Athena

Athena was the goddess of wisdom and good counsel, war, the defence of towns, heroic endeavour, weaving, pottery and various other crafts. She was depicted as a stately woman armed with a shield and spear, and wearing a long robe, crested helm, and the famed Aegis–a snake-trimmed cape adorned with the monstrous visage of the Gorgon Medusa.

Residence: Mount Olympus
Symbols: Owls, olive trees, snakes, Aegis, armour, helmets, spears and the Gorgon head
Parents: Zeus and Metis
Siblings: Aeacus, Angelos, AphroditeApolloAresArtemisDionysus, Eileithyia, Enyo, Eris, Ersa, Hebe, Helen of Troy, Hephaestus, Heracles, Hermes, Minos, Pandia, Persephone, Perseus, Rhadamanthus, the Graces, the Horae, the Litae, the Muses and the Moirai
Children: None
Roman equivalent: Minerva

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Mattei Athena at Louvre. Roman copy from the 1st century BC after a Greek original of the 4th century BC, attributed to Cephisodotos or Euphranor.

Birth

Zeus fell in love with the goddess Metis, who is described as the “wisest among gods and mortal men”, and seduced her. After learning that she was pregnant, however, he became afraid that the unborn offspring would try to overthrow him, because Gaia and Uranus had prophesied that Metis would bear children wiser than their father. In order to prevent this, Zeus tricked her into letting him swallow her, but it was too late because Metis had already conceived.

Zeus experienced an enormous headache. He was in such pain that he ordered Hephaestus to cleave his head open with the labrys, the double-headed Minoan axe. Athena leaped from Zeus‘ head, fully grown and armed.

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Athena is born from Zeus’ head. Black-figured amphora, 550–525 BC, Louvre.

Athens

Both Athena and Poseidon wanted to be the patron of Athens. They agreed that each would give the Athenians one gift and the Athenians would choose whichever gift they preferred. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and a spring sprang up; the water was salty and not very useful, whereas Athena offered them an olive tree. The Athenians or their king, Cecrops, accepted the olive tree and along with it Athena as their patron, for the olive tree brought wood, oil and food. After the fight, infuriated at his loss, Poseidon sent a monstrous flood to the Attic Plain, to punish the Athenians for not choosing him.

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The Contest of Athena and Poseidon by Halle Noel.

Erichthonius

Athena visited Hephaestus to request some weapons, but Hephaestus was so overcome by desire that he tried to seduce her in his workshop. Determined to maintain her virginity, Athena fled, pursued by Hephaestus. He caught Athena and tried to seduce her again, but she fought him off. During the struggle, his seed fell on her thigh, and Athena, in disgust, wiped it away with a scrap of wool and flung it to the earth. As she fled, Erichthonius was born from the seed that fell to the earth. Athena, wishing to raise the child in secret, placed him in a small box. And then made sure no one would ever find out by giving him away.

Athena Scorning the Advances of Hephaestus, Paris Bordone, between c. 1555-1560.

Athena gave the box to the three daughters, Herse, Aglaurus and Pandrosus, of Cecrops, the king of Athens, and warned them never to look inside. Pandrosus obeyed, but Herse and Aglaurus were overcome with curiosity and opened the box, which contained the infant and future-king, Erichthonius. The sisters were terrified by what they saw in the box: either a snake coiled around an infant, or an infant that was half-human and half-serpent. They went insane and threw themselves off the Acropolis. Other accounts state that they were killed by the snake.

Medusa

Medusa was a young priestess who served in the temple of Athena in Athens. Poseidon lusted after Medusa, and seduced her in the temple of Athena, refusing to allow her vow of chastity to stand in his way. Upon discovering the desecration of her temple, Athena transformed Medusa into a hideous monster with serpents for hair whose gaze would turn any mortal to stone.

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Roman mosaic with Medusa as the centrepiece, Museum of Sousse, Tunisia.

Arachne

Arachne was the daughter of a famous dyer in Hypaipa of Lydia, and a weaving student of Athena. She became so conceited of her skill as a weaver that she began claiming that her skill was greater than that of Athena herself. Athena gave Arachne a chance to redeem herself by assuming the form of an old woman and warning Arachne not to offend the deities. Arachne scoffed and wished for a weaving contest, so she could prove her skill.

Athena and Arachne by René-Antoine Houasse, 1706.

Athena wove the scene of her victory over Poseidon in the contest for the patronage of Athens. Arachne’s tapestry featured twenty-one episodes of the gods’ infidelity, including Zeus being unfaithful with Leda, with Europa, and with Danaë. Athena admitted that Arachne’s work was flawless, but was outraged at Arachne’s offensive choice of subject, which displayed the failings and transgressions of the gods. Finally, losing her temper, Athena destroyed Arachne’s tapestry and loom, striking it with her shuttle. Athena then struck Arachne across the face with her staff four times. Arachne hanged herself in despair, but Athena took pity on her and brought her back from the dead in the form of a spider. So that she could weave for the rest of eternity.

The Judgement of Paris

All the gods and goddesses as well as various mortals were invited to the marriage of Peleus and Thetis and brought many gifts. Only Eris, goddess of discord, was not invited and was stopped at the door by Hermes, on Zeus‘ orders. She was annoyed at this, so she threw from the door a gift of her own: a golden apple inscribed with the word καλλίστῃ (kallistēi, “To the most beautiful”). Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena all claimed to be the most beautiful, and thus the rightful owner of the apple.

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The Judgement of Paris by Walter Crane

The goddesses quarreled bitterly over it, and none of the other gods would venture an opinion favoring one, for fear of earning the enmity of the other two. They chose to place the matter before Zeus, who, not wanting to favour one of the goddesses, put the choice into the hands of Paris, a Trojan prince. After bathing in the spring of Mount Ida where Troy was situated, they appeared before Paris to have him choose. The goddesses undressed before him, either at his request or for the sake of winning. Still, Paris could not decide, as all three were ideally beautiful, so they resorted to bribes. Hera offered Paris political power and control of all of Asia, while Athena offered wisdom, fame, and glory in battle, and Aphrodite offered the most beautiful mortal woman in the world as a wife, and he accordingly chose her. This woman was Helen, who was, unfortunately for Paris, already married to King Menelaus of Sparta. The other two goddesses were enraged by this and through Helen’s abduction by Paris, they brought about the Trojan War.