Athena – Goddess of Wisdom, Protectress of Heroes

Athena, the smartest Olympian Goddess in the Greek Pantheon, is the Goddess of Wisdom, Intelligence, Warcraft, Heroism, and Handicraft. She is the most courageous Olympian, as well as the most resourceful and tactical, but she is also quite boastful. Her prominent symbols are her aegis, the owl, her helmet, spear, and armor, and the olive tree.

Key Facts

Family tree

Names & Others

Roman NameMinerva
Other NamesPallas
Ancient GreekἈθηνᾶ
The God ofWisdom, Intelligence, Good Counsel, War and Peace, Heroism, Crafts
SymbolsAegis, Gorgoneion, Owl, Olive Tree, Helmet, Spear, Armor, Chariot, Distaff, Serpent, Spider, Horse

Name and Etymology

Athena
Leo von Klenze, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The name Athena – or, more accurately, Athene – is synonymous with the city of Athens. It is commonly assumed that the Goddess’s name is derived from the name of the city, rather than the other way around. The city’s name, Athenai, may have pre-Greek origins. The name of the city was changed to the name of the goddess by adding the suffix -ene.

Plato’s dialogue on the philosophy of language, Cratylus, contains some unlikely etymologies for Athena’s name. He believes that the name of Athena comes from Ἀθεovόα, meaning she who knows of the divine.

Her name first appears on Linear B tablets from Knossos, with the name a-ta-na po-ti-ni-ja, Athana Potnia, which could mean the Lady of Athens.

The Egyptians associated her with Neith, while the Romans affiliated her with Minerva. From Norse mythiology, Athena could be compared with Thrud, daughter of Thor and a battle goddess and possibly a Valkyrie.

Athena’s Epithets

Athena’s epithets should be described separately. As a beloved and revered goddess, she is known by many different names in literature.

The Athenians simply referred to her as “the Goddess,” without mentioning her name. She was also called Pallas, deriving either from «πάλλω», meaning “to brandish (as a weapon)” or from παλλακίς, meaning “young woman”.

Aethyia (“diver”), Atrytone (“unending”), and Hippia (“equestrian”) are some other well-known epithets of the goddess. We’ll go over a few of the most well-known and significant ones.

Glaukopis

In Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, Athena is usually referred to as Glaukopis (γλαυκῶπις) – the word derives from glaukos (γλαυκός), which means gleaming, and ops (ὤψ), which means eye or face, thus meaning “bright-eyed“. The word for owl is glaux (γλαύξ), which derives from the same root, indicating the goddess’ strong association with the owl bird.

Parthenos

As one of the virgin goddesses, the goddess is also known as Parthenos. She had no children and never had an affair. As their protector, she was in some ways the “mother” of the Athenians, as denoted by the epithet Polias (“the one of the city”).

She’s also been labeled as asexual. According to the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, the goddess of love had no power over Athena, Artemis, or Hestia, the virgin goddess of the hearth.

Promachos and Ergane

Athena was the goddess of wisdom, war, and crafts. Being a patroness of many things, people used to call her many things to match her multiple personas. When she is referred to as the Goddess of War, the name Promachos (“the one who fights in front”) is used. As a patroness of artisans and craftspeople, she is given the name Ergane (“industrious”).

Tritogeneia

Tritogeneia, or Tritonia (see Ovid), is another unusual epithet given to Athena by Homer and Hesiod. This epithet could refer to a variety of things. It could, for example, mean “Triton-born,” alluding to a possible relationship with the sea god Triton. It could also mean “third-born,” as she was Zeus’s third child, or “triple-born,” as she was a child of Zeus, Metis, and herself.

Athena’s Origins and Family

The Athena cult has Proto-Indo-European roots. Her origin story among the Olympians is one of the most intriguing Greek God origin stories.

It is possible that Zeus gave birth to Athena without the help of a mother. In a more interesting story, it appears that Metis was Athena’s mother. However, Zeus swallowed Metis because it was said that she would bear a child who would be more powerful than Zeus and possibly overthrow him.

Zeus suffered from severe headaches, and Hephaestus is said to have helped him by cracking his head open with a double-headed axe. Athena was born fully grown and armored from Zeus’ head. According to the Homeric Hymn to Athena, all the Gods were taken aback by how Athena looked. She may have been born letting out a powerful cry that made all the Gods shudder.

According to Pseudo-Apollodorus, the Athenians did not give Athena the name Pallas. Pallas, Triton’s daughter, was a childhood friend of hers. Athena accidentally killed her, so she took her name out of grief.

Athena’s Lovers

Athena was one of the few deities who never played the love game, neither with other Gods nor with mortals. She was a vowed virgin who never broke her oath.

Hephaestus was a God who pursued her and attempted to force himself on her. Athena escaped him, but there was an incident that resulted in the birth of a child – let’s see how this pursuit resulted in the goddess’ adopted child and the first king of Athens.

Athena’s Offspring

Since Athena was a virgin goddess, she did not have any biological children. However, when Hephaestus tried to pursue her and she pushed him away, an interesting incident occurred. Hephaestus’ sperm fell on Athena’s thigh, and she wiped it away, disgusted with the god.

Pallas used a little piece of wool, called erion, to throw the sperm away, which fell onto the earth (chthon). Thus, Erichthonius was born, arising from the part of the soil where Hephaestus’ sperm fell.

Athena hid the baby in a small box, intending to raise him in secret. She gave the box to Cecrops’ daughters, but they let him out. Erichthonius aspired to be king of Athens despite being a half-human, half-serpent creature.

Depiction and Characteristics

Athena
After Cephisodotus the Elder, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

She was very powerful, vain, and persuasive, and she was really imposing. Pallas played an important role in people’s daily lives because she was the protector of the city of Athens as well as the patroness of many different groups of people, as evidenced by Ancient Greek art.

Athena’s Appearance 

She is stunning and has a great physique. Her face was solemn and stern, and she never smiled. Her eyes were grey and expressive, and her hair was black and curly.

Pallas usually wears a long chiton or is fully armored. When she wears a chiton, she frequently holds a spindle, and this is the most common depiction of Athena as the patroness of artisans. In full armor, she wears a helmet and wields a long spear as well as her infamous shield, the aegis.

Usually, an owl appears next to her or perches on her shoulders or aegis. At times, she stands in front of her sacred plant, the olive tree.

Athena’s Personality

Athena represents the logical woman who can rule through rationale and wisdom. Everything is a battle of wits for her.

She is strategic and merciless, not afraid to be stern and punish those who contravene the Gods and the law. She was the best strategist not only during the Trojan War but also in other instances. Her interventions resulted in numerous victories for armies.

Pallas is also creative and skillful, holding in her hands the great wisdom of craftsmanship. But not only did she make useful objects, but also aesthetically pleasing. She could be very vain about her skills in weaving, as evidenced by the myth of Arachne, The Weaver Who Challenged a Goddess, whom she turned into a spider after beating her in a competition.

She was the patroness of all artisans, and she shared her practical knowledge with humans on numerous occasions. It is also said that she collaborated closely with Hephaestus, presiding over the arts and crafts – Athena being the brain and Hephaestus being the brawn.

Finally, she is very proud and self-sufficient as a virgin goddess who has never sought the company of a man. She doesn’t need anyone to accompany her in life; on the contrary, she participates in the men’s power games, frequently excelling at everything that they cannot do (and she quite boasts about it, as well).

However, as the myths show, she frequently sided with the patriarchy. For example, she punished Medusa for Poseidon’s despicable act, and she led the Athenians to declare Orestes innocent even though he murdered his mother – a heinous act even for the Ancient Greeks.

Athena’s Powers 

Athena was one of the most potent Olympians. They all had some characteristics in common: they were immortal and invulnerable, they possessed superhuman stamina, strength, and agility, they were shapeshifters, and they were omnipresent.

Pallas, on the other hand, was and had much more. She was the wisest of the Gods, highly strategic, and resourceful. The goddess was gifted with many talents, including weaving, and she won every competition. She had incredible luck and a strong psychic connection with others.

Her greatest strength was her wisdom and abilities.

Athena’s Sacred Symbols 

Athena was a goddess with numerous sacred symbols. The goddess’s main sacred symbol was the Aegis, which is best known from Homer’s Iliad. Aegis could have been an animal skin used for battle protection or a handheld shield. It frequently depicted the head of a Gorgon. It was an all-powerful weapon capable of protecting its bearer from anything. To do something “under the aegis of somebody” means to be protected by a powerful and knowledgeable force.

The Gorgoneion was another sacred symbol. It was a magical amulet depicting the head of a Gorgon that Zeus and Athena both wore as a pendant.

Other sacred symbols of the goddess include her armor, helmet, spear, and the distaff, an instrument used in weaving.

Athena’s Sacred Animals / Plants

Athena

Pallas also had a plethora of sacred animals and plants. The goddess was closely associated with the nocturnal owl. It is believed that the goddess was once an owl herself, thus she is also called “the bird goddess”. Glaux, the owl’s name, is etymologically related to Glaukopis, a common Athena epithet. The owl was associated with intelligence and thus became a close companion to Athena.

As evidenced by her frequent depiction with the Gorgoneion, snakes were also sacred to Athena. Spiders and horses were also considered sacred animals of the goddess.

In terms of plants, the olive tree was Pallas’ main sacred plant. In Virgil’s Georgics, Athena competed with Poseidon for the patronage of Athens. Poseidon presented them with the first horse, while Athena presented them with an olive tree. The Athenians preferred her over Poseidon because the olive tree provided them with food, oil, and wood. During the Panathenaia, one of antiquity’s most important festivals, the winners received an olive wreath.

Athena’s Roles and Responsibilities

Athena’s importance to the Ancient Greeks stems primarily from her role as Athens’ patroness. As a result, she vowed to defend the city from intruders and enemies.

She is also crucial for warcraft. In contrast to Ares, Athena is a war goddess with military, moral, and strategic superiority. His desire for blood motivates him, while Athena’s love of justice and her skills motivate her. She is the one who can actually determine who will win a battle or even a war.

Pallas, the goddess of wisdom, bestows knowledge and skills, particularly in the arts and crafts. She must, however, ensure that humans do not obtain more knowledge than they should or that they do not lose a part of the knowledge they need. She can teach mortals new inventions and assist them with navigation and farming, among other things.

Overall, Athena is very important to humans, particularly the Athenians, because she is in charge of the majority of their daily lives.

Myths About Athena

Athena
René-Antoine Houasse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Athena was one of the Greek Pantheon’s most important goddesses. It should come as no surprise that she is the main character in many Greek myths.

Trojan War

During the Trojan War, Athena was one of the most ardent supporters of the Greeks.

Judgment of Paris

It all started with the situation known as the Judgment of Paris. Eris, the goddess of discord, was not invited to Peleus and Thetis, a sea nymph‘ wedding. She came anyway, bearing a golden apple to be given to the most beautiful of all goddesses. The apple was claimed by Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite.

Zeus, in order not to favor any goddess, gave the apple to Paris, a prince of Troy. Paris chose Aphrodite, not only because he deemed her the prettiest, but also because he promised him as a wife the most beautiful mortal woman, Helen of Troy. Long story short, the Trojan War began.

During the War

Athena played an important role in this war, taking a ruthless and pitiless stance. On several occasions, she led warriors before Achilles in order for them to be killed, such as Penthesileia, the Amazon queen.

Athena was on the side of the Greek hero Diomedes, who became the greatest Greek warrior when Achilles left the battlefield. When Achilles returned, she stayed on his side; she tricked Hector into losing his spear, causing him to be killed by Achilles. Even after Achilles dies, she lavishes ambrosia on his body.

Pallas is not afraid to assert her dominance over the other Gods. When Ares and Aphrodite try to help the Trojans, she harms both of them. Not only that, but she threatens all the other Gods with the same fate should they decide to aid the Trojans.

Athena was also instrumental in Philoctetes return. The titular character of Sophocles’ great tragedy, Philoctetes, was a Greek warrior who was abandoned in exile on the island of Lemnos. Athena assisted with the reconciliation.

Of course, the infamous Trojan Horse, which defined the outcome of the Trojan War, was also in Athena’s plans. Under the goddess’s protection, Odysseus devised the strategy that led to the Greeks’ victory.

The Ruthless Goddess

One of the most atrocious acts committed by Athena during the war involved Ajax the Great (Aias Telamonios). Sophocles’ homonymous tragedy describes Ajax, one of the greatest Greek warriors, fighting Odysseus over Achilles’ magical armor.

Athena drove Ajax insane, causing him to slaughter the Achaeans’ cattle. However, Ajax believed that he had killed the Greeks, not the cattle. Odysseus felt pity for Ajax, but Athena was adamant. Nothing is sweeter, she declared, than laughing at one’s enemies.

Ajax was feeling humiliated after the incident. He felt so helpless and self-conscious that he committed suicide. He killed himself with the blade Hector gave him as a present when they exchanged gifts.

Protectress of Heroes

Athena favored many of the most important Greek heroes. As evidenced by numerous stories, she has been the patroness of heroes, including:

  • Achilles: she protected him throughout the Trojan War, even after his death;
  • Bellerophon: a Corinthian prince who captured Pegasus – the winged horse – and killed Chimera with the help of Pallas;
  • Cadmus: she helped him kill a drakon and sow his teeth, from which the Thebans were born;
  • Diomedes: she aided him in the Trojan War and the Epigoni Wars;
  • Heracles: she assisted him throughout his life, from his twelve labors to leading him to Olympus to join the gods;
  • Jason and the Argonauts: she helped them in their Quest for the Golden Fleece;
  • Odysseus: the goddess helped the hero during the Trojan War and his ten-year return voyage;
  • Perseus: she assisted the Mycenean prince in beheading the Gorgon Medusa;
  • Theseus: she helped the Athenian prince slay the Cretan Bull, The Mighty Beast, Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster;

Arachne

Arachne was a Lydian maiden who was skilled in weaving. She was so talented that the thread appeared to come from the tips of her fingers. She was, however, very self-assured about her abilities.

Large crowds gathered to watch her work. However, she denied that the Gods gave her talent, and they considered this a great act of hubris. Athena challenged Arachne to a weave-off.

Arachne created a flawless craft that also depicted the gods drunk and abusing their power. Athena erupted in rage, both jealous of the maiden’s impeccable work and furious by its offensive content. To punish Arachne, she transformed her into the first spider, never ceasing to weave.

Medusa

As previously stated, Athena’s reaction in the Medusa story is at best problematic. Medusa was a beautiful young lady. Poseidon noticed her and desired her. She ran into an Athena temple to escape him. Poseidon, on the other hand, found her and violated her inside the temple.

The problem is that instead of being angry at her brother, Athena turned against Medusa. Finding the act blasphemous and powerless to act against Poseidon, Athena transformed Medusa into a Gorgon. She had snakes instead of hair and turned to stone anyone who looked her in the eyes.

Pallas not only transformed Medusa into a gorgon, but she also assisted Perseus in killing her. She granted him her aegis to aid him in his quest. Perseus used the shield to protect himself from Medusa’s gaze before murdering her. Pegasus, the winged horse, and Chrysaor, a giant with a gold sword, were born from her dead body.

Athena’s Wrath

Athena was a vengeful and unyielding goddess, as were many others. Aside from Arachne, Medusa, the Trojans, and Ajax, she demonstrated her wrath on numerous occasions.

When it came to sacrilege, she was adamant, and she could not forgive anything. As an example:

  • She punished Agraulos, the maiden who opened the box containing Erichthonius.
  • She turned the white feathers of the crow to black because he told the daughters of Cecrops about Erichthonius.
  • She blinded the first king of Troy, Ilos, for stealing the sacred Palladium statue from her shrine.
  • Aias of Lokris had violated Kassandra inside Athena’s temple in Troy. In retaliation, Athena shipwrecked his fleet and cursed his people. For a thousand years, the Opuntian Lokri had to send two maidens to Troy.
  • She simultaneously punished and gifted the seer Teiresias. After he accidentally saw her bathing naked, he blinded him but gifted him with the ability to see the future.

But it wasn’t just about sacrilege. Athena took her patroness role very seriously. For example, she punished the Corinthian princess Alcinoe for refusing to pay the spinner Nikandra for her services. She forced her to abandon her children and sail away with another man, and she felt so guilty that she committed suicide.

There are numerous minor manifestations of Athena’s wrath. In general, the goddess did not spare anyone who she deemed deserving of punishment.

Athena’s Favor

Pallas, in addition to being a patroness of heroes, was also a patroness of the founding kings. She had given Cadmus of Thebes and Aeetes of Colchis, The Enchanted Land of the Golden Fleece Drakon’s teeth. They could use them to sow and grow earth warriors to create their people.

The goddess favored the maiden Nyctimene as well.

Her own father abused her, and she fled to the woods to avoid public humiliation. Athena transformed her into an owl and made her, her companion.

As the patroness of craftspeople, she also favored many inventors, such as:

  • Argus, in the creation of Argo, the ship used by the Argonauts.
  • Asclepius, who was given Gorgon’s blood to master his medicine.
  • Daedalus, The Labyrinth’s Mastermind, a master craftsman, and father of Icarus, The Tragic Flight of Ambition.
  • Danaus and his 50 daughters, known as the Danaides, who built the first ship ever to be built. The Danaides were even purified for the murder of their husbands.
  • Epeus, the carpenter who built the Trojan Horse.
  • Coronides and Eurynome, Pandareus’ daughter who mastered the art of weaving.

Athena in Ancient Greek Religion

Because of her power and multiple roles and patronages, Athena Pallas was one of the most revered deities in Ancient Greece.

Sites Sacred to Athena

The most important temple sacred to the goddess is the famous Parthenon, the main temple in Athens’ Acropolis and one of Pericles’ greatest projects.

In addition, Athens dedicated numerous other temples to her. The Erechtheion, the Theseum (joined the temple of Athena and Hephaestus), the Old Temple of Athena, the Sanctuary of Pandrosos, the temple of Athena Nike, and the temple of Zeus and Athena are among them.

Other temples around Greece:

Temple of Athena Aphaea in Aegina, the temple of Athena Polias and Zeus Polieus in Ialysus and Rhodes and lastly the temple of Athena Alea in Tegea.

In addition to multiple sanctuaries in Argos, Camirus, Delos, Delphi, Lindus, Sounion, and Sparta.

Many temples can also be found in Turkey, in the ancient towns of Assos, Miletus, Phocaea, Smyrna, Troy, and others.

Worship & Festivals

The Panathenaia, one of Ancient Greece’s most important festivals, was held in honor of Athena Polias. The Greater Panathenaia were held every four years, and the Lesser Panathenaia were held every year. They included a musical competition, a gymnastics competition (with an olive wreath as a prize), an equestrian competition, numerous smaller competitions, and sacrifices. The great golden statue of her in the Acropolis was dressed in a new dress, a new peplos, for each new festival.

Other minor festivals honoring her included the Arrephoria, which symbolized the union of Athena and Aphrodite, the Chalceia, Hephaestus’ festival during which she was revered as Athena Ergane, and the Pamboeotia, a smaller version of the Panathenaia in Boeotia, which honored Athena Itonia

Try The Athena Quiz

Are you as wise and knowledgable as Athena? Play the game to find out!

You can also play around with Athena’s and other Olympian gods’ names in this fun anagram game:

Did you enjoy these games? Then try our other games!

Representations of Athena in Art

Athena
Douris, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

From the sixth century BC to the present day, Athena has been a central theme in many works of art. Andocides depicts her with the gorgon head boldly painted on her aegis on a red-figured vase. Athena Promachos (armed) appeared in vases given as Panathenaia prizes.

In the Acropolis, there was a chryselephantine statue of Athena. It was one of the most magnificent sculptures of antiquity, created by the sculptor Pheidias.

Rubens created an oil painting of her battle with Arachne. Diego Velázquez used the same theme in his painting Las Hilanderas (“The Spinners”). She appears frequently in Rubens’ oil paintings, particularly for her intellectual patronage.

In The Old Texts

Athena plays an important role in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, as she protects the majority of the protagonists. In his Theogony, Hesiod also provides a wealth of information on the goddess.

There are numerous references to Athena in the Homeric and Orphic Hymns. However, the most important source of her patronage or punishing nature comes from Ancient Greek theatrical works. Sophocles’ works, in particular, are excellent sources of information.

Pallas also plays a significant role in Virgil’s Aeneid and Georgics. Ovid’s Metamorphoses also contains information about the goddess.

FAQs

Who was Athena?

Athena was mainly the goddess of wisdom, warcraft, and crafts. She was the patroness of Athens.

Who were the parents of Athena?

Zeus and Metis, but Zeus alone gave birth to her.

Which were the Sacred Symbols of Athena?

The sacred symbols of Athena were her Aegis, the Gorgoneion, her military equipment (armor, helmet, spear), as well as the owl, the snakes, and the olive tree.

Which was the Biggest Festival Celebrating Athena?

The Panathenaia.

Sources

Aeschylus

  • Oresteia

Callimachus

  • Hecale Fragment 1.2

Hesiod

  • Theogony 886, 929

Homer

  • Odyssey
  • Iliad
  • Hymn 5 to Aphrodite
  • Hymn to Athena

Orphics

  • Hymn to Aphrodite
  • Hymn to Athena

Ovid

  • Metamorphoses 2.550, 5.375, 6.70

Pausanias

  • Description of Greece 1.24.5, 3.17.3

Plato

  • Menexenus 237c
  • Cratylus

Pseudo-Apollodorus

  • Bibliotheca 3.144, 3.14

Sophocles

  • Philoctetes

Virgil

  • Georgics

Featured Image Credit: Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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Vasiliki Moutzouri

Vasiliki has been a professional author, editor, and academic researcher since 2018. She currently lives in Athens, Greece. She has studied Philology and Computational Linguistics at the University of Athens. She is interested in literature, poetry, history and mythology, and political philosophy. Other interests include playing music, traveling, and playing pen-and-paper games. She has written a children’s book and a few poems. She is currently working as a content writer, translator, and editor, as well as an academic researcher in the field of linguistics.