The city of Athens, capital of the Hellenic Republic of Greece and birthplace of Democracy, is associated with an ancient Greek goddess named “Athena”. Here are seven facts you may or may not know about the Olympian goddess.
Facts About Athena, Lady of Athens
- Athena was more than the goddess of wisdom
- Athena, the patroness of Athens
- Goddess Athena’s Roman equivalent is Minerva
- Athena was born out of her father’s head
- Goddess Athena had favorites and least favorites
- The Parthenon is dedicated to Athena
- Athena had an adoptive son
Athena was more than the goddess of wisdom
Goddess Athena is known as the goddess of wisdom and is therefore often depicted with an animal that stands as a symbol of wisdom: the owl. Athena, however, is also the goddess of warfare, handicraft, and strategy. Because all of these, according to the ancient Greeks, were connected. In order for someone to be a good fighter, wisdom is a prerequisite. Fighting and intelligence are not two opposites. And Athena shows this by always wearing her helmet and by holding her spear. But it is important to remember that the main god of war is no other than Ares. Athena was not as turbulent as Ares and she believed that defense is more important than attack.
The goddess is given the epithet Pallas, but also Promachos, and Ergane that showcase her nature. At the same time, she is also called Parthenos, meaning “virgin”. Athena was not interested in love and romance and her mortal followers were required to abstain from such activities. Due to her pristine nature, she has been associated with the Virgin Mary. And in Medieval Greece, even the defensive aspect of Athena was now attributed to the mother of Jesus Christ, Panagia. For example, the Byzantines would sometimes report seeing the Virgin Mary in armor, calling them to defend Constantinople whenever the city was in danger.
The patroness of Athens
If you have watched the video about the naming of Athens, then you know that Poseidon and Athena once fought over the Greek city that was once called Cecropia. According to a myth that has survived over the years, Cecropia was considered a beautiful land with plenty of sunlight. It lacked a lot of vegetation, but it was located by the sea. At the center of the city, there was a hill that could be used for strategic purposes but also to connect with the divine.
The people of Cecropia were educated, cultured, and among the first who started worshipping the Olympian gods. However, Poseidon, the god of the seas, and Athena decided to compete against each other to become the citizens’ favorite god or goddess. Unfortunately, Poseidon did not offer the citizens a solution to their problems. He either offered them a spring of sea water or a herd of goats, according to different sources. Athena, on the other hand, spawned an olive tree on the Acropolis hill. The locals could produce olive oil, the liquid gold of antiquity, and export it across the Mediterranean. And Athena was selected as the patroness of the city, which was named after her.
Goddess Athena’s Roman equivalent is Minerva
Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom, justice, law, and victory. She was also connected to the arts, trade, and strategy. She was an important Roman goddess who bore similarities to Mars but she was in favor of defense, rather than violence. If that sounds familiar that is because Minerva is basically the Roman equivalent of Athena. The Romans believed that Minerva was the creator of the olive tree and the protector of the Greek city of Athens. So, in an essence, Minerva is just another name for Athena.
Athena was born out of her father’s head
There are two variations of how Athena was born into this world. According to one variation, she was the daughter of Metis and Zeus. When Metis became pregnant, she was eaten alive by the king of the gods, who then carried the baby to full term. Another variation says that Athena did not have a mother at all. She came into being after Zeus became lost in his thoughts and conceived her just like an idea.
In both variations, the goddess came into this world after Zeus started having horrible headaches. The gods tried to help him by splitting his head in half, only to find a full-grown woman wearing a helmet and holding a spear. And her name was Athena.
Goddess Athena had favorites and least favorites
As a goddess of both wisdom and warfare, Athena was often the protector of mythical Greek heroes and heroines who possessed the qualities she represented. Odysseus is a great example of a hero who was favored by the lady of Athens. She is the one who assisted him during his nostos, which, by the way, has been documented by Helinika.
On the other hand, Athena would punish those who acted in ways she viewed immoral. For example, she once transformed one of her priestesses into a serpentine monster for losing her virginity to Poseidon. This monster is no other than Gorgon Medusa, who would petrify humans with her terrifying appearance.
Another victim was no other than Arachne, who was turned into the least favorable insect: the spider. According to an ancient Greek myth, Arachne was a young woman who boasted that her skills in weaving were superior to those of goddess Athena. Roman poet Ovid narrates how the woman was punished for this hybris by being transformed into a tiny creature that spends its whole life weaving a web. Greeks still call spiders “arachne” and now you know where the term “arachnophobia” comes from.
The Parthenon is dedicated to Athena
When the Athenians decided to build temples to their gods on the Acropolis Hill, they dedicated the biggest and most impressive one to their patroness, Athena. The Parthenon of Athens, meaning “the apartments of the unmarried women”, is dedicated to the virgin goddess. It is a Doric temple with Ionic details and still stands as a symbol of Classical Athens. The temple was built in the 5th Century BC under the Delian League, an association of Greek city-states that was formed after the Second Persian invasion of Greece.
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Athena had a son but remained a virgin
Although Athena did not give birth to a child, she did raise a young boy as her own. According to the Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus, the goddess once visited Hephaestus to request some new weapons. The god of fire tried to persuade her to sleep with him but failed miserably. But from his attempt, a child was born out of the Earth. The boy was named Erichthonius and was given by Gaia, the personification of the Earth, to Athena to raise him. The goddess considered him her son, took care of him for a while, and later asked the daughters of the king of Athens, Cecrops, to take over. The infant was kept in a small box that the women were told to never open – and a snake stood as his protector.