[Athena] [Project]

The Greek goddess Athena (A-theen-uh), later called Minerva by the Romans, was the goddess of wisdom, battle, and certain crafts, and was the protector of the concept of cities. The olive tree was sacred to her, and her sacred bird was the owl (which is why wisdom is associated with owls). Poseidon, the god of the Sea, and Athena were in competition to become the patron of a new city. Poseidon, as a bribe, gave the first horses to the people, but Athena struck the ground with a rod and up sprang the first olive tree, olives became an agricultural staple for the Greeks. She was chosen as the patron goddess of the city which was called Athens, in her honor.

Athena was born from the head of Zeus, the chief Olympian god. Zeus had a headache which was growing worse and worse until he finally had the craftsman god, Hephaestus, split his head open with an axe, and out sprang Athena, fully grown and in full armor. This sounds like a rather silly myth, but symbolically this shows the goddess of wisdom coming from the head of the chief god. Some of the more practical Greeks decided that Zeus had swallowed his first wife Metis (a Titan goddess of wisdom) and she had given birth to Athena within Zeus. Athena then moved to Zeus's head in order to make her grand entrance.

Her name is also spelled Athene. She is identified often in mythology as grey-eyed or flashing-eyed Athena, and is sometimes called Pallas Athena because she accidentally killed Pallas, a daughter of the sea god, Triton. Another explanation for the name, Pallas Athena, is that she took the name when she killed the giant, Pallas, during the battle between the Gigantes and the Olympians. She is identified as Athena Nike and is usually depicted with wings when she is the goddess of victorious battle. She is also called Athena Parthenos, to honor her virtue. Parthenos means virgin.

Athena's sacred temple on the acropolis in Athens, Greece is called the Parthenon (temple of the virgin) because she was one of the three virgin Olympian goddesses. The Parthenon is considered by some to be the most perfect building ever built.

Light is shed on the attitude the Greeks had toward war and battle by the characterization of the god of war, Ares, and the goddess of battle, Athena. The Greeks hated the god of war and depicted him as a bully and a coward, while showing Athena as glorious and virtuous. Unlike the Romans, who glorified Mars (the Roman name for Ares) because they intended to conquer the world, the Greeks had no desire to control the world; but neither would they lose their freedom. Thus they despised the god of war and loved the goddess of battle.

Click on the underlined descriptions in the table panels below to visit other sites with information on Athena.

Image of the 42 foot tall replica of the statue of Athena housed as described by Pausanias

QuickTime VR movie of the acropolis in Athens, Greece with close proximity to the Parthenon

A page about Athena that is part of the Perseus Project

The obverse and reverse sides of a silver tetradrachm bearing the image of Athena

A statue of Athena from an ancient Greek temple

Athena depicted on an ancient Greek vase


Written by: Stephen D. Lalonde
Last Modified August 10, 1997