Athena is one of the most popular goddesses of the Ancient Greeks. It’s widely known that she is the goddess of war and wisdom, but that is just the beginning of amazing facts about her. She appears in several myths that originated in Ancient Greece as well as in Ancient Rome. Together, they form the story and personality of one of the most interesting and unique goddesses of the Greek pantheon.
Here are some of the most interesting facts about Athena, the protector of ancient Athens:
- 11 Interesting Facts About the Greek Goddess Athena
- 1. Basic facts
- 2. Athena’s other name is Pallas
- 3. She is a virgin
- 4. Athena is the goddess of noble war
- 5. Athena is also the goddess of weaving and artisan crafts
- 6. She lost a contest with Arachne
- 7. She was pivotal in the Trojan War
- 8. Athena was the protector of heroes
- 9. She gave her name to Athens
- 10. Athena invented the flute
- 11. Athena was generally an inventor
11 Interesting Facts About the Greek Goddess Athena
1. Basic facts
Athena is the daughter of Zeus and Metis, the goddess of cunning, wisdom, and strategy. Metis was Zeus’ first wife. She was the one who came up with the plan to rescue Zeus’ siblings from their father Kronos. Kronos had been swallowing every single one of his children the moment they were born because he was afraid one of them would topple him from his throne as king of the gods. Afterward, together with his freed siblings, Zeus managed to do exactly that.
However, once he became king of the gods, Zeus received a prophecy that a child born from Metis would be his undoing. Afraid of having his father’s fate, Zeus absorbed Metis into himself, merging with her. But at the time he did that, Metis was already pregnant. The child kept growing, but now inside Zeus’ head.
When nine months had passed, Zeus suddenly had terrible headaches. No matter what he did, there was no alleviating the terrible pain. Finally, he grew desperate enough that he rushed to Hephestus, the god of fire and metallurgy, and asked him to strike his head with his axe. Hephestus complied, and from inside Zeus’ head sprung Athena with a loud war cry.
She was fully armed with splendid armor, shield, sword, and spear. Zeus was terrified that this was the child of the prophecy that would topple him. But when Athena saw her father, she laid her weapons at his feet and knelt in submission. From then on, she joined Olympus as one of the 12 gods of Olympus.
Athena is depicted as a tall, beautiful woman in a helmet, holding a shield. Often she is also holding a spear. She may be in a long dress or in armor, but almost always she wears a breastplate called the aegis. She was said to be blond and blue-eyed. Her sacred animal is the owl.
2. Athena’s other name is Pallas
Often, Athena will be called “Athena Pallas” or just “Pallas” in ancient Greek texts or inscriptions. The most prevalent story is that Pallas was a giant. He had wings and was the son of Gaia, the goddess of the Earth. Athena killed him and used his skin as her cloak and his wings at her heels. There are two stories about why she killed him.
One is that she killed Pallas in battle, during the great war between the Titans and the Olympians called Titanomachy. Pallas had joined the side against Zeus and clashed with Athena, and lost.
The other story is that Pallas was struck by Athena’s beauty and he tried to attack her and force himself on her. Once again, he lost that fight and his life.
Because Athena uses his wings and skin, she took the epithet “Pallas”.
There is also another story about who Pallas was. In that other myth, Pallas was Athena’s childhood friend and a girl, the daughter of the river god Triton. She killed her accidentally while the two were sparring and was inconsolable. To honor her friend and keep her name alive, she took it as her second name- no flying involved!
3. She is a virgin
Athena is a virgin goddess. She protects this virginity with her weapons, and anyone that attacked her to rape her ends up dead. That’s why one of her other common epithets is “Parthenos” which means “the virgin”.
4. Athena is the goddess of noble war
Athena isn’t just generally the goddess of war. She represents the better parts of war: bravery, cunning, strategy, justice, fairness in battle, and morality. The nasty parts of war, specifically bloodlust, rage, cruelty, and mercilessness, are represented by Ares, who is also the god of war.
This duality of war as symbolized by the two gods is also reflected in the myths about them and how Zeus treats them: Athena is his favorite child while Ares his least favorite. Athena is always clever and perceptive, while Ares is often superficial, frivolous, and outright dumb. Most of the time, Athena is reserved and fair. Ares on the other hand is almost always the exact opposite.
5. Athena is also the goddess of weaving and artisan crafts
Another epithet that Athena has is “ergane” which means “industrious”. She is the patron goddess of weaving and other crafts within the home, done by women. She is said to have been the best weaver and her fabrics are light, sturdy, and beautiful.
6. She lost a contest with Arachne
The myth comes from Roman times, so it’s not clear if it existed in Ancient Greece. It’s about a mortal woman named Arachne, who was an amazing weaver and, in a moment of hubris, said that she was better than the goddess of weaving, Athena.
Athena heard this and challenged Arachne to a contest. They were to weave the best possible tapestry to see whose would be better. Athena weaved a gorgeous, highly detailed tapestry depicting the heroics of the gods.
But Arachne managed to weave a see-through, web-like fabric upon which the raunchy escapades of the gods were depicted, including the cheating and slyness involved. Athena couldn’t find fault with the tapestry, which was impeccable. Instead, she took these raunchy scenes as an insult to the gods, tore the fabric to pieces, and cursed Arachne.
Arachne became an insect that weaves transparent webs- a spider. Even today her name – Arachne – means “spider” in Greek.
7. She was pivotal in the Trojan War
When Eris, the goddess of discord, tossed a golden apple with the inscription “for the fairest” where the goddesses Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera were talking, a fight broke out over who the apple was for. No god would be involved in this fight between the three goddesses, so they went to Paris, a prince of Troy.
They asked him to make a decision about who the fairest was, and thus the rightful recipient of the apple. All three tried to bribe Paris to pick them: Hera promised him infinite power, Athena promised him infinite wisdom, and Aphrodite promised him the most beautiful woman in the world to be his wife.
Paris chose Aphrodite, and Aphrodite gifted him Helen of Sparta, the wife of Menelaus, who was the most beautiful (and unfortunately already married) woman in the world.
When Paris and Helen eloped, they sparked the Trojan War. Athena and Hera who had been slighted by Paris took the side of the Greeks. Aphrodite and her lover Ares took the side of the Trojans. Athena was pivotal in helping the Greeks win the war. She guided Odysseus, Diomedes, and many other fighters of the Greeks to do great feats against the Trojans.
However, she also was quick to punish her favorites if they acted with cruelty or against the rules of war of the time. When Ajax the Lesser tried to drag a Trojan priestess from Athena’s temple in order to rape her, Athena destroyed many of the Greek ships when the Greeks refused to punish him.
8. Athena was the protector of heroes
Athena is always keen to protect heroes and demigods in their quests. She helps them when they are in tough spots and offers them solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems. She helped Perseus to devise a way to approach Medusa without getting petrified. She guided Jason to construct the ship Argo and Heracles (Hercules) in his many tasks.
Perseus was Athena’s favorite hero. It’s interesting that Perseus is the only hero in ancient Greek mythology who doesn’t have any character flaw that eventually becomes his undoing, like Heracles or Theseus. When Athena helped Perseus approach Medusa keeping his back turned to her and using a mirror to see, Perseus wanted to express his gratitude to the goddess.
So when he decapitated Medusa, he gifted her head to Athena. Athena put Medusa’s head on her shield to cast terror on her enemies. That’s why the head of a gorgon is always depicted on Athena’s shield.
When Athens was a new city, its dwellers were looking for a name for it. Athena and Poseidon appeared before them and asked them to give their name to the city and become its protectors. This resulted in a fight between the two gods, which would then be resolved by a contest. The city dwellers would be the ones to vote for the winner.
Poseidon struck the ground with his trident. From there, water sprung. However, the water was salty and not good for agriculture. Athena struck the ground with her spear and from there sprung an olive tree, fully grown and heavy with olives.
The dwellers voted for Athena to become the patron goddess, and named their city Athens. Ever since Athena became the protector of Athens. The biggest temple in the Acropolis is a temple in her honor- the Parthenon.
10. Athena invented the flute
There was a time when Athena was in Libya, to be trained and educated by the river god Triton. While there, she helped the hero Perseus to slay Medusa, the gorgon with the head of serpents and the glance that petrified. Medusa had two sisters who, unlike her, were immortal. When Medusa was killed, her sisters grieved her and sang songs of mourning. Athena listened to those songs and noticed that the serpents on the heads of the sisters were making very specific sounds that created music.
Athena tried to recreate these sounds by using a hollow reed, and that’s how the flute was invented.
11. Athena was generally an inventor
Beyond the invention of the flute, Athena is credited with inventing a lot of things that are vital to agriculture and science. She gifted the olive tree to the Athenians, and together with that, she invented the rake and the bridle to help them cultivate their crops more efficiently.
She is also the one who invented numbers, the chariot, and tools for navigation.
The myths around Athena are so many it’s hard to keep track of them. She generally appears when a problem needs to be solved, or when heroes are in need, or when someone is being wronged. She is always young, beautiful, and terrible in battle. She advises her father Zeus, and she rewards upstanding, industrious, and humble people who know how to defend virtue.