Classical Mythology: First in War, First in Peace: Athena

First in War, First in Peace: Athena

Of all the Olympians, few enjoyed the universal respect accorded to Athena—the virgin goddess of arts, crafts, and war. Athena was also the goddess of wisdom, which in her case meant the technical skill of artisans and craftsmen as well as practical sense and cunning.

As the goddess of arts and crafts, Athena received credit for inventing many useful tools and arts. Athena introduced the plow, rake, yoke, and bridle to farmers. She also invented the chariot and designed the first ship. Her other inventions included the earthenware pot, the flute, and the trumpet. In addition, Athena first taught the science of mathematics as well as such household arts as spinning, weaving, and cooking.

A Surefire Cure for a Migraine: Athena's Birth

Athena, you'll recall, had not yet been born when Zeus, her father, swallowed Metis, her mother (see The Reign of Thunder and Lightning: Olympus Under Zeus). Zeus did not fear Athena, though it was foretold that her wisdom and strength would match his own. But he dared not risk the birth of a second child by Metis: a son destined to usurp his dominion.

What a Life!

Brave Tydeus—a warrior from Calydon, in central Greece—was a favorite of Athena's. She might have made Tydeus—who was mortally wounded in the war of the Seven Against Thebes—an immortal. But Tydeus slew his own slayer and began gorging on his enemy's brains. Athena recoiled in disgust at the sight, leaving him to die.

After swallowing Metis, Zeus didn't give a second thought to the child she was carrying. But one day as he walked along the shore of Lake Tritonis, Zeus was suddenly racked with a splitting headache. He suffered from so much pain that he roared in agony.

Unable to bear the pain, Zeus called upon either Hephaestus or Prometheus, who brought an ax down upon his head, splitting open his skull. Dressed in full armor, an adult Athena emerged from her father's head with a shout that echoed throughout the world.

The birth of Athena completed the evolution from a mother-dominated mythology to one dominated by a supreme patriarch: Zeus. Through two generations, mothers had controlled the power structure of the immortals. In league with their sons, these mothers had toppled their mates. First, Gaia had conspired with her son Cronus to castrate Uranus. Next, Rhea—with Gaia's help—had saved her son Zeus in order to overthrow Cronus.

Zeus ended this pattern, however, by swallowing Metis and the unborn Athena. In appropriating the female function of giving birth, Zeus ended the line of female supremacy. For Athena, born out of Zeus's head, owed no loyalty to any mother.

War! What Is It Good For?

The goddess of war, unlike her aggressive half-brother Ares, the god of war, had little taste for blood. Though often depicted in full armor—helmeted, with spear and shield—Athena derived more pleasure from peaceful resolutions of disputes than from battle. In keeping with her aversion to bloodlust, Athena was also merciful. When seated on the tribunal that tried Orestes for murdering his mother after she had murdered his father, for example, Athena voted for acquittal (see All's Not Fair in Love and War: The Fall of Troy).

What a Life!

Athena hid the infant Erichthonius in a basket and presented it to the three daughters of King Cecrops of Athens. She warned them not to open the lid of the basket. But two of the girls disobeyed. Shocked to see a child with a snake's tail instead of legs, the two sisters ran off a cliff and died. So Athena took him back and reared him with great love and tenderness in her shrine on the Acropolis.

Though she shunned warfare, when forced into battle she proved nearly invincible. A brilliant strategist, she twice defeated the war god Ares on the battlefield. She was also a dominant force in the war with the Giants (see Friends, Fairies, and Fairy Tale Monsters).

The goddess of both war and wisdom often rewarded those who demonstrated bravery or ingenuity. For instance, she helped Perseus (another child of Zeus) kill the Gorgon Medusa. Afterward, she proudly displayed the head of the slain Medusa in the center of her shield.

Athena also acted as Odysseus's special protector. When the hero finally arrived back home in Ithaca after 20 years, Athena—though in disguise—appeared to greet him (see Take the Long Way Home: Odysseus). Odysseus returned the favor of her deceit by lying about who he was. With a laugh, Athena revealed her true identity and admitted that she and Odysseus were two of a kind, shrewd liars both.

A Not-So-Immaculate Conception

A virginal goddess, Athena remained chaste despite many potential suitors. During the Trojan War, however, she experienced a very close call.

Athena needed both armor and weapons, for she went without them except when in battle. So she asked Hephaestus to forge some for her, which he gladly offered to do as a labor of love.

Athena apparently didn't appreciate the import of these words. When she entered his shop to check on his progress, Hephaestus—normally deferential toward the goddesses—attacked her. Poseidon had apparently played a trick on him, telling the smith god that Athena yearned for him to make passionate love to her.

Athena quickly pulled herself away from her attacker, but Hephaestus could not stop himself: His seed spilled out onto her thigh. Athena, greatly offended, took some wool and wiped off the god's semen.

When she tossed the wool to the ground, however, she unwittingly fertilized Gaia. The earth goddess—disgusted by this tale of violation—disavowed any responsibility for the offspring of this misadventure. So Athena vowed to care for the baby herself. The infant, Erichthonius, would grow up to become the first king of Athens to worship Athena.

book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at and Barnes & Noble.