Ancient Greece Mythology

Athena - Ancient Greek Goddess


Many believe that Athena, with her close connection to the city of Athens, was named after the city-state, possibly invented as a new patron deity for the area. This idea is supported by the fact that the goddess was called by different names depending on where she was worshipped/where she presided over her cult. For where she was known as Athenai in Athens, she was called Mykene in Mycaene and Thebe in Thebes. G. Neumann has suggested that the name Athena is a compound of the Lydian word 'ati' (mother) and the Hurrian deity 'Ana'. Considering the fact that Athena was known to be a virgin goddess and Ana was a fertility and mother goddess, this link is dubious, and I am more likely to believe that the name 'Athena' was an invention of the Athenian people, although it is unlikely that they would have invented an entirely new deity, rather renaming an existing goddess to be the patron of their city. This seems plausible, considering the appearance of Athena's name in surviving Linear B tablets invoking her name dating from the Minoan era, which literally translates as 'lady of Athens'.


Following the battle between the Titans and the Olympian gods Zeus, king of the gods, lay with the Titaness Metis (whose name literally means wisdom or deep thought). Hesiod notes in his Theogony that she was the first true wife of Zeus (as opposed to a consort). When Metis fell pregnant, her parents (Oceanus and Tithys) told Zeus that their child would have bravery and wisdom to rival his own, provoking Zeus to transform Metis into a fly and swallow her in order to prevent the birth of such a powerful, possibly threatening, child. During the battle between the giants and Olympians (gigantomachy), it is said that Zeus suffered an unbearable headache and bade his son, Hephaistos, cut his skull open to discover the source of the pain. Hephaistos did so, revealing the fully-grown and armed goddess Athena, who sprung from her father's head brandishing her spear ready to join in the fray. Guerber notes that there is said to have been a 'mighty commotion over land and sea... [proclaiming] the advent of a great divnity'1.

Although this is the most common story of Athena's birth, told in Hesiod's Theogony and Pindar's Odes among other ancient sources, there are variants on the story. For instance, Sanchuniathon is credited with writings which would imply that the goddess was the daughter of Cronus, thus making Athena Zeus' sister rather than his daughter. However, this origin myth seems to be something of an anomaly, as most subsequent myths and writings characterise Athena as Zeus' favourite daughter.

Athena is said to have been the inventor of the horse-drawn chariot. It is in light of this that she was given the epithet Athena Hippia, and this gave rise to a little-known myth of her birth which stated that her father was Poseidon, god of horses.

Yet another myth of Athena's birth is inspired by one of her epithets, "Pallas". Supposedly, Athena was the daughter of an obscure divinity (or mortal man) named Pallas. One day Athena accidentally killed him near the waters of Tritonis, and adopted his name in an act of remembrance and penance.

And Athens

A. Ortengren2 notes the mythic episode in which Athena won the right to be patron goddess of Athens. Supposedly, Athena and Poseidon had a dispute over who was to preside over Athens. Zeus, eager to avoid arguments on Olympus, proposed a contest between the siblings, with the people of Athens themselves to judge. Both Athena and Poseidon were to present a gift to the Athenian polis, and the god whose gift was deemed to be the most useful to the city would be granted the title 'patron of Athens'. Poseidon, being the god of the sea, produced a freshwater spring on the Acropolis, but Athena caused an olive tree to spring up. As olive trees served many uses, Athena's gift was deemed the most useful and thenceforward she was the patron goddess of Athens. It was, apparently, a good choice as Athena was accredited with several inventions which she gave to Athens, including the plow, the rake, the chariot, and the art of navigation.


In Classical art, the goddess Athena is almost always portrayed wearing the full armour of a warrior. This is highly unusual for a female deity, and represents her role as a goddess of warfare. Athena's shield and aegis also traditionally bear the face of the gorgon Medusa, a reminder of her involvement with Perseus' defeat of the famous monster, but also practically as a device in battle with which to transfix her enemies with fear (since Medusa is said to have turned men to stone as they looked on her). In practice, the inclusion of this iconography on statues of the goddess in Athens would serve as a reminder to visiting foreigners of the military power of the city and it's patron goddess.

K. Karl3 notes that Athena is often depicted with an owl perched on one shoulder. It is not known for certain the ancient meaning of the owl, but it is possible that, as today, the owl signified wisdom, which would tie in with Athena's role as goddess of wisdom. Furthermore, it is possible that the owl is included as Athena's bird because of it's distinctive wide eyes, and Athena is consistently referred to in Homer as 'goddess of the flashing eyes' (Glaukos Athene).


As was the case with many Olympian gods, Athena had many roles in different locations and contexts. As mentioned above, Athena was best known for being the goddess of wisdom, encompassing cunning intelligence, such as that famously displayed by the hero Odysseus, and it is as a result of this virtue that he won Athena's favour. It was in fact Athena who, according to Virgil (Aeneid bk 2) inspired Odysseus with the stratagem of the Trojan Horse, leading to the long-awaited fall of the city of Troy. The goddess was also the patron of defensive warcraft, especially with regard to tacticians and the intellectual side of war. In this capacity, she was known as Athena Promachos.

Aside from these traditionally masculine areas, Athena was the goddess of skilled work, particularly of needlework and weaving, known as Athena Ergane, the protector of craftsmen. Particularly protective of the skill of weaving, Athena is said to have punished the maiden Arachne for her hubris in daring to challenge Athena's supremacy in the craft. In a contest between the two, although they were evenly matched, Athena was affronted by the content of Arachne's tapestry: the many infidelities of the Olympians, and thus Athena turned the arrogant maiden into a spider as punishment (Ovid, Metamorphoses bk..4).

Athena is further known as Athena Aethyta, roughly translated as Athena the diver/ship. As mentioned above, Athena is said to have invented the art of navigation, and it is thus possible that this epithet points to her role as protector of sailors and ships. This seems all the more plausible considering she was the patron of Athens who was, primarily a naval military power.

The Virgin Goddess

Athena, as mentioned above, was famous as a chaste, virgin goddess who had never taken a lover. This untouched status adds to the ambiguity surrounding her gender, as she dresses as a man and partakes in warfare, yet is technically female. The fact that Athena is a virgin places her in a separate gender category, not quite a woman, but obviously not a young girl, and thus not a suitable subject for male erotic advances (unlike goddesses such as Aphrodite whose cults thrive on such urges). It also served as the perfect symbol of the synergy of matriarchal characteristics (such as weaving and other domestic arts) and patriarchal authority (bearing the aegis, and presiding over defensive warfare) as she adopts neither the penetrative male sexual role, nor is she feminine in allowing herself to be penetrated by any male. Athena's role as a virgin also contributed to her authority as an enforcer of modest Athenian values and self-control. Athene's epithet that expressed her virginity was 'Parthenos', an honorific which has been lent to the Parthenon, Athene's most famous temple on the Athenian Akropolis. This suggests that virginity was an immensely important aspect of Athene's character, probably with a strong religious aspect within her cult. This is supported by the myth of Medusa, most commonly known for being a hideous gorgon. She had, however, been a beautiful maiden who was raped by a god (probably Poseidon) in a temple of Athena. The goddess took great offence at this defiling of her sanctuary, and thus transformed Medusa into a monster as a punishment (it is quite probably for this reason that Athena is said to have later aided Perseus in his quest to kill Medusa and why Athena wore the petrifying head of Medusa on her shield).

A Virgin Birth?

As a virgin, one could be forgiven for assuming Athena had borne no children; this, however, was not the case. Apollodorus, in his Library book 3, tells of how Athena was visiting the lame god Hephaistos to request some weapons, but he was overcome by lust for his sister Athena and tried to rape her. He was unable to catch her and take advantage, but he ejaculated onto her thigh. Athena, disgusted, wiped the divine semen from her and threw it to the ground where Erectheus (or Erecthonius according to some sources) was born the child of Hephaistos, Athena and Gaia. Surprisingly, Athena adopted the infant as her own despite his unpleasant conception, and the story goes that she placed him in a box and entrusted him to three Athenian priestess with the instructions not to open it. Echoing the story of Pandora, the curious women could not resist opening the box, and were driven insane by the sight of the half-snake half-baby Erectheus, proceeding to throw themselves off the Akropolis to their deaths. Erectheus was a pseudo-mythological character as, although he claimed such a fantastical birth and appearance, he was also an early king of Athens. This is, however, not historically verifiable and it is possible that myth has become mingled with history over time to deify a king of Athens, thus giving the Athenians claim to divine ancestry.

Cult Worship

The ancient cult of Athena in Athens centres around the Akropolis, specifically in the Parthenon, which housed the most famous cult image of the goddess ever to have been crafted. This sculpture, now lost, was made of wood, and covered in gold and ivory and was clothed in a real dress (peplos). The icon would receive a new dress every four years as part of the Panathenaea festival, in which all of Athens (except slaves) would gather in honour of the goddess. The festival is believed to have been in honour of the goddess' birthday and the moment presenting priests with Athena's new peplos is believed to be shown on the Parthenon Frieze. This festival to the goddess was spread over several days, involving the Panathenaic athletic games.

Another chief festival in Athens involving Athena was the Arrephoria, in which two young aristocratic girls would walk from the Parthenon and descend into the underground sanctuary of the goddess Aphrodite in order to deposit unknown items. This ritual seems to have symbolised the coming together of two completely disparate, yet important feminine deities.

Similar rituals were also held in honour of Athena in cities such as Argos, Sparta, Epidauros and Troezen. This is due to the fact that she was not merely the patron goddess of Athens, but also a generic goddess of the city, and thus was often invoked at times surrounding important civic events, such as elections, assemblies and the commencement of warfare.

It is important to note that Athena, as a goddess of wisdom and rational thought did not have any mystery cults skin to those of Dionysus and other gods, which involved the initiates becoming intoxicated and partaking in frenzied acts of social and sexual freedom. Quite the contrary, Athena represented the modest, restrained side of life of the everyday, whereas these cultic rituals acted as a so-called "safety-valve" for citizens to release repressed energy.

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