One of the most versatile deities of the Greek pantheon was Athena, best known as goddess of wisdom, but also in charge of war, the arts, skill, justice, and civilization. She was credited with the invention of the flute, the plow, and the chariot. One of the best-known stories about this goddess is that of her birth, with her having sprung from the head of Zeus fully grown and dressed in full armor. There’s some obvious symbolism in the goddess of wisdom coming from her father’s head like an idea, but there’s more to the story than that. According to Hesiod, Athena did have a mother, the Titaness Metis. She was the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys, and the original goddess of wisdom, as well as cunning. Metis was also Zeus’s first wife, but since it was prophesied that any children they had would be more powerful than Zeus himself, the Olympian ruler swallowed her whole. Now where do you think he got that idea?
Yes, it does seem like Zeus was taking a page from the book of his dear old dad. Anyway, Metis was apparently already pregnant, and the child inside the god gave him some serious headaches. So he had Hephaestus split open his head using either an axe or a hammer, and Athena emerged. This miraculous birth is said to have occurred at the River Triton in Lydia, Asia Minor.
Now, if Metis was married to Zeus before Hera was, then it’s not entirely clear how Hephaestus could have helped with the birth. He was, after all, the son of Zeus and Hera. That means that, in between Zeus swallowing Metis and Athena springing from his head, he would have gotten remarried and had a child, and that child grew to adulthood. I suppose this is possible, since Athena was fully-grown when she emerged. It wouldn’t, however, explain the take on the story that has Hera deciding to give birth on her own to get even with Zeus, and ending up with Hephaestus. Some versions make Hermes or Prometheus the makeshift surgeon. There are even lesser-known origin stories for Athena that make her the daughter of Kronos or her chief rival Poseidon instead of Zeus.
Although the goddess of war and a warrior from birth, Athena favors thought and planning to fighting. Unlike her half-brother Ares, who represents the chaotic heat of battle, the goddess is associated with strategy. She’s also Zeus’s favorite child, and the only other deity allowed to use his thunderbolts.
Like most of the gods, Athena had some alternate names, and I’m not just talking about her Roman counterpart Minerva. She was called Tritogeneia because of where she was born, and Pallas Athena in honor of someone named Pallas whom she killed. There are different explanations as to who Pallas was, some saying that the person was male and other female, and his identity ranging from an old friend she killed accidentally to her father who tried to rape her. Depending on the version, Athena’s taking on the name could be considered either a sign of respect or of victory. Another name used for her was Athena Parthenos, literally meaning “Virginal Athena.” While her virginity was not as central to her character as it was to Artemis’, it came to be symbolic in her role as patron deity of Athens, representing the impregnability of the city itself. The Parthenon, one of the most famous of Greek temples, was dedicated to Athena in that role.
How Athena came to be the patron and namesake of Athens is an interesting story in and of itself. The legend has it that the founder of the city that now serves as the capital of Greece was Cecrops, a man who was half-snake.
Poseidon wanted to be the patron of this city, which makes a certain amount of sense as it’s on a seacoast. Athena, who was associated with cities and civilization, also sought this position. Therefore, they proposed a contest, judged by Cecrops. Poseidon’s gift was a spring, but as it turned out to be salt water, it didn’t impress the snake-man much. Athena’s was an olive tree, which the king much preferred. And that’s why the city is now Athens, and not…uh, Poseida or something. I have to suspect that, in historical reality, this myth is representative of how the people of the area originally worshipped Poseidon before switching their loyalties to Athena.
This is a picture I took of a statue of Athena outside City Hall in Jersey City. I’m not entirely sure why she’s there, but I think the inscription on the pedestal has something to do with veterans. Also, the city has an Athena Condominium Tower.
And finally, here’s a picture of Athena caught in a moment of leisure time, drawn by Becca.