Who Was Athena?

Athena by Tsuyoshi Nagano

Athena by Tsuyoshi Nagano

Both the Classical High School and the Classical High School Alumni Association logos are of the Greek goddess Athena, dressed in armor, holding a spear, surrounded by leaves. We did some research to find out more about the myths surrounding Athena and found some interesting stories.

Athena’s Birth

Athena is the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare, known for being a cunning strategist and fierce warrior. The myths surrounding her depict her bravery, intelligence, and tenacity. Even the story of her birth is one of perseverance.

Athena’s parents are Metis and Zeus. Metis is a Titaness and the mother of wisdom. She was also Zeus’s first wife. Zeus is the god of thunder and ruler on Mount Olympus. According to Greek mythology, an oracle prophesied that Metis would give birth to two very powerful children – a daughter, wiser than Zeus himself, and a son who would ultimately overthrow him. Fearing the potential consequences should the children be born, Zeus swallowed Metis whole.

At the time, however, Metis was already pregnant with Athena. Soon after swallowing Metis, Zeus began to suffer from a terrible headache that caused him to yell so loudly his scream was heard across the world. Hephaestus, god of blacksmiths and metalworking, came to Zeus’s aid and split his skull open with an axe to relieve the pain. Out of Zeus’s skull came a fully grown – and fully armored – Athena. According to the myth, Metis created the shield and armor for her daughter while inside Zeus’s stomach.

There are several other Greek myths surrounding the goddess Athena. Here are a couple of our favorites.

Athena vs. Poseidon 

Before the city of Athens became known as such, it was called Cecropia. The city was named after its very first king and founder, Cecrops, a half man, half snake. King Cecrops felt his land needed a deity to watch over and protect it. Both the goddess Athena and Poseidon, god of the sea, wanted to be the city’s guardian. Weary of the potential chaos that might ensue if the two gods were to battle over the land, Zeus instructed Athena and Poseidon to each present the people of Cecropia with a gift. King Cecrops was to determine which gift was “best.” 

Poseidon went first and offered the people of Cecropia a saltwater stream. Athena offered them olive trees. While the stream was appreciated by the people, the olive trees offered them shade, wood, and food. King Cecrops deemed Athena’s gift to be superior to Poseidon’s stream and she was named as the city’s goddess. From that day forward, Cecropia became known as Athens, named after its patron goddess Athena.

On the CHS and CHSAA logos, Athena is surrounded by an olive branch on each side, an homage to her gift to the people of Athens. 

Poseidon and Athena battle for control of Athens by Benvenuto Tisi (1512)

Poseidon and Athena Battle for Control of Athens, by Italian painter Benvenuto Tisi (1512)

Golden Apple of Discord by Jacob Jordaens

Golden Apple of Discord by Flemish painter Jacob Jordaens (1633) 

Athena and the Trojan War 

It all began at a wedding party. The gods were celebrating the union of the hero Peleus and Thetis, a sea nymph. All the gods and goddesses were invited save for one – Eris, the goddess of discord. Given her proclivity for wreaking havoc wherever she went, Zeus thought it best to not invite her to the joyous occasion. We can all guess what happened next, right? Eris crashed the party out of sheer spite and brought with her the Golden Apple of Discord.  She inscribed on the apple the phrase “ti kallisti,” meaning “to the fairest” and threw it into the crowd of partygoers.  

Three goddesses in particular wanted to claim the apple and title of fairest – Hera, Aphrodite, and our very own Athena. Zeus decided that Paris, a mortal from Troy with a reputation of being fair, would choose the fairest of the three goddesses. In an attempt to sway Paris’s decision, each goddess made him an offer. Hera offered to make Paris the king of all of Europe and Asia. Athena offered to make Paris a wise and skilled warrior. Aphrodite offered to make Helen of Sparta (also known as Helen of Troy) fall in love with Paris, despite being married to the king of Sparta. Pleased with her offer, Paris chose Aphrodite as fairest. The Trojan War ensued after Paris took Helen from Sparta to Troy and the Spartans vowed to bring her back.

Athena’s connection to the Trojan War doesn’t end there. The war between the Greeks and people of Troy lasted for an entire decade and did not end until the Greeks finally entered the city of Troy in the now iconic Trojan Horse. During the war, Athena fought alongside the Greeks. Her half-brother Ares, god of war and son of Zeus and Hera, fought alongside the Trojans. During the war, a battle between Ares and Diomedes, a Greek hero and Athena’s most favored warrior. During the battle between Ares and Diomedes, Athena assisted Diomedes defeat her half-brother.

According to mythology, Ares threw his spear at Diomedes. However, Athena, who had made herself invisible to other gods by wearing Hades’s Cap of Invisibility, was present with Diomedes. Seeing Ares’s spear aiming for her favored warrior, Athena pushed the spear off course. Ares was now vulnerable and Diomedes was unharmed. The latter threw his own spear at Ares and Athena guided it straight into Ares’s stomach. The wound Ares sustained was so severe that he retreated in excruciating pain to be tended to by his father, Zeus.

A decade into the war, Odysseus, a Greek king, was inspired by Athena to create the iconic wooden horse to sneak Greek warriors into Troy to overthrow the city and retrieve Helen. Epeius, a Greek soldier, led the construction of the Trojan Horse and was assisted by the goddess Athena. The horse was completed in 3 days and fit around 40 warriors inside. Simon, a Greek solider who pretended to be abandoned by the Greek army as part of the plan to gain entry into Troy,  told the Trojans that the massive horse was an offering to Athena. According to the lie Simon told, the Greeks built the horse in Athena’s honor, in hopes the goddess would guide them home safely. However, the horse was too large to bring into Athens so Simon suggested the Trojans take it and gain Athena’s favor for themselves. 

The ruse worked and the Trojans wheeled the Trojan Horse, inspired into creation by the goddess Athena, into their city. The Fall of Troy happened soon after.

Athena and a Wooden Horse

Painting on a vase of Athena creating a model wooden horse (470 – 460 BC)

The Combat of Mars and Minerva by Jacques-Louis David

The Combat of Mars and Minerva by French painter Jacques-Louis David (1771). Mars and Minerva are the Roman equivalents of Ares and Athena respectively.