Who is Athena?

Goddess Athena is one of the 12 Olympians on the sacred Mount Olympus, daughter of Zeus the Thunderer, and according to one version, was born from his forehead through parthenogenesis (immaculate conception). She is associated with war, wisdom, manual labor and is the patron and guardian of the city named in her honor (the city of Athens), hence the full name Athena Pallas (Pallas from Polias/Poliouchos/Polis, “city-state”). Depicted as a female warrior (the Roman goddess Minerva), leading the soldiers forward with the name Athena Promachos (Athena Promachos, Ἀθηνᾶ Πρόμαχος, “Athena who fought on the front line”).

Athena was originally worshiped in the so-called “Aegean Civilization” (3000-1000 BC, Bronze Age). Swedish scholar Martin Nilsson proposes that the Minoan snake goddess statuettes are early images of the goddess. To this he adds that she may have been an owl goddess or bird goddess in the past.
British scholar Jane Harrison argues that as Athena as a character enters art, she: “completely transforms her animal form, transforms her serpent and bird forms which she once wore into attributes, but sometimes in black-figure vases she still appears with wings.” In support of this thesis, in The Odyssey she transforms into an eagle.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Athena is sometimes referred to as “Tritonia”, deriving from another version of how the goddess was born (also found as “Tritogeneia”, Τριτογενεια – “born of Triton”). According to the myth, her foster father Triton (a sea god) raised her with his own daughter Pallas, hence the version that Athena was born from a river or a lake (from water itself, a sea goddess).

Tritonia can also refer to the triad (a triple symbol; some scholars suggest a connection with the Rigvedic god Trita) or as “third born” – here several versions can be considered: third born after the twins Apollo and Artemis (although in other legends it is referred to as the first child of Zeus); born of Zeus, Metis, and herself; the symbolism of the three brothers Zeus (sky), Poseidon (water) and Hades (fire, earth), who share the world and Athena is born from heaven (one of the three brothers).

A strong influence for the character of the goddess Athena is seen from the East – Ishtar, Innana, Anat. In Greek mythology, we can find a hint that Athena traveled around North Africa – the river of Triton (Libya) and the Phlegrean plain.

The early Christian period did not treat the goddess as flatteringly as in antiquity. For example, Clement of Alexandria and Frimicus denounced Athena as representing the worst of paganism, as well as declaring her “immoral.” However, many characteristics of the Virgin Mary are believed to be taken from her (warrior maiden, chaste, protector). Later in the Middle Ages, Athena was depicted on coats of arms emphasizing the noble origins of the respective families.

Athena in the Arts

Athena as Maria de Medici, Maria de Medici (1622) by Peter Paul Rubens

In addition to antiquity, Athena was also revered in the 16th and 17th centuries as the personification of femininity and strength. This is how female rulers of the time were represented, such as Elizabeth I, also called “the new Minerva” and “the greatest goddess now on earth.”

The artist Peter Paul Rubens depicted Athena as the patroness and mentor of Maria Medici, and even in one of his late paintings, the Medici is represented as Athena herself.

Catherine II, represented by the sculptor Jean-Pierre Antoine Tassard, also assumes the guise of the goddess.

The most famous temple of the goddess is the Parthenon towering in the city of Athens, named after her military nickname Athena Parthenos (Παρθένος, “virgin” -> the goddess was considered as such, a symbol of purity).

Other cities of which Athena is patron: Argos, Sparta, Larissa, Lindos, Gortyn.


Epithets for Athena: Atriton (Άτρυτώνη “the tireless”), Parthenos (Παρθένος “virgin”), Promachos (Πρόμαχος “she who fights at the front”), Ergane (Εργάνη “the industrious”) point to her as the patron of artisans, the Athenians sometimes simply called Athena “the Goddess”, hē theós (ἡ θεός), Areia (Αρεία), Hippia (Ἵππια “on horses”, “horsewoman”) referring to her invention of the whip, the bridle, the chariot and the cart., Aíthyia (αἴθυια, “diver “-> diving species of birds; figuratively “ship”), Cydonia (Κυδωνία), Athena Promahorma (Προμαχόρμα), Athena Hygia (Ὑγίεια, i.e. “Health” personified, as she inspires a physician to heal).

Epithets from Homer: Glaukopis (γλαυκῶπις), usually translated “bright-eyed” or “shining-eyed”, glaúx (γλαύξ, “little owl”) is from the same root, possibly, according to some, because of the distinctive eyes of the bird, Tritogenea ( Τριτογένεια – Can mean various things, including “born of Triton”, perhaps indicating that the sea deity of the same name was her parent according to some early myths).

Myth of Birth of Athena

The goddess Athena was born of Zeus himself. He, the Thunderbolt, knew that the goddess of reason, Metis, would have two children: a daughter, Athena, and a son with extraordinary intelligence and extraordinary strength. The Moiras, the goddesses of fate, revealed to Zeus the secret that the son of the goddess Metis would dethrone him and take away his power over the world. The great Zeus was frightened. In order to avoid the terrible fate foretold to him by the moirs, he, after putting the goddess Metis to sleep with kind words, devoured her before she gave birth to her daughter, the goddess Athena.

Head of Athens, detail of a bronze stamnoid situla, 340 – 320 BC.

After a while, Zeus felt a terrible headache. Then Hephaestus called his son and ordered him to cut off his head to save him from the unbearable pain and noise in it. Hephaestus swung his axe hard, splitting Zeus‘ skull with one blow without harming him, and the powerful and warlike goddess Athena was born from the thunderbolt’s head. Fully armed, with a shining helmet, spear, and shield, she stood before the astonished eyes of the Olympian gods. She waved her shiny spear terribly. Her battle cry spread far across the sky, and the bright Olympus shook to its foundations. Beautiful, majestic she stood before the gods. Divine wisdom shone in the blue eyes of Athena; it all shone with wonderful, unearthly, domineering beauty. The gods glorified his beloved daughter, born of the head of father Zeus, defender of the cities, goddess of wisdom and knowledge, the warlike and invincible Athena.

Athena patronizes the heroes of Greece, gives them its wise advice and helps them – fearlessly – in times of danger. She protects cities, fortresses and their walls. Gives wisdom and knowledge, teaches people arts and crafts. And girls in Greece revere Athena for teaching them needlework. None of the mortals and goddesses can compete with Athens in the art of weaving. Everyone knows how dangerous it is to compete with her in this, they know how much Arachna, Idmon’s daughter, who wanted to surpass Athena in this art, paid dearly.

Athena and Arachne

Arachne became famous throughout Lydia for her art. Nymphs on the slopes of Tmol and on the banks of the gold-bearing Pactol often gathered to admire her work. Arachna wove from threads like fog, fabrics as transparent as air. She was proud that there was no equal in the world in the art of weaving. She once shouted:

“If you want, let Athena herself come to compete with me! She won’t beat me, I’m not afraid of the race.”

Here that the goddess Athena, standing like a white-haired and hunched grandmother, stood before Arachne and said to her:

“Not only evil brings with it old age, Arachne; the years also bring experience. Listen to my advice: strive to surpass only mortals with your art. Don’t challenge the goddess to a race. Humbly ask her to forgive you for your haughty words. The goddess forgave those who prayed to her.”

Arachna dropped the thin yarn, her eyes gleaming angrily. Confident in her art, she boldly replied:

“You’re unreasonable, Grandma. You’ve been stupid since old age. Give such instructions to your daughters-in-law and daughters, and leave me alone. I will be able to handle it myself. Whatever I said will be. Why didn’t Athena come, why doesn’t she want to compete with me?”

“Here I am, Arachne!” , yelled the goddess, taking up her true image again.

The nymphs and Lydian women bowed low to the beloved daughter of Zeus and paid homage to her. Only Arachne was silent, As the sky blazed in the early morning with red light, when the pink-fingered Dawn – Eos was flying in the sky on its shining wings, so the face of Athena blushed with anger. Arachne sticks to her decision, still passionate about competing with Athens. She does not feel threatened with imminent doom.

The race begins. The great goddess Athena wove a tablecloth, on which she depicted in the middle the majestic Acropolis of Athens, and on it her dispute with Poseidon for power over Attica. Twelve bright gods from Olympus, and among them her father, Zeus the Thunderer. They sit as judges in this dispute. Poseidon, lifts his trident, strikes a rock with it, and a salt spring gushes from the barren rock. And Athena, with a helmet, shield and aegis, sharpens her spear and plunges it deep into the ground. From there grows the sacred olive tree. The gods judged that she had defeated Athena, recognizing her gift to Attica as more valuable. In the corners, the goddess depicted the gods punishing people for their disobedience, and woven a wreath of olive leaves around it.

Arachne, on the other hand, painted on her tablecloth many scenes from the life of the gods, where they are presented as weak, ruled by human passions. And around these scenes Arachne wove a wreath of flowers intertwined with ivy. Arachne’s work was the pinnacle of perfection; she was not inferior in beauty to the work of Athena, but in her paintings there was disrespect, even contempt for the gods. Athena was terribly angry, interrupted Arachne’s work, and hit her with the shuttle. The unfortunate Arachne could not bear this disgrace; she twisted a rope, made a noose, and hung herself. Athena freed Arachne from the snare and told her:

“Long live the rebellious woman. But you will hang forever and weave forever, and this punishment will continue in your offspring.”

Athena sprayed Arachna with the juice of magic grass and immediately her body shrank, her thick hair fell from her head and she turned into a spider. Since then, the Arachne spider has been hanging on its cobweb and weaving it forever, as it used to weave as a woman.

Minerva (Athena) and Arachne, René-Antoine Houasse, 1706