One of the great divinities of the Greeks. Homer1 calls her a daughter of Zeus, without any allusion to her mother or to the manner in which she was called into existence, while most of the later traditions agree in stating that she was born from the head of Zeus. According to Hesiod,2Metis, the first wife of Zeus, was the mother of Athena, but when Metis was pregnant with her, Zeus, on the advice of Gaea and Uranus, swallowed Metis up, and afterwards gave birth himself to Athena, who sprang from his head.3 Pindar4 adds, that Hephaestus split the head of Zeus with his axe, and that Athena sprang forth with a mighty war-shout. Others relate, that Prometheus or Hermes or Palamaon assisted Zeus in giving birth to Athena, and mentioned the river Triton as the place where the event took place.5 Other traditions again relate, that Athena sprang from the head of Zeus in full armor, a statement for which Stesichorus is said to have been the most ancient authority.6
All these traditions, however, agree in making Athena a daughter of Zeus; but a second set regard her as the daughter of Pallas, the winged giant, whom she afterwards killed on account of his attempting to violate her chastity, whose skin she used as her aegis, and whose wings she fastened to her own feet.7 A third tradition carries us to Libya, and calls Athena a daughter of Poseidon and Tritonis. Athena, says Herodotus,8 on one occasion became angry with her father and went to Zeus, who made her his own daughter. This passage shows more clearly than any other the manner in which genuine and ancient Hellenic myths were transplanted to Libya, where they were afterwards regarded as the sources of Hellenic ones. Respecting this Libyan Athena, it is further related, that she was educated by the river god Triton, together with his own daughter Pallas.9 In Libya she was also said to have invented the flute; for when Perseus had cut off the head of Medusa, and Stheno and Euryale, the sisters of Medusa, lamented her death, while plaintive sounds issued from the mouths of the serpents which surrounded their heads, Athena is said to have imitated these sounds on a reed.10
The connexion of Athena with Triton and Tritonis caused afterwards the various traditions about her birth-place, so that wherever there was a river or a well of that name, as in Crete, Thessaly, Boeotia, Arcadia, and Egypt, the inhabitants of those districts asserted that Athena was born there. It is from such birth-places on a river Triton that she seems to have been called Tritonis or Tritogeneia,11 though it should be observed that this surname is also explained in other ways; for some derive it from an ancient Cretan, Aeolic, or Boeotian word, τριτώ (tritō), signifying "head," so that it would mean "the goddess born from the head," and others think that it was intended to commemorate the circumstance of her being born on the third day of the month.12 The connexion of Athena with Triton naturally suggests, that we have to look for the most ancient seat of her worship in Greece to the banks of the river Triton in Boeotia, which emptied itself into lake Copais, and on which there were two ancient Pelasgian towns, Athenae and Eleusis, which were according to tradition swallowed up by the lake. From thence her worship was carried by the Minyans into Attica, Libya, and other countries.13
These various traditions about Athena arose, as in most other cases, from local legends and from identifications of the Greek Athena with other divinities. The common notion which the Greeks entertained about her, and which was most widely spread in the ancient world, is, that she was the daughter of Zeus, and if we take Metis to have been her mother, we have at once the clue to the character which she bears in the religion of Greece; for, as her father was the most powerful and her mother the wisest among the gods, so Athena was a combination of the two, that is, a goddess in whom power and wisdom were harmoniously blended. From this fundamental idea may be derived the various aspects under which she appears in the ancient writers. She seems to have been a divinity of a purely ethical character, and not the representative of any particular physical power manifested in nature; her power and wisdom appear in her being the protectress and preserver of the state and of social institutions. Everything, therefore, which gives to the state strength and prosperity, such as agriculture, inventions, and industry, as well as everything which preserves and protects it from injurious influence from without, such as the defense of the walls, fortresses, and harbors, is under her immediate care.
As the protectress of agriculture, Athena is represented as the inventor of the plow and rake: she created the olive tree, the greatest blessing of Attica, taught the people to yoke oxen to the plow, took care of the breeding of horses, and instructed men how to tame them by the bridle, her own invention. Allusions to this feature of her character are contained in the epithets βούδεια (boudeia), βοαρμία (boarmia), ἀλρίφα (alripha), ἱππία (hippia), or χαλινῖτις (chalinitis).15 At the beginning of spring thanks were offered to her in advance (προχαριστήρια, procharistēria)16 for the protection she was to afford to the fields. Besides the inventions relating to agriculture, others also connected with various kinds of science, industry, and art, are ascribed to her, and all her inventions are not of the kind which men make by chance or accident, but such as require thought and meditation. We may notice the invention of numbers,17 of the trumpet,18 the chariot, and navigation.
In regard to all kinds of useful arts, she was believed to have made men acquainted with the means and instruments which are necessary for practicing them, such as the art of producing fire. She was further believed to have invented nearly every kind of work in which women were employed, and she herself was skilled in such work: in short Athena and Hephaestus were the great patrons both of the useful and elegant arts. Hence she is called ἐργάνη (See Ergane),19 and later writers make her the goddess of all wisdom, knowledge, and art, and represent her as sitting on the right hand side of her father Zeus, and supporting him with her counsel.20
As the goddess who made so many inventions necessary and useful in civilized life, she is characterized by various epithets and surnames, expressing the keenness of her sight or the power of her intellect, such as ὀπτιλέτις (see Optiletis), ὀφθαλμῖτις (ophthalmitis), ὀξυδερκής (oxyderkēs), γλαυκῶπις (glaukōpis), πολύβουλος (polyboulos), πολύμητις (polymētis), and μηχανῖτις (mēchanitis).
As the patron divinity of the state, she was at Athens the protectress of the phratries and houses which formed the basis of the state. The festival of the Apaturia had a direct reference to this particular point in the character of the goddess.21 She also maintained the authority of the law, and justice, and order, in the courts and the assembly of the people. This notion was as ancient as the Homeric poems, in which she is described as assisting Odysseus against the lawless conduct of the suitors.22 She was believed to have instituted the ancient court of the Areopagus, and in cases where the votes of the judges were equally divided, she gave the casting one in favor of the accused.23 The epithets which have reference to this part of the goddess' character are άξιόποινος (axiopoinos), the avenger,24βουλαῖα (boulaia), and ἀγυραῖα (agyraia).25
As Athena promoted the internal prosperity of the state, by encouraging agriculture and industry, and by maintaining law and order in all public transactions, so also she protected the state from outward enemies, and thus assumes the character of a warlike divinity, though in a very different sense from Ares, Eris, or Enyo. According to Homer,26 she does not even bear arms, but borrows them from Zeus; she keeps men from slaughter when prudence demands it,27 and repels Ares' savage love of war, and conquers him.28 She does not love war for its own sake, but simply on account of the advantages which the state gains in engaging in it; and she therefore supports only such warlike undertakings as are begun with prudence, and are likely to be followed by favorable results.29
The epithets which she derives from her warlike character are ἀγελεία (See Ageleia), λαφρία (laphria), ἀλκιμάχη (alkimachē), λαόσσοος (laossoos), and others. In times of war, towns, fortresses, and harbours are under her especial care, whence she is designated as ερυσίπτολις (erysiptolis), ἀλαλκομενηΐς (alalkomenēis), πολιάς (polias), πολιοῦχος (poliouchos), ἀκραῖα (akraia), ἀκρία (akria), κληδοῦχος (klēdouchos), πυλαῖτις (pylaitis), προμαχόρμα (see Promachorma), and the like.
As the prudent goddess of war, she is also the protectress of all heroes who are distinguished for prudence and good counsel, as well as for their strength and valor, such as Heracles, Perseus, Bellerophon, Achilles, Diomedes, and Odysseus. In the war of Zeus against the Gigantes, she assisted her father and Heracles with her counsel, and also took an active part in it, for she buried Enceladus under the island of Sicily, and slew Pallas.30 In the Trojan war she sided with the more civilized Greeks, though on their return home she visited them with storms, on account of the manner in which the Locrian Ajax had treated Cassandra in her temple. As a goddess of war and the protectress of heroes, Athena usually appears in armor, with the aegis and a golden staff, with which she bestows on her favorites youth and majesty.31
The character of Athena, as we have here traced it, holds a middle place between the male and female, whence she is called in an Orphic hymn32ἄρσην καὶ θῆλυς (arsēn kai thēlys), and hence also she is a virgin divinity,33 whose heart is inaccessible to the passion of love, and who shuns matrimonial connexion. Tiresias was deprived of his sight for having seen her in the bath,34 and Hephaestus, who made an attempt upon her chastity, was obliged to flee.35 For this reason, the ancient traditions always describe the goddess as dressed; and when Ovid36 makes her appear naked before Paris, he abandons the genuine old story. Her statue also was always dressed, and when it was carried about at the Attic festivals, it was entirely covered. But, notwithstanding the common opinion of her virgin character, there are some traditions of late origin which describe her as a mother. Thus, Apollo is called a son of Hephaestus and Athena — a legend which may have arisen at the time when the Ionians introduced the worship of Apollo into Attica, and when this new divinity was placed in some family connexion with the ancient goddess of the country.37 Lychnus also is called a son of Hephaestus and Athena.38
Athena was worshiped in all parts of Greece, and from the ancient towns on the lake Copais her worship was introduced at a very early period into Attica, where she became the great national divinity of the city and the country. Here she was afterwards regarded as the δεὰ σώτειρα (dea sōteira), ὐγίεια (ygieia), and παιωνία (paiōnia), and the serpent, the symbol of perpetual renovation, was sacred to her.39 At Lindus in Rhodes her worship was likewise very ancient. Respecting its introduction into Italy, and the modifications which her character underwent there, see Minerva.
Among the things sacred to her we may mention the owl, serpent, cock, and olive-tree, which she was said to have created in her contest with Poseidon about the possession of Attica.40 At Corone in Messenia her statue bore a crow in its hand.41 The sacrifices offered to her consisted of bulls, whence she probably derived the surname of ταυροβόλος (taurobolos),42 rams, and cows.43 Eustathius44 remarks, that only female animals were sacrificed to her, but no female lambs. In Ilion, Locrian maidens or children are said to have been sacrificed to her every year as an atonement for the crime committed by the Locrian Ajax upon Cassandra; and Suidas45 states, that these human sacrifices continued to be offered to her down to 346 BCE.46
Athena was frequently represented in works of art; but those in which her figure reached the highest ideal of perfection were the three statues by Pheidias. The first was the celebrated colossal statue of the goddess, of gold and ivory, which was erected on the acropolis of Athens; the second was a still greater bronze statue, made out of the spoils taken by the Athenians in the battle of Marathon; the third was a small bronze statue called the beautiful or the Lemnian Athena, because it had been dedicated at Athens by the Lemnians. The first of these statues represented the goddess in a standing position, bearing in her hand a Nike four cubits in height. The shield stood by her feet; her robe came down to her feet, on her breast was the head of Medusa, in her right hand she bore a lance, and at her feet there lay a serpent.48 We still possess a great number of representations of Athena in statues, colossal busts, reliefs, coins, and in vase-paintings.
Among the attributes which characterise the goddess in these works of art, we mention:
- The helmet, which she usually wears on her head, but in a few instances carries in her hand. It is usually ornamented in the most beautiful manner with griffins, heads of rams, horses, and sphinxes.49
- The aegis.50
- The round Argolic shield. in the centre of which is represented the head of Medusa.
- Objects sacred to her, such as an olive branch, a serpent, an owl, a cock, and a lance. Her garment is usually the Spartan tunic without sleeves, and over it she wears a cloak, the peplus, or, though rarely, the chlamys. The general expression of her figure is thoughtfulness and earnestness; her face is rather oval than round, the hair is rich and generally combed backwards over the temples, and floats freely down behind. The whole figure is majestic, and rather strong built than slender: the hips are small and the shoulders broad, so that the whole somewhat resembles a male figure.
Athena appears in all the periods of Greek vase paintings, often as arbiter in a conflict or participating in one. A special type of Greek vases are the trophy amphorae of the Panathenaea: one these Athena is always depicted ready for battle, standing between two pillars crowned which a rooster and a Nike. The style of these amphorae is always black-figure and they appear from ca. 550-300 BCE.
One of the most famous statues of Athena are the Athena Parthenos (ca. 438 BCE) in the Parthenon, the Athena Promachos, and the Athena Lemnia, both at the Acropolis (ca. 447 BCE). The first two are lost, but the Athena Lemnia is known through copies, such as a head in Bologna. From the early fifth century are the Athena and Marsyas Group (school of Myron) and the Athena from the tympanum of the temple at Aegina. Roman statues of Athena include the Athena Albani, Athena Farnese, and the Athena Velletri.
An archaic metope by Silenus (early sixth century BCE) shows Athena as the protectress of Perseus, and a metope of the temple of Zeus at Olympia (fifth century BCE) shows her assisting Heracles. An intriguing relief, often attributed to Myron and called Athena at the border-stone, shows her as a youthful figure in a pensive pose leaning on her spear.
Her head is depicted on Athenian coins since ca. 650 BCE with an owl on the opposite side. Her countenance is also found on gem stones, such as the one by Aspasius. A silver platter by Hildesheim (Hellenic) depicts her seated, wearing a helmet and grasping the shield with her left hand.
- Iliad v, 880.
- Theogony, 886 ff.
- Hesiod, l.c., 924.
- Olympian Odes vii, 35 ff.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library i, 4.6; Scholiast on Pindar's Olympian Odes vii, 66.
- Tzetzes on Lycophron, 355; Philostratus. Imagines ii, 27; Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius, iv, 1310.
- Tzetzes on Lycophron, l.c.; Cicero. On the Nature of the Gods iii, 23.
- iv, 180.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library iii, 12.3.
- Pindar. Pythian Odes xii, 19 ff.; compare the other accounts in Hyginus. Fabulae, 165; Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library i, 4.2; Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 24.1.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece ix, 33.5.
- Tzetzes on Lycophron, 519.
- Müller. Orchomenos und die Minyer, 355.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece ix, 34.1; Tzetzes on Lycophron, 355.
- Eustathius on Homer, p. 1076; Tzetzes on Lycophron, 520; Hesychius s.v. Hippia; Servius on Virgil's Aeneid iv, 402; Pindar. Olympian Odes xiii, 79.
- Suidas, s.v.
- Livy. History of Rome vii, 3.
- Böckh, on Pindar, 344.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 24.3.
- Homer. Odyssey xxiii 160, xviii, 190; Hymn to Aphrodite, 4, 7 ff.; Plutarch. Cimon, 10; Ovid. Fasti iii, 833; Orphic Hymn 21, 8; Spanheim, on Callimachus, 643; Horace. Carmina i, 12. 19; comp. Dictionary of Antiquities under Athenaia and Chalkeia.
- Dictionary of Antiquities, s.v. Apaturia.
- Odyssey xiii, 394.
- Aeschylus. Eumenides, 753; comp. Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 28.5.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece iii, 15.4.
- ibid. iii, 11.8.
- Iliad v, 736 ff.
- ibid. i, 199 ff.
- ibid. v, 840 ff.; xxi, 406.
- ibid. x, 244 ff.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library i, 6.1 ff.; comp. Spanheim, on Callimachus, 643; Horace. Carmina i, 12. 19.
- Homer. Odyssey xvi, 172.
- ibid. xxi, 10.
- Homer. Hymns, ix, 3.
- Callim. Hymns, 546, 589.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library iii, 6.7, 14.6; Homer. Iliad ii, 547 ff.; comp. Tzetzes on Lycophron, 111.
- Heroid. v, 36.
- Müller. Die Dorier ii, 2.13.
- Spanheim, on Callimachus, 644.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 23.5, 31.3, 2.4.
- Plutarch. Isis and Osiris; Pausanias. Description of Greece vi, 26.2, i, 24.3; Hyginus. Fabulae, 164.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece iv, 34.3.
- Suidas, s.v.
- Homer. Iliad ii, 550; Ovid. Metamorphoses iv, 754.
- On Homer, l.c.
- s.v. ποινή.
- Respecting the great festivals of Athena at Athens, see Dictionary of Antiquities s.v. Panathenaea and Arrhephoria.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 24.7, 28.2.
- Comp. Homer. Iliad v, 743.
- Dictionary of Antiquities, s.v. Aegis.
- Aken, Dr. A.R.A. van. (1961). Elseviers Mythologische Encyclopedie. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.