Metamorphoses Project:
Tracing Mythology Through Time And Place

Athena--Goddess of Wisdom

Laurie Parrish, Lynette Delp, Alex Klinkhardt, Stephanie Palmer.

Part 1

Different Greek versions of the myth:

Birth Although many versions of Athena's birth exist, we chose the version by Apollodorus. In his story, Athena springs from Zeus' head when Hephaestus splits his head open with an axe.

Gift Athena gave Athens the gift of an olive tree which was said to have civilized the Meditterrean. This version by Apollodorus explains the contest between Athena and Poseidon, the winner of which would be able to name the city now known as Athens.

Rape of Athena Hephaestus tries to rape Athena and her son, Ericthonius, is born of Hephaestus' fallen seed. This account is by Apollodorus from Vol.2.91.

Golden Apple When Strife threw the golden apple to Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena, the goddesses made Paris chose which one got to keep the apple. The account is by Apollodorus from Vol.2.173.

HymnsThis hymn is dedicated to Athena. It tells briefly of how she is the sacker of cities and saves the people who go out to war. It is from Homeric Hymns #11 by Homer.

Analysis of the hero/divinity in antiquity:

The gods and goddesses in Greek mythology are often portrayed as lustful, deceitful, and vengeful; in short, they seem to be human. In fact, the ancients did, indeed, create these mythical figures to account for human behavior. The Greeks personified these traits into such figures as Discord and Envy. Many other characteristics, both good and bad, were also made into deities. The goddess Athena represented wisdom, the evil side of battle, and feminism. Athena, as a human, can appear to have a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde personality. Each raconteur of Athena explains her slightly differently, which results in seemingly contradictory tales.

These tales often change from person to person because each storyteller wants to show off his or her talent by elaborating on each story. One example of this contradiction in stories is that of Athena's birth. Apollodorus' version of her birth is that Zeus pursued Metis, but she changed into many shapes in order to avoid his embraces. Zeus, however, would not let up, and Metis eventually relented. When he found out that his lover was pregnant, Zeus swallowed her, following the advice of Earth, who had warned him of Metis' bearing a child more powerful than he. Zeus kept Metis in his body until after she gave birth. Hephaestus then took an axe, split Zeus' head open, and Athena leaped out fully armored. One symbol of her birth is male dominance because there was no woman involved. Immortality means there will not be any transfer of power to future generations; therefore, it is a stable form of government. "If the Gods are to provide us with a model of eternity, there has to be a point at which they stop behaving like humans and therefore stop yielding power to their sons. Athena's birth and her virginity stand as signs that this point has been reached" (Blundell 22).

Hesiod, on the other hand, told of Zeus and Metis as husband and wife. Metis, the wisest of all gods and mortals, became pregnant with a daughter. The goddesses Earth and Heaven told Zeus that Metis would give birth to a girl equal to her father in strength and as wise in understanding and a boy who would eventually take his father's throne. Upon hearing this, Zeus tricked Metis and put her into his belly so the son could not be born. The third version is by Herodotus, who claimed that Athena was the daughter of Poseidon and the Tritonian lake. Athena became angry at her father and gave herself to Zeus, who in turn made her his own daughter.

The versions of Athena's birth are not the only metamorphosizing aspects of her character; her duties have also evolved over time. At first, she was simply a protectress of Mycenean royal palaces, and the goddess of war. She then took on the added responsibility of the protectress of the new city-states in Greece. Later, she was worshipped for her contributions to civic peace, technical arts and women's crafts (e.g. weaving). Finally, she reached her highest point of power and respect when she became the "official" goddess of wisdom, giving her the power to interfere in almost any situation.

Athena is also portrayed as having an in-depth personality rather than just acting as an icon of her strengths, which include war strategies, wisdom, and her pride in feminism.

"Athena is a fearsome queen who brings...
the noise of war and, tireless, leads the host...
she who loves shouts, and battling and fights."
To Athena, war is not simply an excuse to kill people or act out agression. War is a battle of wits, whoever has the best strategy wins. The best example of this can be found in Homer's The Odyssey, in which Athena tells the Greeks to build a huge wooden horse and give it to the Trojans. The horse was labled as a gift from Athena, and the message to the Trojans was that if they brought it inside their gates, they would win the war. Another view Athena has on war is that it is a means to obtain peace; war settles arguments once and for all, instead of letting tensions boil beneath the surface. Her shield is more than just protection from enemy weapons, it represents a halt in war by not letting it occur. However, Athena very seldomly sides with the losing side in a war. She always supports the winners, and is not well known for fair play; for an example, refer to the Iliad, Book 22, lines 224-305. Here, Athena pretends to be Hector's brother, luring him in closer so Achilles will have an even easier time killing him!

Athena is quite skillful and creative, not just in war strategy, but also in weaving and spinning. This is probably one of her most feminine characteristics. She loves to show off these talents and is actually quite vain. For example, in the weaving contest she had with Arachne, Arachne clearly made the superior piece of art. Athena could not handle being "beaten", and so her vain pride drove her to turn Arachne into a spider, forever weaving.

Athena is also the original feminist, eternally remaining a virgin. She does not need a man to be happy, and avoids all intimate contact with males. She is, on the other hand, a bit awkward in situations dealing with sex and love; she feels that those types of emotions only complicate matters. Thus, she remains quite content alone with her warrior instincts yet feminine with regards to other parts of her life -- spinning and weaving, for example. Also, the fact that she is a virgin is mediated somewhat by her acting as a foster mother to the child, Erichthonius, who was born from Hephesatsus' seed when he tried to rape her. While she isn't a mother in the sense that she bore the child, it takes away from her masculine aspects by showing her maternal instincts.

Athena's personality is a very dualistic one. At times she exhibits a very masculine aura; at others, she is the vision of feminine loveliness. Her attitiude changes almost daily, depending on certain situations. She uses her wisdom to decide how she should react in a situation. Athena's duties are where she has earned her fame. Weaving and warfare are the areas where she excels above all others, except in the case of poor Arachne. As the goddess of wisdom, Athena displays her wisdom through various ways, especially in war, thinking out carefully who should win and then aiding them. But she is often confusing in how she can change her mind half way through, a characteristic that she is female. In all of these ways; her personality, duties, and wisdom, spread through endless tales, Athena became a three-dimensional character, forever changing as humans still do today.

Blundell, Sue. Women in Ancient Greece. Harvard University Press. Cambridge.1995.pp.22.

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Last updated 4 September 97