Athena, Greek Goddess of Wisdom and War

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As a goddess of war, Athena often shows up in Greek legend to assist various heroes -- Heracles, Odysseus and Jason all got a helping hand from Athena. In classical myth, Athena never took any lovers, and was often revered as Athena the Virgin, or Athena Parthenos. This is where the Parthenon temple got its name.

Did You Know?

  • The cult of Athena emerged as part of her position as a patroness of Athens, Greece, and is considered the city's protector.
  • As a goddess of war, Athena often appears in Greek legend to assist various heroes like Heracles, Odysseus, and Jason.
  • Athena helps warriors make wise choices that will eventually lead to victory.

Athena the Protector

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Athena was born a child of  Zeus by his first wife, Metis, a goddess of wisdom. Because Zeus was afraid Metis might bear him a son who was mightier than himself, he swallowed her. While trapped inside Zeus, Metis began to make a helmet and robe for her unborn daughter. All that clanging and pounding caused Zeus to suffer terrible headaches, so he called for his son Hephaestus, the smith of the gods. Hephaestus split his father's skull open to relieve the pain, and out popped Athena, fully grown and clad in her new robe and helmet.

The cult of Athena emerged very early, as part of her position as a patroness of the city of Athens. She became Athens' protector after a dispute with her uncle, Poseideon, the god of the sea. Both Athena and Poseidon really liked a certain city on the coast of Greece, and both of them claimed ownership. Finally, to solve the dispute, it was agreed that whoever could present the city with the best gift would forever be patron. Athena and Poseidon went to the Acropolis, where Poseidon struck the cliffside with his mighty trident. A spring welled up, which amazed and impressed the citizenry. However, the spring was salt water, so it wasn't really of much use to anyone.

Athena then presented the people with a simple olive tree. Although it wasn't as impressive as a spring, it was far more useful, because it presented the people with oil, food, and even wood. In thanks, they named the city Athens. She was celebrated every spring with a festival called the Plynteria, during which altars and statues were ritually cleansed. Some people in Greece still worship Athena and pay homage to her at the Acropolis.

Athena in Mythology

The temple of Athena
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Athena is typically portrayed with her companion, Nike, the goddess of victory. She is also depicted carrying a shield bearing the head of the Gorgon. Because of her association with wisdom, Athena is usually shown with an owl nearby.

In some older stories, Athena is connected as either the mother or adoptive mother of Erichthonius, after an attempted rape by her brother, Hephaestus. In some versions of the story, she is a virgin mother, who raised Erichthonius after he was given to her by Gaia.

In another tradition, she is known as Pallas Athena, with Pallas actually being a separate entity. It's not clear whether Pallas is actually Athena's father, sister, or some other relationship. However, in each story, Athena goes into battle and accidentally kills Pallas, then taking the name for herself.

Although technically, Athena is a warrior goddess, she is not the same sort of war deity that Ares is. While Ares goes to war with frenzy and chaos, Athena is the goddess who helps warriors make wise choices that will eventually lead to victory.

Homer wrote a hymn in Athena's honor:

I begin to sing of Pallas Athena, the glorious goddess,
bright-eyed, inventive, unbending of heart, pure virgin,
saviour of cities, courageous, Tritogeneia.
From his awful head wise Zeus himself bore her
arrayed in warlike arms of flashing gold,
and awe seized all the gods as they gazed.
But Athena sprang quickly from the immortal head
and stood before Zeus who holds the aegis, shaking a sharp spear:
great Olympus began to reel horribly at the might
of the grey-eyed goddess, and earth round about cried fearfully,
and the sea was moved and tossed with dark waves,
while foam burst forth suddenly:
the bright Son of Hyperion stopped his swift-footed horses a long while,
until the maiden Pallas Athena had stripped
the heavenly armor from her immortal shoulders.
And wise Zeus was glad.
Hail to you, daughter of Zeus who holds the aegis!

Today, many Hellenic Pagans still honor Athena in their rituals.

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Your Citation
Wigington, Patti. "Athena, Greek Goddess of Wisdom and War." Learn Religions, Sep. 23, 2021, Wigington, Patti. (2021, September 23). Athena, Greek Goddess of Wisdom and War. Retrieved from Wigington, Patti. "Athena, Greek Goddess of Wisdom and War." Learn Religions. (accessed March 29, 2023).

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