Sagacious Athena was one of the twelve chief Olympian deities and the goddess associated with wisdom, craft, and warfare. In wars—where she was most commonly depicted—Athena embodied cold rationality, tactics, and strategy. Athena’s cold logic stood in direct contrast to her brother Ares’ rage, violence, and impulsiveness.
Athena was called many things: Pallas (“girl”), Parthenos (“virgin”), Promachos (“of war”), Ergane (“of the crafts”), and Athena Nike (“victorious Athena”). In literature, she was described as “the bright-eyed," “goddess of spoil,” and the “lovely-haired goddess." In art, she was often depicted in full armor as well as in the company of olives and owls.
While Athena was broadly worshipped throughout the Greek world, her cult was particularly strong in Athens, the intellectual center of the Greeks. There the goddess was commemorated via the construction of several public buildings, including the famed Parthenon. Her prominence in Athens and elsewhere suggests that the characteristics of wisdom, forethought, and rationality were highly valued among the Greek people.
Scholars have debated the origin of the name “Athena” since the time of Plato; his dialogue Cratylus contained a rare and lengthy discussion of the history of the name. Speaking through the figure of Socrates, Plato attributed the origin of the name to Homer, who had cobbled together name from the words “mind” (noũs) and “intelligence” (diánoia). As Plato put it: “The maker of names [Homer] appears to have had a singular notion about her, and indeed calls her by a still higher title, ‘divine intelligence’ (theoũ nóēsis), as though he would say: This is she who has the mind of God (a theonóa).”1
Though Plato’s discussion of Homer provided some insight into Athena’s esteemed reputation, this origin of her name was almost certainly incorrect. According to the best available evidence, the name “Athena” was derived from Athênai, the Greek name for the city of Athens.
Such a naming scheme was not uncommon among the ancient polytheists. On the contrary, they frequently named deities after the places with which they were most commonly associated. Unfortunately, the origins of the word Athênai were shrouded in mystery as the root was neither Greek nor Indo-European. Thus, the meaning of the name “Athena” has remained unclear.2
According to the popular mythologies surrounding her, Athena was born (or, perhaps more accurately, emerged) of the union of Zeus and his first wife Metis. She was their only child.
Soon after Metis became pregnant, Zeus, who had seized control of the universe by overthrowing his father Cronus, heard a prophecy foretelling his downfall at the hands of his own child. Fearful of his impending doom, Zeus swallowed Metis and her child, just as Kronos had swallowed Zeus’ brothers and sisters, the future Olympian deities Demeter, Hades, Hera, Hestia, and Poseidon.
The child within Metis, however, would not be denied. One day, Athena suddenly burst forth from Zeus’s forehead. She was fully grown, armed with a spear, and dressed in her battle armor. Some accounts featured Hephaestus serving as a midwife of sorts by prying open Zeus’ head with an axe. This moment was commonly depicted in ancient art, and has been the subject of more recent pieces as well. Despite the rough start to her relationship with Zeus, Athena soon became his favorite child. She would often provide her father with sage advice and counsel that would help Olympus through many hardships.
Greek mythology, especially the lore surrounding the founding and history of Athens, was rich with stories of Athena. While certain figures from the Mycenaean era paralleled Athena in her essential attributes, traditional conceptions of Athena evolved during the Greek Classical period. She was later worshiped by the Romans as the deity Minerva. Her longevity among the Greeks and Hellenized peoples suggested that they greatly admired the qualities of wisdom, perspicuity, and forethought with which Athena was associated.
Athena and the Founding of Athens
A common thread in the mythology of Athena was how she came to be the patron of the city of Athens. One myth claimed that she and her half-brother Poseidon competed for the honor in the early days of the polis. The two deities each decided to bestow a gift upon the Athenians, and agreed to let the king, Cecrops, select the best. Poseidon thrust his trident into the ground, unleashing a torrent of salt water as a gift. In other versions, he brought the first horses to the Athenians. Athena offered the first olive tree. Olives quickly became a staple of the Athenian diet, and the tree itself became the foundation of the city’s economic success in the form of lucrative oil exports. Cecrops eagerly chose Athena’s gift, thus inaugurating a lasting relationship between deity and city.
Known as Athena Parthenos (“virgin”), Athena avoided the erotic entanglements and sexual controversies that ensnared the other gods and goddesses. There was, however, one important exception to this rule—one that builds on Athena’s reputation as founder and protector of Athens.
There were two broad versions of this myth. In one, Hephaestus attempted to rape Athena, but she pulled herself away from her assaulter, causing him to ejaculate on her thigh. Athena wiped his seed off with a tuft of wool and threw it on the ground. This action in turn, impregnated Gaia, the mother goddess, and gave life to Erichthonius, one of the early, legendary rulers of Athens. Erichthonius would also become one of the central figures in Athenian festivals celebrating the origins of the city.
In another version of this story, Hephaestus, claiming his privilege as Athena’s axe-wielding midwife, persuaded Zeus to consent to their marriage. Though they were married, Athena stole away from the marriage bed and left Hephaestus to ejaculate on the floor. As in the other version of this myth, his seed then impregnated Gaia and led to the conception of Erichthonius.
From here, the story meandered in unexpected directions. Once Erichthonius was born, Athena placed him in a chest and entrusted it to the three daughters of Cecrops—Herse, Pandrosos, and Aglauros—telling them not to open it. When curiosity got the better of them, the sisters opened the container only to find a coiled snake.
Other stories claimed that the child was guarded by a snake, or that the child’s legs had been transformed into a serpent’s tail. Driven mad by this horrific sight, the sisters threw themselves off the Acropolis. In artistic representations, Athena was sometimes depicted alongside the snake. Legend soon established this serpent as a protector of Athens.
Athena, the Benefactress of Heroes
Athena appeared often in Greek mythology as a champion of heroes such as Argos, Perseus and Hercules. These stories celebrated Athena’s kind regard for struggling mortals and often displayed her craftiness and ingenuity. For example, Athena advised Argos on how to construct the Argo, the ship that took Jason and the Argonauts to find the Golden Fleece.
Athena also aided Perseus in his quest to slay Medusa, the Gorgon with hair made of serpents whose gaze turned onlookers to stone. As he set out on his quest, Athena appeared before him and gave him a bronze shield, polished to reflect the sight of Medusa so that Perseus would not have to look in her eyes. When Perseus struck Medusa with a scythe gifted to him by Hermes, Athena guided the swing to ensure it would sever her head.
Hercules also benefited from the Athena’s intervention. When he was charged with stealing the golden apples from Hera’s secret garden, which was overseen by the daughters of Atlas, Hercules offered to hold the sky while Atlas beseeched his daughters to gather the apples (Atlas, a titan, had been forced to hold the celestial sky after losing to Zeus in the Titanomachy.) When the sky proved too heavy for the mighty Hercules, Athena took action and lifted the sky so that he would not be crushed under its weight.
When his Twelve Labors were complete and Hercules rode triumphantly to Olympus for his deification, it was Athena who bore him along in her war chariot.
Athena in the Iliad and Odyssey
Athena played central roles in Homer’s epic poems. She first appeared in the Iliad as a participant in the consequential judgment of Paris. Claiming to be the fairest of all the goddesses (and thus claiming ownership of the golden apple inscribed with the phrase “to the fairest,”) Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena commissioned Paris, prince of Troy, to judge which of them was truly the most beautiful.
Each of the goddesses tried to bribe him—Hera promised political power, Athena offered the glories of military triumph, and Aphrodite agreed to allow Paris to marry the most beautiful woman alive. Paris chose the latter gift, which happened to be Helen, wife of Menelaus, the king of Sparta. It was Helen’s abduction that sparked the Trojan War.
Early in the Iliad, Athena emerged as the most committed and consistent ally of the Achaeans, the Greeks who assailed and ultimately conquered Troy. Often her assistance took the form of wisdom whispered softly to foolhardy mortals. She paid special attention to Achilles, whose rage at the covetous Agamemnon (who had claimed one of the women Achilles kidnapped in combat) threatened to undo the tenuous Greek alliance prematurely. When Achilles readied to draw his sword and kill Agamemnon, Athena appeared:
Her gray eyes clear, the goddess Athena answered,
“Down from the skies I come to check your rage
If only you will yield.
The white-armed goddess Hera sped me down:
She loves you both, she cares for you both alike.
Stop this fighting, now. Don’t lay hand to sword.
Lash him with threats of the price that he will face.
And I tell you this—and I know it is the truth—
One day glittering gifts will lie before you,
Three times over to pay for all his outrage.
Hold back now. Obey us both.”3
Later in the war, the two sides decided that the conflict might best be determined through single combat between Menelaus and Paris. Athena was anxious to resume the fighting, however, and disguised herself as a Trojan soldier named Laodocus. In this guise, she persuaded a general and Trojan ally called Pandaros to fire an arrow at Menelaus, promising that the death of the Spartan king would end the conflict. When Pandaros fired, Athena altered the path of the projectile, ensuring that it would only injure Menelaus. The treacherous violation of the truce proved ample reason to cancel it altogether. Thus, the war continued.
Athena would again exert decisive influence over the conflict when in the absence of Achilles she championed the warrior Diomedes, granting him strength and courage to lead the battle. When Athena confronted baneful Ares, who was full of rage and lust for blood, she guided Diomedes as he thrust his spear into the god, leaving him injured and disabled on the battlefield.
In the Odyssey, Athena offered wisdom and succor to the embattled Odysseus and his son Telemachus. As Odysseus began his long journey home following the conclusion of the Trojan War, Athena inspired wise thoughts within his mind. In Ithaca, Odysseus’ home, she gave counsel to Telemachus, urging the young man to seek out information about his father.
Only later did Athena appear to Odysseus in person. When Odysseus finally returned to Ithaca, Athena appeared to him disguised as a shepherd. To stoke his rage, she told him that Penelope had moved on— she assumed that Odysseus had died, and had taken another husband.
Trusting in his wife’s fidelity, Odysseus refused to believe the trickster. When Athena saw that she could not fool the shrewd Odysseus, she revealed her true identity to him. Athena then told him the truth: Penelope was besieged by suitors hoping to claim what was rightfully Odysseus’, but remained true while she awaited his return. Athena then disguised Odysseus as a beggar. So costumed, Odysseus slayed the suitors and reclaimed his wife and home.
Athena has figuredpop cultural fare, stories and characters from ancient mythology. In the television series Xena: Warrior Princess, Athena was an important character portrayed by Paris Jefferson. Athena was also prominent in the God of War video game series where she played the role of adviser, aiding the main protagonist, Kratos, in his quests.
Athena was also featured on the state seal of California. In this depiction, she was shown wearing armor and carrying her spear and shield while looking over a body of water presumed to be San Francisco Bay.
Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Viking, 1990.
Plato. Cratylus. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. The Internet Classics Archive. http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/cratylus.html.
Wikipedia contributors. “Athena.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athena.