The Roman Goddess Minerva: Importance & Mythology

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

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

Roman deities were often influenced by other civilizations, but were in the end uniquely Roman. In this lesson we'll discuss the mythology surrounding the Roman goddess Minerva.

Minerva

You know, the Romans don't get enough credit. People tend to assume that the Romans stole everything from the Greeks, but this is a terrible misconception. Point in case: Roman mythology. Yes, the Roman religion was influenced by and contained many parallels to Greek mythology, but it was just as influenced by native Italian sources.

The Roman goddess Minerva is a good example of Rome's melding of Greek and Italian traditions. Minerva is part of the holy Capitoline triad, the three supreme leaders of the Roman pantheon, along with Jupiter and Juno. Minerva is the goddess of wisdom, medicine, the arts, poetry, and handicrafts. Later in Roman history, she became the goddess of war as well. So, she was pretty important to the Romans.

Now, in many ways Minerva mirrors the Greek Athena, one of the more prominent deities. However, Minerva is more accurately the Roman version of an Etruscan goddess, Menvra. Ever heard of the Etruscans? These were the Italian people of Tuscany who dominated the region before the Latin tribes came to live in the swampy territory known as Rome. Now, there is still a lot about the Etruscans that we don't know, but to them Menvra seems to have been a very important figure central to many myths. Combining aspects of both Menvra and Athena, Minerva grew to be one of the most respected goddesses in the Roman religion. So, let's give her some credit.

An Etruscan bronze statue of Minerva
Minerva

Mythology

As a member of the Capitoline triad, a group named for the sacred Capitoline Hill in Rome, Minerva is placed in a position of power and importance. She shows up throughout Roman mythology as a result. However, there are a few key stories that really define her.

The first is her origin story. According to the Romans, Minerva was born from the head of Jupiter, patriarch of the Roman pantheon. Why his head? Well, Jupiter was once told a prophecy that his child would become more powerful than him, and so upon finding out that he had impregnated the titaness Metis, he swallowed her whole. Still alive inside of Jupiter, Metis made armor and weapons for her daughter, and all this commotion gave Jupiter a headache. He had the smithing god split his head open, and out jumped Minerva, fully-grown and decked out in armor. Minerva became the goddess of wisdom and is famously one of the virgin goddesses who fiercely protects her chastity.

Minerva in a Roman cameo
Minerva

So, that's where Minerva is from. Like I said, she pops up throughout mythology, but there is one other very important myth about her. This is the story of Minerva and a Lydian girl named Arachne. The story comes from the famous Roman poet Ovid. According to Ovid, Arachne bragged that her weaving skills were as good as Minerva's, which made the goddess furious. Minerva challenged Arachne to a weaving contest. They sat down at their looms, and set to work.

Minerva created an incredible tapestry showing herself winning the competition, with details of mortal humans being punished by the gods for their hubris. Arachne created a stunning tapestry displaying mythological scenes where the gods had used deceit to trick innocent mortals. Now, Minerva recognized that Arachne's tapestry was beautiful, but still declared herself the winner. She turned Arachne into a spider and the story ends on a cautionary note about daring to challenge the gods.

Importance in Roman Life

Minerva was worshipped widely throughout all of Italy, but perhaps the most important site of her worship was on the Capitoline Hill, one of the seven sacred hills of Rome. It was common for the Romans to worship deities in associations with specific places-- as in this god is the patron of this town or this forest. However, the Capitoline Triad are associated with all of Italy, and later all of the Roman Empire.

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