origins and characteristics, according to myths and historical research,
have many influences from earlier goddesses, yet her nature is uniquely
Greek. Her name is believed to have pre-Hellenistic roots, which
leads to comparisons between other ancient mother goddess figures from
Summaria, the Near East, India and Egypt. Unequivocally, her power
was very old and based on that of prior female deities which the Greeks
adopted to their own beliefs, just as she in turn influenced the Roman
Minerva and other representations of countries and states.
The story of her birth is sometimes related as a virgin birth, but Athena
did in fact have a mother, the beautiful nymph Metis, who is rarely acknowledged.
The poet Callimachus writes of Athena’s birth, “No mother bare that goddess,
but the head of Zeus.” Zeus, afraid that his offspring will overthrow
him as he did to his forebears, swallows the impregnated Metis to destroy
her and her child. Later, when Zeus complains of a pounding headache,
his son Hephaestus splits his head open with an ax from which Athena springs
fully formed and armored. She quickly becomes Zeus’ favorite and
his consort in many matters.
This picture, found on a vase, portrays Athena's birth from the head of Zeus.
According to myth, both Athena and Poseidon (her uncle) laid claim to the city that would become Athens. Poseidon caused a salt water spring to rise from the earth while Athena created the first olive tree. The citizens were told to vote for their patron deity on the basis of these gifts. Of course, the men voted for Poseidon, while the more numerous women voted for Athena and the olive tree. In punishment for their victory, the females forever more lost their status of citizens within the Greek city state of Athens.