Who was the Goddess Athena? - Mythology, Overview

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the mythology of the Greek goddess Athena and her importance to ancient Greek culture. The patron goddess of most military-related matters, she was honored widely throughout Greece.

Namesakes

More cities than people realize are named after someone rather than something. Washington D.C., for instance, is quite obviously named after America's first president, George Washington. Even smaller towns which dot the American landscape like Kendallville, Indiana, and Brownsville, Texas, were likely named after some fellows long ago named Kendall and Brown, respectively. It is a way of honoring someone who has made a significant contribution to the founding or history of the community.

This practice has happened throughout all of human history, all the way back to ancient Greece. In Greece, one of the principal city states was named for Athena, the Greek goddess of wise counsel, war, defense, heroes, and pottery. The animal most recognized with Athena, the owl, became almost synonymous with Athens. In order to better understand the Greeks' widespread admiration for Athena, let's explore further her mythology and practical importance to the ancient world.

Athena in Greek Mythology

According to Greek mythology, Athena was born in a rather unusual way. Athena's mother, Metis, was in the middle of a sexual relationship with Zeus when Zeus heard the prophecy that Metis, the goddess of wisdom, would birth children more powerful than Zeus himself. To pre-empt the prophecy, Zeus swallowed Metis whole.

Unfortunately for Zeus, Metis was already pregnant. Metis twiddled away her time inside of Zeus crafting a shield and armor for her unborn daughter. Metis' hammering caused Zeus tremendous headaches, and they did not end until Zeus' son Hephaestus released the headache in a novel way by striking Zeus in the head with an axe. When Zeus' head split, Athena burst forth, clad in the armor and shield crafted by her mother. In later myths, Athena became a favorite child of Zeus, despite her rather unorthodox - and surely painful - birth.

Athena in a 17th century painting by Rembrandt
Athena in a 17th century painting by Rembrandt

Athena is perhaps most known in Greek mythology as the patron goddess of the city of Athens. According to myth, before the city was named Athens, both Athena and Poseidon had a fondness for the city. The two agreed on a contest; whoever could best woo the citizens of the city would become the city's protector. Poseidon caused a well to spring up from barren rock outside the city; however, the spring water which flowed forth was full of salt. In response, Athena gave the city an olive tree, which they could use for food, oil, and wood to build shelters and burn for warmth. The citizens readily accepted Athena as their patron, and she named the city Athens.

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