Zeus and His Dysfunctional Family

9 Athena

Athena, in embroidered robes and a helm, watches over Theseus and Amphitrite. Athena holds a spear in one hand and an owl in the other.
Athena with Theseus (left) and Amphitrite (right), red-figure kylix, ca. 500 BCE (Louvre Museum, Paris)

Origins

 

Zeus seated, with the small figure of Athena emerging from his head with a helm, shield, and spear. Other gods stand around Zeus.
The birth of Athena, black-figure exaleiptron, ca. 570 BCE (Louvre Museum, Paris)

Athena Tritogeneia

The following content is adapted from Mythology Unbound and is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA license.

Athena was the daughter of Zeus and his first wife . Gaia told Zeus that Metis would first bear a daughter, and then a son who would overthrow his father. Zeus, like his father and grandfather before him, wanted to avoid this fate, so when Metis became pregnant, he swallowed his wife whole. After a few months, Zeus developed a splitting headache and asked Hephaestus (or in some versions, the Titan Prometheus) to help him relieve the pressure. Hephaestus took up his axe and split open Zeus’ head. Out jumped Athena, fully dressed in armor. Another tradition has it that Athena was born near a river called Triton in Boeotia, an that was created to explain her epithet . The epithet may also come from lake Tritonis in Libya, another location given for the goddess’s birth.

Athena may possibly have originated as a warrior goddess of the Mycenaeans, an early Greek-speaking people based in the Peloponnese. She is associated with snakes, but it is not clear what the significance of the snake is to Athena.

 

Hesiod, Theogony (trans. H. G. Evelyn-White, adapted by P. Rogak and T. Mulder)

Greek epic, ca. 700 BCE

In this selection from his epic poem, the Theogony, written in the 8th or 7th century BCE, Hesiod describes the birth of Athena.

 

[885] Now , king of the gods, made his wife first, and she was the wisest among gods and mortal men. But when she was about to give birth to the goddess bright-eyed Athena, craftily deceived her [890] with cunning words and put her in his own belly, as and starry advised. They advised him to do this so that no one else should hold royal power over the eternal gods in place of ; for very wise children were destined to be born of her, [895] first the maiden, bright-eyed , equal to her father in strength and in wise understanding; but afterward she was to bear a son of overbearing spirit, king of gods and men. But put her into his own belly first, [900] so that the goddess might both good and evil plots for him.

 

Taken from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0130%3Acard%3D886

Homeric Hymn 28, “To Athena” (trans. H. G. Evelyn-White, adapted by L. Zhang, P. Rogak, and T. Mulder)

Greek hymn, 7th century BCE

This short Homeric Hymn 28 “To Athena,” written in Greek, probably in the 7th century BCE, describes the goddess’ birth and her attributes:

 

[1] I begin to sing of Athena, the glorious goddess, bright-eyed, inventive, unbending of heart, pure virgin, saviour of cities, courageous, . From his awe-inspiring head wise himself gave birth to her, adorned with warlike weapons of flashing gold, and awe seized all the gods as they watched. But Athena sprang quickly from the immortal head and stood before who holds the , shaking a sharp spear: great began to reel horribly at the might of the bright-eyed goddess, and earth round about cried fearfully, and the sea was moved and tossed with dark waves, while foam burst forth suddenly: the bright Son of [ ] stopped his swift-footed horses for a long time, until the maiden Athena had stripped the divine armour from her immortal shoulders. And wise was glad. And so hail to you, daughter of who holds the ! Now I will remember you and another song as well.

 

Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Text/HomericHymns3.html#28

 


Athena in Action

Athena as Protector of Heroes

The following content is adapted from Mythology Unbound and is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA license.

Athena was particularly fond of courageous young men, and she helped many heroes in their quests. When Perseus was sent to kill the Gorgon, Medusa, Athena provided the sword and shiny shield needed to slay the Gorgon without looking at her (see chapter 21). She gave the hero Bellerophon the golden bridle he needed to ride the winged horse, Pegasus; by riding on Pegasus’ back, Bellerophon was able to kill the monster, Chimera (see chapter 21). The Argonauts were saved from the Clashing Rocks by Athena’s help (see chapter 18).

Odysseus, because of his cunning, was one of Athena’s favorite mortals. Odysseus’ return home after the Trojan War was only possible because of Athena’s crafty help. Her intervention also helped him survive the Greater Ajax’s wrath in Sophocles’ Ajax. Whenever Odysseus is depicted in a myth, Athena is never far away (see chapter 30).

Similarly, sfter Orestes murdered his mother Clytemnestra in order to avenge the murder of his father Agamemnon, the Greek commander in the Trojan War, Athena helped the young man to escape punishment.

 

Aeschylus, Eumenides (trans. H. W. Smyth, adapted by L. Zhang, P. Rogak, and Tara Mulder)

Greek tragedy, 5th century BCE

In this excerpt from the end of Aeschylus’ tragic play, Eumenides, the third play in a trilogy called The Oresteia, written in Greek, at Athens in 458 BCE, we can see Athena defending the hero Orestes in an Athenian court. The earlier plays in the trilogy, the Agamemnon and the Libation Bearers, told the story of King Agamemnon’s return to Mycenae after the Trojan War. Upon his homecoming, bringing with him the captured Trojan princess and priestess of Apollo, Cassandra, Agamemnon walks into a trap set by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon and Cassandra. Then, the couple’s son, Orestes, returns home from where he has been raised by foster parents. He avenges the murder of his father, Agamemnon, by killing his mother, Clytemnestra. As the punishment for killing a member of his own family, he is pursued by the Erinyes (or “Furies” as they were called by the Romans). These three dread goddesses of the underworld have snakes for hair and have the responsibility for punishing crime, particularly kin-murder and oath-breaking.

As this section of the play opens, Athena is introducing the concept of a trial to the Athenians. This is an myth that explains the origin of the court system in ancient Athens.

 

Enter, in procession, Athena, a herald, the jury of the , a crowd of citizens, [the chorus of is already onstage]. moves to the place appointed for the accused. appears after Athena’s first speech.

ATHENA:

Herald, give the signal and restrain the crowd; and let the piercing Tyrrhenian trumpet, filled with human breath, send forth its shrill blare to the people! For it is good for everyone to be silent [570] while this council-hall is filling, and for the whole city to learn my decrees for all time, and for these appellants to learn them too, so that their case may be decided well.

Enter .

CHORUS:

Lord , be master of what is yours. Say what part you have in this matter.

APOLLO:

[575] I have come both to bear witness—for this man was a lawful suppliant and a guest of my sanctuary, and I am the one who purified him from the stain of bloodshed—and to be his advocate. I am responsible for the murder of his mother. [580] (To Athena) Bring in the case and decide it according to your wisdom.

ATHENA:

(To the ) It is up to you to speak—I am only bringing in the case; for the prosecutor speaking first at the beginning will rightly inform us of the matter.

CHORUS:

We are many, but we will speak briefly. [585] (To ) Answer our questions, one by one. Say first if you killed your mother.

ORESTES:

I killed her. There is no denial of this.

CHORUS:

Three falls win the wrestling match. This one is already ours.

ORESTES:

You make this boast over a man who is not down yet.

CHORUS:

[590] But say how you killed her.

ORESTES:

I will say it: with a drawn sword in hand, I stabbed her in the throat.

CHORUS:

By whom were you persuaded and on whose advice?

ORESTES:

By the oracles of this god here; he is my witness.

CHORUS:

The prophet directed you to kill your mother?

ORESTES:

[595] Yes, and to this very hour, I do not blame my fortune.

CHORUS:

But if the jury’s vote gets you, you’ll soon be singing a different tune.

ORESTES:

I have good confidence. My father will send protection from his grave.

CHORUS:

Put your confidence in the dead now, after you have killed your mother!

ORESTES:

I do, for she was twice polluted.[1]

CHORUS:

[600] How so? Demonstrate to the judges.

ORESTES:

By murdering her husband, she killed my father.

CHORUS:

And now she is free from pollution by her death. But you are still alive.

ORESTES:

But why did you not drive her into exile, while she lived?

CHORUS:

She was not related by blood to the man she killed.

ORESTES:

[605] Then am I my mother’s kin by blood?

CHORUS:

How else could she have nurtured you, murderer, beneath her belt? Do you reject the nearest kinship, that of a mother?

ORESTES:

, give your testimony now. Explain, on my behalf, whether I was justified in killing her. [610] For I do not deny that I did it, for it is done. But decide whether this bloodshed was, according to you, just or injust, so that I may inform the court.

APOLLO:

I will speak fairly before you, Athena’s great tribunal. Since I am a prophet, I cannot lie. [615] I have never yet, on my oracular throne, said anything about a man or woman or city even , the father of the Olympians, did not command me to say. Learn how strong this plea of justice is. Obey the will of my father; [620] for an oath is not more powerful than .

CHORUS:

, as you say, gave you this oracular command? He told you to tell here to avenge his father’s murder but to take no account at all of the honour due his mother?

APOLLO:

Yes, for these are not the same thing. For his was the murder of a noble man, [625] honoured by a god-given scepter, moreover murder by a woman, and not by rushing arrows from far off (as if sent by an ). It happened as you are about to hear, , and those who are here to decide this matter by vote.

[630] She welcomed him back from the expedition [to ], where he had for the most part won success beyond expectation, in the judgment of those favorable to him; then, as he was stepping from the bath, on its very edge, she threw a cloak like a tent over it, bound her husband in an embroidered robe, and cut him down.

[635] This was his death, as I have told it to you—the death of a man wholly majestic, commander of the fleet. As for that woman, I have described her in such a way as to fuel the indignation of the people who have been appointed to decide this case.

CHORUS:

gives greater honour to a father's death, according to what you say; [640] yet he himself bound his aged father, . How does this not contradict what you say? (To the judges) I call on you as witnesses to hear these things.

APOLLO:

Oh, monsters utterly hated and detested by the gods! could undo bonds, there is a remedy for that, [645] and many means of release. But when the dust has sucked up the blood of a man, once he is dead, there is no return to life. For this, my father has made no magic spells, although he manipulates all other things, turning them up and down; [650] nor does his display of power cost him a breath.

CHORUS:

See how you advocate acquittal for this man! After he has poured out his mother's blood on the ground, shall he then live in his father's house in Argos? Which of the public altars shall he use? [655] What purification rite of the brotherhoods will receive him?

APOLLO:

I will explain this, too, and see how correctly I will speak. The mother of what is called her child is not the parent, but the nurse of the newly-sown embryo. The one who mounts is the parent, whereas she, as a stranger for a stranger, [660] preserves the young plant, if the god does not harm it. And I will show you proof of what I say: a father might exist without a mother. A witness is here at hand, the child of Olympian , who was not nursed in the darkness of a womb, [665] and she is such a child as no goddess could give birth to.

For my part, , as in all other matters, as I know how, I will make your city and people great; and I have sent this man as a suppliant to your sanctuary so that he may be faithful for all time, [670] and that you, goddess, might win him and those to come after him as a new ally and so that these pledges of faith might remain always, for the later generations of these people to cherish.

ATHENA:

Am I to assume that enough has been said, and shall I now command these jurors to cast an honest vote according to their judgment?

CHORUS:

[675] For our part, every bolt is already shot. But I am waiting to hear how the trial will be decided.

ATHENA:

Why not? (To and )  As for you, how shall I arrange matters so that I will not be blamed by you?

APOLLO:

You have heard what you have heard; and as you cast your ballots, keep the oath sacred in your hearts, friends.

ATHENA:

[680] Hear now my ordinance, people of Attica, as you judge the first trial for bloodshed. In the future, even as now, this court of judges will always exist for the people of . And this Hill of , the seat and camp of the , [685] when they came with an army in resentment against , and in those days built up this new citadel with lofty towers to rival his, and sacrificed to , from which this rock takes its name, the Hill of : [690] on this hill, the reverence of the citizens, and fear, its kinsman, will hold them back from doing wrong by day and night alike, so long as they themselves do not pollute the laws with evil streams; if you stain clear water with filth, you will never find a drink.

[695] Neither anarchy nor tyranny—this I counsel my citizens to support and respect, and not to drive fear wholly out of the city. For who among mortals, if he fears nothing, is righteous? Stand in just awe of such majesty, [700] and you will have a defense for your land and salvation of your city, such as no man has, either among the Scythians or in ' realm. I establish this tribunal, untouched by greed, worthy of reverence, quick to anger, awake on behalf of those who sleep, a guardian of the land.

[705] But, I have gone on long enough with this advice for my citizens for their future. Now you must rise and take a ballot, and decide the case under the sacred obligation of your oath. My word has been spoken.

[710] The judges rise from their seats and cast their ballots one by one during the following dialogue.

CHORUS:

And I counsel you not to dishonour us in any way, since our company can be a burden to your land.

APOLLO:

And I, for my part, command you to stand in fear of the oracles, both mine and ', and not cause them to be unfulfilled.

CHORUS:

You honor bloody crimes that aren't your business. [715] Your oracles will never now be pure.

APOLLO:

So Zeus made a mistake when , the first to kill, appealed to him for help?

CHORUS:

You said it, I didn't. But if I don't get justice, I will come back to crush this land forever.

APOLLO:

[720] How so? You have no honour among the gods, young or old. I will win this case.

CHORUS:

You did the same thing too, in Pheres' house: you persuaded the to let men hide from death.

APOLLO:

Is it unjust to treat someone so kindly, such a pious worshipper, [725] especially when he is in need?

CHORUS:It was you who destroyed the old divine order when you beguiled the ancient goddesses with wine.

APOLLO:

Once you have lost the case you will spit out your venom. It won't be a threat to your enemies.

[730] The voting is now over.

CHORUS:

Since you, a youth, deride me, an old woman, I am waiting to hear the verdict in the case. I have not decided whether or not to be angry at the city.

ATHENA:

It is my duty to give the final judgment and I will cast my vote for . [735] No mother gave birth to me; and in all things, except for marriage, I am whole-heartedly on the male side and on the side of my father . Therefore, I will not award greater honour to the death of a woman who killed her husband, the master of the house. If the vote comes out equal. [740] will win.

Turn over the urns and count the ballots as quickly as possible, you jurors who have been assigned this task.

The ballots are turned out and separated.

ORESTES:

O ! How will the trial be decided?

CHORUS:

O , our dark Mother, do you see this? [745]

ORESTS:

Now I will die by hanging, or I will live.

CHORUS:

Yes, and we will be ruined, or maintain our honours further.

APOLLO:

Count the ballots correctly, friends, and do not make a mistake in dividing the votes. Error in judgment causes much distress, [750] and the cast of a single ballot has turned a house upside down.

The ballots are shown to Athena.

ATHENA:

This man is acquitted on the charge of murder, for the numbers of the ballots are equal.

disappears.

ORESTES:

, savior of my house! I was deprived of a fatherland, and it is you who have given me a home there again. [755] The will say, “The man is an once again, and lives in his father's estate, by the grace of and of and of that third god, the one who accomplishes everything, the savior”—the one who, honouring my father's death, [760] saves me, in the face of my mother's advocates.

I will go home now, after I swear an oath to this land and to your people for the future and for all time to come, that no commander of my land [765] will ever come here and do violence against them with a well-equipped spear. I will ensure this even from the grave. I will curse them with non-remediable failure, making their marches spiritless and their journeys ill-omened. [770] Those who violate this oath of mine will regret their enterprise. But while they remain true and they hold this city of   as allies in everlasting honour, I will be the more well-disposed to them.

And so farewell—you and the people who guard your city. [775] May none of your enemies escape you and may you have safety and victory with the spear!

Exit.

 

Taken from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0006%3Acard%3D566

Athena the Warrior

Athena was one of the war gods of the ancient Mediterranean. She was often compared to her brother Ares, but whereas the Greek saw him as the god of bloodthirsty, irrational battle lust, her domain was strategy and tactical warfare. However, this comparison was not always at the forefront of literary depictions of the two.

 

Homeric Hymn 11, "To Athena" (trans. H. G. Evelyn-White, adapted by L. Zhang and T. Mulder)

Greek hymn, 7th-4th century BCE

This brief hymn to Athena, written sometime in the 7th-4th centuries CE, addresses Athena and Ares as a duo. Together, they love "deeds of war, the raiding of cities, and the shouting of the battle."

 

 

[1] Of Athena, guardian of the city, I begin to sing. She is greatly revered, and with she loves deeds of war, the raiding of cities and the shouting of the battle. It is she who saves the people when they go out to war and come back. Hail, goddess, and give us good fortune along with happiness!

 

Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Text/HomericHymns3.html#11

 

Homer, Iliad, Book 5 (trans. A. S. Kline, adapted by L. Zhang, P. Rogak, and T. Mulder)

Greek epic poem, 8th century BCE

In this selection from the Iliad, Book 5, Athena fights alongside the Greek hero, Diomedes. She helps him to wound Aries, who is fighting on the side of the Trojans.

 

[703-766] And when the goddess, white-armed saw the being slaughtered in mortal combat, she swiftly spoke winged words to Athena, "Oh, child of -bearing , , if we let savage rage like this, then what good is our promise to Menelaus that he will sack the high walls of before returning home? Come let us also think of wild bravery.’

Bright-eyed Athena hastened to obey her words. , the great goddess, daughter of , ran to harness her steeds with gold, while swiftly fitted the eight-spoked wheels of bronze on the chariot’s iron axle. The rims of these chariot wheels are imperishable gold: the tires are bronze, a wonder to see; while the whirling hubs are silver. The platform is woven with straps of silver and gold, with a double rail, and a long silver pole to which she fastened the golden yoke and breast straps. Then Hera, eager to fight, yoked her swift horses.

Meanwhile Athena, daughter of -bearing , took off her soft, richly embroidered robe, that she had made herself. She left it at the entrance to her father's house and dressed herself in the tunic of the Cloud-Driver, and put on her armour, ready for gloomy war. She threw the frightening, tasseled over her shoulders, a garment filled with terror, violence and strife, adorned with the monstrous image of the ’s head,  the grim and awful emblem of -bearing . On her head she put the golden helmet with its four cones and double-crest, decorated with warriors of a hundred cities. Then she set foot on the fiery chariot, grasped her huge, strong, weighty spear, with which this daughter of a mighty Father shatters the ranks in anger.

At once, whipped up the horses, and the gates of Olympus groaned open on their hinges all on their own accord, gates that the guard, the wardens of wide heaven and , hiding or showing them as they see fit. Through the gates they drove their steady horses, and found [ ] the Son of sitting alone on the topmost peak of many-ridged . There white-armed reined in the horses, and asked lofty , " Father Zeus, aren't you seething mad at for his reckless violence that has destroyed a vast army of noble , causing me great distress? Meanwhile Cyprian , and , Lord of the Silver Bow, delightedly unleashing lawless carnage. Will you be angry, Father , if I strike hard and drive him from the field?"

"Instead of that, rouse Athena, always the first to chase the spoils, and let her face him," the Cloud-Gatherer replied. "She, above all, is accustomed to causing him pain."

[767-845] The goddess, white-armed , sped to obey his order, flicking the horses with her whip, and the willing pair galloped between earth and the starry heavens. Those thundering horses of the gods cover the distance at one bound that a man can see through the distant haze, gazing from a watchtower over the wine-dark sea. They soon reached , land of the two rivers, and there at the meeting of and , the white-armed goddess reined in her horses, and loosed them from the yoke. She veiled them with a thick mist, while made ambrosia spring up for them to graze. Then the two goddesses strutted forward, like bold pigeons, in their eagerness to aid the army.

When they had reached the place where a select force of , arrayed like ravenous lions or formidable wild boars, had gathered round mighty , tamer of horses, the goddess, white-armed halted and called aloud, imitating bronze-voiced Stentor’s great shout, louder than fifty men, "Shame on you, Greeks, fine to look at, but cowards inside! When noble led the fight no Trojan dared to leave the Dardanian Gates, they feared his great spear so much, but now far from their city they fight by your hollow ships."

With these words she roused the courage and daring in every man. Meanwhile bright-eyed Athena, seeing ’ son beside his horses and chariot with the arrow-wound that Pandarus had given him, ran swiftly to his side. Beneath the broad shoulder-strap of his round shield the sweat was irritating him, and he lifted the strap to wipe away the dark blood beneath his weakened arm. The goddess laid her hand on the chariot yoke saying, "’ son is hardly like his father. Small though he was, he was a fighter. Even when I wanted him not to fight or make a row, when he strode alone into the crowd of Cadmeians at , bearing them a message, even when I’d told him to sit and banquet quietly in their hall, he with his great heart had to challenge the Cadmeian youth, and beat them easily, as ever, though with my help. But you, I stand by your side, I shield you from harm, ready to urge you on against the Trojans, yet you seem too tired to attack again or fear robs you of your strength. If that is so, then you are no child of , ’ warlike son!"

"I know you, daughter of -bearing ," answered mighty , "so I will speak freely, hiding nothing. Neither blind fear nor fatigue possess me, I am merely obeying your command not to fight with the gods face to face, unless daughter of enters the fray, whom I am allowed to wound with my sharp blade. But it is I see controlling the field of war, so I have retreated and told the rest of the to gather here around me."

"Dearest , true son of ," bright-eyed Athena replied, "have no fear of or any of the immortals, and I will be here beside you to defend you. Drive your swift steeds towards him, and strike him at close range. Do not be in awe of raging in his fury, treacherous plague that he is, who promised and I that he would help the Greeks against the Trojans, but now forgets what he swore and fights for ."

She reached out as she spoke and, grasping Sthenelus, hustled him from the chariot. He was quick to leave and she mounted beside , eager herself for battle. The beech-wood axle groaned beneath its burden, weighed down by the mighty warrior and the fearsome goddess. Athena grasped the reins, and whipped the swift horses towards as he was stripping the armour from the great Periphas, noble son of Ochesius and pride of the Aetolians. Spattered with blood, he despoiled the corpse, while Athena donned ’ helmet of invisibility, to hide her identity from the mighty god.

[846-909] But the moment , bane of the living, glimpsed , he left great Periphas where he had killed him, and headed straight for the . When they were at close quarters, thrust with his bronze spear over the reins and yoke at , eager to strike him dead: but bright-eyed Athena caught the spear in her hand, and drove it above the chariot into the air. Now, , of the loud war-cry, thrust his bronze-spear at , and Athena drove it home into the lower belly, where he wore a defensive apron. There the thrust landed, tearing the flesh, and wrenched it free again. Then bronze-clad bellowed as loud as ten thousand warriors shout in battle, when they meet in the war-god’s shadow. The Greeks and Trojans trembled with fear at insatiable ’ cry.

Like the dark column that whirls from the cloud when a tornado forms in heated air, so brazen seemed to , as he sped through the sky to high heaven. Swiftly he reached the gods’ home on steep , and sat down at ’ side, in anguish. showed the divine ichor flowing from the wound, and spoke in a sad voice, "Father , does it not stir your indignation to see all this violence? We gods always suffer cruelly at each other’s hands when we show favour to mortals. We are all at odds with you because you cursed the world with that mad daughter of yours who is always bent on lawlessness. The rest of us Olympians obey you and bow to you, but you say and do nothing to stop her antics, you condone them rather, simply because this girl who wreaks havoc is yours. Now she spurs on foolhardy to vent his anger on us immortals. First in a close encounter he wounded on the wrist then he ran at me like a demon. Quick on my feet, I sprang away, or I would have suffered there for ages among the grisly dead, or been crippled by his spear-blows."

 

Taken from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Greek/Iliad5.php#anchor_Toc239244908

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2009 All Rights Reserved.

Athena as Patron of Athens

Athena earned her special association with the city of Athens by winning a contest with Poseidon for patronage of the city. Differing versions say that Zeus, a council of the gods, or even the Athenians themselves served as judges. In any event, each god was asked to provide a gift for the city and the judge(s) would decide who had given the better gift. Poseidon struck a rock with his trident and out came a spring of salt water and Athena grew an olive tree. The judge(s) decided that the olive was more useful than the saltwater spring and awarded the city to Athena. When Athena was not living on Olympus, she often lived in the Parthenon, the temple to her on the Acropolis in Athens.

For further discussion of the foundation and mythology of Athens, see chapter 36.

 

Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, Book 3 (trans. J.G. Frazer, adapted by P. Rogak)

Greek mythography, 2nd century CE

In this section of the Bibliotheca, Pseudo-Apollodorus writes about the contest between Athena and Poseidon for the patronage of Athens.

 

[3.14.1] , a son of the soil, with a body that was half man and half serpent, was the first king of Attica. The country that was formerly called Acte he named Cecropia after himself. In his lifetime, it is said that the gods decided to take possession of cities that would worship them particularly. So was the first that came to Attica, and with a blow of his trident in the middle of the acropolis, he produced a sea which they now call Erechtheis. After him came Athena, and, having called on to witness her action, she planted an olive tree, which is still shown in the Pandrosium. But when the two struggled for possession of the country, separated them and appointed judges. These judges were not, as some have claimed, and Cranaus, nor even Erysichthon [of Attica], but the twelve gods. And by their verdict the country was awarded to Athena, because witnessed that she had been the first to plant the olive tree. Athena, therefore, called the city after herself, and in hot anger flooded the Thriasian plain and laid Attica under the sea.

 

Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Text/Apollodorus3.html#14

Athena’s Virginity

[content warning for the following section: sexual assault]

Like Artemis and Hestia, Athena was a virgin goddess. Her virginity entailed not only abstaining from sexual relations, but also preventing anything that could be considered adjacent to sex from occurring (such as being seen naked).

 

Callimachus, Hymn 5, "The Bath of Pallas" (trans. J.G. Frazer, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek hymn, 3rd century BCE

Callimachus' 3rd century BCE Greek hymn to Athena describes the ritual bathing of the statue of Athena by the women of Athens. It describes the differences between Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, and Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and erotic desire. It also warns the listener about what will happen if anyone attempts to violate the virginity of Athena or sees her naked, even accidentally.

 

[1] All you who are companions of the Bath of , come out, come out! I heard the snorting of the sacred steeds just now  and the goddess is ready to go. Hurry now, fair-haired daughters of Pelasgus, hurry! Never did Athena wash her mighty arms before she removed the dust from the flanks of her horses – not even when, her armour all dirtied with filth, she returned from the battle with the lawless ; but first she freed her horses’ necks from their yoke, and in the springs of washed the flecks of sweat and from their mouths that chewed the bit, cleansed the clotted foam.

[13] Come, daughters of Achaea, and do not bring perfume or alabasters (I hear the voice of the wheel hubs!); do not bring perfume or alabasters for , you companions of the Bath (for Athena does not love mixed ointments), and also do not bring a mirror. Her face is always beautiful, and, even when the Phrygian [ ] judged the contest on Ida, the great goddess did not look into [polished metal] orichalc, nor into the transparent currents of , nor did . But Cypris [ ] took the shining bronze and often altered and altered again the same lock of hair. But , after running twice sixty double courses, just like, beside the Eurotas [river], the Lacedaemonian Stars [ and ], took and skillfully anointed herself with simple ointments, the birth of her own tree [olive oil]. And, O maidens, the red blush arose on her, as the colour of the morning rose or the seed of a pomegranate. For that reason now also bring only the manly olive oil, with which and anoint themselves. And bring her a comb all of gold, so that she may comb her hair, once she has anointed her glossy tresses.

[33] Come forth, Athena! A company pleasing to your heart awaits you, the maiden akestoridan.[2] And with them, O Athena, is carried the shield of , since this is the custom which, in olden days, Eumedes taught them: a priest who found favour with you: who one time, when he knew that the people were plotting and planning death for him, fled with your holy image and lived in the Creion hill – lived on the hill of Creion and established you, O goddess, on the rugged rocks, whose name is now the Pallantid rocks.

[42] Come forth, Athena, Sacker of Cities, golden-helmeted, who rejoices in the sounds of horse and shield. Today, you water-carriers, do not dip your pitchers – today, O Argos, drink from the fountains and not from the river; today, you handmaidens carry your pitchers to [the springs] Physadeia or Amymone, daughter of . For, mingling his waters with gold and with flowers, will come from his pastoral hills, bringing fair water for the Bath of Athena. But beware, O Pelasgian, in case even unwittingly you see the Queen. Whoever sees , Keeper of Cities, naked, shall look on Argos for the last time. Lady Athena, come forth, and meanwhile I will say something to these people. The story is not mine but told by others.

[57] Maidens, in one of old, the mother of , loved Athena a lot, far beyond all her other companions, and was never apart from her. But when she [Athena] drove her steeds towards ancient Thespiae or towards Coroneia or to Haliartus, passing through the tilled fields of the Boeotians – or toward Coroneia where the fragrant grove and altars are set by the river Coralius – often did the goddess set the nymph upon her chariot, and there was no festivity of nymphs nor sweet ordering of dance, where did not lead.

[68] Yet many tears awaited her, in the days to come, although she was a companion who pleased the heart of Athena. One day those two undid the buckles of their robes beside the fair-flowing Fountain of the Horse on and bathed; and midday was quiet across the whole hill. Those two were bathing and it was the noon hour and a great quiet held that hill. Only , on whose cheek the hair was just darkening, still roamed with his hounds at the holy place. And, with a great thirst, he came to the flowing fountain, wretched man! He unwillingly saw that which is not lawful to be seen. And Athena was angered, and said to him: “What god, O son of Everes, led you on this tragic way? From now on you will never have the use of your eyes again!”

[83] She spoke and darkness seized the eyes of the youth. And he stood there speechless; for pain glued his knees and helplessness stopped his voice. But the cried: “What have you done to my boy, lady? Is this what the friendship of you goddesses is? You have taken away the eyes of my son. Foolish child! You have seen the breast and body of Athena, but the sun you shall not see again. O unhappy me! O hill, O , where I may no more come, surely a great price has been exacted for a small thing. Losing a few gazelles and deer, you have taken the eyes of my child.”

[93] Then the mother clasped her beloved child in both her arms and, wailing the heavy lament of the mournful nightingale, led him away. And the goddess Athena pitied her companion and said to her: “Noble lady, take back all the words that you have spoken in anger. I'm am not the one that made your child blind. For it is no sweet thing for Athena to snatch away the eyes of children. But the laws of Cronius [ ] order thus: Whoever sees any of the immortals, when the god himself does not choose to be seen, looks for a heavy price. Noble lady, the thing that is done can no more be taken back; since the thread of the spun when you bore him from the beginning; but now, son of Everes, you will take the outcome which is due to you. How many burnt offerings will the daughter of [ ] burn in the days to come? How many will burn? – praying that they might see their only son, the young , blind. And yet he shall be a companion of the chase to great . But neither the chase nor companionship in archery on the hills will save him in that hour, when, though unwillingly, he will see the beautiful bathing of the goddess. No, his own dogs will then devour their former lord. And his mother will gather the bones of her son, spread over all the thickets. She will call you happiest of women and say you have a happy fate, because you received your son home from the hills – blind. Therefore, O companion, do not lament; for your son – for your sake – will gain many other honours from me. For I will make him a seer to be sung of by men from now on, yes, more excellent than any other. He will know the birds – which is of good omen among all the countless birds that fly, and what birds are of ill-omened flight.[3] Many oracles will he utter to the Boeotians and many to , and to the mighty sons of Labdacus in later days. Also I will give him a great staff which will guide his feet as he has need, and I will give him a long life. And he only, when he dies, will walk among the dead having understanding, honoured by the great Leader of Peoples [ ].”

[130] So she spoke and bowed her head; and a promise over which bows will be fulfilled; since to Athena only among his daughters had granted that she should have all the things that are his, companions of the Bath, and no mother bore that goddess, but the head of . The head of does not bow in falsehood, and in falsehood his daughter has no part.

[137] Now comes Athena, indeed. O maidens, whose task it is, receive the goddess with pious greeting and with prayer, and with the voice of gratitude. Hail, goddess, and have Inachian Argos in your keeping! Hail when you drive forth your steeds, and may you drive home again with joy, and preserve all the estate of the .

 

Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Text/CallimachusHymns2.html#5

 

 

Fulgentius, Mythologies, Book 2 (trans. L. G. Whitbread, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Latin mythography, ca. 500 CE

[content warning for the following source: sexual assault]
In another story, here told in a Roman version by the much later 5th/6th century CE writer, Fulgentius, Vulcan (Hephaestus) tries to rape Minerva (Athena). She fends him off, but his semen falls on the ground and from it springs up the half-man/half-snake, Ericthonius, whom Athena adopts as her own son. She raises him in her temple and he eventually becomes one of the earliest kings of Athens. Fulgentius uses this myth to explain the origin of chariots and chariot racing. He uses an allegorical interpretation of the myth, where Minerva (Athena) stands for wisdom and Vulcan (Hephaestus) stands for rage. You will notice that this version of the myth also contains several etymologies, which are explanations of the origins of words and names.

 

[2.11] When made the thunderbolts of , he accepted a promise from that he might take anything that he wanted. He asked for Minerva in marriage; ordered Minerva to defend her virginity by strength of arms. When they were supposed to enter the marriage bed, in the struggle spilled his seed on the floor, and from it was born with the feet of a serpent, for eris is the Greek for strife, and ctonus is the name for the earth. Minerva hid him in a basket and entrusted him, with a serpent nearby as guardian, to the two sisters, and . It was he who first invented the chariot. They explained as the fire of rage, and so is named as the heat of desire; he made the lightning for , that is, he stirred up rage. They chose him to be the husband of Minerva because even rage is somewhat reduced for the wise. She defended her maidenhood by force of arms, that is, all wisdom by strength of mind protects the integrity of its own habits against fury. From where indeed was born, for eris is the Greek for strife, and tonos is not only earth, but can also mean envy, and so Thales of Miletus says: “Envy is the devourer of worldly fame.” And what else but the strife of envy could the weakening rage of wisdom produce? Wisdom, that is, Minerva, hid it in a basket, that is, concealed it in her heart, for every wise man hides his rage in his heart. Minerva placed a serpent close by as a guardian, that is, destruction, which she entrusted to the two maidens, and . For is called the gift of all, and is for acouleron, that is, the forgetting of sadness. For the wise man entrusts his grief either to that kindheartedness which is the gift of all or to forgetting, as was said of Caesar: “You who forget nothing except the wrongs done you.” When grew up, what is he said to have invented? Nothing less than the racecourse, where there is always the strife of envy, as Virgil says: “ first dared to join chariots and four horses.” Take note what value there is when chastity is joined to wisdom, for against it even the god of fire could not prevail.

 

Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Text/FulgentiusMythologies2.html#11

 

Athena and Arachne

Athena, like the other gods, was quick to punish mortals who thought they were equal to the gods, as exemplified by her interactions with Arachne, the talented mortal weaver.

 

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 11 (trans. A.S. Kline, adapted by P. Rogak)

Latin narrative poem, 1st century CE

[content warning for the following source: mention of sexual assault (103-128), suicide (129-145)]

In this excerpt from Ovid's Metamorphoses, the mortal woman Arachne goes head to head with Minerva (Athena) in a weaving contest.

 

[1-25] “Tritonian Minerva had listened to every word, and approved of the Aonian ’s song, and their justified indignation. Then she said, to herself, ‘To give praise is not enough; let me be praised as well, and do not allow my divine powers to be scorned without inflicting punishment.’ Her thoughts turned to , of Maeonia, whom she had heard would not give her due credit in the art of spinning. The girl was not known for her place of birth, or family, but for her skill. Her father, Idmon of Colophon, dyed the absorbent wool purple, with Phocaean murex. Her mother was dead. She too had been of humble birth, and the father the same. Nevertheless, though she lived in a modest home, in little Hypaepa, had gained a name for artistry throughout the cities of Lydia.

“Often the of Mount Tmolus deserted their vine-covered slopes, and the nymphs of the River Pactolus deserted their waves, to examine her wonderful workmanship. It was not only a joy to see the finished cloths, but also to watch them made: so much beauty added to art. Whether at first she was winding the rough yarn into a new ball, or working the stuff with her fingers, teasing out the clouds of wool, repeatedly, drawing them into long equal threads, twirling the slender spindle with practised thumb, or embroidering with her needle, you could see she was taught by . Yet she denied it, and took offence at the idea of such a teacher. ‘Compete with me’ she said ‘I will not disagree at all if I am beaten’.

[26-69] “ Minerva took the shape of an old woman: adding grey hair to her temples, and aging her limbs, which she supported with a stick. Then she spoke, to the girl, as follows. ‘Not everything old age has is to be shunned: knowledge comes with advancing years. Do not reject my advice: seek great fame amongst mortals for your skill in weaving, but give way to the goddess, and ask her forgiveness, rash girl, with a humble voice: she will forgive if you will ask.’ looked fiercely at her and left the work she was on: scarcely restraining her hands, and with dark anger in her face. Pallas, disguised it is true, received this answer. ‘Weak-minded and worn out by tedious old age you come here and having lived too long destroys you. Let your daughter-in-law if you have one, let your daughter if you have one, listen to your voice. I have wisdom enough of my own. You think your advice is never heeded: that is my feeling too. Why does she not come herself? Why does she shirk this contest?’

“The goddess said ‘She is here!’ and, relinquishing the old woman’s form, revealed Minerva. The and the Phrygian women worshipped her godhead: the girl alone remained unafraid, yet she did blush, like how the sky is accustomed to redden when first stirs, and, after a while, to whiten at the sun from the east. She is stubborn in her attempt, and rushes on to her fate, eager for a worthless prize. Now, ’s daughter does not refuse, and does not give warning, or delay the contest a moment. Immediately they both position themselves, in separate places, and stretch out the fine threads for the warp over twin frames. The frame is fastened to the cross-beam; the threads of the warp separated with the reed; the thread of the weft is inserted between, in the pointed shuttles that their fingers have readied; and, drawn through the warp, the threads of the weft are beaten into place, struck by the comb’s notched teeth. They each work quickly, and, with their clothes gathered in tight, under their breasts, apply skillful arms, their zeal not making it seem like work. There, shades of purple, dyed in Tyrian bronze vessels, are woven into the cloth, and also lighter colours, shading off gradually. The threads that touch seem the same, but the extremes are distant, as when, often, after a rainstorm, the expanse of the sky, struck by the sunlight, is stained by a rainbow in one vast arch, in which a thousand separate colours shine, but the eye itself still cannot see the transitions. There are inserted lasting threads of gold, and an ancient tale is spun in the web.

[70-102] “ Athena depicts the hill of , and the court of the , in ’s , and the old dispute between and herself, as to who had the right to the city and its name. There the twelve gods sit in great majesty, on their high thrones, with in the middle. She weaves the gods with their familiar attributes. The image of is a royal one. There she portrays the ocean god, standing and striking the rough stone, with his long trident, and seawater flowing from the centre of the shattered rock, a token of his claim to the city. She gives herself a shield, a sharp pointed spear, and a helmet for her head, while the protects her chest. She shows an olive-tree with a pale trunk, thick with fruit, born from the earth at a blow from her spear, the gods marveling: and crowns the work.

Then she adds four scenes of contest in the four corners, each with miniature figures, in their own clear colours, so that her rival might learn, from the examples quoted, what prize she might expect, for her outrageous daring. One corner shows Thracian Mount Rhodope and Mount Haemus, now icy peaks, once mortal beings who ascribed the names of the highest gods to themselves. A second corner shows the miserable fate of the queen of the Pygmies: how , having overcome her in a contest, ordered her to become a crane and make war on her own people. Also she pictures Antigone, whom Queen turned into a bird for having dared to compete with ’s great consort: neither her father , nor her city were of any use to her, but taking wing as a white stork she applauds herself with clattering beak. The only corner left shows Cinyras, bereaved: and he is seen weeping as he clasps the stone steps of the temple that were once his daughters’ limbs. Minerva surrounded the outer edges with the olive wreaths of peace (this was the last part) and so ended her work with emblems of her own tree.

[103-128] “The Maeonian girl depicts deceived by the form of the bull: you would have thought it a real bull and real waves. She is seen looking back to the shore she has left, and calling to her companions, displaying fear at the touch of the surging water, and drawing up her shrinking feet. Also showed Asterie, held by the eagle, struggling, and lying beneath the swan’s wings. She added who, hidden in the form of a satyr, filled , daughter of with twin offspring; who, as , was charmed by you, , of Tiryns; by , as a golden shower; by , daughter of , as a flame; by Mnemosyne, as a shepherd; by , ’s daughter, as a spotted snake.

She wove you, , also, changed to a fierce bull for Canace, ’s daughter. In ’ form you conceived the , and deceived Theophane as a ram. The golden-haired, gentlest, mother of the cornfields [ ], knew you as a horse. The snake-haired mother [ ] of the winged horse [ ], knew you as a winged bird. Melantho knew you as a dolphin. She gave all these their own aspects, and the aspects of the place. Here is like a countryman, and she shows him now with the wings of a hawk, and now in a lion’s skin, and how as a shepherd he tricked Isse, Macareus’s daughter. She showed how ensnared Erigone with delusive grapes, and how as the double of a horse conceived . The outer edge of the web, surrounded by a narrow border, had flowers interwoven with entangled ivy.

[129-145] “Neither nor itself could fault that work. The golden-haired warrior goddess was grieved by its success, and tore the tapestry, embroidered with the gods’ crimes, and as she held her shuttle made of boxwood from Mount Cytorus, she struck Idmonian , three or four times, on the forehead. The unfortunate girl could not bear it, and courageously slipped a noose around her neck: , in pity, lifted her, as she hung there, and said these words, ‘Live on then, and yet hang, condemned one, but, in case you are careless in the future, this same condition is declared, in punishment, against your descendants, to the last generation!’ Departing after saying this, she sprinkled her with the juice of ’s herb, and immediately at the touch of this dark poison, ’s hair fell out. With it went her nose and ears, her head shrank to the smallest size, and her whole body became tiny. Her slender fingers stuck to her sides as legs, the rest is belly, from which she still spins a thread, and, as a spider, weaves her ancient web.

 

Taken from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph6.php

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved.


Art and Symbolism

Athena stands holding a spear and shield. She is wearing a helm and the aegis, with the head of Medusa clearly visible on it.
Athena, red-figure amphora, ca. 525 BCE (Altes Museum, Berlin)

In Greek art, Athena was particularly popular in objects produced in the region of Attica. She was usually represented as a young woman wearing a long chiton and a helmet. She could also be depicted wielding a spear, a shield, or both.

 

Jason hangs limply from the mouth of a dragon, with the Golden Fleece hanging from a tree in the background. Athena stands over Jason, wearing a battle helmet, and holding a spear and an owl.
Athena watching as Jason is spat out of the dragon, red-figure kylix, ca. 480 BCE (Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Vatican City)

In vase paintings, sculptures, and coins, one of her most recognizable attributes is the aegis, a magic garment usually represented as a shield or scaled mantle with snakes as tassels draped over the chest of the goddess. At the centre of it sat the severed head of the gorgon Medusa, whose gaze could turn living things into stone.

 

An owl perched among plants on a black background.
Owl, red-figure skyphos, 5th century BCE (Metropolitan Museum, New York)

Athena's sacred bird was the owl, which was frequently depicted accompanying her, or as a stand-in for her. Famously, Athenian coins had the head of Athena on one side, and an owl on the other.

 

Side 1: Head of Athena wearing a plumed war helm. Side 2: an owl.
Head of Athena and an owl, Attic coin, ca. 500 BCE
Side 1: head of Athena in an ornate headdress. Side 2: an owl.
Head of Athena and an owl, Attic coin, ca. 410 BCE

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another Athenian figure who was represented alongside the goddess was Erichthonios, a human-snake hybrid boy whom she had adopted and raised.

 

Gaia rises out of the ground carrying the young boy Erichtonios. Athena, with spear and aegis, stands with her arms out to receive the boy.
Gaia gives the baby Ericthonios to Athena, red-figure kylix, ca. 440 BCE (Altes Museum, Berlin)

Olive trees were sacred to Athena, who was said to have created the first one during her fight against Poseidon for the city of Athens. This scene was often represented in art with the goddess standing next to a newly sprouted olive tree, and it was carved on the western pediment of the Parthenon.

 

In the centre, Athena and Poseidon with an olive tree. They are flanked by horses and chariots on either side, as well as a number of human figures.
Poseidon and Athena competing for Athens, West Pediment of the Parthenon, ca. 447 BCE (Acropolis Museum, Athens)

The other pediment of the temple featured another one of Athena's best-known myths, that of her birth from the head of Zeus. This scene generally shows Athena coming out as a fully armoured adult in the presence of other deities. On the following amphora, Athena can be seen standing atop Zeus' head.

 

Zeus is throned. A small Athena, fully armed and armoured, leaps from his head. Other gods stand watching, including Ares bearing a large shield and wearing a plumed helm.
Birth of Athena, black-figure Amphora, ca. 560 BCE (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven)

 

Zeus is seated on a throne, and Athena stands before him fully dressed with a spear and shield. Other gods, including Hephaestus with an axe and Poseidon with a trident, look on.
Athena newly born from the head of Zeus, reconstruction of the east pediment of the Parthenon, ca. 438 BCE (Acropolis Museum, Athens)

Athena was also often represented killing Enkelados during the Gigantomachy or helping various heroes, such as Heracles and Perseus.

 

Heracles sits wearing his lion skin and holding a cup. Athena stands before him pouring a liquid into his cup. Athena is holding a spear, and her helm rests beside her.
Athena and Herakles, red-figure kylix, ca. 480 BCE (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich)

 

Perseus stands holding a sword to Medusa's neck with one hand, holding her hair with the other. Medusa kneels with the winged horse pegasus in her lap, and Athena stands by watching.
Perseus beheading Medusa, Greek relief from Selinunte (Museo Archeologico Regionale Antonio Salinas, Palermo)

 

One of the most famous sculptures of Athena was created by Pheidias around 447 BCE for the Parthenon. The statue, made of gold and ivory over a wooden frame, depicted the victorious goddess. She wore a three-crested helmet (which most representations of the goddess after this point replicated), held a winged Nike in her right hand, and shield and spear (or just the shield) in her left. This artwork was reportedly 11.5 metres (37 ft 9 in) tall. Although the original statue is lost, its appearance has been reconstructed on the basis of literary accounts and depictions on other media, such as coins and later copies.

 

Side 1: the head of Athena in a plumed helm. Side 2: Athena holding a small Nike in one hand and a spear in the other.
Head of Athena and Athena Parthenos, Athenian coin, ca. 264 BCE

 

Athena standing. She is wearing an elaborate headdress decorated with figures of horses, and is draped in a peplos. In her right hand she holds a statue of the winged goddess Nike, and in her left she holds a shield.
Copy of Pheidias' Athena Parthenos statue, marble statue, 3rd century CE (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

Minerva

Minerva was originally an indigenous Italic goddess of war worshipped by the Etruscans. She was sometimes depicted as the bearer of the lightning bolt.

 

Winged Minerva striding forward. In one hand she carries a shield with an image of an owl, and in the other a spear with lightning bolts.
Minerva, tracing of a bronze mirror, 3rd century BCE (Staatliche Antikensammlung, Berlin)

 

However, many of Minerva's attributes in art were the same as her Greek counterpart, Athena. Like Athena, Minerva was represented fully armed with her aegis, helmet, shield, and spear, and accompanied by her owl.

The goddess was also a member of the Capitoline Triad alongside Jupiter and Juno, indicating that she was one of the most revered deities of Rome's pantheon.

 

Athena, draped and seated. He is holding a staff in one hand a shield in the other, and has as plumed helm on her head.
Minerva, silver bowl, 1st century BCE (Antikensammlung, Berlin)

Media Attributions and Footnotes

Media Attributions


  1. "Pollution" here refers to the Greek concept of miasma, the idea that death defiles someone or makes them impure. For further explanation, see Mythology Unbound.
  2. Frazer translates this as "daughters of Acestor’s sons." However, it is unclear who this Acestor is and who these daughters are. It may be an epithet for Apollo, or refer to a different hero.
  3. Referring to the practise of interpreting birds for prophecy, called augury.

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