Athena

Olympian Goddess of Wisdom and War

Athena was the Olympian goddess of wisdom and war. She was Zeu’s daughter and his favourite child.

Role

Athena was the goddess of war, wisdom, strategic skills, arts, crafts – particularly weaving (being an impeccable weaver herself) and the patron of heroic endeavour. She was also the patron of the city of Athens, which was named after her. Her worship there was also connected with water, crops, vegetation and fertility.

Physical Features, Symbols and Character

Athena is depicted wearing a helmet and carries a shield, aegis, and spear. She is young and beautiful, with grey eyes. Her shield is decorated with the head of Medusa given to her by Perseus after she helped him kill her. Looking at the face of Medusa will turn her enemies to stone.

Athena is associated with the owl and the olive tree.

Being the goddess of war, Athena is a fierce warrior and in several myths shows a cruel and unforgiving nature. She is, however, not bloodthirsty like her brother and male counterpart, Ares (god of war). She is also particularly protective of Heroes and on many occasions helps them achieve their goals. This protection does not enclose any erotic love – Athena is a virgin and immune to love. She does express her motherly affection though, taking care of both Erichthonius and Hercules during their infancy.


Athena at a Glance
Roman nameMinerva
GenderFemale
TypeDeity
Rules over - Patron ofWisdom, War, Weaving and the crafts, War strategy, Heroes
SymbolsOwl, Olive tree, Aegis, Armour, Helmet, Gorgoneion
Sacred AnimalsOwl
ParentsMetis and Zeus; Zeus
Notable SiblingsAphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Dionysus, Hebe, Heracles, Hermes, Helen of Troy, Hephaestus, Minos, Perseus, Porus, the Muses, the Graces

Mythology

Athena was the daughter of Zeus and had no mother (at least she wasn’t born directly by one). According to a popular version of the myth, Athena was also the daughter of Metis, goddess of intelligence, who was one of the Titans and first wife of Zeus. Zeus lay with Metis but later learned from Uranus and Gaia that Metis would give birth first to Athena and to a son who would be smarter than Zeus and would overthrow him. To stop this from happening, Zeus swallowed Metis, who was already pregnant with Athena. Zeus had a terrible headache one day, Hephaestus (or Prometheus) struck him with an axe, and out of his head came Athena, fully grown, armed and giving out battle cries. Due to the special nature of her birth, she was Zeus’s favourite child and was the only one allowed to wield his aegis and thunderbolt.

In the Judgment of Paris, where he had to choose over the offers of Aphrodite, Athena and Hera, Athena offered Paris wisdom and skill in war but he chose Aphrodite’s offer instead – the most beautiful woman on earth, Helen. As a result, Athena, like Hera, sided with the Greeks in the Trojan War.
Athena fought in the Gigantomachy, on the side of Zeus, her father. She also protected and helped numerous heroes, including Hercules, Perseus, Ulysses, Jason, Menelaus, Bellerophon, Diomedes and Achilles.
She helped Perseus kill the Medusa by instructing him not to look directly at her (which would’ve turned him to stone) but, rather, at her reflection on his shield. After Perseus killed the Medusa, he offered her head to Athena. She put it in the centre of her shield, so as to turn her enemies to stone.

Etymology

The name Athena is pre-hellenic. It is often accompanied by the epithet Pallas, a Greek word meaning young woman. In Athens, Athena was referred to as Parthena (Virgin), which is why her temple in Acropolis was named Parthenon.

Classical Sources

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The Homeric Hymns to Athena, Aeschylus’s Eumenides, Apollodorus’s Library , Diodorus Siculus’s Library of History, Hesiod’s Theogony, Hyginus’s Fabulae, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Sophocles’ Ajax.