I chose Athena as the first goddess in my weekly review because she is probably my all-time favorite. Something about her speaks to me and she has been a favorite since I first began reading mythology as a child.
Athena (also spelled Athene) is a Greek goddess of war, wisdom, and crafts. In Rome her equivalent was Minerva. She is also called Pallas Athena and Athena Parthenos among the Greeks.
Athena’s attributes (the items she is normally portrayed with in art) include a helm on her head, a spear in hand, and either a shield or an aegis or both. An aegis is a breastplate, and Athena’s is actually Zeus’ aegis that he had given to her. At times the shield or the aegis or both are portrayed as having a Gorgon’s head on it, which was actually a symbol of protection to begin with and only later is associated with the ability to frighten or terrorize. Owls and snakes are sacred to Athena, and she is often shown with one or both. When in her aspect as a war goddess, the snake is sometimes shown twined around her spear or on her shield, but in her aspect of a craft and wisdom goddess, the owl is often with her instead of the snake.
Some of her myths include the myth of Erectheus/Erichthonius, her birth, Medusa, Tiresias, naming of Athens, and the myth with Arachne. Athena is the child of Zeus and Metis (a Titaness whose name meant something like “wisdom” or “cunning wisdom”). The myth goes that Zeus swallowed his pregnant wife Metis to forestall any possibility of her producing a son that could supplant him the way he had supplanted his father Ouranos. But since Metis was already pregnant with Athena, she had to be born at some point. Metis crafted her daughter clothing and weapons, but the hammering of the metal was too much for Zeus to bear. Zeus was in so much pain from this torture that he asked Hephaestos to crack open his skull and relieve the pain. Hephaestos took up his hammer and cracked Zeus’ head open, and from the crack Athena emerged, fully grown and carrying her armor.
Probably the well-known myth of Athena is the story of Arachne (whose name means “Spider”). A young woman named Arachne boasted that her weaving was as good as or better than the weaving of the goddess Athena. Athena heard this boast and decided to approach the girl first in the guise of an old woman. The disguised goddess warned Arachne about challenging the gods, but Arachne ignored the warning and wished she could have a weaving contest with Athena herself. The goddess revealed herself and took up the contest. The best tapestry would win the contest, and both worked hard to make their tapestry the best. Athena’s tapestry portrayed her victory over Poseidon in winning Athens. Arachne’s tapestry depicted the infidelities of the gods, namely Zeus. While Athena admitted that Arachne’s tapestry was indeed flawess, she was outraged that Arachne would choose such a subject. So Athena destroyed Arachne’s tapestry and loom. Arachne was so distraught and shamed that she hung herself. Some version of the myth say that Athena then took pity on the girl and turned her into a spider to live again as a weaver.
Athena and Poseidon, the sea-god and Athena’s uncle, had a dispute about the naming of the city of Athens. When neither would give way, they agreed that each would give the Athenians a gift, and the best gift would win. The Athenians gathered to decide outside the city walls. Poseidon struck the ground and caused a spring to well up, giving the Athenians a water source. But the water was salty and not very good for drinking or growing. Athena instead offered them an olive tree, which would bring them oil, wood, wealth, and food. The Athenians accepted the olive tree and the patronage of Athena.
For more information on mythology, I suggest taking a look at Encyclopedia Mythica.
On her light side, Athena is courageous, wise, intelligent, and artistic and crafty. She is the embodiment of an intelligent and strong female leader who not only has all the womanly arts but is able to move in a man’s world as well. Athena is the spirit of wise leadership. In her aspect as the goddess of wisdom, she is also a representative of what the Greeks call “sophia,” or wisdom, and thus divine wisdom and knowledge. With this divine wisdom she has the ability to inspire humans to their craft, their studies, or to battle. As a virgin goddess, she is not a motherly figure, but rather a protector of the home and family. She also can act as a guide or a counselor, but she can only advise from afar, as she was for Odysseus in Homer’s “The Odyssey” and as judge of Orestes in Aeschylus’ Oresteia.
Like all deities, Athena has a dark side as well. She is proud, as in the Arachne myth when Arachne grows boastful and stings Athena’s pride with her weaving. Athena is a goddess of the Mind, and this can create the problem of being too rational and detached. While she is the goddess of craftsmen, her inspiration of their arts does not come from the heart or a passion for the craft, but from a cool and reasoning part of the mind that takes functions from numbers and logic instead of passion. Weaving, for example, is a craft that must be plotted and planned, and perfection can only be mastered with a great deal of practice. She is an intellectual, and while this quality can be a great thing, it can also be highly negative by turning the person too far inward into themselves–an introspective outlook. Athena can be see as cool, stubborn, and detached.
An interesting website I came across in my search was this one: Warrior Archetype. It has more information on the qualities of Athena as warrior, virgin, and intellectual.
Personally, I like Athena a great deal. I think there are many things to admire in her, and she is the goddess I felt an attraction to first and longest. Her courage and wisdom inspire me. However, like all things, her dark side is just as interesting and just as valid as her light side.