Back to Home Page or Contents or Greek Mythology or Article Index
Athena, another daughter of Zeus, and like Artemis, she was sworn to eternal chastity. Metis, her mother, whom Zeus is alleged to have swallowed, and afterwards gave birth to his daughter. Also like Artemis, Athena was a fierce warrior and enjoyed clashes of arms. But instead of using a bow she carried a lance, and wore a goatskin breastplate (the aegis). Not surprisingly, she fought giants and even killed Pallas and Enceladus with here own hands. The Iliad tells of her fighting on the side of the Greeks, perhaps this was because Paris chose Aphrodite over her in the contest of beauty between the three goddesses. She also helped Hercules and gave him arms. Odysseus appointed her his protectress, and in the Odyssey she was constantly intervening to get him out of his numerous difficulties. She was not a goddess of violence as a deity of resolute courage, and she was guided and enlightened by reason. It is said she invented the war-chariot, and ships too, since she presided over the building of the Argo. She was a peacemaker too, as is displayed in the famous quarrel that brought her in confrontation with Poseidon.
This quarrel arouse because both claimed to be the patron of Attica. When the gods were assembled to be arbitrators they decided the country should belong to the god giving it the finest gift. Striking the earth with his trident, Poseidon brought forth a salt spring. However, Athena just planted an olive tree, and the gods judged the olive, the tree of peace and long patience, was preferable to the murky stream, and granted Athena patronage to Attica.
There is another strange myth told of Athena in connection to the Acropolis at Athens. Athena wishing to remain a virgin could not prevent Hephaestus from falling in love with her one day when she visited him at his forge. When she fled he pursued her, and, though he was gentle, he caught up with her on the Acropolis of Athens where he took her in his arms. She tried defending herself, but in his desire the god brushed against her. In disgust she rubbed herself with a piece of cloth and threw it to the ground. The earth became fertilized and produced Erichthonius, whom the goddess accepted and regarded as her own son with a curious tenderness. She put him in a chest, so to bring him up without the knowledge of the other gods, and entrusted the chest to the three daughters of Cecrops, the king of Athens. But, Aglauros, one of the three daughters, could not contain her curiosity and opened the chest. The sight of the small child guarded by two serpents was so terrible to her that it filled her with terror, which caused her to hurl herself from the rocks on top of the Acropolis. Afterwards, Athena brought up the child herself at her sanctuary at Athens. Later King Cecrops handed over the royal power to him, and Erichthonius became founder of the dynasty of the kings of Attica from which Theseus descended.
There is another version of this legend. When Athena pushed Hephaestus
from her to safeguard her virginity his semen fell onto the ground. From
it grew the serpent Erichthonius. The three daughters of Cecrops, the first
king of Athens, and a half serpent man were given a box, which the goddess
told them not to look into. But two of the daughters overcome by their curiosity.
When opening the box the sight of the divine child snake drove them mad.
Athena, however, did not withdraw her protection from the city.
The misunderstanding of the epithet Pallas that frequently precedes the goddess' name has lead to another myth. The epithet probably just means "young girl," but according to a legend Zeus entrusted the young goddess to the god Triton, who raised her with his own daughter, called Pallas. Both girls practiced the arts of war, and Athena accidentally fatally wounded her companion. To make amends she made a statue of her friend, calling it the Palladium, and Athena took the name of the dead girl. This was the beginning of the Palladium legend. Some claim the archaic statue itself (a wooden idol, called a xoanon, showing the goddess stiff and upright) perhaps dates back to a pre-Hellenic cult, such as many characteristics of Athena herself.
Athena presided over activities of women artisans. She was the patroness of weavers and embroiderers. A girl who Athena had taught did not acknowledge her teaching, but claimed her skills were of her own ability. The young lady, Arachne, even went further and challenged Athena to a competition, which the goddess accepted. The goddess showed up diguised as an old woman who advised the presumptuous creature to be more modest. Arachne's reply insulted the goddess further, so Athena revealed her true self and the contest began. Arachne's perfect tapestry arose the goddess to such a passion that she destroyed her rival's work, struck the girl with her own shuttle, and immediately turned Arachne into a spider. Athena's wrath was well known, and this is not the only story revealing that side of her nature.
Athena's Roman counterpart was Minerva. A.G.H.
Grimal, Pierre, Larousse World Mythology, Secaucus,
New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1965, pp. 130-131 Cotterell, Arthur, A Dictionary
of World Mythology, New York, G. P. Putman's Sons, 1980, p. 134