display | more...

Αθηνα

A goddess identified in Rome with Minerva, the daughter of Zeus and Metis. Metis was pregnant and was about to give birth to a daughter when Zeus swallowed it; he did so on the advice of Uranus and Gaia who disclosed to him that if Metis had a daughter, she would afterwards have a son, who would deprive Zeus of his heavenly kingdom. When the time for the child to be born arrived Zeus bade Hephaestus to personally split open his head with a blow from an axe. A girl in full armour sprang forth from his head: it was the goddess Athena. The place where the birth took place is generally said to be the shore of Lake Tritonis in Libya. As she leaped out, she uttered a war-cry which resounded in heaven and earth.

Athena, the warrior goddess, armed with spear and aegis (a kind of goat-skin breatplate) played an important part in the struggle against the Giants. She killed Pallas and Encelades. She flayed the former and made herself a breastplate from the skin and she pursued Encelades as far as Sicily and put him out of action by chasing him over the whole island. In the Iliad, she participated in the fighting on the side of the Achaeans (she was hostile to the Trojans ever since Paris, on Mount Ida, had refused to award her the prize for beauty). She supported Diomedes, Odysseus, Achilles and Menelaus in the Trojan War.

Similarly, she protected Heracles in the fighting and she also began to arm Heracles, just as he was about to undertake his Labours. She gave him the bronze castanets with which he scared the birds of Lake Stymphalos, enabling him to shoot them down with his arrows. In return, Heracles offered Athena the golden apples of the Hesperides when Eurystheus gave them up to him, and he fought beside her in the struggle against the Giants.

Athena also helped Odysseus to return to Ithaca. In the Odyssey she is an active figure intervening under the disguise of various human forms, to give assistance to the hero. Athena also sent dreams: to Nausicca, for example, to give her the idea of taking her washing to the river on the day that she knew that Odysseus was due to land in the island of Phaeacia. She endowed her favourite with supernatural good looks, to make quite sure that the girl should at this meeting obtain a boat for Odysseus to return to his native land. She also begged Zeus to show Odysseus his favour, and caused the order to be given to Calypso to release Odysseus and supply him with the means to put to sea again.

The assistance given to Odysseus and Heracles is a symbol of the help brought by the mind of the brute strength and personal courage of the heroes. For Athena was regarded, both in the Greek world at large, and especially in her own city of Athens, as the goddess of Reason. She presided over the arts and literature, in which position she tended to encroach on the role of the Muses, but she was more closely connected with philosophy than with poetry and music in the true sense. In her role of the goddess of intelligent activity she was also the patroness of spinners, weavers, embroiderers and similar occupations (see Arachne). Her ingenuity, allied with her warlike spirit, led her to invent the quadriga and the war chariot; she was also in overall charge of the building of the ship Argo, the biggest ever built up to that time.

She also applied her ingenuity to the arts of peace and in Attica she was blessed for the discovery of olive oil, among other kind actions, and even the introduction of the olive tree itself, which she was said to have given in order to deserve being regarded as its ruler: Poseidon disputed the sovereignty of Athena with her and each of them tried to give Attica the best present they could, to increase their status. Poseidon, with one blow from his trident, made a salt-water spring gush forth on the Acropolis and Athena made an olive tree grow there. The twelve gods called in to judge decided that the olive tree was the better of the two and they gave Athena sovereignty over Attica.

Athena was often adopted as protectress and patroness of towns. Apart from Athens, to which she gave her name, there were temple dedicated to her in the citadels of cities such as Sparta, Megara, Argos and others. At Troy she was especially worshipped in the form of a very ancient idol called the Palladium. Troy could not be captured before the Palladium had been taken, and this is the reason why Diomedes and Odysseus made their way by night into Troy and stole it, thus removing the city's protection. This was the same Palladium which was kept in the post-classical era in the temple of Vesta in Rome, where it performed its original function.

Athena remained a virgin though she was said to have had a son in the following way: she went to pay a visit to Hephaestus in his smithy to acquire some weapons. He, who had been deserted by Aphrodite, fell in love with Athena at first sight and began to chase her. She fled but, although he was lame, Hephaestus caught up with her and embraced her. She did not yield to his advances but in his passion Hephaestus wetted the goddess' leg. In her revulsion she wiped her leg with some wool and threw the dirty piece on the ground. From the earth which was fertilized in this way Ericthonius was born, and Athena regarded him as her son. She brought him up without the other gods knowing and in her desire to make him immortal she shut him in a chest, set a serpent to guard him, and entrusted it to the daughters of the kings of Athens (see Aglaurus).

Athena's attributes were the spear, the helmet and the aegis, which she shared with Zeus. She attached the Gorgon's head which Perseus had given her to her shield, and this had the special quality of turning to stone every living thing that looked at it. Her favourite animal was the owl and her favourite plant the olive tree. She was tall, with calm features, majestic rather than beautiful, and was traditionally described as 'the goddess with grey eyes'. (For her name of Pallas see that entry.)

{E2 DICTIONARY OF CLASSICAL MYTHOLOGY}

Table of Sources:
- Hesiod, Theog. 886ff.
- Pind. Ol. 7, 35ff. (65ff.)
- Euripides, Ion. 454ff.
- Apollod. Bibl. 1, 3, 6ff.; 1, 6, 1ff.; 2, 4, 3; 2, 4, 11; 3, 14, 1; 3, 14, 6; 3, 13, 3
- Virgil, Aen. 3, 578ff.
- Hdt. 8, 55
- Ovid, Met. 6, 70ff.
- Hyg. Fab. 164; 166
- Serv. on Virgil Geo. 1, 12; 3, 113
- schol. on Hom. Il. 2, 547
- Hyg. Astron. 2, 13
- Paus. 1, 18, 2
- Ovid, Met. 2, 552ff.
- Dion. Hal. 1, 68ff.; 2, 66, 2
- Conon, Narr. 34