Tap to Read ➤

Greek Goddess Athena: The Goddess of Wisdom and War

Madhavi Ghare
She was the Greek Olympian goddess of wisdom and warfare, and the patroness and protectress of the city of Athens. Here's a brief insight into the personality of the venerated being that was Athena.

Athena and the Olive Tree

An epithet describing Athena as 'gray-eyed' is closely linked to her association with the olive tree. The underside of an olive leaf is gray, and hence it is believed to be representing the eye of the goddess.

Your browser doesn't support HTML5 video.

Athena, the Greek goddess of battles and the stately protector of the armies, was a great and an implacable warrior herself. Though she was the goddess of warfare and battles, she did not engage in brutality or unfair means to win the war, like god Ares.
On the contrary, she is regarded as the goddess of strategies and a disciplined aspect of war. However, her domain is not just limited to the battlefield.
She is also considered as the goddess of wisdom, handicrafts, agriculture, navigation, metalworking, and of all the other arts and crafts associated with urbanism and human civilization. And of course, she was the guardian deity and patroness of the Greek city of Athens, a position that she had won after contesting for the same.

Athena in Greek Mythology

While looking at the mythological traditions of a particular region, it is very interesting how characters make their way into the mainstream myths. History tells us that there are numerous instances, where cultures have borrowed mythological characters from one another.
Greek mythology is not an exception to this phenomenon, as we see a host of mythological and mythical characters being borrowed from other cultures. Subsequently, characters were borrowed from the Greek tradition as well, by some of the other succeeding cultures.
Some scholars have suggested that the incorporation of goddess Athena in the mythology of the ancient Greeks, may be the result of a similar phenomenon.
It has been argued that the name 'Athena' does not seem 'Greek', and that the ending -na may belong to the language of the non-Greek inhabitants of mainland Greece, who occupied the region before the Greeks. Even during that time, Athena might have been the main deity of the rulers, and might have guarded their royal residences.
Her association with warfare may have been a possible consequence of her connection with the ruling class. Some of the supposedly pre-Greek versions of the goddess depict her decked up in war gear, and holding weapons.
In the subsequent period (after around 2100 B.C.), when Greek invaders might have invaded mainland Greece, Athena, along with numerous other gods and goddesses, may have been incorporated in the Greek religious faith, which was still in its developing phase.
Nevertheless, the goddess did manage to retain her status as a guardian deity, as well as her association with warfare.

Myths Surrounding her Birth

There are numerous myths associated with the birth of Athena that narrate how she was born, and to whom. Some of the most popular ones are as under:
Credit: C Painter (artist) (User:Bibi Saint-Pol, own work)/ via Wikimedia Commons (PD)
* The image shows Athena coming out of Zeus' head.
• The Olympian version of the tale of Athena's birth, affirms that she was the daughter of god Zeus and his second wife, Metis. It had been prophesied that if a son was born to Zeus and Metis, he would be more powerful than his father, and would eventually overthrow his father's rule.
Frightened and insecure by the prophecy, Zeus tricked Metis into transforming into a fly, and swallowed her, in order to avoid everything that had been foretold. However, he was not aware that Metis was already pregnant at that time.
While in Zeus' stomach, she began to make helmet and armor for her unborn child, and the hammering that she did in the process, caused an excruciating headache to Zeus.
Unable to bear it any longer, Zeus summoned Hermes (some sources also mention Prometheus, Hephaestus, Ares, and Palaemon, instead of Hermes), and asked him to cut open his head and remove the source of his torment. Hermes took his labrys, a Minoan double-axe, and the moment he cut open Zeus' head, Athena popped out of it, completely armed and fully grown-up.
Another variation of the myth surrounding Athena's birth, occurs in the Homeric hymn. It does not mention Metis or any other female divinity as Athena's mother. Instead, it says that Zeus himself gave birth to the goddess from his head, and she was born an adult, wearing a divine armor.
Fragments of the recorded history, written supposedly prior to the Trojan war by a Phoenician historian called Sanchuniathon, state that Athena was the daughter of Cronus, the ruler of Byblos, a Greek name for the Phoenician city of Gebal.
Cronus was also the head of the first generation of Titans, whose son Zeus, and others, defeated the Titans and established their sway on Mount Olympus. So, if one goes by this myth with respect to the birth of Athena, she becomes the sister of Zeus, and not his daughter.
Yet another myth regarding the goddess' birth tells us that she was not an Olympian at all. Instead, she was born outside Olympus, and was raised by Triton, the messenger of the big sea. Triton was the son of Poseidon, and the father of Pallas.
Whatever the origin of the goddess may have been, there is no denying the fact that she is one of the most important Greek divinities, without whom, the Greek pantheon cannot complete. Nevertheless, the myth saying that she was the daughter of Zeus and Metis is the most accepted one.
Moreover, her birth from Zeus' head, allegorizes the three basic characteristics of her personality viz., her wisdom, her virgin nature, and her military prowess.

Pallas Athena

Pallas is one of the most common epithets of Athena, and in the Homeric verses, she has been mostly referred to as Pallas Athena. The exact origin and meaning of the epithet are still obscure.
However, the most accepted interpretation of the word 'Pallas' is 'girl' or 'maiden'. Thus, Athena may be referred to as 'Girl Athena' or 'Maiden Athena', epithets which further affirm her virgin status.
Some sources also suggest that the term 'Pallas' may have been derived from 'pallien', an archaic term for 'brandish', as Athena was known for brandishing her spear.
We know from the sources that when Athena was a child, she had a companion by the name 'Pallas', who was also the daughter of Palaemon. One day, Athena killed Pallas accidentally while playing, and was subsequently struck by grief.
She later took Pallas' name in order to honor her childhood friend. Apollodorus, an ancient Greek historian, recounts a similar instance in which young Athena and her friend Pallas, daughter of Triton in this case, are practicing war exercises.
However, the fight gets nasty, and when Pallas is just about to strike Athena with her weapon, Zeus intervenes and strikes Pallas with his aegis. This stuns Pallas and distracts her attention.
Taking an immediate note of this, Athena makes a final fatal attack on her, and later feels guilty about her death. Owing to this, Athena takes on her friend's name, and thereafter calls herself Pallas Athena.
There is yet another myth telling us how Athena came to be known as Pallas Athena. According to it, there was a giant named 'Pallas', who was killed by Athena during Gigantomachy, the war between gods and giants. She then, flayed him, and made a shield out of his skin. This was why, she got the title of 'Pallas'.

Athena Parthenos

Credit: Nordisk familjebok/via Wikimedia Commons(PD) 
* The image on previous slide shows the illustration of Athena Parthenos, as it appears in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd editions of the Nordisk Familjebok (Nordic Family Book), a Swedish encyclopedia published between 1876 and 1957.
Athena is the only virgin goddess in the entire Greek pantheon. Sources state that she never had a companion, a lover or a consort and hence, was given the title Athena Parthenos or Virgin Athena.
Parthenon, her famous shrine on the Athenian Acropolis, gets its name from this title of the goddess. There are several Greek myths surrounding Athena, and the importance she attested to virginity and chastity of a woman.
Hephaestus, the Greek god of blacksmiths, fire, and volcanoes, got attracted to Athena's beauty and attempted to rape her. Though Athena managed to escape his attempt, his semen fell on earth, and thus was born Erichthonius from Gaia, the Earth goddess.
However, later on, Athena raised the child as her foster son. In the later times, when Erichthonius became the king of Athens, Athena is said to have protected him numerous times during battles.
Another later myth belonging to 5th century B.C., involves Poseidon and Medusa. In the 5th century B.C., Medusa was perceived as a beautiful maiden, who was also the priestess of one of the temples of Athena. When Poseidon saw her, he was instantly attracted to her, and decided to rape her within the premises of the temple.
Upon seeing such a heinous act happening in her shrine, Athena transformed Medusa into a fierce-looking gorgon, and also assured that whoever looked into Medusa's eyes, instantly turned to stone.
Yet another myth tells us the story of Tiresias, the prophet of Thebes, who turned blind. One day, while roaming around, Tiresias accidentally stumbled upon Athena, and saw her in the act of bathing. When Athena realized that she was being watched, she took away Tiresias' eyesight, and told him that he would never again see what he was not supposed to see.
But, since she knew that he was a very learned prophet, and the world could benefit from his knowledge, she gifted him with the ability to interpret the language of birds, which would help him further in making prophecies.
Thus, what grabs attention is not merely her virgin status, but the pivotal role that Athena played in laying and enforcing the rules regarding sexual modesty. These became the very base of the standardized patriarchal approach adopted by the ancient Greek society.

Athena and Athens

Credit: Nazzano Painter (artist) (Marie-Lan Nguyen (2007)/via Wikimedia Commons (PD)
* The image shows Athena and Poseidon standing face-to-face for the contest.
Athena is viewed as the guardian goddess of the city of Athens. Whether the city got its name from the goddess, or the goddess from the city, is a debatable issue.
But, we know for sure about the control that the goddess had over the city, and its people. She was both, the patron, and the protector of the city, and she kept a keen eye on it from her abode on the Athenian Acropolis.
Athena however, did not become the patroness of Athens all of a sudden. She had to fight (not in the literal sense) in order to achieve the position. She had to win a competition against Poseidon, who was also in the race to become the patron of Athens.
Because both of them were interested in claiming Athens for themselves, it was decided that both of them would gift the Athenians, things that they thought the people needed most. The judges of the contest were the local Athenians, who were to decide which of the two endowments was the best for their city.
Poseidon thrust his trident into the ground and a spring gushed forth. Although the spring created a port in the city which enhanced the prospects of long-distance maritime trade, its water was salty, and not suitable for drinking. Athena, on the other hand, endowed the city with an olive tree.
As this tree could provide food, wood, and oil to the city, it was regarded as a superior gift than the salt water spring. Athena was thus, declared the winner of the contest, and was officially proclaimed as the patroness of Athens as well as Attica.
Poseidon, not very pleased by the result, decided to stay calm because Zeus, the king of the Olympians, had forbidden both of them from any personal battle. Following the victory of the goddess in the contest, the Athenians built her temple on the Acropolis, which contained her standing figure in the center.
Apart from Athens, Athena is also the patroness of some other Greek cities such as Sparta and Tegea, the important sites in regards to her cult. For instance, at Tegea, the goddess was revered under the archaic cult name, Athena Alea. Initially, Alea was an independent deity, but was later on equated to, and eventually assimilated within the cult of Athena.

The Goddess of War

As mentioned before, Athena is considered as the goddess of just and fair warfare, and the defender of heroes. It is quite obvious that because she is essentially associated with war, she will be attracted to the various instruments of war as well.
But, the most interesting facets of her association with warfare are some of the inventions that are considered to be made by the goddess. Two of them are particularly significant. Athena is said to be the inventor of the war chariot and the art of taming horses.
Some of the myths tell us how she helped even the mortals to learn the techniques of warfare. For instance, according to an ancient myth, Bellerophon, one of the mythical Greek mortal heroes, credited to have slain many giants and monsters, was trying in vain to tame the divine winged horse Pegasus.
One night, while he was sleeping in the shrine of Athena, the goddess appeared in his dream and gave him a celestial bridle, which she asked him to use for taming the horse. When he woke up in the morning, he actually found the bridle lying next to him, with which, he could easily tame the immortal beast.
* The image depicts the horse gifted to the Trojans by Athena, containing fully armed Greek soldiers.
Apart from chariots and horses, warships also seemed to interest Athena. The goddess is said to have supervised the construction of a mythical warship named Argo. The Argo is also considered to be a precursor of the fifty-oared warships used during historical times.
Added to this, sources also claim that she was one of the best war strategists of her time. The idea of sending a wooden horse as a gift to the city of Troy, was given to the Greeks by the goddess herself. She knew that the Trojans would never refuse a gift from her.
The innocent Trojans opened their city gates without a faintest idea of what the Greeks had planned for them. As soon as the horse entered the city, the Greek soldiers, fully armed, came out of it and attacked Troy, thus initiating the famous Trojan war.
It is very interesting to note that despite being regarded as the goddess of warfare, Athena never really went out on a battlefield to fight, except at some rare occasions. On the contrary, she was the one who led the army from behind the scenes, in that she planned and laid out war strategies, gave valuable counseling to the generals, and so on.
Credit: Python (potter) and Douris (painter) (User:Bibi Saint-Pol, own work)/via Wikimedia Commons (PD)
* The image shows Athena counseling Heracles.
She is said to have helped Heracles thrice, during his three different labors. Slaying of the Nemean lion was the first of the twelve labors of Heracles, set for him by king Eurystheus of Tiryns. Athena told Heracles, the way to kill the monster, and to flay it with its own claws.
Next, she aided Heracles during his sixth labor to defeat the man-eating Stymphalian birds. Classical texts also tell us that Heracles was also helped by Athena during his twelfth labor, in which he had to defeat and capture Cerberus, the three-headed dog, and the protector of the gates to the underworld.
In his quest for Cerberus, Athena helped Heracles navigate through the Styx, the river that flows between the earth and the underworld.
When Perseus, the legendary Greek hero, was out to kill Medusa, the only mortal gorgon in the world, Athena was the one to ask him to search for the whereabouts of the Hesperides, the guardian nymphs of the orchard of Hera. The Hesperides had all the weapons that could kill Medusa.
Athena also helped Odysseus, the hero of Homer's Odyssey and the mythical ruler of the Greek kingdom of Ithaca, on his homeward journey from Troy. She also helped him win back his lost kingdom, after he returned home.
Amidst her associations with war and wisdom, lies Athena's connection with music. She was inspired by the lamentations of Medusa's siblings, which they sung after their sister's death. The goddess then, invented a flute known as Aulos, which came to be regarded as the symbol of hope.

Patroness of Arts and Crafts

Athena is also regarded as the patroness of handicrafts, especially when she is not in her amazonian moods. Though she is the deity presiding over arts and crafts practiced by both genders, her specific accomplishments lie in the more household and feminine crafts of spinning and weaving.
We find references to the weaving skills of Athena in Homer's literature, where he mentions about the robes with intricate weaving made by Athena for herself, and for Hera.
Because she is considered as a deity presiding over feminine arts and crafts, she is worshiped extensively by women, especially housewives. Even in some of the artistic depictions, she has been shown holding a spindle in one of her hands. However, such depictions are extremely rare as compared to the ones in which she has been portrayed as a warrior.
Also, during Panathenaea, a religious festival that was held in Athens in honor of their patroness, an intricately embellished robe, the peplos, weaved by the Athenian women would be presented to the goddess. Her statue on the Athenian Acropolis would be clothed with the peplos, and only then the festival would conclude.
With respect to this angle of Athena's personality, one of the later myths seems to be of particular significance. It tells us about Arachne, the daughter of a famous dyer of Lydia, who studied the art of weaving from Athena. Arachne became so proud of her weaving skills that she began to claim that she was better than Athena in the art.
When Athena came to know about this, she disguised herself as an old woman, and went to Arachne to warn her, not to offend the gods. But, Arachne arrogantly challenged her for a contest, in order to show off her weaving skills. Athena weaved the story of her contest with Poseidon.
On the other hand, Arachne weaved a tapestry depicting the many scandalous love affairs of various gods. According to the narration of the ancient Greek historian Ovid in Metamorphoses, though the tapestry was extraordinary and flawless, the subject that Arachne chose outraged the goddess.
As a punishment for the terrible sin she had committed, Athena transformed Arachne into a spider. Athena also destroyed Arachne's tapestry and loom.
Apart from the arts of weaving and spinning, Athena also excelled in the art of cooking, and chose to teach it to the Athenian housewives. She is also credited as being the inventor of a rake, an ox yoke, and a plow, which shows her close connection with agricultural activities as well.


Much like the other gods and goddesses, Athena is also known by various epithets that describe her qualities and characteristics.
Homer's Iliad describes Athena as Glaukopis meaning 'bright-eyed' or 'owl-eyed', an epithet that explains her sharp and clear vision.
She was worshiped as Aethyta in Attica. Aethyta comes from the root aithyia, which pertains to a ship or a diver. So, this epithet relates to her shipbuilding and navigation skills.
Tritogeneia was an epithet given to Athena by Homer, and Hesiod, a classical poet. It may relate to her association with Triton. In this context, she is also referred to as Tritonia.
Greek historian Plutarch gave Athena, the epithet of Hygieia, meaning 'the healer'.
Besides these epithets, she also had numerous cult titles such as Athena Hippeia, Athena Alea, and of course the two mentioned above viz., Athena Parthenos and Pallas Athena.

Cult and Worship

The ancient or what may be called the original cult of Athena, centered around Athens and the Acropolis, where Parthenon is located. It was in the Parthenon that the actual cult image of the goddess was installed. It was a wooden statue plated with gold and ivory.
Interestingly, it was clothed with the real peplos, woven by the Athenian women. This also indicates that the goddess received a new peplos after every four years, when the Panathenaea was held.
Another important festival that involved the goddess was Arrephoria. During one of the ceremonies in this festival, two aristocratic maidens dressed in white garments, descended from Parthenon into a secret sanctuary of goddess Aphrodite, and her son Eros, located under the ground.
The maidens carried with them, "unspoken items", which they were supposed to deposit in the sanctuary. The ritual probably symbolized a synthesis of two completely opposite forces.
Similar rituals were also practiced in honor of the goddess in Sparta, Argos, Troezen, and Epidaurus. This was due to the fact that apart from being the patroness of Athens, she was also a generic deity, who could be invoked by anyone and everyone. So, generally, she was invoked during events such as civic elections, or when the states were at war.

Iconography and Depictions in Art

* The image shows a completely armed statue of Pallas Athena, outside the Austrian Parliament in Vienna.
Sculptural representations of Athena, and her Roman avatar, Minerva, are numerous. In most instances, she is depicted as a woman decked up in wargear, ready to go to the battlefield.
She covers her head with a helmet that is raised high on the forehead. It bears an image of Nike (the goddess of victory) on it.
She wears a full-length chiton, a sewn garment that is sometimes covered by a warrior's armor.
Her shield, and the aegis that was given to her by Zeus, were traditionally carved with the face of Medusa, reminding us of the myth of Perseus and the gorgon, in which she was involved.
All her statues, except some, have a spear or a staff in the right hand, and the left hand either holds an owl or a shield or in extremely rare instances, a spindle.
The owl, in some cases, perches on one of her shoulders or sits near her feet. Sometimes, a snake is also depicted near her feet.
Numerous numismatic evidences portray Athena in a seated posture, holding a spear in her left hand, and a shield in the right. Here too, she is dressed as a warrior.
One of the rarest sculptural depictions is a relief called Mourning Athena. It portrays a tired and a weary Athena, with bowed head rested on her staff.
Paintings on classical pottery depict the goddess in action, performing some or the other of her various feats, or counseling some or the other mortal.
The classical artists seemed to put a lot of weightage on the facial features of the goddess.
Apart from a strong and a robust built, the goddess was also depicted with facial features that had masculine traits. Her round face, high nose, and deeply set eyes, alongside her unsmiling lips, long neck, and a narrow mouth, make her seem serious, attentive, calm, and aggressive, all at the same time.
Despite the fact that she was an immortal divinity and the goddess of wisdom, Athena could not escape the common feminine instincts of envy and jealousy.
In the episode, aptly named as The Judgment of Paris, when Paris, a Trojan prince declared that Aphrodite was the fairest of all goddesses, Athena and Hera were overcome by jealousy, and they encouraged Prince Paris to abduct Helen of Troy. This abduction was the root cause of the famous Trojan war that caused large-scale destruction to life and property.
Athena is one goddess in the Greek pantheon, of whom very few, if any, disgraceful tales exist. Her personality seemed to have made an 'androgynous compromise', in that she bore both masculine and feminine attributions.
In other words, everything that she represented could be associated with both, men and women. Being the only virgin goddess in the Greek pantheon, who gave people a moral and a just way of life, Athena is doubtlessly one of the most important divinities of the ancient Greek religion.