Athena is one of Greek mythology’s most famous deities. Because the city of Athens—the city from which much of our modern day understanding of Ancient Greece comes—is named for her, a lot of what we know about ancient Greece is centred around her myths and the cults dedicated to her. Athena is known in Greek by many names or titles, including Athena Pallenis, Athena Polias, Athena Agoraia, and most famously, Athena Parthenos. These different names are indicators of where temples to her were situated, as well as her roles as a goddess to the human people. The city of Athens is home to the Athenian Acropolis upon which the famous Parthenon resides, a temple to Athena. The city itself is named for the goddess, as told through the myth of her battle with Poseidon. Because of Athena’s large role in the shaping of Ancient Greece, many cults, religions, and festivals are dedicated to her.
Athena is central to Ancient Greek thought and tradition. Removing her from research, there is little else much to know. The famous Parthenon, her greatest temple, is the largest and most prominent piece of Ancient Greece even today. The friezes on the Parthenon give us so much insight on what life was like, as well as depictions of myth and stories we only have unreliable accounts on. Athena is central to much primary Ancient Greek sources, as well as being an important part of Ancient Greek life in antiquity. Her cults and festivals were principal to the way the city of Athens was governed and records were kept.
Painting: By Gustav Klimt – Repro from artbook, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10572883
Athena’s titles range vastly throughout her many godly roles. Since she is a Greek goddess of wisdom, strategy, and defence, many of her attributes are war-like. However, she is also a goddess of protection and virginity, and is therefore seen also as a saviour or healer of sorts. Her title Αρεια, or Areia, means “of war, warlike,” while Ερυμα, or Eryma, means “defender” and Αλαλκομενηις, Alalkomeneis, means “protectress.”
Two important titles for Athena are Parthenos and Polias. She is known for her involvement with Athens as Πολιας, Polias, meaning “of the city,” and her virginity as the ever famous Παρθενος, Parthenos, meaning “virgin or maiden.” Her titles, as mentioned before, also refer to the locations of some of her temples or where she was worshipped, or other locations of import to the goddess. Both Polias and Parthenos belong to Athena in the city of Athens.
Athena in Athens
The naming of the city of Athens is attributed to a well-known myth. A contest between Athena and Poseidon took place to see who would be patron of the city. The myth follows
that the first king of the city, the half snake man Cecrops, wanted a deity to represent his city. Both Poseidon, the god of the sea, and Athena were very interested. The king asked them to present a gift to the city, and the most valuable one would win patronage. Poseidon created a spring for the citizens to use, but it was salt water and undrinkable. Athena, on the other hand, created an olive tree for the city. King Cecrops was more impressed with Athena’s gift, and named the city after her. Poseidon was displeased with the result and cursed Athens to never have enough water, a problem which continues to the present day.
Painting: By Benvenuto Tisi – Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo, 1512, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30056521
The Parthenon building in Athens was completed in 432 BCE, and it contained the large statue of Athena, “Athena Parthenos.”
The Athena Parthenon was sacred to the idea of virginity and maidenhood. A contrast to the Athena Parthenos is the “Athena Polias,” housed in the Erechtheum that was built between 421 and 405 BCE. These two aspects of Athena, being of the city and a maiden goddess, were both celebrated, but why would there have been two Athenian statues with different names so close together? The two states of Athena are actually dedicated to the same aspects of the goddess, but the different times of their creation lends to the different titles. “The name Parthenon is associated in the classical period with the southern temple of Athena,” while the creators of the later statue of Athena Polias, in the different, northerly temple location, would have titled her thus while remaining loyal to her godly attributes. Athena Polias, being the goddess “of the city,” is the same goddess to which the Parthenon is dedicated.
Photo: By jean melis, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46645239
Minerva: the Roman Athena
Athena the goddess cannot be addressed without also looking at her Roman counterpart, the rarely spoken of Minerva. Unlike the goddess Athena, Minerva of earlier times is a much tamer goddess in her godly attributes. Minerva is the goddess of “wisdom, medicine, commerce, handicrafts, poetry, and arts in general.” Eventually, the attributes that make Athena so high in Greek mythology was also attributed to Minerva, including victory and war. It is believed that Minerva was originally Etruscan, and has the same birth origins as Athena—springing from the head of the Roman Zeus, Jupiter. Other similarities with Athena include her maidenhood and the protection of a city under her watch and many of the same stories exist about Minerva as Athena.
One such myth is the story of Arachne, a boastful girl with great weaving ability. Minerva/Athena challenges the girl to a competition, and they both weave tapestries depicting the gods’ treatment of humans. Minerva/Athena declares she has won the competition, and Arachne has lost. A common lesson in Greek and Roman mythology, the girl is punished for her boastfulness against a god and turned into a spider.
Illustration: By Walter Crane – The story of Greece : told to boys and girls (191-?) by Macgregor, Mary, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32804557
Athena and Erechtheus
The story of King Erechtheus is a myth that ties in with Athena’s virginity. Some myths suggest she was raped by Hephaestus and gave birth to the boy, but Homor’s Iliad points to Erechtheus being “a child of the fruitful Earth,” a product of the earth and not of Athena herself. He was raised by Athena and thought to have become a snake in later times, to “share the temple with Athena.” It was Athena Polias specifically with whom worship of him was shared. In the archaic period, the rather commonplace cult of Erectheus and Athena flourished on the Acropolis. It was at this point that Athena was worshipped as Polias, the virgin protectress. A century later, many people continued to be loyal to Athena Polias, even though Athena Parthenos was considered the new protecting deity. At the end of the fifth century, Pericles’ programme for restoration after the Persian invasion had almost completed the second temple for Athena, the Erechtheum. As per the name, it was dedicated more to the Polias side of Athena, as well as her links to Erechtheus. Even the famous Eleusinian cult and mysteries were deeply connected to Athenian culture, and the festival took place in Athens, linking that cult with the cult of Athena Polias and Parthenon.
Athena and Symbols
Symbols are important to ancient societies and their religions, and each Greek deity has symbols specific to them. Athena’s many symbols represent different aspects of her role as a goddess. Her helmet and spear remind us of her warlike traits, while the gorgon’s head on her shield and breastplate “represents her appearance to her enemies,” specifically Medusa. Because of her gift of the olive tree to Athens, the olive tree is also a symbol of Athena. Both the owl and the snake are symbols of wisdom, but the owl is less a symbol and more another physical representation of Athena, as she was able to transform into an owl through shape shifting myth. So, in many artistic depictions in Ancient Greece, an owl usually is meant to represent Athena directly.
Plate: By Artwork: Oltos; Photo: Marcus Cyron – Picture taken by Uploader, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28773669
Coin: By CNG, (uploaded by Odysses) – http://www.cngcoins.com/Coin.aspx?CoinID=45999, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28973443
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