Goddess of Wisdom
Photo: Sailko, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Atena_farnese,_copia_romana_da_orig._greco_della_cerchia_fidiaca,_forse_Pyrrhos_nel_430_ac_ca.,_6024,_01.JPG
Athena, Goddess of Wisdom
Roman Name: Minerva
Goddess of: Wisdom, handicraft and strategy at war
Parents: Zeus, and an oceanid called Metis – but it’s complicated!
Symbols: Her helmet, shield (called the Aegis) and spear are her trademark – but also owls, olives and griffons.
Location of Story: The statue of Athena, outside the Parthenon on the Acropolis.
The statue to Athena was the biggest in the city. It stood behind the entrance to the Acropolis, near the Parthenon temple which was built in her honour. Delphi stared up at it, squinting into the sunlight which reflected off her golden helmet and spear.
Athena looked down at her, grey-eyed and piercing.
“Well don’t just stand there looking at me! Aren’t you going to do something useful today?”
Delphi blinked. The woman now standing in front of her was also holding a spear. She was tall and grey-eyed. Unlike the statue, she was slightly grey-haired as well. Delphi looked at the statue and then at the woman again. And then again.
“You look a bit old to be…”
“Don’t give me that!” Athena cut her off, pointing the spear towards her. “You don’t get to be goddess of wisdom without a bit of experience behind you!”
“But why does the statue...?”
“Oh, I can look like that if I want to…” Athena waved her hand at the statue dismissively. “But really dear, what’s the point? Just unnecessary attention and men being silly at you. I haven’t got the time for that sort of nonsense. Now then, are you coming with me? I can’t stand around chitter-chatting all day!”
With that, Athena strode off at a fearsome pace towards a group of soldiers who were training nearby. No-one gave her a glance.
“But…. but…” Delphi had to run to keep up with her. “If you’re the goddess of wisdom, why do you need experience? You know everything already, don’t you?”
“Come on, man, put your back into it!” Athena was standing at the shoulder at one man who was sword fighting with another. He looked like he was thinking. “Stand side on, dear, that way they have less of a target. Use your feet!” The soldier didn’t seem to hear her but did adjust his stance. He had his opponent’s sword on the floor ten seconds later.
“That’s more like it, keep it up!” Athena turned back to Delphi. “Of course, I don’t know everything, my dear. Most things. But you don’t get just born with wisdom, you have to learn it!” She stopped and thought for a second. “Well, you do. I am rather the exception that proves the rule, if you know what I mean!”
Delphi did not know what this means.
When she looked around again, Athena had crossed the plaza and was at the side of a young woman weaving in the shade under a stoa.
“Really dear, lay the shed stick flat and weave the weft through the opposite warp threads.”
“What?” Delphi said as she approached, but the woman just nodded and kept weaving, slightly faster. Delphi shrugged. “I sometimes think it’s impossible to really know things. Like really know them. Maybe we’re just guessing all the time. That’s the way it seems to go in the stories. Even really clever people like Odysseus get things wrong all the time.”
Athena suddenly looked furious. She pointed her spear at Delphi again.
“Oh you would deny me, would you? Say that all knowledge is just guesswork!”
“No, no! I didn’t mean…”
“You don’t know what you mean,” said Athena sharply. “Which I suspect is rather the problem!”
Athena is said to be the daughter of Zeus, but she was not ‘born’ in the usual way. Some versions of the story say that Zeus had taken an oceanid, a kind of sea spirit, Metis for a lover. When she became pregnant, he was told that his child would become even wiser than himself. Ever jealous of being overthrown (and no doubt thinking that he had overthrown his own father), he swallowed the pregnant Metis whole! However, this left him with an enormous headache, which steadily got worse and worse. Soon, he was so desperate for the pain to stop that he allowed Hephaestus to cut a hole in his head – and out popped Athena, fully grown and in full battle gear!
Goddess of war
Athena is the goddess of wisdom, so was much revered by philosophers, but she was also much more than that. She was the goddess of practical wisdom; of handicrafts, of technology, of weaving and the kind of knowledge that makes things work. This was especially true in matters of war, and she is always shown with her helmet, spear and shield. Athena was the god of tactics and strategy – and in the form of Nike (like the trainers) she was goddess of victory. In fact, she was worshipped in many forms, including as Pallas – an old friend of Athena’s, who she had accidentally stabbed with a spear when they were playing together!
Protector of Athens
The city of Athens was named after Athena, and the Parthenon, the largest temple in the ancient world, was built in her honour. Both inside and outside the temple were huge statues of Athena, the latter of which could be seen from across the city. The story of how she became the god of the city can be found at the nearby Erechtheion temple.
Athena wasn’t all good, however. When she was shamed by Paris at the start of the Trojan War, she fought with the Greeks and was terrifying in battle, slaughtering many and even injuring Ares, the war god himself. She was not above petty squabbling either. When Arachne, a shepherd’s daughter, boasted she could weave more finely than even Athena, the goddess challenged her to a contest. When Athena saw that Arachne could indeed weave better than she could, she smacked Arachne round the head, ripped up her weaving and, when Arachne tried to hang herself in shame, turned her into a spider! Worse still is what happened to Medusa…
Athena and Heroes
Despite her grey-eyed beauty, Athena never took a lover or husband, despite the attentions of many gods such as Hephaestus. However, she clearly had a soft spot for male Greek heroes, such as Heracles, Jason and Theseus, as she often appears in their stories to give them advice or powerful weapons. Her favourite however was Odysseus, whose own knowledge of strategy seemed to mirror her own.
Odysseus and Penelope
One of the most famous stories in Greek mythology is the Odyssey, an epic poem telling the story of the King of Ithaca, Odysseus, and his journey back to his wife, Penelope, who was patiently waiting for him after the end of the Trojan War. Their story is truly an epic one, featuring giant wooden horses, storms, one-eyed giants, witches, disguises and one very patient woman who waited for twenty years for her husband to come home! Look out for an update to this site to discover this story in full.
Where do you want to go next?
Try and sneak inside the Parthenon.