2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Divinities

Helmeted Athena, of the Velletri type. Roman copy (1st century) of a Greek original by Kresilas, c. 430 BC
Helmeted Athena, of the Velletri type. Roman copy (1st century) of a Greek original by Kresilas, c. 430 BC

In Greek mythology, Athena ( Greek: Ἀθηνᾶ, Athēnâ, or Ἀθήνη, Athénē; Doric: Ἀσάνα, Asána) was the goddess of civilization, specifically wisdom, weaving, and crafts . Athena's wisdom encompasses the technical knowledge employed in weaving, metal-working, but also includes the cunning intelligence ( metis) of such figures as Odysseus. The owl and the olive tree are sacred to her.

She is attended by an owl, wears a goatskin breastplate called the Aegis given to her by her father, Zeus, and is accompanied by the goddess of victory, Nike. She is often shown helmeted and with a shield bearing the Gorgon Medusa's head, a votive gift of Perseus. Athena is an armed warrior goddess, and appears in Greek mythology as a helper of many heroes, including Heracles, Jason, and Odysseus. She never had a consort or lover, and thus was often known as Athena Parthenos ("Athena the virgin"), hence her most famous temple, the Parthenon, on the Acropolis in Athens. In her role as a protector of the city, Athena was worshipped throughout the Greek world as Athena Polias ("Athena of the city"). She had a special relationship with Athens, as is shown by the etymological connection of the names of the goddess and the city.

Athena is associated with Athens, a plural name because it was the place where she presided over her sisterhood, the Athenai, in earliest times. Athena was probably already a goddess in the Aegean in prehistoric times. There is evidence that in early times, Athena was an owl herself, or a bird goddess in general. In Book 3 of the Odyssey, she takes the form of a sea-eagle. Her tasseled aegis may be the remnants of wings: she is depicted with wings on Archaic red-figure pottery.

In the Olympian pantheon, Athena was remade as the favorite daughter of Zeus, born fully armed from his forehead after he swallowed her mother, Metis. The story of her birth comes in several versions. In the one most commonly cited, Zeus lay with Metis, the goddess of crafty thought and wisdom, but immediately feared the consequences. It had been prophesied that Metis would bear children more powerful than the sire, even Zeus himself. In order to forestall these dire consequences, Zeus transformed Metis into a fly and swallowed her immediately after lying with her. He was too late: Metis had already conceived a child. Metis immediately began making a helmet and robe for her fetal daughter. The hammering as she made the helmet caused Zeus great pain and Prometheus, Hephaestus, Hermes or Palaemon (depending on the sources examined) cleaved Zeus's head with the double-headed Minoan axe (the labrys of the Great Goddess). Athena leaped from Zeus's head, fully grown and armed, and Zeus was none the worse for the experience.

Fragments attributed to the semi-legendary Phoenician historian Sanchuniathon, said to have written before the Trojan war, make Athena instead the daughter of Cronus, a king of Byblos who is said to have visited 'the inhabitable world' and bequeathed Attica to Athena.

Name, etymology and origin

The Athena Giustiniani, a Roman copy of a Greek statue of Pallas Athena (Vatican Museums)
The Athena Giustiniani, a Roman copy of a Greek statue of Pallas Athena (Vatican Museums)

Athena's name is possibly of Lydian origin. It may be a compound word derived in part from Tyrrhenian "ati", meaning "mother" and the name of the Hurrian Goddess " Hannahannah" shortened in various places to "Ana". In Mycenaean Greek, she possibly appears in a single inscription in the Linear B tablets: A-ta-na-po-ti-ni-ja /Athana potniya/ appears on a text from the Late Minoan II-era "Room of the Chariot Tablets" in Knossos, the earliest Linear B archive anywhere. Though this phrase is often translated as "Mistress Athena", it literally means "the potnia of At(h)ana", which perhaps means "the Lady of Athens"; it is uncertain whether there is any connection to the city of Athens. We also find A-ta-no-dju-wa-ja /Athana diwya/, the final part being the Linear B spelling of what we know from ancient Greek as Diwia (Mycenaean di-u-ja or di-wi-ja) "divine" Athena was also a weaver and the god of crafts. (see dyeus).

In his dialogue Cratylus, Plato gives the etymology of Athena's name based on the view of the ancient Athenians, from A-theo-noa (A-θεο-νόα) or E-theo-noa (H-θεο-νόα) meaning "the mind of God" (Cratylus 407b). Plato, and also Herodotus, noted that the Egyptian citizens of Sais in Egypt worshipped a goddess whose Egyptian name was Neith; they identified her with Athena. ( Timaeus 21e), ( Histories 2:170-175).

Epithets and cult titles

In poetry from Homer onward, Athena's most common epithet is glaukopis (γλαυκώπις), which is usually translated "bright-eyed" or "with gleaming eyes". It is a combination of glaukos (γλαύκος, meaning "gleaming," "silvery," and later, "bluish-green" or "gray") and ops (ώψ, "eye," or sometimes, "face"). It is interesting to note that glaux (γλαύξ, "owl") is from the same root, presumably because of its own distinctive eyes. The bird which sees in the night is closely associated with the goddess of wisdom: in archaic images, she is frequently depicted with an owl perched on her head. In earlier times, Athena may well have been a bird goddess, similar to Lilitu and/or the goddess depicted with owls, wings and bird talons on the Burney relief, a Mesopotamian terracotta relief of the early second millennium BCE..

In the Iliad (4.514), the Homeric Hymns and in Hesiod's Theogony, she is given the curious epithet Tritogeneia. The meaning of this term is unclear. It seems to mean " Triton-born," perhaps indicating that the sea-god was her father according to some early myths,or, less likely, that she was born near Lake Triton in Africa. Another possible meaning is "triple-born" or "third-born," which may refer to her status as the third daughter of Zeus or the fact she was born from Metis, Zeus and herself; various legends list her as being the first child after Artemis and Apollo, though other legends identify her as Zeus' first child.

In her role as judge at Orestes' trial on the murder of his mother, Clytemnestra (which he won), Athena won the epithet Athena Areia.

She was often referred to as Pallas Athena (Παλλάς Αθηνά). The epithet derived from an ambiguous figure named Pallas, sometimes male, sometimes female, never mentioned apart from Athena. The goddess killed Pallas, in some versions by mistake, for instance in a Pelasgian version of her birth myth Pallas was the playmate who Athena killed by mistake in a game battle, after that taking the name of Pallas as a sign of mourning . In the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, Pallas was the father of the moon goddess Selene. In other versions Pallas was one of the Gigantes killed by her in the Gigantomachy; forever after she wore the goatskin fringed with chthonic serpents of Pallas, as the protective aegis. She may have absorbed and supplanted Pallas more gently: Walter Burkert says "she is the Pallas of Athens, Pallas Athenaie, just as Hera of Argos is Here Argeie. For the Athenians, Burkert notes, she was simply "the Goddess", he theos, certainly an ancient title.

Athena was given many other cult titles. She had the epithet Athena Ergane as the patron of craftsmen and artisans. With the epithet Athena Parthenos ("virgin"), Athena was worshipped on the Acropolis, especially in the festival of the Panathenaea. With the epithet Athena Promachos she led in battle. With the epithet Athena Polias ("of the city"), Athena was the protectress of Athens and its Acropolis, but also of many other cities, including Argos, Sparta, Gortyn, Lindos, and Larisa. In each of these cities her temple was frequently the major temple on the acropolis.

Athena was often equated with Aphaea, a local goddess of the island of Aegina, located near Athens, once Aegina was under Athenian control.

Athena in classical art

Athena depicted on the obverse side of a coin of Attalus I
Athena depicted on the obverse side of a coin of Attalus I

Athena is classically portrayed wearing full armor, with the helmet raised high on the forehead like a hat; she carries a spear and a shield with the head of the gorgon Medusa mounted on it. It is in this standing posture that she was depicted in Phidias's famous lost gold and ivory statue of her, 36 feet tall, the Athena Parthenos in the Parthenon. Athena is also often depicted with an owl (a symbol of wisdom) sitting on one of her shoulders. The Mourning Athena is a relief sculpture that dates around 460 BC and portrays a tired, emotional Athena. In earlier, archaic portraits of Athena in vase-paintings, the goddess retains some of her Minoan character, such as great birdwings.

Apart from her attributes, there seems to be a relative consensus in sculpture from the fifth century onward as to what Athena looked like. Most noticeable in the face is perhaps a high nose with a high bridge that seems like a natural extension of the forehead. The eyes are typically somewhat deeply set. The lips are usually full but the mouth is fairly narrow, usually just slightly wider than the nose. The neck is somewhat longish. The net result is a serene, somewhat aloof beauty.



Hesiod's Theogony gives the following account of Athena's birth: Metis (wisdom) was Zeus' first wife. It was fated that she would have a daughter as strong and powerful as her father and that she would then have a son destined to rule the gods. Zeus, fearing that his son would overthrow him, tricked Metis and swallowed her. He ingested her and therefore her wisdom so that she might advise him in matters. However the immortal child Metis was pregnant with was not harmed, and Athena was born from his head after he had married Hera. Giving birth to Athena required Hephaestus taking his hammer and chisel and carving open Zeus's skull, so Athena could spring forth from her father's head. Hera was so annoyed at this that she gave birth to Hephaestus by herself. The son was never born and Zeus stayed as supreme ruler of Mount Olympus.

A fuller version says: Zeus lay with Metis, the goddess of crafty thought, but immediately feared the consequences.It had been prophesied that Metis would bear children more powerful than the father, and this includes even Zeus himself. In order to forestall these dire consequences, Zeus played a game with Metis. She transformed into many creatures, big and small. When Metis transformed into a fly, Zeus swallowed her immediately after lying with her. He was too late: Metis was already pregnant. Metis immediately began making a helmet and robe for her fetal daughter. The hammering as she made the helmet caused Zeus great pain and Hephaestus cut open Zeus's skull with the double-headed Minoan axe (labrys). Athena leaped from Zeus's skull, fully grown and armed, and Zeus was none the worse for the experience.This is the most common version of her birth.

Aside from Hesiod's account given above, there is another version of her birth of Pelasgian origin, accounting for her epithet Tritoneia; according this version Athena was born near the lagoon Tritonis in Libya and was raised by three nymphs. There are a very few references to her being the child of a giant named Pallas---hence her name "Pallas Athena"---but these are atypical.


Helmeted Athena with the cista and Erichthonius in his serpent form. Roman, 1st century (Louvre Museum)
Helmeted Athena with the cista and Erichthonius in his serpent form. Roman, 1st century ( Louvre Museum)

According to Apollodorus, Hephaestus attempted to rape Athena but was unsuccessful. His semen fell on the ground, and Erichthonius was born from the Earth, Gaia. Athena then raised the baby as a foster mother. Alternatively, the semen landed on Athena's leg, and she wiped it off with a piece of wool which she tossed on the ground. Erichthonius arose from the ground and the wool. Another version says that Hephaestus wanted Athena to marry him but she disappeared on his bridal bed; he ejaculated onto the ground instead. Athena left the baby to three sisters, Herse, Pandrosa and Aglaura in a small box and warned them never to open it. Aglaula opened the cista which contained the infant and future-king, Erichthonius, in the form of a serpent The sight caused Herse and Pandrosa to go insane and they threw themselves off the Acropolis'.

An alternative version of the same story is that while Athena was gone to bring a mountain to use in the Acropolis, two of the willful sisters opened the box. A crow witnessed the opening and flew away to tell Athena, who fell into a rage and dropped the mountain (now Mt. Lykabettos) . The crow was not spared from her wrath, and it is believed Athena was the one who turned their feathers black. Herse and Pandrosa once again went insane and threw themselves to their deaths off a cliff. Jane Harrison (Prolegomena) finds these to be versions of a simple cautionary tale to discourage young girls from opening the cista that they carried, not knowing its contents, in connection with the Thesmophoria.

Erichthonius later became King of Athens and implemented many beneficial changes to Athenian culture. During this time, Athena frequently protected him.


There is another version of the myth, told in Ovid's Metamorphoses in which Hermes falls in love with Herse. Herse, Aglaura and Pandrosa go to the temple to offer sacrifices to Athena. Hermes demands help from Aglaura to seduce Herse. Aglaura in exchange demands money from Hermes who gives her the money of sacrifice and seduces Herse. Athena in punishment for Aglaura's greed asks the Envy to corrupt her feelings. Envy obeyed her commands and she infested Herse. Aglaura turns to stone.


Athena competed with Poseidon to be the patron deity of Athens, which was yet unnamed in this telling. They agreed that each would give the Athenians one gift and that the Athenians would choose the gift they preferred. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and a spring sprung up; this gave them a means of trade and water, but it was salty and not very good for drinking. Athena, however, offered them the first domesticated olive tree. The Athenians (or their king, Cecrops) accepted the olive tree and along with it Athena as their patron, for the olive tree brought wood, oil and food. This is thought to commemorate a clash between the inhabitants during Mycenaean times and newer immigrants. It is interesting to note that Athens at its height was a significant sea power, defeating the Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis near Salamis Island in 480 BC. Athena was also the patron goddess of several other cities, notably Sparta. In an alternate version, Poseidon invents the first horse. Athena's gift is still chosen.


A woman named Arachne once boasted that she was a superior weaver to Athena, the goddess of weaving. Athena appeared to her disguised as an old woman and told Arachne to repent for her hubris but Arachne instead challenged Athena to a contest. Athena threw off her disguise and the contest began. Athena wove a depiction of the conflict with Poseidon over Athens, while Arachne wove a depiction making fun of Zeus and his many wives. Athena was furious at her skill (the contest was never decided) and her choice of subject (after all, she is Zeus's favorite daughter.) Enraged, she destroyed Arachne's work and transformed her into the first spider, which forever weaves a silk web to catch its food.

Perseus and Medusa

Athena guided Perseus in eliminating Medusa, a dangerous unreformed relic of the old pre-Olympian order, and she was awarded the grisly trophy that turned men to stone, for her shield.

She wears the aegis, a goatskin shield which had a fringe of snakes. When Perseus killed the gorgon Medusa, whose face turned men to stone, he gave the gorgon head to Athena, and the goddess placed it on her aegis. This is a protective measure, for the Medusa's head retained its petrifying power even after her death.

It was however Athena who made Medusa into what she was. Medusa was the only beautiful sister of the three Gorgons, but, Medusa had sex with — or was raped by — Poseidon in Athena's temple. Upon discovery of the desecration of her temple, Athena changed Medusa's form to match that of her sister Gorgons as punishment. Medusa's hair turned into snakes, meeting her gaze would turn all living creatures to stone, and Athena also caused her lower body to morph, as well as granting her the power of petrification as to hinder all chances of her ever having intimacy with a man.


Athena instructed Heracles how to remove the skin from the Nemean Lion, by using the lion's own claws to cut through its thick hide. The lion's hide became Heracles' signature garment, along with the olive-wood club he used in the battle. Athena also assisted Heracles on a few other labors.

She also helped Heracles defeat the Stymphalian Birds, along with Hephaestus.

Tiresias and Chariclo

In one version of the Tiresias myth, Athena blinded Tiresias after he stumbled onto her bathing naked. His mother, Chariclo, begged her to undo her curse, but Athena could not do so; she gave him the ability of prophecy instead.


Odysseus' cunning and shrewd nature quickly won Athena's favour, though she is unable to help him during his journey home from Troy until he washes up on the shore of an island where Nausicaa is washing her clothes. She appears in Nausicaa's dreams to ensure the princess rescues Odysseus and eventually sends him to Ithaca. Athena, herself, appears in disguise to Odysseus upon his arrival. She initially lies and tells him Penelope, his wife, has remarried and Odysseus is believed to be dead, though Odysseus lies to her, seeing through her disguise. Pleased with his resolve and shrewdness, she reveals herself to him and tells him everything he needed to know in order to win back his kingdom. She disguises him as an elderly man so that he will not be noticed by the Suitors or Penelope and she helps Odysseus defeat his suitors and end the feud against their relatives.

Athena in post-classical culture

Athena (Minerva) is the subject of the $50 1915-S Panama-Pacific commemorative coin. At 2.5 troy oz (78 g) gold, this is the largest (by weight) coin ever produced by the U.S. Mint. This was the first $50 coin issued by the U.S. Mint and no higher was produced until the production of the $100 platinum coins in 1997. Of course, in terms of face-value in adjusted dollars, the 1915 is the highest denomination ever issued by the U.S. Mint.

A full-scale replica of the Parthenon has stood in Nashville, Tennessee, which is known as the Athens of the South, for over a century. In 1990, a great replica of Phidias' statue of the goddess was added, over 41 feet (12.5 m) tall and gilded.

The state seal of California features an image of Athena (or Minerva) kneeling next to a brown grizzly bear.[

The name Athena is used by two characters in both the original Battlestar Galactica and the reimagined series.

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