Of all the Olympian gods and goddesses, Athena was arguably one of the most fascinating. The goddess of war, wisdom, and crafts, Athena was known for her many passions and abilities that made her stand out against her counterparts. The daughter of Zeus, Athena quickly became known as one of the most courageous and wise of the Greek pantheon.
Athena was not a goddess to be trifled with, given her track record. She did not shy from showing her full power, and was worshipped heavily for it. Temples were built to honor and praise her for her work, as many of her followers believed that by worshipping Athena, she would reward them with the gifts of sustenance and shelter. What were some of the myths surrounding Athena, and what was her cult of followers like?
Birth of Athena from the head of Zeus, 19 th century drawing from a vase painting ( Public Domain )
The Origins of Athena
The origins of Athena are lost to the mists of time. Early findings regarding Athena point to her origin being an Aegean goddess that took charge over crafts and protection of the king. Later, there is evidence of her representation in Minoan culture , which can be seen in the form of snake goddess figurines. Around this time, Athena was also believed to be a bird goddess and perhaps part bird herself. Specifically, she is believed to have been part owl, before later choosing to discard her owl characteristics in pursuit of a more human figure.
In later artwork of Athena, she is portrayed as a human but retained some animal characteristics. In some pieces, she retained her bird wings, while in others she just wore jewelry or clothing that represented snakes and birds. She was also portrayed as a warrior, often displayed bearing arms, shields, or in otherwise powerful positions. It is believed that it was around this point in her evolution that the Greeks took her as a goddess of their own.
Other artwork displays her wearing heavy body armor including a breastplate and a helmet. This gear may have had details on them including birds and snakes. Athena was the inspiration behind many sculptures, including those by Phidias, a famous Greek sculptor from the 5th century BC.
Linear B, a Minoan script found on clay tablets in Greece, describes Athena as the Lady of Athens. Linear A tablets instead call her Athena of Zeus, referring to her father, who birthed her from his forehead.
Athena was so popular amongst Greece that she didn’t just have temples in her own city. Many other cities had temples or shrines dedicated to her, as she was seen as a protector of many.
Athens’ foundation myth: Athena with olive tree & Poseidon with salt fountain Source: matiasdelcarmine / Adobe Stock)
Myths surrounding Athena
Within Greek mythology, Athena has some fascinating stories about her. Regarding her origin, she is the daughter of Zeus and has no mother. According to the texts, Athena was born fully-grown out of Zeus’s forehead, so there was no need for a “mother” to be involved in her creation. An alternative text takes that story a step further, claiming that Zeus swallowed the goddess of counsel, Metis, while she was pregnant with Athena. Athena then came out of Zeus, and he became her father.
It is widely understood that Athena was Zeus’s favorite of all six of his children. Artemis, Apollo, Hermes, Ares, and Aphrodite could not compare with their sister, as she had greater power than the rest, which made her successful as a goddess of war. She was greatly associated with the acropolises of many Greek cities as they were often the site of royal palaces and other important political and religious buildings.
Within her stories, there is no record of Athena ever having any sort of partner or children. Being the goddess of war, it would have been difficult to find someone of equal position as her, and she could not engage in sexual activity since she was a palace goddess.
In one story, Hephaestus, the god of fire and forging, attempts to rape her after she visits him to make her some weapons. Because of her great power, she is able to fight him off. During the fight, some of Hephaestus’s semen falls on the ground, which then births Erichthonius, who later becomes a legendary king of Athens. Although he is not Athena’s son, she protects him as a baby by transforming into a serpent and later makes him king of her city once he is grown.
To repay her for her protection, Erichthonius created the Panathenaic Festival , which was held every four years and was incredibly important in Athens. While a smaller Panathenaia festival was held annually to celebrate Athena’s birthday, the Greater Panathenaia was a much more significant event. Two young girls would be chosen to live with Athena’s priestesses to help weave a new robe to adorn the city’s large Athena statue with.
Homer’s Iliad also discusses Athena in great detail. Within the book, she is emphasized as the goddess of war and intelligence. She is tasked with war alongside Ares by their father, Zeus. While Ares focuses on the fighting itself, Athena is more introspective and takes a more civilized and thought-out approach to war.
Athena has more skills than Ares when it comes to winning wars, such as compromise, strategic planning, and critical thinking. However, she and Ares are both excellent in combat and are well-known for their fighting skills. As a result of her extra skills, she is labeled in both the Iliad and the Odyssey as the goddess of restraint, practical insight, and good counsel, in addition to war.
Beyond her protection as a goddess of war, Athena was also the goddess of crafting. As a palace goddess, she often took up pastimes including spinning and weaving. Her willingness to use her crafting skills to help others labeled her as a goddess of wisdom.
Acropolis with Parthenon, Athens, Greece ( gatsi / Adobe Stock)
Athens: A City of Followers
Athena was not an unknown name across Greece, especially in Athens. Once called Aktiki after its first king, Aktaios, it was renamed Athens after their most esteemed goddess, Athena. According to legend, it was named after Athena after she won a competition with Poseidon, which he did not take well.
According to the story, Athen’s original king was named Cecrops. This half-man, half-snake ruler made the original city so beautiful that it drew the attention of the gods. Those that became the most interested in the city were Poseidon and Athena. Zeus, Athena’s father, suggested that they compete for the city by offering it gifts. The god that gave the greater gift would become the god or goddess of the city.
Athena and Poseidon left Olympus to bring many of the city people to the Acropolis where they offered their gifts. Poseidon offered his gift of a water source. While a water source was needed and important, it was soon discovered that the water was too salty for ordinary consumption, since Poseidon had control over the sea, not freshwater. During Athena’s turn, she planted a seed in the ground, which rapidly grew an olive tree in front of the city people. The purpose of the olive tree was to provide food, oil, and shade for the people, as well as lumber once it died out.
The city, valuing Athena’s gift more, chose Athena as their goddess, as they determined she was the wiser of the two. It is believed that this story led to Athena’s label as a Goddess of Wisdom. Poseidon, frustrated with the results, returned to Olympus to sulk.
As a city, Athens was known for its incredible architecture, democratic practices, and worship of Athena. Temples were built in her honor, so the city could worship her regularly. One of the main temples, the Erechtheion, was a massive temple built on the Acropolis in 400 BC that was dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon for their willingness to fight for their city. Athena got her own a bit later, called the Temple of Athena Nike (“Nike” meaning “of victory”), and also later had the Parthenon built in her honor when Athens was at its strongest.
Athena Varvakeion, small Roman replica of the Athena Parthenos by Phidias. Found in Athens near the Varvakeion school. First half of the 3rd century AD. ( Marsyas / CC BY-SA 2.5)
The Cult of Athena
Believe it or not, Athena had a cult following! The women of Athens were often confined to their homes as wives and mothers, prohibiting from leaving home except for special circumstances, including religious festivals. Any woman who was frequently outside the home beyond these exceptions was often considered to be a prostitute or woman of the street.
Greek cities were known for having cults dedicated to their designated deity. For Athena, her cult in Athens provided the local women more powerful opportunities than those given to them by the city. While Athens gave women little autonomy (they were primarily only allowed to spin wool, maintain the home, and were not allowed an education), the cult of Athena gave women these rights back (and many more).
Girls raised up in the cult of Athena were provided opportunities to engage in most activities allowed by the city for males. They were also heavily respected and put in positions of power within the city. While some women left the cult after getting married, others stayed in it their entire lives to give the women of Athens more opportunities. Women that remained in the cult were often given their own property and even a salary in addition to general admiration from the city.
Outside of the cult, women couldn’t do any of this. They were generally looked down upon and were given no opportunities to better themselves or represent themselves in society. The cult of Athena opened doors for women that were otherwise closed. The high priestess, who was the highest religious official in the city, was viewed as a role model by women yearning for her freedoms.
Pallas Athena Statue outside Vienna Parliament Building ( Yair Haklai / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Admired By Many
This is really only a thumbnail of the rich information available about Athena. From an early background as an Aegean goddess to her many stories within Greek mythology, she is an interesting character that is loved by many. As a fierce woman known for her fighting, protection, and wisdom, she is viewed admirably by women in particular.
The next time you read about Athena, think about her stories, her wisdom, and her success as a female warrior. Though she’s only a mythological figure, she is certainly a fascinating figure to study.
Top image: Athena, Goddess of Wisdom. Source: Геннадий Кучин / Adobe Stock
By Lex Leigh
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