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The Role of Athena in Ancient Greek Art

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The Role of Athena in Ancient Greek Art

Index


Athena Defined

Athena (Αθήνη)is the Greek goddess of wisdom. She was also the goddess of industries and prudent intelligence in war. She favored the side that used strategy and guile. She was not a goddess of warriors. But her strategy led to victory, so she was a goddess of victory in war. Industries required intelligence too. Much has been written about the derivation and meaning of the name 'Athena'. It is not easily translatable from any language. Some say Athens and Athena were named after each other. In this case it is entirely possible that the place name preceeded the arrival of the Indo-European Culture. But it is also reasonable to assume that the Indo-European culture was in place at Athens for over 2000 years prior to the Mycenaean culture that has been identified with the Trojan War. Since the languages of the Minoan and Mycenean cultures are quite distinct there is no reason to believe that there was that much communication between the two cultures. So an Indo-European root of the name is quite possible especially since it might have changed in the time the culture was in the Greek mainland. A possible translation of the name might be 'spring provider' from Indo-European 'ai-', 'To give, allot' and 'dhen-1', 'to run, flow'. This would make her sort of a mistress of water nymphs through the ages. But the possibilty is that it is a loan word from the Minoan culture. Some of the epithets by which Athena is known may suppot this. He name 'Tritogenia' is mentioned in Hesiod, Theogony line 895. In ancient times this has been thought to mean Trito born which may have referred to Lake Triton in Africa, a river in Boetia, or even Triton himself. But the 'tri-' part could refer to three. One possibility is that this is related to the trippling of goddesses that is so common in Greek religion. This triping is thought to relate to Mycenaen culture, but a source in the Minoan culture is more likely. This is because the goddesses so tripled often have names that are not Indo-European. The epithet 'Pallas' is more likely to be Minoan. This name is mentioned in Hesiod, Theogony line 577


(Picture Left) The Goddess AthenaAthena

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Her Origin

The union of Uranus and Gaea produced Cronus, Rhea and the other titans. The union of Cronus and Rhea produced Zeus. Strictly Athena is the daughter of Zeus alone, without a mother; but Pseudo-Apollodorus indicates that her mother is Metis, prudence.

Athena is a goddess and is immortal. She will never die. She was born from the head of Zeus, in one story; but no date is given as to when this happened. The main source for this story is Hesiod as follows:

Hesiod, Theogony (ll. 929a-929t) "....deceiving Metis (Thought) although she was full wise. But he seized her with his hands and put her in his belly, for fear that she might bring forth something stronger than his thunderbolt: therefore did Zeus, who sits on high and dwells in the aether, swallow her down suddenly. But she straightway conceived Pallas Athene: and the father of men and gods gave her birth by way of his head on the banks of the river Trito. And she remained hidden beneath the inward parts of Zeus, even Metis, Athena's mother, worker of righteousness, who was wiser than gods and mortal men. There the goddess (Athena) received that (31) whereby she excelled in strength all the deathless ones who dwell in Olympus, she who made the host-scaring weapon of Athena. And with it (Zeus) gave her birth, arrayed in arms of war."

The other story gives her birth as on the shore of Lake Triton in western Africa. This is related by Herodotus:

THE HISTORY OF HERODOTUS, Volume 1- "180. Next to these Machlyans are the Auseans. These and the Machlyans dwell round the lake Tritonis, and the river Triton is the boundary between them: and while the Machlyans grow their hair long at the back of the head, the Auseans do so in front. At a yearly festival of Athene their maidens take their stand in two parties and fight against one another with stones and staves, and they say that in doing so they are fulfilling the rites handed down by their fathers for the divinity who was sprung from that land, whom we call Athene: and those of the maidens who die of the wounds received they call "false-maidens." But before they let them begin the fight they do this:--all join together and equip the maiden who is judged to be the fairest on each occasion, with a Corinthian helmet and with full Hellenic armour, and then causing her to go up into a chariot they conduct her round the lake. Now I cannot tell with what they equipped the maidens in old time, before the Hellenes were settled near them; but I suppose that they used to be equipped with Egyptian armour, for it is from Egypt that both the shield and the helmet have come to the Hellenes, as I affirm. They say moreover that Athene is the daughter of Poseidon and of the lake Tritonis, and that she had some cause of complaint against her father and therefore gave herself to Zeus, and Zeus made her his own daughter. Such is the story which these tell; and they have their intercourse with women in common, not marrying but having intercourse like cattle: and when the child of any woman has grown big, he is brought before a meeting of the men held within three months of that time,[161] and whomsoever of the men the child resembles, his son he is accounted to be."

When the weather changed in Africa and the Saraha dried up a great migration occured. Some of the Africans may have gone to Crete and took Athena with them. Athena, then would be older than the time when the Sahara dried up. The stories about Athena are actually older than the stories about Zeus whose head she was supposed to have come out of.

She sprang full grown and fully armed from the head of Zeus after his head was hit with an axe. There is a picture of this remarkable event at: Boston 00.330, birth of Athena. Usually she is not admitted of any mother, but in Pseudo-Apollodorus Metis is given as her mother. The quote is here: Click here,

The classical Greeks emphasized the story of Athena being born from Zeus's forehead because they wanted to emphasize the masculine source of wisdom. Naturally Zeus needed to be the father of Athena, but to have her born from his head circumvented women altogether. But Athena existed long before this story of her birth. Athena's name is not even Greek, and there is much speculation as to what it means. Robert Graves states that "Mr. E. M. Parr writes to me that An is Sumerian for 'Heaven' and that in his view the Goddess Athene was another Anna, namely Ath-enna, an inversion of Anatha, alias Neith of Libya;..." (p 410). Athens got Athena from Crete and Crete is believed to have gotten Athena from western Africa. As with Aphrodite she may have existed before Zeus so the story of her being born from his head is pretty ridiculous. If you look at the art of this birth, you will see comic images. The artists seem to realize how ridiculous it was.

The Minoan origins of Athena are discussed at Click Here.

There is a Minoan seal ring which may show Athena descending from the sky. This is the figure in the upper right that seem to be behind a figure eight shield. Click here.

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Her Nature

At the beginning of the Iliad Athena is referred to as Pallas Athene and Daughter of the aegis-bearing Zeus. The aegis is described in Book II of the Iliad: "...,and with them went Athene of the Flashing eyes, wearing her splendid cloak, the unfading everlasting aegis, from which a hundred tassels flutter, all beautifully made, each worth a hundred head of cattle." She is also referred to as Athene of the flashing eyes and Alalcomenean Athene. She had the ability to disguise herself as any man or woman both in looks and voice. In book IV she is referred to a the august Lady of Triton and in book V she is called bright-eyed Athene. In Book V of the Iliad Homer paints a very poetic picture of her:

"Meanwile, on her Father's threshold, Athene Daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus shed her soft embroidered robe, which she had made with her own hands, put on a tunic in its place, and equipped herself for the lamentable work of war with the arms of Zeus the Cloud compeller. She threw round her shoulders the formidble tasselled aegis, which is beset at every point with Fear, and carries Strife and Force and the cold nightmare of Pursuit within it, and also the ghastly image of a Gorgon's head, the grim and redoutable emblem of aegis-bearing Zeus. On her head she put her golden helmet, with its four plates and double crest, adorned with fighting men of a hundred towns. Then she stepped into the flaming chariot, gripping the huge long spear with which she breaks the noble warriors' ranks when she, the almighty Father's child, is roused to anger."

Later in Book V Homer suggests her size is large: "The eager goddess took his place in the car beside the noble Diomedes, and the beech-wood axle groaned aloud at the weight it had to carry, a formidable goddess and a mighty man of arms." Also in book V Homer says that she has a cap of invisibility that she can wear that shields her even from the view of other deities. In the Odyssey her connection as a bird goddess is emphasized: "As she finished bright-eyed Athene took the form of a sea-eagle and flew off." (Book III) In Book XIII of the Odyssey "She has disguised herself as a young shepherd, with all the delicate beauty that marks the sons of kings." Later Homer says "Her appearance altered, and now she looked like a woman, tall, beautiful and accomplished." She also has a wand she can use to make transformations: "Athene touched him now with her wand, She withered the smooth skin on his supple limbs, robbed his head of sunburn, covered his whole body with the wrinkles of old age, and dimmed the light that shone in his beautiful eyes."

When Odysseus has his doubts in Book XX of the Odyssey Athena responds: "'Most people are content to put their trust in far less powerful allies, mere men and not equipped with wisdom such as mine. But I that have never ceased to watch over you in all your adventures am a goddess."

Goddess Athena Parthenos

Why does the mighty Zeus have a women bear his arms? And on these arms why does he have the face of a woman, a Gorgon. It seems likely that Zeus recruited Athena to his cause after she was well established. Her former leader seems to have been a woman. There is little difference between the image of an Amazon and the image of Athena, yet Greeks were always fighting and killing Amazons but Athena was on the side of the Greeks. Greeks seemed to be unhappy with fighting women, but they were willing to put up with Athena, as long as she helped them. And she did help them. They were so happy with her help during the Persian war that they built the Parthenon for her. The story of her birth, how she sprang full grown out of the head of Zeus, was an attempt by the Greek men to remove as much of her femininity as possible. An image of her birth is available at: Louvre CA 616

In Eumenides by Aeschylus There are a number of quotes that indicate Athena characteristics.:

In line 286 Orestes invokes "Athena, lady of this land" This refers to the special relation between Athena and Attica. The word for lady is 'ἄνασσα', 'queen'. This title is probably related to the Mycenaean term 'wanax' present in the linear B tablets. It does not appear to be Indo-European.

In line 291 "some region of the Libyan land, near the waters of Triton, her native stream". This is a reference to the birth of Athena on the shores of lake Triton in Libya.

In line 402 "I have come, urging on my tireless foot, without wings rustling the folds of my aegis," This seems to say that she is flying using her aegis instead of wings."

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Her Personality

She has an even temper, and she is intelligent and thoughtful. She like to help people who use wisdom and reason. She is very self-sufficient and even makes her own clothes.

A goddess can affect whatever personality she wants. You have to recognize her by her realm.

She was sweet and considerate to people who were sincerely seeking wisdom, but fierce and destructive to the ignorant.

The personality of a goddess depends upon the nature of the realm which she personifies. This is in addition to the ideal traits that characterize every goddess. Athena is the Greek goddess of wisdom. She was also the goddess of industries and prudent intelligence in war. Athena had a gentle, but levelheaded nature. And she was quick to punish or reward. As the goddess of wisdom she is wise, steady, and patient.

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Virginity of Athena

The Parthenon, temple of Athena, has as its name 'Temple of the Virgin' if you translate the name from Greek. So virginity was an important concept of Athena during the Classical period. This may have been a reference to the purity of knowledge over which Athena ruled. Medusa was supposed to have received the ire of Athena because she had sex in the temple of Athena. So sex was considered a pollution of knowledge. And this may have been emphasized by the philosophical culture that developed in Greece during the Classical period. But this may not always have been the case. In the Theogony Hesiod does not reference the virginity of Athena. Rather he emphasizes her bright eyes. He does, at line 895, refer her as a κούρην (maiden). It seems that at that time the state of interest of a female was whether she was married or not. The concern that she was virgin and had no sexual experience came later.

There is a story about how Athena was raped by Hephaestus. One would think that this story described sexual experience by Athena and so she was not a virgin. But the story points out that the semen did not penetrate Athena, but rather fell to the ground. Since the baby did not grow in her womb there is a suggestion that Athena is still a virgin. But it also seems that this story may have been modified so that this result was tenable to satisfy Classical taste. But the story that a ruler of Athens was sprung from the earth,sired by Hephaistos, and raised by Athena is mentioned in the Iliad and quite old. This is in contrast to the concept of the virginity of the goddess which is recent to the Classical period.

There appear to be references to the myth of the rape of Athena in the oldest written stories, the Iliad and the Odyssey. But in these older stories the name of the ofspring of this rape is slightly different. In Homer's Iliad book 2 page 547 - 548 the material is, "Next the Athenians from their splendid citadel in the realm of the magnanimous Erechtheus. a child of the fruitful Earth who was brought up by Athene Daughter of Zeus and established by her at Athens in her own rich shrine, where bulls and rams are offered to him yearly in due season by Athenian youths." The material in the Odyssey book 7 line 80-81 is consistent with this. The question is whether this reference is also to Erichthonios Who has a remarkably similar story but later. This identification is supported by the fact that both 'Erechtheus' and 'Erichthonious' are names that mean the same thing and are derived from the same Indo-European sources. 'er-3', 'earth' and 'dhghem-', 'earth' are two words relating to the earth. The first is more 'ground' while the sencond is more from the ground. So both names relate to coming from the earth and this seems to describe the myth. It is significant in these older stories that Athena just raises the child after it comes from the Earth.

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History of Athena

The importance of Athena is that she was the female goddess of wisdom in a patriachal society that had reduced women to a condition of sexual servitude. The contrast was particularly evident in Athens where Athena was the patron goddess and the citizenry became particularly grateful to her for her perceived help in defeating the Persians. This patronage became especially pronounced during the reign of Theseus in Athens several generations before the Trojan war. The suspicion is that Theseus brought the worship of Athena from Crete on his return from battling the Minotaur.

On Crete Athena is believed to have been a war goddess that took the form of a bird. The Aegis on Athena's arm looks something like a wing and this image may have developed from images of Athena with wings on Crete. Athena's name does not appear to be Cretan, however. There are myths of the birth of Athena in Africa. Lake Tritonis is mentioned, but its location is not clear. At any rate Athena does not seem to have come from Egypt. Several thousand years ago the Sahara was more habitable than it is today and a location in what is now Tunisia may have been the source of the worship of Athena. An analysis of the art of the ancient Sahara may provide a clue. There are a number of cultures in Africa which revere the wisdom of women.

The following quote comes from Pausanias, Description of Greece, 1.14.1: "But when I saw that the statue of Athena had blue eyes I found out that the legend about them is Libyan. For the Libyans have a saying that the Goddess is the daughter of Poseidon and Lake Tritonis, and for this reason has blue eyes like Poseidon."

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Athena's Symbols

Answer: Athena has several symbols. She often wears a helmet on her head and carries a spear. On her vest or on her shield is the symbol of a gorgon's head. She wears an aegis, which is either a vest or shield, which is fringed with snakes. She was the patroness of Athens and the olive tree was special to her. The owl is more than a symbol, because sometimes this is how she appears.

The significance of Athena's owl culturally/symbolically in ancient times is that it is not Athena's owl but Athena = owl. Most of the images of an owl in ancient Greece simply represent Athena. Only rarely does she appear with a symbol of an owl and she never seems to appear with an owl. She was involved with shape shifting and she would sometimes appear as an owl. But the owl represents wisdom.

The Gorgon's head represents her appearance to her enemies. The snake symbol has many functions. It is the symbol of creation, fertility, regeneration, healing, life force, and regenerative force. Though the snake identifies Athena it is actually more appropriate for Hera. The snake is the symbol of the creative power of wisdom. The aegis represents its protective power. The helmet and spear relate to the fact that wisdom and strategy is the key to victory in war.

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Powers of Athena

Athena's realm is wisdom. And it is in the maintenance of that realm that her true power lies. People could pray to her for wisdom and she could intercede. And they could look to her nature to try to understand what the rules of wisdom were. The Greeks thought nature was rule-bound and so the knowledge of rules of a realm were particularly important. The Greeks were very grateful to Athena for the defeat of the Persians so they built the Parthenon for her. She guides people to wisdom and teaches them crafts. She is a shape changer and can appear to people in any guise. The images that we have of her are personal to the artist of that image. But if she wants you to recognize her she can appear in an artistic guise that was familiar to you. She also has the power of foresight. In fact a goddess lives beyond time. With the help of her wand she could bring about transformations. They wand may have only been symbolic or it may have conentrated her power. At any rate Homer mentions it several times. The Aegis that she wore provided protection from any assault. Since she is an immortal goddess she does not really need protection. Really it is the symbol of the protection that the gods can provide to men.

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Weakness of Athena

Her main weakness is that she has power in her own realm of wisdom and industry but none in the realm of the other deities. Had she not been vain she would have stayed away from the judgement of Paris. Had she been more beautiful he would have chosen her as the fairest. Had she not been vengeful she would not have the Acheans chase Helen. Had she not been jealous she would not have helped Perseus kill Medusa. Had she been a better deity she would be worshipped to this day.

In the pre-Homeric realm she may have been more powerful, without the domination of Zeus. In the Homeric world she was entirely subsumed to Zeus and perhaps somewhat to Poseidon, her brother. During the Trojan War the deities were at war and the fact that the side of Athena ultimately triumphed is a tribute to her power. But it was Hera and Athena against Aphrodite in the Trojan war. By herself Athena was weaker than Aphrodite. Aphrodite has inspired love sonnets, and sexy Halloween costumes but Athena inspires crafts, intellect and feminism.

Deities could be wounded though they always healed. And they only fought when Zeus let them. It is interesting that upon two occaisons Homer decribes Athena as dropping her robe and putting on her battle garments. But there is no verification of this in the art of the time. This may mean that some of her power depended upon her garments. This is certainly true of the Aegis. This peculiar object is sometimes described as a vest, and sometimes as a shield. It is a skin with the real head of the Gorgon Medusa on it. Because it is the real head of the Gorgon Medusa, Athena has the power to turn people into stone. At one time she did not have this power and she encouraged Perseus to kill Medusa so she would have it. The Aegis was a shield in any event because it protected whoever wore it. Without the shield Athena would not be protected and would lose the power of Medusa.

In some art the way the Aegis is draped over Athena's arm makes it look like a wing. Athena often changes into the form of a bird, and for this reason is thought to have once been a bird goddess. She may be more vulnerable in this form. Homer relates that birds were used for divination so Athena was involved with this. Though she could fortell the future she could not change what the Fates had decreed. Indeed, she was free to act in her own realm of wisdom and handicrafts, but she was restricted by the realms of other deities.

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Myths about Athena

Many of her adventures were not recorded. Greek people prayed to her and their prayers, in some cases, were answered. Only the most dramatic were written down. Some of these are as follows:

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Temples of Athena

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Pictures of Athena

Classical pictures of Athena are common on the web. My favorite is: Athena, Philadelphia MS5462.

Homeric pictures are all verbal. I find the following image very interesting: "And with them went Athene of the Flashing Eyes, wearing her splendid cloak, the unfading everlasting aegis, from which a hundred golden tassels flutter, all beautifully made, each worth a hundred head of cattle (Iliad, Book II)." I have not found a single classical image which supports this description.

Images of Athena from the Perseus Project:

Perseus. Search the classical Greek database at Tufts University for images of Athena which we hope will be accessible though mobile QR creator soon. One day, we will be able to generate qr codes to access museum's collections.

Images of Athena as an owl:

At many of these museums, you can buy reproductions by using the QR scanner on your mobile phone. This is an exciting art development!

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Resources about Athena

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Ask a Question about Athena


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Old Questions and Answers about Athena (Athena I)

New Questions and Answers about Athena (Athena II)

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