The Many Faces of Athena: Warrior, Artisan and Guardian

Amanda Aremisia Forrester

(Partially exerted from Forrester’s classes on Greek Mythology)

Athena, or Athene, is the goddess of war and wisdom. As a war-goddess she is the opposite of Ares. Athena fought logically, with strategy and tactics, as opposed to the outright bloodlust and berserker rages of Ares in myth. Although a fierce fighter, she was a merciful goddess; in fact, she often sought peaceful solutions to potentially violent situations. Nike, the goddess and personification of victory, was often at her side, as one would expect of the goddess of war who had never lost. Often they merged in the title Athena Nike.

Athena’s most sacred animals are the owl and the serpent. The owl is still considered to have an air of wisdom about him, as evidenced by the phase “wise old owl”. The head of Medousa, its hair writhing with serpents, was affixed to Athena’s breastplate.

According to myth, Athena’s mother was the Titaness Metis, Zeus’s first wife. An Oracle of Gaia prophesied that any son borne my Metis would overthrow Zeus, just had Zeus had overthrown his father, and his father had overthrown his grandfather. When Zeus heard of this he started to worry. He was afraid that history would repeat itself, as it tends to do. But he can’t just get rid of her, he needs her. He has come to rely on her wisdom. He didn’t think he can rule without her.

So Zeus swallowed her. Now he had her wisdom inside him, and she could not give birth to any children. Or so he thought. Unbeknownst to him, Metis was already pregnant. Well, several years go by and he’s has a terrible headache, and the pounding wouldn’t stop. It hurt so much that he couldn’t keep from screaming, and Zeus’s howl was said to have been heard at all corners of the Earth.

So Hephaestus ran to him and split open his skull with a hammer and chisel, and out popped Athena, full-grown and wearing full armor. The pounding had been Metis making the armor, helmet, shield & sword for her daughter.

The birth of Athena directly from the head of Zeus emphasizes one of the most important features about the goddess.  Springing from the mind of the King of Gods displays her predominately intellectual nature. And as such she is a patron of scholars everywhere. She is also the patron of the arts, especially weaving and pottery, and anything that requires a craftiness or a clear mind. Athena invented the flute, the trumpet, the earthenware pot, the rake, the ox-yoke, the horse-bridle, the chariot, and the ship. She was also the first to teach humans the science of numbers. As well as teaching women to cook, spin, weave, and sew. Being born in armor also shows her strong War-Goddess aspect.

With Metis as her mother and Zeus as her father, she is goddess both powerful and wise. Metis itself actually means “Cunning” or “Wisdom”. She is often said to be Zeus’s favorite child.  Indeed she was the only one other then Zeus himself allowed to use all his weapons, including his thunderbolt.

Titles and Epithets of Athena

The Gods had many titles and epithets that revealed certain aspects of that deity. A study of these epithets can be quite enlightening, showcasing aspects and jobs of the gods that are never mentioned in myth. Below I have collected just a few of the epithets of Athena, as well as their meanings and any stories that go with them.

Athena is also quite often called Pallas Athena or Pallas Athene. When Athena was young, her favorite companion when she was a mortal girl called Pallas.  Pallas means “young woman”, but retains  a masculine connotation and may have used  the way we now use the word “tomboy”. The two were inseparable, honing their fighting skills and always playing together. One time, during a practice sparring session, Athena accidentally mortally wounded her best friend with a javelin. Grieving sorely for her death, she took on her name as part of hers and henceforth was often referred to as Pallas Athena. Athena learned painfully the importance of control and self-discipline, traits that she can teach to us.

Probably another of Athena’s most well known surnames is Parthenos, “Virgin” for which her main temple in Athens, the Parthenon, is named. Athena was the embodiment of purity, as well as wisdom.

In her most warlike aspect she was called Areia. She was also called Axiopoenos, “Avenger”, and it was under this name that Herakles built the temple to her at Sparta. Promakhos, “She Who Stands On The Front Lines”, is another epithet that emphasizes her as a war-goddess.  Alakomene, “the Parrier”, is another  that touts her skill on the battlefield.

It is her titles Polias and Polioukhos, meaning “of the city” and “lady of the city” that call on her both as the goddess of civilized life and as the protector and defender of cities under siege. In Athens, with  the name Paionia she was a healing goddess, and under Xenia a goddess of hospitality. Pronoia names her “Providence”. It was Athena Ergane, “Worker”, that presided or artisans and craftsmen.

Her title Glaukôpis, “Owl-eyed”, refers to her shrewdness, and her sacred animal. by which is symbolized on Athenian coins, the drachma. Athena is often called simply the gray-eyed Goddess or Athena gray-eyed.  The reference to gray eyes seems to be linked only to Athena and could easily be interpreted as a reference to or symbol of  her clear mind. There is one weird reference by Pausanias about Athena having blue eyes. That seems comes from a Libyan story that Athena was the daughter
of Poseidon and the nymph of Lake Tritonis, and because of that has blue eyes like her father. But this story is not generally accepted. Most of Greece saw Athena as the daughter of Zeus (as does this author). But it does put an interesting twist on the feud that Athena and Poseidon had going on, and their dispute over Athens. Teenage rebellion, perhaps? It is food for thought, at least.

Tritogeneia was another epithet of Athena’s. It could have come from three different sources. Geneia means “born” in Greek, and so it could have been a reference to the idea that Athena was born from the Lake Tritonis. But Carl Kerenyi says that it is more likely that it originally referred to a birth from water itself, rather then a particular lake. The name Triton does seem to be associated with water in general, and more specifically, the sea. Triton is in fact the name of a sea-god. It also could have been from tritô, the Aeolian word for “head”, therefore “head-born” – an obvious reference to her birth from Zeus’s head. The other idea is that the trito was from the root meaning “three” and that she was the third child (she was the third Olympian daughter of Zeus after Artemis and Apollo).

The Athenians referred to Athena as “Our Kore”. While this literally means “Our Maiden”, Kore is a title of Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, so this title could refer to an Underworld aspect that is not emphasized  in myth.

The Goddess and Patriarchy

Much has been made of Athena’s apparent endorsement of patriarchy. She was lauded as a goddess with no mother, and therefore none of the fragilities of her sex. Indeed, in her city, the home of democracy, women were not allowed to vote. Men were believed to be the sole father of children, with the mother simply providing a warm place for the infant to grow. In the play Orestes, a trial of father-right versus mother-right, Athena casts her vote for the men. The playwright even has her say “For no mother gave me birth, and in all things, save to give myself in marriage, the male side has my heart.”
However, Athena was a goddess of the state, a protector of law and civil order. As such, she was portrayed in a way as to reflect the dominant social views of the time; namely that women are inferior. In those days, men WERE more interesting, more capable, then women. Women were not given the education, the chance needed, to reach their potential.

But no more. These are new times, and we have new governments and new laws. Women are no longer subservient to men, but full and independent beings in our own right.  I do not believe Athena to be a misogynistic goddess. In my experience, she doesn’t really care what your gender is. Athena is a Goddess who holds each person responsible for their actions. She expects us to reach our full potential, in fact, she demands near perfection.

As anyone who has read the Odyssey knows, one of Athena’s defining characteristics is that of the Protector of Heroes.  She is always a wise councilor to those she protects, but she acts as guide, not a shield to the world. Athena will help the hero down his path, but she does not coddle him. In the end, it is he who must walk the path.  Athena pushes us to grow, and challenges us to push past what we think are our boundaries.



One Response to The Many Faces of Athena: Warrior, Artisan and Guardian

  1. Pingback: Some of my writings « Temple of Athena the Savior

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