ATHENA

thena was the Greek goddess of war, the patron* of arts and crafts, and the goddess and symbol of wisdom. Sometimes known as Pallas Athena or simply Pallas, Athena offered special protection to cities. For this reason, temples to Athena were built in cities throughout the Greek world. The Romans later adopted the goddess and called her Minerva.

The people of ancient Mycenae were probably the first to worship Athena. According to ancient myths, she was the daughter of Zeus and Metis. Zeus had heard a prophecy that Metis, whom he had married, would have a son who would overthrow his father. Zeus therefore turned Metis into a fly and swallowed her. Some time later, Zeus complained of a terrible headache and ordered one of the gods to split his head open with an ax. When this was done, Athena sprang from Zeus’s head—fully grown and dressed in armor, ready for battle.

As the goddess of war, Athena often helped Greek warriors and intervened in their battles. However, she preferred to settle disputes peacefully through reason rather than by force. When battle did occur, Athena acted with justice and skill—in contrast to Ares, the god of war, who often flew into a fury. In the Iliad, the Greek poet Homer described how Athena helped the Greeks win victory in the Trojan War. In the Odyssey, she guides Odysseus to safety. She also came to the aid of an assortment of Greek heroes* who found themselves in difficult situations.

As a patron of the arts, Athena inspired many great works, including the construction of several important buildings. She was the patron of spinning, weaving, embroidery, and similar crafts and household activities. According to one story, the princess Arachne challenged Athena to a weaving contest after Arachne boasted of her skill in that craft. When Arachne’s work turned out to be as intricate and beautiful as Athena’s, the goddess flew into a rage and tore up the weaving. Arachne became so frightened that she hung herself. Athena took pity on Arachne and turned her into a spider whose descendants would endlessly weave and hang from their own thread.

Athena had a long association with the city of Athens. The city was named after the goddess and Athenians worshiped her as their patron. According to legend, both Athena and Poseidon (the god of the sea), wanted to be honored as patron of the city. To settle the issue, the two gods had a contest to see who could provide the most useful gift to the city. Poseidon stuck his trident* into rocks, causing a saltwater spring to burst forth. Athena planted an olive tree. The people of Athens considered the olive tree the better gift because it provided food and oil, and they chose Athena as their patron. The Athenians built a temple on the Acropolis to honor the goddess. This temple, called the Parthenon, became the greatest shrine to Athena in the Greek world. The Athenians also held an athletic competition, the Panathenaic Games, every year in her honor.

When depicted in works of art, Athena generally appears fully clad in armor—with helmet, spear, and breastplate. She carries a round shield with an image of the monster Medusa, whom Perseus killed with Athena’s help. Athena is also frequently shown with an owl, her sacred animal. (See also Art, Greek; Divinities; Literature, Greek.)

* patron special guardian, protector; or supporter

* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god

* trident three-pronged spear, similar to a pitchfork

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