Athena was one of the most important members of the Ancient Greek Pantheon. She is the battle strategist, advisor to Zeus, and, being the goddess of Wisdom among other things, the sensible one among the gods.
Her worship was widely spread throughout ancient Greece, and festivals in her honour were common and impressive!
In this article I’ve put together the most interesting and widely accepted myths and legends regarding Athena. As well as some interesting details about her worship and her value to Greek society.
Cult of Athena, goddess of war
As the goddess of defensive war, Athena’s presence in a settlement was considered important for its protection – particularly in times of war. Because of this, her shrines were found throughout Greece, usually on hilltop acropoli and citadels.
The most important of these are in the warring cities of Sparta and of course, Athens! Long before the Parthenon was built on the Athenian Acropolis, shrines and wooden statues of the goddess sat there high above the city.
But while Athens is the goddess’s most famous city patronage, she was also patron to Argos, Sparta, Gortyn, Lindos, and Larisa. The initiation rites of Athena’s cult was an important part of Greek life. It was an initiation into citizenship for young men, and an initiation into marriage for young women.
Bust of Athena, (inlaid eyes are lost). Copy of the 2nd century CE after a votive statue by Kresilas in Athens (ca. 430–420 BC)
Epithets & nicknames
Minerva – her later Roman name
Pallas (Παλλάς) – a name the goddess took on after mistakenly killing her friend, named Pallas
Parthenos (Παρθένος) – Virgin
Glaukopis (γλαυκῶπις) – ‘bright-eyed’ or ‘of the flashing eyes’
Atrytone (Ατρυτώνη) – the unwearying
Promachos (Πρόμαχος) – she who fights in front
Polias (Πολιάς) – protectress of the city
Ergane (Εργάνη) – ‘the industrious’, used to describe her in relation to her patronage of craftsmen
She is the virgin goddess of defensive war, battle strategy, wisdom, arts and crafts, and weaving. She is an important goddess both to men and women, and her domain stretches across large swathes of human endeavour.
Athena’s symbols & attributes
Athenian tetradrachm, circa 410 AD
Athena’s main symbol is the aegis. This shield belonged to Zeus but he gifted it to his mighty daughter as extra protection. It is worn over clothing as a sort of breastplate, has the face of the Gorgon Medusa on it, and makes a sound of roaring dragons when Athena goes into battle. This is Athena’s most common symbol.
Other important symbols for Athena are the owl (which you’ll see a great deal in Athens and surrounds), snakes, and the sacred olive tree.
The easiest way to identify Athena, though, is her warrior garb. She is usually depicted wearing a helmet, spear, shield, and greaves – full combat gear.
Greater & Lesser Panathenaia Festivals
The Lesser Panathenaia was held every year, while the Greater, a more splendid and extended form of the festivals, was held every four years.
The festival included a procession through the city, a large sacrifice, chariot races and later, gymnastic contests. The gymnastic contests were generally held for the youths, with age brackets for 12 – 16, 16 – 20, and 20+. Winners received the valuable prize of decorated amphorae of olive oil. The chariot races were also extensive, with various kinds including military competitions, ordinary driving, and an activity where two men would ride on the chariot, one leaping out and back on again as the other drives.
Musical contests were also held during the Greater Panathenaia, with recitations of poems and rhapsodies. They would last over a day – some say a full three days – and the winners would receive olive crowns set with gold.
Both festivals also included pyrrhic dances (unrelated to the concept of a Pyrrhic victory, which was named after a real king named Pyrrhus), which Athena was said to have danced after her victory over the giants. These were performed nude aside from a helmet and shield. Athena’s priestesses would also perform dances and songs – albeit fully clothed!
Athena’s patronage of heroes
Athena, and Jason being regurgitated by the snake. Red-figured cup by Douris, c. 480-470 BC
Among all the gods, Athena is the common patron to the heroes. She often steps in to aid them on their quests, giving them invaluable tools and advice.
She helped Perseus kill Medusa, giving him the polished bronze shield he could use to see the Gorgon without being turned to stone, and even guiding his sword when he lopped off the poor gorgon’s head. She aided Herakles a number of times, witnessing his Twelve Labours and helping him accomplish some of them. And she presided over the trial of Orestes and casted the deciding vote to acquit him.
She even helped Odysseus in the famous Odyssey. First by planting thoughts in his head and then helping more directly, disguising and directing him to take back his kingdom. Basically, she does a lot of helping.
FAQs and facts about Athena
There’s so much information about Athena to pack in (thanks to wonderfully surviving art, texts, buildings and sculptures). So I’ve put together all of the most interesting and frequently asked questions about ‘Athene driver of armies’ (Hesiod)
What is Athena the god of?
Athena is the goddess of war and wisdom. And yes, there is another god of war – Ares. But his warring style is more brutal and uncivilized, whereas Athena represents a beauty and heroism in war.
More than that though, Athena is the god of wisdom, crafts and weaving.
Who is Athena’s father?
Athena’s father is the king of gods and mortal men, Zeus. And while she does, sort of, have a mother, it is Zeus who gave birth to her!
How was Athena born?
Birth of weaponed Athena who emerged from Zeus’ head. Black-figure pottery between 550 and 525 BC
Athena’s birth is quite the event, and one of my favourite quick stories in the Greek pantheon.
Zeus had many adulterous affairs, one of which was with Metis (Μῆτις), Titan goddess of wisdom. When Zeus learned that this great goddess was pregnant, he feared that she would bear him a son so powerful that he would overthrow his father. This was not an unfounded fear, as Zeus himself had overthrown his father, and his father Kronos had done the same to his father.
So, taking after his father, Zeus swallowed her. Later, he had a terrible headache. So he asked Hephaestus, god of fire and masonry, to assist him. Hephaestus took an axe and knocked the leader of the gods’ head with it (bold move). And out jumped Athena, fully grown and dressed in armour, announcing her arrival among the gods with a thunderous battle cry!
Why is Athena a virgin goddess?
If you know anything about the Greek gods, you know they are generally very promiscuous. There are a great deal of stories about the gods laying with mortals and with one another, married or not. But even amongst the gods, virginity is considered the highest virtue.
Athena enforces rules of modesty and the avoidance of hubris. She is also a battle strategist and the epitome of wisdom, and these things simply do not fit the image of a wife or a promiscuous woman in ancient Greek thought. And so, she is a virgin – one of three, with Hestia and Artemis – and this virginity is a very important part of her mythos. That’s why the iconic Parthenon is named after her virginal epithet, Parthenos.
The meaning of Pallas Athene
3rd century AD statuette of Athena – this is the best surviving copy of the immense Athena Parthenos statue which stood inside the Parthenon. It’s currently exhibited at the National Archeological Museum in Athens
The origins of the epithet ‘Pallas’ isn’t clear. It may come from the term παλλακίς (pallakis), meaning young woman. Or πάλλω (pallo), to brandish. But even in the times of the ancient Greeks, the origins of the name was lost, and they came up with a myth around her most prominent title.
According to the myth, Pallas was a good friend of Athena’s growing up, the daughter of the sea god Triton. One day, the two were sparring together, and Athena accidentally stabbed her friend, killing her. In some stories, this happened because Zeus hated the thought of his daughter losing, even in play, and distracted Pallas.
Athena was distraught, and took on her friend’s name in mourning, as a way to honour her for all eternity.
Why is Athens named after the goddess?
According to the ancient myth, Athens was once called Cecrops, named after its half-man half-snake founder. But the city was beautiful, and the Olympian gods soon took note and decided that such a wonderful place should bear the name of a god.
Athena and Poseidon, god of the sea, were the two hottest contenders. And they both petitioned Zeus. So Zeus, always so good at transferring responsibility, decided that the two would compete for favour, and Cecrops and his denizens would choose their victor.
So the two gods each gave a gift to the city, to show that they should be the one to lead it. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident, and a spring of water gushed forth. But the water was salty, not the sweet water that waters crops and keeps drought away.
It was Athena’s turn. She threw a seed on the ground and an olive tree grew. This tree, she said, will provide you with food, oil, and wood, as long as I am your city’s patron.
Of course, the crowd went wild, and Athena was immediately named the city’s patron goddess. Athens was named after her, and she kept her promise – you can find the handy olive trees all over Greece.
Athena in art
Heracles and Athena. Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, 480–470 BC. From Vulci
I just want to take a moment here to look at how nice and clear Athena is to identify in art! Because of her aegis and her interest in war, she’s always recognisable.
In the decoration on the above kylix (wide drinking cup used for formal occasions), Athena is pouring wine for the hero Herakles. She wears her aegis, which you can identify by the scales across her chest and the snakes curling up behind her. She carries her spear in the crook of her arm, and an owl in her hand. Her olive tree grows in the background, and of course, her helmet sits behind her.
Similarly, Herakles can be easily identified by his battle club leaning against the rock he’s sitting on, and the Nemean lion’s mane he always wears. No shortage of visual clues to make sure the meaning is properly carried!
The Quick Temper of Athena in Greek mythology
While Athena loves humans and offers her patronage and help to the various heroes, she also has a cruel side. Like the other Greek gods, Athena hates to lose, and doesn’t suffer insult or impropriety.
Women, in particular, who exhibit hubris are quickly punished. The two most popular myths showcasing this are the stories of Medusa and Arachne.
Medusa by Caravaggio, 1596 – despite being a much later depiction, this is one of the most famous images of Medusa
The myth of Medusa has, for me, always been one of the saddest. It’s also a good exhibit of how, despite Athena’s many virtues, she is still as the other Greek gods are – callous and cruel when she chooses to be.
Medusa was one of three Gorgon sisters, and the only mortal woman among them. She was very beautiful, with shining hair so lovely it caught the eye of the gods. Poseidon was so taken with her beauty that he ravaged her in Athena’s shrine. The young woman was distraught, and prayed to Athena to help her. But instead, Athena was enraged at this sullying of her virginal temple. She cursed Medusa, turning her skin a greenish hue and her hair to coils of snakes. She cursed her, too, to turn any man who looked at her to stone.
Another version of the story puts Athena in a better light, though. In this tale, Medusa was a priestess of Athena, and swore a vow of chastity to serve the goddess. But one day, she broke that vow, by seducing and sleeping with Poseidon. And it was because of this betrayal, not the simple sullying of her temple, that Athena cursed the woman.
Athena and Arachne
This story is a cautionary tale on female pride. Arachne was a talented weaver – so talented, that people came from far away to watch her work. Soon, her fame spread across the land, and she began to grow rather proud. She would boast about her talents, and when someone gave all honour to the gods for her skill, as they tended to do, she said phooey, this skill is my own.
Eventually, Athena, the goddess of weaving, heard about this young upstart. So she disguised herself as an old crone, and went to watch Arachne. The girl boasted again, saying that even if Athena herself were here, she was so confident in her skills that she would challenge her to a weave-off.
The quick-tempered goddess was shocked, and threw off her disguise (but not literally – it’s magic, not costume-makeup). She revealed her full form, and rather than cowering, Arachne stood tall and repeated her challenge. Bold!
So the two women spent all day at their looms, creating the best work they could. When they were done, Athena held up hers. It was an exquisite piece depicting the Olympian gods, noble and impressive. Then Arachne held up hers. It was also of the Olympian gods, but in her scene, they were drunk and disorderly (no less realistic than Athena’s technically).
Athena was horrified. Not just because of the blatant blasphemy of the piece. But because of the clearly superior artistry – Arachne really was better than the goddess.
The proud goddess just lost her lid at this, and – the stories diverge here – either turned Arachne into a spider, or beat her badly. In this version, Arachne was so distraught that she hung herself from a tree. Athena took pity on her rival in death, and turned the talented girl into a spider, creating a creature better at weaving than any human!
Last thoughts on the Greek goddess of war
Statuette of Athena. A Roman work from the mid-3rd century AD
Athena is a fascinating goddess, and one of the most widely worshipped across Ancient Greece. Her festival, the Panathenaea, was perhaps the largest and grandest festival of its time, and she features across Greek mythology as a helper and a punisher.
I’ve put together all the information I could get on the goddess of war – but if you think I missed anything, please let me know! I’d love to add it.