You’ve read about the gods of ancient Greek, but have you ever thought about where they got their names?
Like many languages, names in Greek often had a definite meaning based in commonly-used words. A familiar example in ancient Greek was the name Heracles, which translated as “glory of Hera,” in an attempt to pacify Zeus’s wife.
Which some figures in Greek mythology, like Heracles, had a name with a clear translation, the names of the Olympians were more difficult to decipher. They seemed to have no obvious meaning in the Greek language.
Ancient writers like Plato tried to learn more about the gods by deciphering the meanings behind their names. For Athena, the philosopher rationalized a series of phrases that could be shortened to sound like the goddess’s name, all with meanings related to her intelligence.
Plato’s folk etymology, however, depended on the names having roots in the Greek language as it was spoken in his time. In reality Athena’s name, like those of many Greek deities, had far more ancient origins.
Some Greek writers and philosophers dedicated much of their lives to finding the meanings behind the names of their gods.
While more minor gods were often named directly for the things they represented and gods associated with a particular location, such as river gods and nymphs, were named for that place, the Olympians did not seem to fit that convention.
The Greek people of the classical world recognized that the Olympians had names that did not come directly from their language. This was puzzling to Greek thinkers and led them to examine the names of these deities to find a deeper philosophical meaning.
In the 4th century BC, Plato was particularly interested in examining the names of the gods. He believed that these names could provide insight into the gods themselves and, by extension, the world around him.
Plato followed a similar convention for all the names he examined. He looked at individual syllables and sounds within the name to find familiar words in his own language that could be related to the sounds he found.
He also looked at historical sources, particularly the writings of Homer. The early Greek poet had similarly tried to rationalize many names, and he had claimed that the people of Athens said their goddess’s name came from the words nous (mind) and dianoia (intelligence).
This seemed like a logical explanation for the name of the goddess of wisdom, so Plato went on to explore how the name evolved from those two words. He focused on the beginning a- sound and the -then- in the middle of the name.
He came closer with the phrase theou noesis, meaning “divine intelligence.” This brought together the -the- and -n- but was still lacking the initial sound.
A theonoa brought him closer with “she who has the mind of a god,” although Plato went on to say that en ethei noesin, or “moral intelligence” could also be an explanation.
From these translations, Plato derived the name Etheonoe. He explained that people shortened the name into a simpler form, Athena.
Plato went to great lengths to explain a possible origin for Athena’s name, but he neglected to ignore an obvious possibility.
The founding legend of Athens claimed that the city was named after its patron goddess. Modern historians, however, believe the opposite may have been true.
The -ene name ending was often associated with the names of places rather than people. Only among the gods was it found often at the end of a name, such as in the Greek spelling of Athene.
Nor was Athens the only city to share its name with a goddess. The people of Mycenae, for example, worshipped a local goddess they called Mikene.
In ancient Greek the city was known as Athenai, which was the plural form of Athene. Thus, the name Athena seemed to follow a familiar pattern.
While the thinkers of Greece could accept that goddesses from other areas were named for places rather than the other way around, the idea was not accepted for Athena.
Modern historians disagree, however, and believe that Athena may have taken her name from the city instead of the other way around. The figure of Athena is known to be related to ancient cultures from other areas entirely, but the Greek name came from the place in which the goddess’s cult was centered.
Like Mikene, therefore, Athena was originally a local goddess. As she was combined with more widespread goddesses and became more popular, the story arose that she had founded the city instead of originating there.
The question still remains over what meaning this name had. The answer, if it exists, has been lost to time.
There are some historians and linguists who believe the name Athena can be related to inscriptions found in Knossos, the ancient capital of Minoan Crete.
There is a single inscription written in Mycenaean Greek that may refer to the goddess with the word athana, although this may refer to the city instead and still gives no indication of the meaning.
Unfortunately, the older language used in Knossos has not been deciphered. A fragment of Linear A, as it is called, seems to use a similar combination of sounds as the later Mycenaean name, but it is impossible to translate its meaning.
Whether the name was used first for the city or goddess, historians believe the name Athena has a pre-Greek origin. Plato was never able to accurately translate it because, like the names of many of the gods he worshipped, it was not original to his language.
Unlike the nymphs, river gods, and daimones, it was difficult for the Greeks to find a meaning in the names of many of the Olympian gods.
Writers like Plato attempted to explain how the gods got their common names through complicated folk etymologies. Working with the sounds contained in each name and the explanations given by ancient writers like Homer, the philosopher attempted to rationalize names that seemed out of place in the Greek language.
One of these was Athena, who was said to have also given her name to one of the culture’s prominent cities. Plato examined words related to intelligence and divinity to come up with an approximation of the goddess’s name, which he said was shortened to Athena from a more complicated early form.
Modern historians believe that Plato and his peers were incorrect in their translations, however. One of the core beliefs of Plato and his peers, that the name of the goddess had originated before the name of the city, has since been seen as inaccurate.
More importantly, the names of many of the gods did not come from the Greek language. Without an understanding of linguistic evolution, Plato had no way to know that Athena’s name came from a language that predated his own.
Unfortunately the name, whether of the goddess or of the city, cannot be accurately translated. The earliest possible records exist in a script that has never been deciphered, and even older languages predated the development of writing.
The true meaning behind Athena’s name has, it seems, been lost to us. But through the folk etymologies of the ancient Greeks themselves, we can learn more about how they thought of their gods and their language.