In ancient times, there was not simply Apollo or Athena. Each area, city, or shrine had its particular god, who may have evolved from an earlier local deity that later became merged with one of the popular, Olympian gods that spread throughout the Greek-speaking world. (Amazingly, the popular epics about the Trojan War composed by Homer may have done much to solidify the Greeks’ views of the “chief” gods.) Greece itself was not unified in the classical period. It consisted of powerful city-states like Athens, Sparta, Delphi, each of which consisted of a city and the surrounding farmland or grazing lands. So there were many regional customs, religious festivals, and variations of each god. Each city or temple tended to have one chief god and a few other gods that were given special reverence. Myths arose to explain why one god was popular in one place, another in another.
In general terms, Athena was the daughter of Zeus, the supreme or chief god of Olympus, originally a sky-god. Athena was the goddess of wisdom, tactics, war, and crafts like weaving — arts that employ planning and intelligence, not just physical abilities. Athena Polias was the particular Athena that protected the city of Athens.
Excavations have shown that in the pre-classical, Mycenaean (Trojan War) period (1400-1100 BCE), some goddess was widely worshipped in Athens. We don’t know if she was called Athena that far back, but numerous small clay goddess figurines have been found in the ancient ruins of the Acropolis, the high rocky hill at the center of the city which later became the religious center and site of the Parthenon. Some scholars speculate that Athena Polias is the fusion of a local Mycenaean mother goddess, Polias, and a “warrior-maiden archetype” that came in with the male-dominant Olympian pantheon (Grant p. 35). It’s a possibility that fascinates me, since it seems so alien to our received version of the goddess. I note that similar clay figures have turned up in the Marmara area of Delphi, where Athena seems to have taken over an older Gaia/mother-goddess sanctuary. But Mycenaean scholar Emily Vermuele wisely cautions us not to assume classical sanctuaries built on Mycenaean ruins necessarily developed from the older cult. So I am still searching for clues about the goddess that the Mycenaeans on Knossos called Potnia Atana.
However, Athena is most well-known as Parthenos, the Virgin. Classical Greece was a very sexist society, and Athena’s avoidance of traditional female roles may have been emphasized by Homer and the poets who followed him to explain how a female goddess could be intelligent and a soldier.
She was not only a virgin, but she had no physical mother. Zeus slept with Metis, the original goddess of wisdom and intelligence, then learned from an oracle that if Metis had a son, he would be powerful enough to usurp Zeus, just as Zeus had usurped his father. So Zeus swallowed Metis — thereby gaining feminine intelligence. Eventually, he was afflicted with a splitting migraine. The smith-god Hephaistos relieved him of the pressure by striking Zeus’ skull open with a hammer. Athena sprang forth full-grown in armor from the wound. This scene is a popular one on Greek vases.
Again, the myths often reflect echoes of history. Zeus seems to have been a sky-god brought in by invaders called Dorians from the north, during a chaotic Dark Age of several hundred years between the fall of the early Mycenaean civilization and Classical Greece. There are a great many myths to explain how Zeus came to dominate the old, often goddess-centric cults. This story of Zeus swallowing the older goddesses hints at how the patriarchal Dorian Greek culture absorbed the older, goddess-friendly culture that existed in Greece before. (The earliest inhabitants of Greece may not have been matriarchal, they may simply have emphasized goddesses more, whereas in classical Greece, Hera became a shrewish housewife, Aphrodite a slut, and Athena’s continuing popularity could only be explained by masculinizing her).
Back to Athena. This goddess is usually depicted wearing a helmet and carrying a spear. She also usually has a special magical form of armor, the aegis, which she wore as a breastplate. It was originally the armor of Zeus (according to classical myth), with the terrifying head of Medusa, whose gaze turned enemies to stone, set over the heart. The aegis is often shown fringed by snakes. You can easily recognize images of Athena by this unusual garment, not to mention her spear. She also appears with the owl, a symbol of wisdom.
Classical Athens had a wonderful myth to explain how Athena became its patron goddess. Long ago, Athena and Poseidon had held a contest to determine who would become the city’s protector. Each offered the people a gift. Poseidon offered a saltwater spring, which apparently once welled up at the Acropolis. Athena created the olive tree. Olives were extremely useful — not only were the fruits a good food source, but olive oil was used for lamps, lubricant, skin cream, medical preparations, and much more. The grateful Athenians preferred the gift of the tree. An olive tree still grows on the Acropolis, said to have sprouted from the stump of the ancient one.
There’s yet another story that said that when the citizens voted for Athena, women were still allowed to vote. Poseidon was angry with them, so after that, so the legend goes, women were no longer allowed to vote.
The Parthenon, the great Temple of Athena built on the Acropolis in the 5th century BC, is still the most famous building in Athens, even in its present ruined state. It once housed a several-story, towering gold and ivory statue of Athena, somewhat in the same style as the Statue of Liberty. All around the top of the temple, various myths and festivals were recorded in stone, among them the famous contest of Poseidon and Athena. The Elgin Marbles now found in the British Museum are the remains of that scene.
Athena appears in many myths and local cults — ironically, she was also the patron of Sparta, Athens’ main political rival — but she is most well-known for helping the hero Perseus slay Medusa, and for helping clever Odysseus out of many scrapes and problems on his way back from the Trojan War. She tended to befriend the heroes who won not simply by strength and physical ability, but by strategy.
At the beginning of this article is a photo I took of an archaic Athena statue in Athens. This statue actually comes from the old temple before the Parthenon, built when Greece was pulling itself out of the Dark Ages. The stiff, stylized, yet elegant style of archaic art is different from the more anatomically correct and realistic sculpture of the classical period, but this image has its own power. Originally, it was a scene of the gods fighting giants, and this Athena figure had a giant cowering at her feet.
Yet Athena as a war goddess is a tactician, a soldier; she does not love war for the glory of battle, unlike her fierce brother Ares. Always, this uniquely thoughtful goddess seems more nuanced than most. One of her most famous portraits is the surprisingly delicate Mourning Athena, apparently grieving over a grave stele commemorating the fallen heroes of Athens after Marathon.