Athena is an ancient Greek goddess of wisdom, handicraft and warfare. She was one of the most prominent figures in Greek mythology and was regarded as the protector of various cities across Greece. Athena is believed to have been born from the head of her father Zeus after he swallowed his wife Metis while she was pregnant. She was one of the three Virgin Goddesses and was known as Athena Parthenos (“virgin”). Athena was considered powerful and graceful and is often portrayed as an emblem of women empowerment in popular culture. Ancient Greeks considered Athena as one of the most important deities and there was even a festival dedicated to her which was called Panathenaia. Know more about the Ancient Greek Goddess Athena through these 10 interesting facts.

 

#1 Athena is the goddess of wisdom, handicraft and warfare

In ancient Greek religion and myth, Athena is the goddess of wisdom, handicraft and warfare. Athena is usually depicted with animals like owls and snakes; olive trees; and the Gorgoneion, a magic pendant showing the head of a mythical creature known as Gorgon. As the patron of handicrafts, she was associated with spinning and weaving; and as a goddess of warfare, she is usually portrayed with a spear, shield & lance; helmet; and a body armor. Athena was the patroness and protector of various cities in the ancient Greek world, particularly the city of Athens or Athenai, which today is the capital and largest city of Greece. Though earlier it was debated whether Athens took its name from her or if it was the other way round, modern scholars generally agree that it is Athena who takes her name from the city of Athens. Greeks dedicated a classical temple known as The Parthenon to Athena. This temple was built on the Athenian Acropolis in the central part of the city around 438 BC. Today it is regarded as an enduring symbol of Ancient Greece and one of the world’s greatest cultural monuments.

The Parthenon
The Parthenon in Athens, Greece

 

#2 She is one of the twelve Olympian Gods

Athena is one of the 12 Olympian Gods who resided atop Mount Olympus. The Olympians are a race of deities who are a third or fourth generation of immortal beings and they were worshiped as the principal deities of the Greek pantheon. The Olympians managed to become the supreme deities after a 10 year long struggle known as Titanomachy. In this struggle, Athena’s father Zeus led his siblings to victory over the Titans who were the ruling deities at the time. Although there are a number of immortal residents at Mount Olympus, only 12 of them are considered the most important ones. These include the children of Titans Cronus and Rhea; namely Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter and Hestia; along with the main offspring of Zeus; namely Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Hephaestus, Hermes, Dionysus and Aphrodite. Being the daughter and the favorite child of Zeus, Athena had a place of prominence among the 12 Olympian Gods.

The twelve Olympian gods
Fragment of a Hellenistic relief depicting the twelve Olympians

 

#3 She was born after she sprang from the head of her father Zeus

According to Greek mythology, Athena is believed to have been born from the head of her father Zeus. Zeus married the goddess Metis, who is described as the “wisest among gods and mortal men”. This is consistent with Athena being the goddess of wisdom. After learning that Metis was pregnant, Zeus heard a prophecy that Metis would bear children who would be wiser than him and that his unborn offspring would try to overthrow him from the throne. In order to prevent this, Zeus tricked Metis into letting him swallow her, but it was too late because she had already conceived. As Athena grew inside Zeus, he developed a terrible headache. When he couldn’t stand the pain anymore, he asked the god Hephaestus to crack his head open with an ax. When Hephaistos cracked opened his head, Athena emerged from Zeus’s skull, fully grown and dressed for battle. It is believed that Athena was the favorite child of Zeus as she was his first-born.

Athena and Zeus
Statue of birth of Athena from the head of Zeus

 

#4 Athena was one of the three Virgin Goddesses

In Greek Mythology, the virgin goddesses or maiden goddesses do not marry or bear any children, the usual way or not at all. Athena was one of the three major Virgin Goddesses in Greek mythology; the others being Artemis and Hestia. Thus Athena was known as Parthenos (“virgin”) because she was believed to remain perpetually a virgin. Athena’s most famous temple, the Parthenon on the Athenian Acropolis, takes its name from this title. According to Greek mythology, the name Parthenos is not merely an observation of Athena’s virginity, but also a recognition of her role as enforcer of rules of sexual modesty and ritual mystery. Her virginity also meant that she could consort with men as an equal and engage in the masculine pursuit of war. The ancient Athenians valued virginity as a female virtue and this reflects in the importance they attached to this trait associated with Athena. Though Athena may not have been described as a virgin originally, virginity was attributed to her very early.

Athena Varvakeion
Athena Varvakeion – A small Roman replica of the Athena Parthenos

 

#5 She was the foster mother of Erichthonius

As Athena was a Virgin Goddess, she never had any biological children. However, Athena was a foster mother to a child named Ericthonius, son of Hephaestus. As per myth, Athena went to Hephaestus in his workshop to request some weapons from him and he attempted to rape her but the goddess protected her virginity. Consequently, in the attempt his semen fell onto her thigh and she, in disgust, wiped it with a tuft of wool and flung it to the earth. Gaea, being the personification of the Earth, was impregnated due to this causing her to give birth to Erichthonius. When Erichthonius was born, Athena adopted the child as her son and raised him. Later, Erichthonius went on to become was one of the most important founding heroes and a legendary ruler of ancient Athens.

Athena Scorning the Advances of Hephaestus (1555)
Athena Scorning the Advances of Hephaestus (1555) – Painting by Paris Bordone

 

#6 Athena is usually portrayed as tall, olive-skinned and with gray eyes

Athena is regarded as one of the most powerful and graceful goddesses of the Greek pantheon. She is usually depicted with dark brown/black hair, olive skin and stormy gray eyes. Her eyes were often compared to that of an owl’s because of the presence of shimmer in them. Athena is often portrayed as tall and standing upright, wearing a full-length chiton and dressed in armor like a male soldier. Her expression is often perceived as fierce, witty and full of pride. She is also at times shown wearing a Corinthian helmet raised high atop her forehead to reveal the image of Nike, a Greek goddess who personified victory. The Aegis is a shield, bearing the head of a Gorgon, which was primarily used by Zeus. But he sometimes lent it to Athena. Other sources also refer to it as animal skin worn over the garments as extra protection. Athena is thus sometimes shown carrying the Aegis as a shield or wearing it as a cloak. Athena is also often depicted with an owl sitting on one of her shoulders.

 

#7 Athena’s symbolic bird was an owl

In Greek mythology, a little owl (Athene noctua) traditionally accompanied Athena which she kept on her shoulder. It revealed truths to her and also represented her wisdom and knowledge. As owls are able to see in the dark, it was used as symbol which illuminated Athena’s “blind side”, allowing her to see the entire truth. Owls were also widely associated with Athena’s blessing, and Greek soldiers viewed the sight of owls before a battle as a symbol that the goddess was on their side. “Owl of Athena” also commonly featured in Athenian art, such as vases; and the symbol eventually spread to other Greek city-states. Moreover, the symbol of Athena’s owl was used on currency within the city with coins having a symbol of the owl on their reverse side. The image of the owl as a symbol for wisdom continued in Ancient Rome as well, when owls were associated with the goddess Minerva, the Roman equivalent of Athena. It is perhaps due to its association with Athena that the owl has been used as a symbol of knowledge, wisdom, perspicacity and erudition throughout the western world.

Statue of Athena at the Louvre
Statue of Athena with an owl at the Louvre

 

#8 Athena was the goddess of war and the female equivalent of Ares

Athena was a warrior goddess and was believed to lead soldiers into battle as Athena Promachos (‘a deity who fights in front’). She represented the disciplined, strategic side of war, in contrast to her brother Ares, the patron of violence, blood-lust and slaughter, “the raw force of war”. She never displayed hot-headedness and always viewed war primarily as a means to resolve conflict; and seek justice and righteousness; unlike her conflict-loving brother Ares. The Greeks regarded Athena with much higher esteem than Ares due to this. Athena was also referred to as Promachos by the ancient Greeks because of her patriotic, defensive and strategic virtues in warfare. A colossal statue known as Athena Promachos was sculpted by the famous Greek sculptor Phidias. It towered over the Parthenon and was a major Athenian landmark. Phidias also created another famous statue of Athena known as Athena Parthenos. It was a huge gold and ivory sculpture which was the most renowned cult image of Athens.

Acropolis with Athena Promachos
Idealised view of the Acropolis with Athena Promachos

 

#9 The Panathenaia festival was held in her honor

In ancient Greece, a festival called the Panathenaia was held every fourth year. The event consisted primarily of a religious festival, athletic competitions, cultural events and a prize-giving ceremony. One of the main events at the festival was that the priests of Athens would present the famous statue of Athena in the Parthenon with a new dress, which was called peplos in Greek. Presenting a textile was appropriate, for Athena was, among other things, the goddess of weaving. Athletic competitions were also a noteworthy part of the festival. Since Athena was known for being a very athletic woman with great strength in battle, the festival included competitions of strength and finesse to honor the Greek Goddess. The cultural events included poetic and musical competitions. The Panathenaic Stadium was reserved for the games. The winners were given Panathenaic Amphorae, which were large ceramic vessels containing olive oil as prizes. The Panathenaia was the most important festival for the Athenians though it was not as important as the Olympic Games, which were a competition of the various city-states.

Panathenaic Games runners
Greek vase depicting runners at the Panathenaic Games, c. 530 BC

 

#10 Athena is often portrayed as an emblem of women empowerment

In Greek mythology, Athena was portrayed as a warrior goddess with intelligence, wisdom, creativity and strength. She frequently features in classical Greek art on coins, paintings etc. During the Renaissance, she was one of the favorite subject of painters; and in the 17th and 18th century, she was associated in art with powerful female rulers like Queen Elizabeth I of England and Queen Catherine II of Russia. Athena continues to be used in popular culture as a symbol of wisdom, learning and women empowerment. She featured in the popular American television series called Xena: Warrior Princess. In it, she is portrayed as a goddess with higher consciousness of expressing the emotion and the imagination. In 1982, a non-profit organization known as Athena International was found which seeks to support, develop and honor women leaders through programs. Moreover, it inspires women to reach their full potential and strives to create balance in leadership worldwide. The founder of the organization was inspired by Athena as she embodies the “strength, courage, wisdom, and enlightenment” that women leaders aim to possess. On February 18, 2010, Barbie, the fashion doll, was embodied as Athena to pay a tribute to her role as a warrior goddess.

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