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What Does Nike Mean?

Nike was a minor goddess by definition, but her role in the Greek world was major. Read on to learn all about the Greek personification of victory!

While some Greek gods were complex characters, many more were simple personifications. They represented a single idea, emotion, or aspect of life.

This usually meant that they were minor deities. Only a few expanded their mythology to be widely-recognized as more prominent gods.

Most of the daimones had no cult of their own and no myths that centered around them. They were entirely defined by their functions.

A few of these minor gods and goddesses had a major impact, however. While they were minor deities and their mythology was limited, their domains were important enough to elevate their status.

One of the most widely-worshipped minor deities of the Greek world was Nike. As the personification of victory, the winged goddess had an influence that far outstripped her status on Mount Olympus.

Nike accompanied important gods like Zeus and Athena, but she was also revered in her own right. The goddess of victory commemorated the achievements of the Greeks and continues to be important today.

The Goddess Nike

As a goddess, Nike was one of hundreds of daimones in the ancient Greek religion. These minor deities personified their domains and were often quite specialized.

Her name meant “victory.” This importance of this idea made her one of the most prominent daimones.

Like many daimones, Nike was typically shown in the service of a more important Olympian deity. She was closely associated with several of them.

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According to most sources, she was one of the children of a Titan goddess called Styx. When Zeus offered positions and honor to Titans who would join him against his father, Styx was the first to join his cause.

Because of this, she and her children were given positions of honor in Zeus’s household. Her four children became the daimones who closely served the king of the gods.

Bia was the goddess of force, Kratos was the god of strength, Zelus was the god of zeal, and Nike was the goddess of victory. Of these, Nike was the most popular.

Nike became Zeus’s charioteer. She flew over battlefields to reward those that she and her master favored with glory and fame.

This was symbolized by a wreath of bay leaves, a symbol of honor that had originated with Apollo. Nike was often shown in classical art handing out this reward.

Sometimes, Nike was shown alongside Ares in battle instead. While he did not choose sides in conflicts, he still influenced which side achieved victory through strength.

Occasionally, she was even shown with Apollo. While victory was most often attained in war, as the god of athletic competitions and poets, Apollo also oversaw events that could bring glory to a winner.

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Other than Zeus, Nike was most often associated with Athena. Her role in warfare was much closer to that of Zeus than Ares’s was.

Athena, like her father, had a strong interest in the outcome of a battle. She favored those whose cause was just and sent Nike to them.

Nike was shown often in the imagery of both Zeus and Athena. In paintings and mosaics she drove their chariots or flew closely behind them, while in sculpture she was often shown as a small figure perched in their hands.

Most archaeologists believe that this small image of Nike was even included in one of the most famous sculptures of Athena in the Greek world. The goddess’s statue at the Parthenon, her temple complex in Athens, likely showed her holding the personification of victory in her hand.

Of course, this was not the most famous image of Nike in the Greco-Roman world.

My Modern Interpretation

Nike was important to warriors, athletes, politicians, and anyone else in the Greek world who engaged in competition. Because of these, she was one of the most most frequently-depicted deities in the pantheon.

Nike was one of the few daimones to have her own temples. While these were often part of the larger complexes of Zeus or Athena, she still had her own cults and followers.

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She was also shown in art more often than nearly any other minor goddess. Images of Nike were nearly ubiquitous in ancient Greece; virtually every city had at least one monument to celebrate a victory.

In addition to being shown alongside related gods like Zeus, Athena, and Ares, Nike was often celebrated in art of her own.

Greek coins of many cities often featured Nike in addition to the local patron deities. This was especially true when the city’s rulers minted new coins to celebrate their achievements.

One of the foremost achievements of any Greek ruler was victory in battle. The image of Nike on a coin reminded people of the ruler’s power and fostered a sense of pride in the city and its fighters.

Larger monuments to victory were also erected. Statues of Nike were used to celebrate military wins on a large scale.

In Athens, for example, the Nike of Callimachus was erected to celebrate that leader’s victory in the Battle of Marathon. While it honored the man who led the troops, it showed a winged Nike with an inscription that commemorated the fallen warrior.

The most famous example of Nike in art is one of the most well-known sculptures of the ancient world. The Nike of Samothrace, housed in the Louvre, is considered a masterpiece of Hellenistic art.

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Likely commissioned to celebrate a naval victory, the Nike of Samothrace is one of the few original Hellenistic sculptures that survives today. Most are known from Roman copies.

The importance of Nike can still be seen today in more than just art.

In Rome, she was called Victoria. From her name, the word “victory” has been passed down into many modern languages.

Nike’s name has been passed down, as well. The Greek word for “victory” forms the root of many common names around the world including Nicholas, Nicole, Veronica, and Ike.

Nike’s image is still used to celebrate victory in a Greek context. Since 1928, the obverse side of every Olympic medal has featured the traditional image of victory to celebrate the competition’s Greek roots.

Of course, the most well-known legacy of Nike in the modern world is in the realm of athletic apparel.

Nike Inc. is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of athletic gear, particularly sneakers. Its name was taken from the Greek goddess of victory to inspire confidence and a competitive spirit.

Since the 1970s, the company’s Swoosh logo has been synonymous with athletic apparel. The stylized shape was, in fact, inspired by the curved wings of the Nike of Samothrace.

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In Summary

In ancient Greece, the word nike meant “victory.” It was given to the goddess who personified the idea.

Nike was the goddess of victory in battle. She could also be associated with athletic games or any other competition.

She was one of the four children of Styx who had been welcomed into Zeus’s personal household. She often accompanied him and Athena as a charioteer and assistant.

The king of the gods and his daughter favored righteous causes and justice in warfare. They could command Nike to honor those who they supported.

She was closely associated with them in art and their temples, but Nike was also revered in her own right. Her image was used to commemorate great military victories to inspire civic pride and confidence in the state’s leaders.

The image of Nike continues to be well-known today, as does her name. Some of the ancient world’s most famous pieces of art depict the winged goddess of victory.

Nike’s name forms the basis for many popular names that are still used today. It is also used in athletics as the name of one of the world’s top apparel companies.

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Mike Greenberg, PhD

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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