Athena is a favorite of many people, and it’s not hard to see why. She’s the goddess of wisdom, crafts, and battle strategy. She can kick some serious butt all on her own, but she’s also the patron of heroes. Perseus, Odysseus, Diomedes, and other heroes frequently receive her aid as they go about trying to make the world a better place. But she’s more than just her titles. She has layers of personality and complexity. So let’s get to it.
Most people are probably familiar with the basics of Athena’s birth. Zeus had a splitting headache, so they decided to actually cut into his head. Athena flew out, fully grown and armored. But this is only part of the story, a story which reveals a lot more about both Athena and Zeus. So, we go backwards, when Zeus found out about a prophecy. His son by the goddess Metis would one day overthrow him.
This is a very real threat, as it is the cycle established by both Uranus and Chronos. Chronos, while he didn’t have the prophecy, attempted to circumvent what he knew was inevitable by consuming his children before they could overthrow him, and we know how that worked out. Zeus, however, takes a different approach. Instead of swallowing the child, he swallows Metis, guaranteeing he can’t have a child by her since she is taking up space in his stomach. Zeus also does this for another reason. Metis is the goddess of thought, so by consuming her, he is taking on her essence, making her a part of him, to make himself smarter. Now this is not an endorsement of cannibalism as there is a very serious side effect.
The aforementioned headache plagues Zeus. Athena is literally growing inside him. Essentially, Zeus is pregnant with Athena. She is a pregnant thought, but it is a pregnancy nonetheless, and he is the one who must give birth. So, ladies who have endured pregnancy, imagine the pain of pregnancy in your skull, and instead of a C-section, it’s a trepanning operation, squeezing a fully grown and armored woman through a hole the size of a quarter.
Okay, I admit, that image is a little bit scarring, especially because Athena forged the armor herself in his head.
Athena has many domains, mentioned earlier. We’ll focus first on the goddess of wisdom. How is it that she is the goddess of wisdom? The Greeks believed, rightly, that children inherit from their parents. Athena’s father is Zeus, the king of the gods, while her mother is the goddess of thought. It is only natural that she derive the aspect of wisdom from her mother (and a little bit of Zeus as he has known to be occasionally wise). The Greeks understood (and sometimes took to an extreme) the idea that children are like their parents. When it comes to the gods, the children are generally a refinement of the parents. Athena is a goddess of wisdom. Persephone is a goddess of harvest, Eris (descended from Ares) is the goddess of chaos (or strife), Eros (more famously known as the Roman god Cupid) is a god of love. These set a clear precedence for how the gods inherit powers from one another, further refining the broad domains into more specific areas.
Wisdom is Athena’s main domain, but this serves as a gateway to both battle strategy and crafts. Battle strategy is easily an aspect of wisdom, which is in sharp contrast to Ares, who is mindless violence on the battlefield. Athena always pursues a wise course of action to gain victory. Furthermore, the forging of her armor is a craft, which she took up inside Zeus’s skull. She went on to become the mistress of weaving, pottery, and other crafts, not to mention having several inventions under her belt.
Most people tend to focus on her as a goddess of wisdom or war, but the goddess of crafts is more important. These crafts are the root of civilization to the ancient world. Without pottery, smithing, weaving, and the rest, there is no civilization. Humanity simply cannot survive without these essential crafts. This also serves to underscore the importance of women in ancient Greek society. Often, they were the keepers of many of these crafts, providing for the household, the cornerstone of Greek life. Even though she also invented democracy (which is also a kind of craft), the skill of making things is more important to Greek life.
To illustrate, we must ponder the city of Athens. Yes, they clearly derive their name from Athena. It is her city, the foundation of democracy in the Western world. And there is a myth as to how it came to be her city.
The citizens of this city wanted a patron deity, and it came down to a contest between Athena and Poseidon. Poseidon gave them a well of seawater, whereas Athena offered them an olive tree. The Athenians would go on to master shipbuilding (which helped them beat back the Persians), but it wasn’t immediately useful. Drinking seawater is not good. Athena’s gift is far more useful. The wood from the olive tree is resilient and useful for carving. Olives are a wonderful source of food (still a current staple in Greek cuisine), but more importantly, they can be pressed for their oil. Olive oil is not just for cooking, it is a fuel for torches and lamps, and it is a most tradable commodity. Since Athena gave the better gift, the city chose her as their patron.
Athena is a layered goddess, with importance throughout all of Greek culture, but these early stories hint at not only that importance, but also at her temperament, which will be further revealed by other myths. Though she is wise, she is not perfect (none of the gods or goddesses are). These flaws will reveal even more about her character as we continue to delve into her stories to truly understand her.