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Greek Goddess Athena: Epithets & Attributes

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

All Greek deities had epithets, but few had as many as Athena. In this lesson, we'll get to know the goddess and consider her diverse roles in Greek society.

Athena in Ancient Greece

Greek deities were busy; after all, they had all of Greek civilization to look after. This meant that they had to be great multitaskers, attending to numerous problems at once. We tend to think of the Greek gods as having had one role each (Zeus was the god of lighting, Poseidon was god of the sea, etc.), but that's not how the Greeks saw them. Each had several roles, and you could evoke a specific one by praying to a deity by their epithet, or the name/title associated with that role.

All Greek gods had several epithets, but few had as many as Athena. Goddess of war, wisdom, and the arts, Athena was the favored daughter of Zeus and considered his equal in many ways. She was also the patron deity of Athens. Overall, Athena knew how to stay busy.

Athena in Greek pottery
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Epithets of Athena

There are more epithets for Athena than we have time to cover today, so let's just hit some of the most important ones, starting with Athena Parthenos. When identified with the epithet Parthenos, we are referring to Athena as a maiden, or virgin. Unlike most Greek deities, Athena didn't spend her time chasing gods, mortals, or mythical beings in sexual conquests. She was devoted entirely to her intellectual pursuits. This is one reason why Zeus liked her so much; Zeus overthrew his own father, and worried that any sons or grandsons of his may try to do the same. Athena's chastity removed that potential threat.

Athena was a female deity, recognized as a virgin and associated with maidens. These are qualities we expect to find in Greek portrayals of female power. Interestingly, however, many of Athena's epithets identify her with something traditionally gendered masculine: warfare. Athena Promachos was the goddess' epithet as a champion or leader in war. However, the Greeks seemed to have used this epithet only in very specific types of war. Remember that Athena was a goddess of wisdom; Athena Promachos was therefore associated with wartime strategy, particularly in regards to defense.

Athena was often recognized as a warrior
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We should never make the mistake of assuming, however, that Athena was not a formidable fighter. The goddess was said to go into battle with the head of Medusa on her shield, thus turning all her foes into stone. Due to her important role as a warrior, Athena was also strongly associated with victory, which is embodied in the deity Nike. Athena is often seen holding Nike in her hands, and in fact the two are so often associated with each other that they are sometimes conflated into one, under the epithet Athena Nike.

Other roles of Athena also show this interesting mixture of what Greeks would have considered to be masculine and feminine traits. As Athena Ergane, she was patron of crafts and craft workers. This did not only include traditionally feminine crafts such as weaving, but also many of the more industrial ones like metalworking and pottery. Of course, we can't forget about her role as Athena Polias, patron and guardian of Athens. This epithet identified her with both the philosophy and intellectual traditions of Athens, as well as its military defense. Again, both of these were traditionally gendered male at the time.

Depiction of Athena

Considering the diverse epithets of Athena, we can have a better appreciation for her depiction in Greek art. There are two major things we need to discuss in regards to this, starting with her animal. Many Greek gods were associated with an animal, and sometimes even depicted as that creature. For Athena, it was the owl, a symbol of wisdom. The owl is also significant when we consider that Zeus' animal was the eagle. The fact that her animal was also a bird likely reinforced the connection between her and Zeus, and was therefore a reminder of her authority.

Athena was often associated with the owl
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