Athens was the center of culture in Ancient Greece. Athena was the goddess who protected this great city-state. Athena was born in complete battle dress out of the head of her father, Zeus, the king of the gods. She was originally a goddess who looked over the home, a goddess of culture. Athena became a warrior princess. However, she believed in civilized warfare. Her symbols include owls, the olive tree, and her helmet.
The Twelve Olympians
The Ancient Greeks believed in many gods. They were polytheists. The gods were a significant part of Ancient Greek culture. They created the world as we know it. The gods also interacted with humans. The battle with Troy arose out of a dispute among the gods.
Twelve great gods, the Olympians, were supreme among all others. Zeus was the leader of them all. Zeus was married to Hera. They had multiple children. Athena, whose favorite was the city of Athens, was the daughter of Zeus alone. She sprung from his head in full armor.
The Origins of Athena
We first learn about Athena in Linear B (first written around 1400 BCE). Linear B is an early form of Greek writing. If you are curious about Linear B and how we learned to “crack the code,” check out The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox.
The beliefs of the very first worshipers of Athena are unknown. However, from very early on, Athena was not married and did not have children. She took care of domestic matters, including the king’s household. People deeply respected her purity.
Athena’s role as a virgin goddess influenced the stories of her birth. The favorite story is that she was born out of the head of Zeus, fully formed. Athena had no mother.
Another story was that Zeus swallowed her pregnant mother whole first. Metis (goddess of prudence) had warned him that any child she had with him would be greater than he. Zeus suddenly had a big headache. It was time for Athena to be born.
Polytheism provided different roles for the gods. People used the gods as a means to understand the world. Athena’s original role was a domestic goddess. She became associated with, symbolic of, the household arts and all things related to them.
Athena was the goddess of wisdom, reason, and purity. She was the goddess of culture.
Athena and Athens
Athena soon became closely associated with the city of Athens. Athens was a very influential place in Ancient Greece. The birth of democracy is often said to have taken place there.
Was Athens named for Athena or Athena for Athens? Historians still are debating the question. Either way, Athens loved Athena. Her skills in domestic arts and culture fit their mood perfectly.
The story goes that Athena wanted to be Athen’s protector. However, her uncle Poseiden, king of the seas, also desired the honors. Athena won the day by growing an olive tree, the most prized of all trees in Greece, there. The first king of the city chose Athena.
Athenians dedicated the Parthenon (Greek for “maiden” or “virgin”) as Athena’s temple.
The Parthenon is the largest Greek temple. The majestic marble symbol of Athenian power and culture was fifteen years in the making. Pericles, the great Athenian statesman, commissioned the best sculptors and architects. The temple was completed in 432 BCE.
Athenians built the Parthenon on the Acropolis, a fortified area (citadel) high above Athens in honor of Athena. The temple included a statue around thirty-nine feet tall. Unfortunately, the statue has not survived. The Parthenon remains.
The Greeks used the Parthenon for many things, including as a treasury. When Christianity came, the temple became a Christian Church. The Ottoman Turks converted it into an ammunition depot. During the Greek war for independence, it was an army barracks.
The Parthenon became a tourist destination. Efforts were made to restore it. Archaeologists studied it. It remains a symbol of Ancient Greece.
Athena and Civilized Warfare
The Iliad and The Odyssey describe a long war between the Greeks and the Trojans. These renowned works of Homer are a fundamental means to understanding Greek culture. They also were very special to the Greeks themselves. They tell tales of gods and men.
Athena was a prime part of the events. Athena was on the side of the Greeks until they dared to attack someone who took sanctity in her temple. Don’t do that. Poseidon caused the Greek ships to blow off course. Odysseus had many adventures, taking ten years to get home.
There lies a tale. Cassandra was a Trojan priestess. The gods cursed her with the ability to tell the truth without anyone believing her. I sometimes can relate. When the Greeks finally, after ten years, defeated Troy, she sought sanctity in Athena’s temple. She should have been safe.
Athena gained a reputation as a warrior goddess. Nonetheless, she differed from her half-siblings, Artemis (goddess of the outdoors) and Ares. Ares particularly became associated with reckless warfare. He symbolized our drive for violence.
Athena was the symbol of civilized warfare.
Greek gods each have particular symbols. We still use them in various ways.
When Athena is talked about and portrayed in art, the Greeks used various standard language and imagery. For instance, she is also known as “Pallas Athena,” or “her most renowned one.”
Athena’s animal is the owl, which symbolizes wisdom. She is often in military gear, including a helmet, armor, and a spear. Her tree is the olive tree.
Minerva: The Roman Athena
The Romans eventually conquered the Greeks. Greek culture continued to play an important role. Greek gods significantly influenced Roman religion. The chief Roman gods, including Jupiter (king of the gods), eventually were associated with one of the Greek Olympians.
Minerva was a traditional Roman goddess. Her role was similar to Athena, including being a daughter of Jupiter, who was the goddess of domestic life as well as a goddess of war.
The Latin poet Ovid told a famous tale about Minerva. Arachne was a simple peasant girl. She was a very talented weaver. Arachne declared her work to be superior to Minerva herself.
Arachne and Minerva had a contest. The result was a draw, neither creation better than the other. Minerva seethed in anger and embarrassment. A mortal!
The goddess destroyed Arachne’s creation. Arachne killed herself in shame. Minerva was now ashamed. She changed Arachne into a spider. Her glorious webs showed her skill remained.
Arachnophobia is the fear of spiders. What is the fear of making Athena angry?