Athena, like most of the Greek gods, reveals herself to have some complexity. Being the goddess of wisdom does not gain her automatic entry into sainthood. She has her moments, as we saw with Arachne.
For one thing, Athena is very competitive. Even barring Ovid’s version of the Arachne story with its direct contest, Athena judges Arachne as if in competition. Athena bests Poseidon to win Athens. She competes against both Hera and Aphrodite in a beauty contest. The aftermath of that contest becomes the Trojan War, where she, in a symbolic fight against Ares, demonstrates that she is more skilled in battle than he is. Her involvement in the fights of heroes, to have them triumph is also part of her competitive nature. She not only wants to win, she needs to win.
While this doesn’t set her apart uniquely from the other Greek gods, she does have one quality that puts her in rarefied company. Athena, by her own choice, has remained a virgin the entire time. The closest she came to any kind of intercourse was an unfortunate incident where Hephaestus, ahem, engaged in self-amorous activities, and Athena’s leg received the aftermath, which she quickly brushed away, completely repulsed. Unlike her sister Artemis, who asked Zeus that she forever remain a virgin, Athena made no such declaration, and has simply not engaged with anyone, god or mortal.
Why? Well, it’s complicated. Sex to Athena seems to hold no appeal. She doesn’t feel the need to have children. Instead, she has surrogate children in the form of mortal heroes, whom she favors, even pleading their cases to Zeus such as she did with Odysseus. She further helped Odysseus by appearing in the battle with the suitors, blinding Odysseus’s foes. She revealed the presence of gods on the Trojan battlefield for Diomedes, and of course she gave Perseus his shield, which enabled him to behead Medusa.
Let’s take a brief aside about Medusa. The original Greek myth had Medusa and her sisters appear monstrous from the beginning, but Ovid—who can’t resist changing things—made her into a beautiful woman first, who was raped by Poseidon . . . in Athena’s temple. Athena then blames the victim, so transforms her into a gorgon. Yeah, I’ll stick with the original story.
And back to Athena. So, she clearly mothers over heroes instead of having children of her own. She even cares for Cecrops, the result of Hephaestus’s act (because it ended up impregnating Gaea, who immediately gave birth).
Athena seems to have no need for sex, and holds herself apart from it. This is odd because sex is the creative force in Greek mythology. The gods and the universe are a result of sexual congress, creating order from the existing chaos. However, Athena still creates, but she creates using her mind. She invents and masters crafts and skills. This relates back to the method of her conception and birth.
Metis is goddess of thought, and Zeus gave birth to Athena from his head. She was not conceived of sexually, nor was she born in the normal manner. Her sexuality, then, is not important to her. Her focus is on pursuits of the mind, and using those to further creation. While most of the other gods create physically through sex, she creates mentally with her inventions and crafts. This also explains why she favors heroes, as they are beings of skill, and prowess in battle, needing to show off their cleverness, wisdom, and wit in order to triumph. They are representative of everything she embodies.
Something else stands out when looking at everything about Athena, though. Her virginity is adequately explained by the nature of her conception and birth, but in ancient times it’s also a trait of a girl rather than a woman, especially in Greek culture. How she punishes Arachne, too, in a fit of rage, and with a punishment that goes far beyond what the crime is actually worth, is also indicative of someone who is immature. Her strongly competitive nature also points to something more commonly found among younger people.
All of these point to an Athena who, despite being fully grown once out of Zeus’s skull, is still very much a child, despite her great wisdom. I don’t’ say this to imply that she actually is a child, that she throws tantrums when she doesn’t get her way (okay, I might be implying that); I think Athena has a bigger problem: she’s static.
Throughout all of her myths, she is unchanging. Her nature completely defines her, past, present, and future. At no point does she ever change. There is a sad irony at work in this since, as the patron of heroes, she aids those who are working towards change. The heroes attempt to change and improve their society, and act as examples of how people can become that change. They embody change, yet the goddess who favors them, cannot, herself, change.