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published: 1/20/05
updated: 7/8/14

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Athena



Athena: identity, virginity, and child

athena bust

Who is Athena?

In Greek mythology, Athena is one of the 12 Olympian gods. In Greek thought, she is the goddess of wisdom, the arts, law and justice, and just warfare (among other things). Athena is the patroness of Athens, Greece, a position she earned by defeating the Greek god, Poseidon. She also has connections to the Greek hero Odysseus as well as modern universities (see more below).

Why is she called "the virgin"?

Athena didn't have lovers and she never married, according to Greek myths. This earned her the nickname, "Athena the Virgin." Virginity implied a certain sense of purity in the ancient Greek world and was seen as virtuous. Furthermore, her lack of male companionship, her defeat of Poseidon, and her escape from Hephaestus' attempted rape, are often interpreted as championing female autonomy and independence.

How did she become the mother of a child if she is a virgin?

In some myths, Athena is described as having an adopted child named Erechthonius. As the story goes, Hephaestus, the Greek god of blacksmiths, craftsmen, and fire and volcanoes (among other things), tried to rape Athena. She escaped from him and as a result, the semen of Hephaestus fell to the Earth, which is also called "Gaia" - a name that reflects the personification of the Earth. Gaia then gave birth to a child, Erecchthonius. Athena raised the child as a foster mother.


Athena's story

Her birth story, her association with Greek heroes, and her involvement in warfare

What is the story of Athena's birth?

In the Olympian pantheon, Athena was the favorite daughter of Zeus who mated with Metis, the goddess of crafty thought and wisdom. As the story goes, Zeus regretted the union because a prophecy stated that Metis' child would become stronger than its father. Zeus feared this result and tried to hide the child away in his stomach by swallowing it. His efforts ultimately failed and Metis conceived. And when Zeus' forehead was cut open, Athena sprang out, fully grown and armed.

athena statue

What is her association with heroes?

Athena is also the goddess of courage, and subsequently, the patron goddess of heroes and their endeavors. Greek heroes she is said to have helped include Heracles and Odysseus. In Homer's The Odyssey, Athena helps Odysseus by giving him thoughts that helped him home from Troy. She also appears in the dreams of his associates, telling them to help Odysseus on his journey. Athena also helps Odysseus defeat his rivals.

How does Athena's oversight of wisdom and warfare relate to each other?

Athena is the goddess of just war. She is known for having the wisdom to settle conflicts before they result in combat and for having the discernment to decide when warfare is required. Athena's opposite in this regard is her brother Ares, who is the patron of conflict and slaughter. She emphasizes wisdom, however, not violence. Athena has led battles and she fought in the Trojan War with the Achaeans.

Athena's relationship to Minerva and modern university

What does Minerva have to do with Athena?

Minerva is a goddess, and the Roman counterpart to Athena. Like Athena, she is also a goddess of wisdom as well as a virgin. Minerva has been associated with Athena since the 2nd century. Both Athena and Minerva are sometimes depicted as, or symbolized by, an owl, which is meant to reflect wisdom.

What does Athena have to do with universities?

Athena is the patron saint of universities due to her wisdom. She is the symbol of the Darmstadt University of Technology, in Germany, and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil. Her image is displayed in the shields of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters and the Faculty of Sciences of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where her owl is the symbol of the Faculty of Chemistry. Her helmet appears on the shield of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. At Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, a statue of Athena resides in the Great Hall. It is traditional at exam time for students to leave offerings to the goddess with a note asking for good luck..

Recommended:

Hades

Zeus

Poseidon

Greco-Roman religion beliefs

Greco-Roman religion timeline



References:

1. The Odyssey by Homer

2. Theogony by Hesiod

3. Wikipedia, "Athena"