1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Athena
ATHENA (the Attic form of the Homeric Athene, also called Athenaia, Pallas Athene, Pallas), one of the most important goddesses in Greek mythology. With Zeus and Apollo, she forms a triad which represents the embodiment of all divine power. No satisfactory derivation of the name Athena has been given; Pallas, at first an epithet, but after Pindar used by itself, may possibly be connected with παλλακή (“maiden”). Athena has been variously described as the pure aether, the storm-cloud, the dawn, the twilight; but there is little evidence that she was regarded as representing any of the physical powers of nature, and it is better to endeavour to form an idea of her character and attributes from a consideration of her cult-epithets and ritual. According to the legend, her father Zeus swallowed his wife Metis (“counsel”), when pregnant with Athena, since he had been warned that his children by her might prove stronger than himself and dethrone him. Hephaestus (or Prometheus) subsequently split open his head with a hatchet, and Athena sprang forth fully armed, uttering a loud shout of victory (Hesiod, Theogony, 886; Pindar, Olympia, vii. 35). In Crete she was said to have issued from a cloud burst asunder by Zeus. According to Roscher, the manner of her birth represents the storm-cloud split by lightning; Farnell (Cults of the Greek States, i. p. 285) sees in it an indication that, as the daughter of Metis, Athena was already invested with a mental and moral character, and explains the swallowing of Metis (for which compare the story of Cronus and his children) by the desire to attribute an extraordinary birth to one in whom masculine traits predominated. In another account (as Τριτογένεια) she is the daughter of the river Triton, to which various localities were assigned, and wherever there was a river (or lake) of that name, the inhabitants claimed that she was born there. It is probable that the name originated in Boeotia (C. O. Müller, Geschichten hellenischer Stämme, i. pp. 351-357; but see Macan on Herodotus, iv. 180), whence it was conveyed by colonists to Cyrene and thence to Libya, where there was a river Triton. Here some local divinity, a daughter of Poseidon, connected with the water and also of a warlike character, was identified by the colonists with their own Athena. In any case, it is fairly certain that Tritogeneia means “water-born,” although an old interpretation derived it from τριτώ, a supposed Boeotian word meaning “head,” which further points to the name having originated in Boeotia. Roscher suggests that the localization of her birthplace in the extreme west points to the western sea, the home of cloud and storm.
In Homer Athena already appears as the goddess of counsel, of war, of female arts and industries, and the protectress of Greek cities, this last aspect of her character being the most important and pronounced. Hence she is called πολιάς, πολιοῦχος, in many Greek states, and is frequently associated with Ζεὺς πολιεύς. The most celebrated festival of the city-goddess was the Panathenaea at Athens and other places. Other titles of kindred meaning are ἀρχηγέτις (“founder”) and παναχαἶς, the protectress of the Achaean league. At Athens she presided over the phratries or clans, and was known as ἀπατουρία and φρατρία, and sacrifice was offered to her at the festival Apaturia. The title μήτηρ, given her by the inhabitants of Elis, whose women, according to the legend, she had blessed with abundance of children, seems at variance with the generally-recognized conception of her as παρθένος; but μήτηρ may bear the same meaning as κουροτρόφος, the fosterer of the young, in harmony with her aspect as protectress of civic and family life. At Alalcomenae, near the Tritonian lake in Boeotia, she was ἀλαλκομενηἶς (“defender”). Her temple, which was pillaged by Sulla, contained an ivory image, which was said to have fallen from heaven. The inhabitants claimed that the goddess was born there and brought up by a local hero Alalcomeneus. Her images, called Palladia, which guarded the heights (cf. her epithets ἀκρία, κραναία), represented her with shield uplifted, brandishing her spear to keep off the foe. The cult of Athena Itonia, whose earliest seat appears to have, been amongst the Thessalians, who used her name as a battle-cry, made its way to Coronea in Boeotia, where her sanctuary was the seat of the Pamboeotian confederacy. The meaning of Itonia is obscure: Dümmler connects it with ἰτεῶνες, the “willow-beds” on the banks of the river Coralios (the river of the maiden, i.e. Athena); Jebb (on Bacchylides, fr. xi. 2) suggests a derivation from ίέναι, the goddess of the “onset.” At Thebes she was worshipped as Athena Onka or Onga, of equally uncertain derivation (possibly from ὄγκος, “a height”). Peculiar to Arcadia is the title Athena Alea, probably = “warder off of evil,” although others explain it as = “warmth,” and see in it an allusion to her physical nature as one of the powers of light. Farnell (Cults, p. 275) points out that at the same time she is certainly looked upon as in some way connected with the health-divinities, since in her temple she is grouped with Asclepius and Hygieia (see Hygieia).
She already appears as the goddess of counsel (πολύβουλος) in the Iliad and in Hesiod. The Attic bouleutae took the oath by Athena Boulaia; at Sparta she was ἀγοραία, presiding over the popular assemblies in the market-place; in Arcadia μηχανῖτις the discoverer of devices. The epithet προνοία (“forethought”) is due, according to Farnell, to a confusion with προναία, referring to a statue of the goddess standing “before a shrine,” and arose later (probably spreading from Delphi), some time after the Persian wars, in which she repelled a Persian attack on the temples “by divine forethought”; another legend attributes the name to her skill in assisting Leto at the birth of Apollo and Artemis. With this aspect of her character may be compared the Hesiodic legend, according to which she was the daughter of Metis. Her connexion with the trial of Orestes, the introduction of a milder form of punishment for justifiable homicide, and the institution of the court τὸ ἐπὶ Παλλαδίῴ, show the important part played by her in the development of legal ideas.
The protectress of cities was naturally also a goddess of war. As such she appears in Homer and Hesiod and in post-Homeric legend as the slayer of the Gorgon and taking part in the battle of the giants. On numerous monuments she is represented as ἀρεία, “the warlike,” νικηφόρος, “bringer of victory,” holding an image of Nike (q.v.) in her outstretched hand (for other similar epithets see Roscher’s Lexikon). She was also the goddess of the arts of war in general; στοιχεία, she who draws up the ranks for battle, ζωστηρία, she who girds herself for the fray. Martial music (cp. Ἀθήνη σάλπιγξ, “trumpet”) and the Pyrrhic dance, in which she herself is said to have taken part to commemorate the victory over the giants, and the building of war-ships were attributed to her. She instructed certain of her favourites in gymnastics and athletics, as a useful training for war. The epithets ἱππία, χαλινῖτις, δαμάσιππος, usually referred to her as goddess of war-horses, may perhaps be reminiscences of an older religion in which the horse was sacred to her. As a war-goddess, she is the embodiment of prudent and intelligent tactics, entirely different from Ares, the personification of brute force and rashness, who is fitly represented as suffering defeat at her hands. She is the patroness and protectress of those heroes who are distinguished for their prudence and caution, and in the Trojan War she sides with the more civilized Greeks.
The goddess of war develops into the goddess of peace and the pursuits connected with it. She is prominent as the promoter of agriculture in Attic legend. The Athenian hero Erechtheus (Erichthonius), originally an earth-god, is her foster-son, with whom she was honoured in the Erechtheum on the Acropolis. Her oldest priestesses, the dew-sisters—Aglauros, Herse, Pandrosos—signify the fertilization of the earth by the dew, and were probably at one time identified with Athena, as surnames of whom both Aglauros and Pandrosos are found. The story of the voluntary sacrifice of the Attic maiden Aglauros on behalf of her country in time of war (commemorated by the ephebi taking the oath of loyalty to their country in her temple), and of the leap of the three sisters over the Acropolis rock (see Erechtheus), probably points to an old human sacrifice. Athena also gave the Athenians the olive-tree, which was supposed to have sprung from the bare soil of the Acropolis, when smitten by her spear, close to the horse (or spring of water) produced by the trident of Poseidon, to which he appealed in support of his claim to the lordship of Athens. She is also connected with Poseidon in the legend of Erechtheus, not as being in any way akin to the former in nature or character, but as indicating the contest between an old and a new religion. This god, whose worship was introduced into Athens at a later date by the Ionian immigrants, was identified with Erechtheus-Erichthonius (for whose birth Athena was in a certain sense responsible), and thus was brought into connexion with the goddess, in order to effect a reconciliation of the two cults. Athena was said to have invented the plough, and to have taught men to tame horses and yoke oxen. Various arts were attributed to her—shipbuilding, the goldsmith’s craft, fulling, shoemaking and other branches of industry. As early as Homer she takes especial interest in the occupations of women; she makes Hera’s robe and her own peplus, and spinning and weaving are often called “the works of Athena.” The custom of offering a beautifully woven peplus at the Panathenaic festival is connected with her character as Ergane the goddess of industry. As patroness of the arts, she is associated with Hephaestus (one of her titles is Ἡφαιστία) and Prometheus, and in Boeotia she was regarded as the inventress of the flute. According to Pindar, she imitated on the flute the dismal wail of the two surviving Gorgons after the death of Medusa. The legend that Athena, observing in the water the distortion of her features caused by playing that instrument, flung it away, probably indicates that the Boeotians whom the Athenians regarded with contempt, used the flute in their worship of the Boeotian Athena. The story of the slaying of Medusa by Athena, in which there is no certain evidence that she played a direct part, explained by Roscher as the scattering of the storm-cloud, probably arose from the fact that she is represented as wearing the Gorgon’s head as a badge.
As in the case of Aphrodite and Apollo, Roscher in his Lexikon deduces all the characteristics of Athena from a single conception—that of the goddess of the storm or the thunder-cloud (for a discussion of such attempts see Farnell, Cults, i. pp. 3, 263). There seems little reason for regarding her as a nature-goddess at all, but rather as the presiding divinity of states and cities, of the arts and industries—in short, as the goddess of the whole intellectual side of human life.
Except at Athens, little is known of the ceremonies or festivals which attended her worship. There we have the following. (1) The ceremony of the Three Sacred Ploughs, by which the signal for seed-time was given, apparently dating from a period when agriculture was one of the chief occupations of her worshippers. (2) The Procharisteria at the end of winter, at which thanks were offered for the germination of the seed. (3) The Scirophoria, with a procession from the Acropolis to the village of Skiron, in the height of summer, the priests who were to entreat her to keep off the summer heat walking under the shade of parasols (σκίρον) held over them; others, however, connect the name with σκῖρος (“gypsum”), perhaps used for smearing the image of the goddess. (4) The Oschophoria, at the vintage season, with races among boys, and a procession, with songs in praise of Dionysus and Ariadne. (5) The Chalkeia (feast of smiths), at which the birth of Erechtheus and the invention of the plough were celebrated. (6) The Plynteria and Callynteria, at which her ancient image and peplus in the Erechtheum and the temple itself were cleaned, with a procession in which bunches of figs (frequently used in lustrations) were carried. (7) The Arrhephoria or Errephoria (perhaps = Ersephoria, “dew-bearing”), at which four girls, between seven and eleven years of age, selected from noble families, carried certain unknown sacred objects to and from the temple of Aphrodite “in the gardens” (see J. E. Harrison, Classical Review, April 1889). (8) The Panathenaea, at which the new robes for the image of he goddess were carried through the city, spread like a sail on a mast. The reliefs of the frieze of the cella of the Parthenon enable us to form an idea of the procession. Athletic games, open to all who traced their nationality to Athens, were part of this festival. Mention should also be made of the Argive ceremony, at which the xoanon (ancient wooden statue) of Athena was washed in the river Inachus, a symbol of her purification after the Gigantomachia.
The usual attributes of Athena were the helmet, the aegis, the round shield with the head of Medusa in the centre, the lance, an olive branch, the owl, the cock and the snake. Of these the aegis, usually explained as a storm-cloud, is probably intended as a battle-charm, like the Gorgon’s head on the shield and the faces on the shields of Chinese soldiers; the owl probably represents the form under which she was worshipped in primitive times, and subsequently became her favourite bird (the epithet γλαυκῶπις, meaning “keen-eyed” in Homer, may have originally signified “owl-faced”); the snake, a common companion of the earth deities, probably refers to her connexion with Erechtheus-Erichthonius.
As to artistic representations of the goddess, we have first the rude figure which seems to be a copy of the Palladium; secondly, the still rude, but otherwise more interesting, figures of her, as e.g. when accompanying heroes, on the early painted vases; and thirdly, the type of her as produced by Pheidias, from which little variation appears to have been made. Of his numerous statues of her, the three most celebrated were set up on the Acropolis. (1) Athena Parthenos, in the Parthenon. It was in ivory and gold, and 30 ft. high. She was represented standing, in a long tunic; on her head was a helmet, ornamented with sphinxes and griffins; on her breast was the aegis, fringed with serpents and the Gorgon’s head in centre. In her right hand was a Nike or winged victory, while her left held a spear, which rested on a shield on which were represented the battles of the Amazons with the giants. (2) A colossal statue said to have been formed from the spoils taken at Marathon, the so-called Athena Promachos. (3) Athena Lemnia, so called because it had been dedicated by the Athenian cleruchies in Lemnos. In this she was represented without arms, as a brilliant type of virgin beauty. The two last statues were of bronze. From the time of Pheidias calm earnestness, self-conscious might, and clearness of intellect were the main characteristics of the goddess. The eyes, slightly cast down, betoken an attitude of thoughtfulness; the forehead is clear and open; the mouth indicates firmness and resolution. The whole suggests a masculine rather than a feminine form.
From Greece the worship of Athena extended to Magna Graecia, where a number of temples were erected to her in various places. In Italy proper she was identified with Minerva (q.v.).
- O. Gruppe (Griechische Mythologie, ii. p. 1194) thinks that it probably means “without mother’s milk,” either in an active or in a passive sense “not giving suck,” or “unsuckled,” in her character as the virgin goddess, or as springing from the head of Zeus. In support of this view he refers to Hesychius (θήνιον γάλα) and a passage in Athenagoras (Legatio pro Christianis, 17), where it is stated that Athena was sometimes called Ἀθηλᾶ or Ἀθήλη. For Pallas, he prefers the old etymology from πάλλω (to “shake”), rather in the sense of “earth-shaker” than “lance-brandisher.”
- According to J. E. Harrison in Classical Review (June 1894), Athena Ergane is the goddess of the fruits of the field and the procreation of children.