Who is Athena in Greek Mythology?
ATHENA, sometimes Athene, was the Greek goddess of war, wisdom and craft and was the daughter of ZEUS and the Titaness Metis. Although Athena was a fierce virgin like ARTEMIS, she did not shun men but, on the contrary, delighted in being a city-goddess, most notably at Athens.
The Greeks always regarded Athena as an active goddess, involved in the affairs of men. She helped several Greek heroes such as BELLEROPHONE, JASON, HeraCLES, and PERSEUS. Also, it was she who eventually got ODYSSEUS back to the island of Ithaca, following his epic voyage home from the TROJAN WAR
One of the most influential and critical figures to appear throughout Greek mythology is the goddess Athena. But she also happens to be one of its most controversial deities because, at that time, she can appear as two entirely different people—both the villain and the hero of specific stories.
Athena was regarded as the goddess of numerous things, including wisdom, justice, strength, strategic warfare, and any skill ranging from artistic to craft. She was, of course, mainly known for two of these things. Her strategic skill in warfare, her wisdom, and it’s because of this association, you’d be hard-pressed to find any iconic or popular Greek stories that she doesn’t in some way feature in.
Athena’s vast popularity meant that her cultural, widespread, and often celebrated practices such as weaving, metalwork, and philosophy. The largest of these cults, of course, is located in Athens, not only because of the city’s importance but because that is where many people consider the name Athena to have come from in the first place.
The ancient Greeks would sometimes refer to Athena as “Pallas Athena”. The origins of the word Palace are still ambiguous. Some would argue that it was used to describe a young woman, whereas others believe something more combative means ‘brandish a weapon’.
When Athens called her Pallas Athena, this could be interpreted as referring to her as young Athena or even as Athena, the protector.
The exact meaning of the word is something that we can only really speculate about bu. Still, there’s the alternative belief that Pallas was an entirely separate entity slain by Athena.
In Ancient Greece, Pallas are a familiar name to see. So, it does make numerous appearances in several different stories as a handful of different people.
In one interpretation, Pallas is a giant slain by Athena, who then fled his skin as a trophy, wearing it as a cloak and an ever-present reminder of her victory. In another version, Pallas was Athena’s father, whom she killed when he attempted to assault her. Athena once again took his skin as a trophy.
So, there is a pattern forming in terms of taking a kill and turning it into a trophy, something to be proud of, and that is something you would expect from a warrior or Hunter of that given time. However, there is a version of this story that paints Athena in a far more positive manner.
In this story, Pallas was a childhood friend of Athena, accidentally slain during a sparring match between the two Athena. Of course, troubled and deeply saddened by the loss of a close friend, she took the name Pallas as a sign of respect and honour.
By doing this, Athena ensured that the name Pallas would never be forgotten, and neither would have fallen friend.
The Romans, of course, refers to Athena by a very different name. She was associated with the goddess Minerva, who many considered to be the Roman counterpart to the Greek Athena.
The Birth of Athena
We begin exploring the many stories of Athena with how she was born and the rather odd circumstances surrounding the entire situation. So, as many of you may already know, Athena is primarily regarded as the daughter of Zeus, but her mother isn’t something that we hear about too often.
Athena’s mother was a goddess known as Metis. A second-generation Titan that many associated with wisdom and craft, traits that she indeed passed down to her daughter. Metis was also considered the first real lover and spouse of Zeus, but as soon as they lay together, the same prophecy that haunted his father began to take hold of Zeus.
Uranus was overthrown by his son, Cronus, and the rest of his children. His father then told Cronus that the same thing would happen to him, so he swallowed his children to prevent it. But eventually, Zeus and the Olympians overthrew Cronus, causing history to repeat itself once again.
Uranus and Gaia then prophesized that Metis would bear Zeus children, more powerful and wiser than himself. Implying that they could one day possibly overthrow him as he had previously done to his father.
To stop this from happening, Zeus took a page out of his own father’s book. Swallowing Metis as a whole, but she had already conceived his child. We don’t hear much of Metis after this point onwards, so I think it’s safe to assume that she died sometime between being swallowed alive by Zeus and giving birth to Athena.
Zeus, however, began to experience excruciating headaches with no reason or explanation as to why. When the other gods and goddesses examined Zeus, they concluded that there might be something trapped inside.
They would then take an axe and cleaves uses opened to see what was inside, and from this gaping slit emerged Athena, fully grown and covered in armor from head to toe. The other gods were left speechless, admiring the goddess that was standing before them.
Over the years, historians and poets have made numerous claims about who Athena’s father could have been, but Zeus remains the most common answer to them all. There was, however, the notion that Athena was the first goddess to be conceived not from intercourse but through the presence of mind and thought.
But this idea of Zeus being the sole parent who conceived Athena did create some tension between himself and his wife, Hera. This led to her attempting the same thing. But it ultimately resulted in her giving birth to the misshape and deformed Hephaestus.
There are some accounts where Hephaestus was born long before Athena, and he was one of the gods responsible for opening Zeus’s head and freeing Athena.
This can get confusing, considering that Greek authors in mythology have several timelines that inherently contradict and clash with each other. But that’s not to say that either one of these stories is incorrect, more so that they were told at a different time in a different region.
The Story of Hephaestus and Athena
Whilst we are still on the topic of Athena and Hephaestus, there is one story that some of you may find either quite disturbing or rather amusing.
When the marriage between Aphrodite and Hephaestus had ended, he began to pursue Athena and make numerous advances that she would easily palm away. One day, during his routine rejection, Hephaestus got so excited—during what we can only assume was Athena resting away that he discharged on her thigh.
Athena, of course, disgusted and annoyed, wiped it off onto the ground, which of course wasn’t the ground; it was Gaia, who then fell pregnant and gave birth to the half serpent, a half-man known as Erichthonius, who would later become one of the great Kings of Athens.
If you are someone who’s wondered why Athena’s children are never mentioned, that’s because they never existed. Athena remained what many would consider a Virgin goddess, but there are some accounts where she took pity on Erichthonius because of the way he looked, adopted him, and raised him as her son.
To summarize the entire story, Hephaestus tried to have sex with his sister or stepsister but ended up impregnating his great grandmother, who gave birth to a snake boy, which was then raised by the sister he tried to have sex with initially.
I’d say that sounds weird, but it just sounds like a regular day Greek mythology.
The City of Athens
One of the most iconic stories featuring Athena involved Athens’s name and how she became its patron. The city that became Athens was founded by a half-man, half-snake creature, Cecrops. Cecrops would eventually become the King and named the city after himself, Cecropia. Under his reign, the city prospered greatly and was described as “so beautiful that it was a worthy home of a god”.
When the gods of Olympus saw this city, they argued over who would claim this territory.
The last two to settle this argument were, of course, Athena and her bitter rival Poseidon, who were both adamant that the patronage of the city should be an honour bestowed upon them.
To solve this dispute, Zeus decided that both Athena and Poseidon would give the King and his people a gift, and they would, in turn, determine who would be the patron.
Poseidon was first to present his gift to the King and his people. He took his Trident, and he slammed it down onto a Boulder, creating a spring from which emerged enough water that the people would never have to worry about drought again.
At first, Poseidon’s gift seemed like it couldn’t be matched by anything, but then the people realized that it was seawater, and it was practically useless in this.
Witnessing Poseidon’s failure, Athena then planted a single seed that would grow into an olive tree. The people of Cecropia overwhelmingly received this gift, not just because it provided them with food, oil, and firewood but also because the olive branch was a symbol of peace and stability.
With the gifts now received, the people of Cecropia had to choose between the two deities. But considering the two gifts that they were given and the overall practicality, Athena was chosen without hesitation. Thus, the cities name was changed to Athens to honour its new patron.
The sacred animal of Athens was then changed to an owl, and it would appear on both sides of coins as a symbol of wisdom as Athena, the patron. Olive trees would then be planted all around the city to replicate the gift given to them and encourage peace and prosperity.
Now, that’s not to say Athena as their new patron, the people of Athens didn’t encounter any problems because they certainly did. Poseidon’s gift may not have turned out the way he would have liked. But he identified a problem that Athens would face in the future. And drought is something that did plague Athens during the summer.
This does raise a few interesting questions as to what Poseidon could have done as a patron and what he would have named the city?
In the years that followed, it became common for scholars to argue as to which came first, whether Athena was named after the city or if the city was named after Athena. For the most part, they agreed that it was Athena who was named after this city.
Athena’s Involvements with the Greek Heroes
It is challenging to find a story of an iconic Greek hero that doesn’t involve Athena in some way, offering her guidance and counsel, which is why to many, she was considered the heroes patron.
Generally, in the heroes’ journey, they come across a problem that they cannot overcome, and this is often when we see Athena manifest and essentially save the day. In Perseus and Heracles’s stories, she appears to ensure that they are adequately equipped for their dangerous adventures.
When Perseus was tasked with retrieving Medusa’s head, he was given various weapons and equipment to aid him. Still, it was Athena who gave him the Bronze Polished shield that he could use as a mirror, making it so he could gaze upon Medusa without being turned to stone.
When Bellerophon embarked on his journey to kill the Chimera, he first travelled to Athena’s Temple for counsel. Here, Athena gave him a Golden bridle, allowing him to tame Pegasus and completely change the entire battle’s dynamic.
The most famous example of Athena as a patron and guide to Heroes is Heracles or Hercules, depending on which interpretation you’re most familiar with. Like Perseus, Heracles was a half-brother brother to Athena.
But there’s no doubt that she took an immense interest in this son of Zeus. From protecting and helping raise him as a child to ensuring that he was able to complete his 12 Labours and earn his redemption.
Over the years, Athena watched over Heracles, sometimes passively observing and intervening when she felt assistance was needed.
When Heracles needed to collect the golden apples from the Hesperides’ garden, he had the Titan Atlas collect them for him in some versions. In exchange, he would assume the Titans responsibilities in holding up the Sky. As strong as Heracles was, this was even beyond his capabilities. Athena will then intervene, assisting him in hoisting up the Sky until the Titans return.
We do see Athena intervene once again when Heracles face the Hydra, this time given him a Golden sword that he would use to cut off the Hydras last immortal head. For most of Heracles Labours, Athena is very much a spectator. She was acknowledging her brother’s desire to complete these Labours alone to earn his redemption. But she does, of course, intervene on numerous occasions.
If we consider that his Labours are continually being stacked against him by Hera and King Eurystheus, then Athena is essentially the great equalizer to Heracles’ story.
Another relatively well-known hero that Athena offered her guidance to, this time appearing in Homer’s work, where she guides Odysseus home and assists him in retaking his Kingdom.
But this scenario is slightly different from that of Heracles, where Athena assumes the older protective sister’s role. It is quite clear to us that she’s driven by emotion and the duty to protect her brother. Odysseus instead had to win the favour of Athena, which he did through his tactics.
Athena would appear to Odysseus on his journey home by entering his thoughts and guiding him, and then once again in person when back in Ithaca.
So, if you happen to be a hero back in ancient Greece, who needed assistance, the best thing you could do was earn the favour of Athena.
The Duality of Athena—the Hero and the Villain
On to what I think is the most interesting point of discussion, Athena’s duality—the hero and the villain.
Athena is a goddess that often people either hate or love, and that’s because she’s presented in two very different ways with two very different personalities. Most of this can be attributed to and explained by two viral stories—the story of Arachne and Medusa’s story.
What they seem to have in common is a theme of punishment. Or what many consider the in-just punishment of an undeserving individual.
What is lost on most people or what they just choose to ignore is that these stories have numerous interpretations. The Athena that you see in one story may not be the same goddess held in such high regard by the ancient Greek people.
It may be the interpretation of the Roman poet Ovid. This is an essential detail to consider because in both Ovid’s versions of Medusa and Arachne. Athena is too unsympathetic and heavily driven by emotion, jealousy, and anger—not precisely the pragmatic, common, wise goddess the ancient Greeks believed her to be.
Medusa is punished for being raped in Athena’s Temple and Arachne being the best over Athena in a weaving contest. My issue with these stories is just the two out of character for Athena.
We’ve established earlier that she can be driven by emotion concerning the story of Heracles. Still, Ovid’s depiction is just that of a bitter, jealous and irrational woman who’s extraordinarily unlikeable and honestly may as well be the villain of these stories.
To the ancient Greeks, Athena was a fair, just and wise protector. In Arachne’s story, when she completes her tapestry, Zeus punishes her and not Athena.
With the right key now disgraced and unable to weave, she attempts to commit suicide, but Athena takes pity upon her, transforming her into the first spider. In the form of spider webs, she can leave beautiful patterns just like she did with her tapestries.
The difference between these two stories is night and day. In Ovid’s interpretation, Athena is so angry that she loses the weaving contest that she beats Arachne before transforming her into a spider.
In the more traditional Greek versions, Arachne is punished by Zeus for her hubris. It’s in Athena who picks up the pieces and attempts to help directly the best she can.
The story of Medusa also does follow a similar trend. In Ovid’s version, Medusa is raped and then turned into a Gorgon to punish her. In the more traditional Greek interpretations, when Poseidon rapes Medusa, Athena transforms it into a gorgon to protect herself and ensure that it never happens again.
In the versions were, Medusa has sex with Poseidon in Athena’s temple, out of personal gain or spite. Athena’s punishment makes a lot more sense, and it’s a lot easier to justify. So, that’s the dilemma that most people find themselves faced with.
When you hear stories of Athena is the goddess of wisdom and a great protector through the ancient Greek people. Then you hear the interpretations of Ovid; it creates a disconnect because what you’re essentially saying is two different characters.
You can also claim that the story shows Minerva and not Athena, but it’s a distinction that many people are confused by. So, I guess the easiest way to summarize what I’ve just said is,
- If you see a story of Athena where she’s acting out of jealousy, spite, or just being a nuisance to people, then it’s probably one of Ovid’s Roman interpretations.
- If the story paints Athena in a far more caring and rational manner, it’s probably closer to her traditional Greek depictions.
To the ancient Greeks, Athena is probably the most widely celebrated and valued of all the female deities, serving as patron to many Greek cities. Her origins do stretch back to the Mycenaeans, whose religion is shrouded in mystery. But we do know that Athena appeared as a goddess of protection and household crafting.
Athena did suffer somewhat of character assassination when Greece became Christianized. She went from the Virgin goddess, who everybody admired, to someone who is condemned as an immodest, an immoral person.
However, the Greeks did transfer many of these attributes to the Virgin Mary, which is why she was often seen wearing the gorgoneion and appearing as a warrior maiden.
Athena is a topic I can write about for several hours, and still, there would be depictions and stories that I forget to mention. But in the coming future, we will cover the entirety of Athena’s stories. But in the meantime, please do check out our other stories by viewing our recommended articles below.