meanings, furthering the possibilities for its usage even more.
The most often cited etymology of Pallas is that it came from the Greek word pallo. Meaning “one who brandishes a spear,” this word could apply to almost any fighter in Greece since spears were the primary weapon of most Greek fighters.
No matter which army a man fought for, it could be assumed he carried a spear. Thus, Pallas was the name used for many warriors, soldiers, and combatants in Greek legend.
Pallas could also, however, come from the word pallakis. This word referred to a young woman, a descriptor that could again apply to many characters.
Given the two broad meanings, the name Pallas was common for both men and women in Greek mythology. It was very likely used as a common name among the Greek population as well, both for its root meanings and in honor of certain great figures.
The most widely remembered individual named Pallas was a nymph.
Pallas was most often described as the daughter of the sea god Triton, and thus a granddaughter of Poseidon and Amphitrite. A few other legends, however, described her as a daughter of other river or sea gods.
She was said to have lived in the Libyan Lake Tritonis, which was named after her father. Later scholars believe the figure may have originally been native to Libya and later adapted to fit the genealogy of the Greek gods.
When Athena was born from the head of her father, Zeus, she was fostered by her cousin Triton. During her youth, she and Pallas became inseparable friends and playmates.
One thing the two young goddesses shared was a love of martial arts. Unlike many of the other female deities, particularly the usually shy and submissive nymphs, Pallas and Athena trained together in the use of spears and shields.The story of how Pallas was killed cantered on a sparring match with Athena, although sources differ on whether the match was a friendly one or not. Click To Tweet
According to some legends, the two were practicing with spears when Pallas was stabbed by the goddess of war.
Athena, having accidentally killed her dearest friend, mourned the loss forever.
Another legend claimed that the two were arguing and, rather than having a friendly practice match, had begun to fight. Zeus flashed his aegis to distract the nymph, allowing Athena to win the fight.
Athena had not intended to land a killing blow, however, and was stricken with grief and guilt over the death of her friend. Greek law and custom gave little distinction between intentional murder and an accidental killing, so even if the death had been a mistake the goddess still carried the blame.
Athena vowed that her friend would never be forgotten.
First, she fashioned an enormous wooden statue in the likeness of Pallas. It was erected in her temple on the Trojan Acropolis, where it was said to have stood until at least the end of the Trojan War.
Being crafted by the goddess of wisdom herself, the Palladium, as the statue was known, was said to have special properties. As long as the Palladium stood, Athena ensured the protection of the city.
Although Athena took the side of the Greeks in the Trojan War, the Palladium ensured that she would not condone the complete destruction of Troy. She still offered protection to those who worshipped in her temple within Troy’s walls.
The cursed seer Cassandra sought refuge in the temple of Athena as the city fell. It was said that she was clinging to the wooden statue when Ajax the Lesser tore her away and pushed her to the other captives.
While Ajax had been a member of the army she had supported, Athena was still infuriated by this violation of her temple and the statue of Pallas there. The goddess sent a storm against her former favorites as they left Troy, destroying much of the Greek fleet and scattering the surviving ships.
According to many mythographers, the protective statue was stolen by Odysseus and Diomedes to ensure Troy’s fall. Centuries later, the Roman temple of Vesta claimed to still possess the original statue.
More than just erecting the statue, however, Athena wished for her friend’s name to be remembered beyond her temple. She took the name Pallas as her own.
The goddess of war and wisdom was thus frequently referred to as Pallas Athena. Etymologically it may have referred to her prowess as a warrior, but in the Greek imagination the goddess had placed her friend’s name before her own to ensure the nymph was never forgotten.
In the Homeric hymns, for example, she is called by this name while being invoked as a warrior goddess and protector of the people:
Of Pallas Athena, guardian of the city, I begin to sing. Dread is she, and with Ares she loves the deeds of war, the sack of cities and the shouting and the battle. It is she who saves the people as they go to war and come back. Hail, goddess, and give us good fortune and happiness!
-Homeric Hymn 11 to Athena (trans. Evelyn-White)
Pallas may be most associated with Athena and her fallen companion, but the name was widely used for both male and female characters in Greek mythology.
In fact, while Athena and Pallas are the most famous to use the name, most of those called Pallas were male. The name referred to their use of a spear, or possibly even another weapon.
Among those named Pallas in ancient legends were:
- Pallas, the son of Evander – In Roman mythology, Pallas was a close companion of Aeneas. Although he was a great warrior, he was eventually defeated by the king of the Rutuli. The Aeneid ends with Aeneas killing the king in revenge.
- Pallas of Arcadia – In another myth connected to Athena, her teacher went by the name Pallas. His daughter took the Palladium to Troy.
- Pallas of Athens – He was the brother of the legendary king Aegeas. He attempted to take the throne from the rightful heir, Theseus, but was killed along with his fifty children.
- Pallas, the father of Euryalis – The writer Hyginus named an unknown Pallas as the father of one of the Argonauts, Euryalis, who also fought for the Greeks at Troy and was part of the successful attack against Thebes.
- The Titan Pallas – Hesiod named Pallas as a son of Crius and the husband of Styx. He was the father of many diamones, including Nike (Victory), Kratos (Strength), Zelus (Zeal), and Bia (Might).
- The Giant Pallas – Often confused for the Titan, Pallas the Giant was one of the hundred Giants who fought the Olympians in the Gigantomachy.
While the nymph Pallas is most often remembered for her relationship to Athena, others of that name had a connection to the goddess as well. Among these, the Giant is sometimes cited as another reason the goddess was known by that name.
Pallas was given as the name of one of the many Giants who fought against the Olympians shortly after they rose to power. The children of Gaia by the blood of Uranus, the Giants were called upon by their mother to challenge the new gods for imprisoning the Titans.
Pseudo-Apollodorus was one of the writers who elaborated on the myth of the war of the Giants. In the Bibliotheca he described individual battles between the gods and named Giants they slew.
Pallas was one of the Giants killed in battle against Athena. She flayed him and used his skin to create her famous aegis, or shield.
Writers gave many sources for the skin that made Athena’s famous shield. Some cited an anonymous Giant, others named Medusa, and one story told of a Giant named Asterus who attempted to violate Athena’s vow of virginity.
The identification of Pallas, however, gave an alternative to Athena’s epithet. According to some writers she was called Pallas Athena not in memory of a dear friend, but to commemorate a great victory.
In the common myth of Pallas the nymph, Athena wanted to ensure that the name was never forgotten. Indeed, it lived on well after the Greek era.
The Romans considered themselves heirs Greece, both in lineage and in culture. Greek gods were widely incorporated into the Roman pantheon under the names of earlier Latin deities, and the mythology was tied to both Greek and Roman history.
The Roman equivalent of Athena was Minerva. While her name changed, however, the name Pallas was supposedly retained in Latin.
The Romans laid claim to the Palladium, which they said had journeyed through Greece until eventually being brought to their own city. The artifact helped to connect the city and its gods to the ancient traditions of the Trojan War and the protection of Athena/Minerva.
The Romans believed themselves to have connections to many of the famous Pallases of Greek mythology. In addition to giving the name to one of the companions of Aeneas, they also claimed descent from Pallas of Arcadia.
The one-time teacher of Athena was the father of Chryse, who married Dardanus and took the Palladium with her to Troy. Their son, Evander, left the area roughly sixty years before the Trojan War and traveled to Italy.
The Romans credited Evander with bringing Greek culture to Italy. He founded the city of Pallantium, named for his father, and established Greek laws, religion, and culture in the region.
When Aeneas and his men reached Italy, they were greeted by Evander and the culture he had maintained. Pallantium became part of the unified city of Rome, retaining its name as the Palantine Hill.
Evander was venerated as a god in Rome. His daughter, Lavinia, had a son with Heracles who she likewise named Pallas.
One of Rome’s great noble families, the gens Fabia, claimed Pallas as an ancestor through Evander. The central of Rome’s seven hills also retains the name of Pallas to this day.
Two characters named Pallas, and a statue of a third, were used by the Romans to connect their city to the culture and heritage of their Greek neighbors. While Pallas Athena may have had her name changed to Athena, the name Pallas was remembered by the Romans in many ways.
The name Pallas was carried by many figures in Greco-Roman mythology. This is in large part because its common translation, “one who bears a spear,” was appropriate for almost any fighting man of the culture.
The most famous Pallas, however, was a female. The nymph was a friend of Athena when they were both young who was tragically killed in a sparring match with the goddess of war.
Athena added her friend’s name to her own, becoming Pallas Athena. An alternative explanation for the name was that Pallas was the name of the Giant who Athena had killed and skinned to make her famous aegis.
The nymph Pallas was also remembered through the Palladium, a wooden statue in her likeness said to have been carved by Athena herself. The statue once protected the city of Troy, but was supposedly stolen and eventually made its way to the temple of Vesta in Rome.
Rome linked itself to Greek tradition through many characters named Pallas as well. One of them was a warrior who accompanied Aeneas on his journey to Italy.
When Aeneas arrived he met Evander, the son of another Pallas. Evander’s city was named for his father and eventually incorporated into Rome as the Palantine Hill, the centermost of the city’s seven hills.
The name Pallas served, therefore, as both a popular epithet for one of the culture’s most revered goddesses and as a link between the later Roman culture and the ancient Greek past.