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Who is Athena?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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In Greek mythology, Athena or Athene is one of the Olympian gods, usually numbered at twelve, and like many of the Olympians — Ares, Hermes, Hephaestus, Apollo, and Artemis — she is a child of Zeus. Sometimes known as Pallas Athena, she is the goddess of wisdom as well as war, and the patron of crafters, particularly weavers. Her symbols are an owl and her aegis, or shield, which eventually held the head of Medusa. In Roman mythology, her counterpart is Minerva.

One of the well-known myths concerning Athena involves the manner of her birth. Metis, whose name means counsel, was Athena’s mother, and Zeus’s first consort. When Zeus was warned that a son might overthrow him—and his own family history would have done nothing to lessen this fear—he swallowed Metis. This resulted both in Zeus absorbing Metis’s wisdom, and Athene was trapped inside his head.

In one version of the story, Hermes found Zeus suffering from violent headaches and figured out how to solve the problem. He fetched Hephaestus, who cracked Zeus’s head open with a blow of his hammer, enabling a fully armed Athena to emerge.

Another myth concerns the patronage of the city of Athens. Both Athena and Poseidon claimed the city, and a contest for the honor of being its patron was announced, with each contestant having a chance to earn the citizens’ loyalty. Poseidon created a spring of water by striking the earth with his trident. But the fact that it was salt water diminished its valued. Athena, in her turn, chose to plant the first olive tree. Seeing that this one gift endowed them with oil, wood, and food, the citizens chose Athena, and the name Athens was given to the city. The famous Parthenon of Athens is a temple in her honor.

Athena’s contest with Arachne is another popular myth. Arachne was an unrivalled weaver — for a human, that is. People assumed that her skill must have come from being taught by Athena. Arachne, however, claimed her gift as her own, and gave out that Athena could come and compete with her if she dared. Athena, in the guise of an old woman, brings her a warning and gives her an opportunity to retract her boast, but Arachne insults her instead. Athena reveals herself, and they set to weaving.

Arachne impudently chooses the flaws of the gods as her theme, and though her weaving is with flaw, her choice of subjects draws Athena’s wrath. Athena destroys the tapestry and breaks the loom. Arachne tries to hang herself, but Athena is too quick and turns her into a spider so that she will weave and spin without cease, and this explains the name arachnid.

Besides these brief encounters, Athena’s patronage of Odysseus forms an important element of the Odyssey. It is she, in the guise of Mentes who appears at the beginning of the story and sets Telemachus off on the search for his father.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By anon299051 — On Oct 23, 2012

I love Greek myths, especially ones about Athena. How did the Greeks come up with this stuff?

By watson42 — On Feb 11, 2011

In the modern retelling of Euripides' Helen, which tells the story of Helen of Troy, the goddess Athena has an interesting role- she is actually something of an antagonist.

In this story, she comes to Helen, who has been trapped alone for about 19 years, and tells her, basically, that the war in Troy and everything else are entirely Helen's fault; no gods or goddesses should be blamed for humanity's failing, even though the promise of Helen was made to Paris by Aphrodite, another goddess.

The story is very interesting, and Athena's monologue is one of the most powerful I've read in recent plays.

By Denha — On Feb 10, 2011

In many stories based on this mythology, Athene is presented as someone who can still offer wisdom and assistance to travelers or heroes in need.

By elizabeth2 — On Feb 10, 2011

I think it's very interesting that Athena was the goddess of wisdom and war. In my opinion, the two go hand in hand. Anyone can enter into and fight a war, but it takes wisdom to actually be able to win.

I also find it interesting because you don't usually associate women with war. When you think of a warrior, generally it's a male that comes to mind. I'm not saying women are unfit for the position. I just find it unusual for a woman to be a symbol of war, especially in such ancient times.

By geronimo8 — On Feb 10, 2011

I have always been fascinated by the stories of the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology. I hadn't heard the story of Athena's birth before. It's very interesting, and more than a little disgusting! It's kind of ironic that Zeus swallowed Athena's mother to avoid being overthrown by a son, when really they were having a daughter.

What was said to have happened to Zeus after Athena was taken from his head? Was Athena's birth the end of him?

By jlmk — On Feb 10, 2011

Isn't it crazy that the the name we have for spiders -- arachnid -- comes from a Greek myth? I wonder what other terms we have that originated in mythology. I never realized that Athena was a weaver. I'll think of that story now every time I see a spider!

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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