In Greek mythology, Athena or Athene is one of the Olympian gods, usually numbered at twelve, and like many of the Olympians — Ares, Hermes, Hephaestus, Apollo, and Artemis — she is a child of Zeus. Sometimes known as Pallas Athena, she is the goddess of wisdom as well as war, and the patron of crafters, particularly weavers. Her symbols are an owl and her aegis, or shield, which eventually held the head of Medusa. In Roman mythology, her counterpart is Minerva.
One of the well-known myths concerning Athena involves the manner of her birth. Metis, whose name means counsel, was Athena’s mother, and Zeus’s first consort. When Zeus was warned that a son might overthrow him—and his own family history would have done nothing to lessen this fear—he swallowed Metis. This resulted both in Zeus absorbing Metis’s wisdom, and Athene was trapped inside his head.
In one version of the story, Hermes found Zeus suffering from violent headaches and figured out how to solve the problem. He fetched Hephaestus, who cracked Zeus’s head open with a blow of his hammer, enabling a fully armed Athena to emerge.
Another myth concerns the patronage of the city of Athens. Both Athena and Poseidon claimed the city, and a contest for the honor of being its patron was announced, with each contestant having a chance to earn the citizens’ loyalty. Poseidon created a spring of water by striking the earth with his trident. But the fact that it was salt water diminished its valued. Athena, in her turn, chose to plant the first olive tree. Seeing that this one gift endowed them with oil, wood, and food, the citizens chose Athena, and the name Athens was given to the city. The famous Parthenon of Athens is a temple in her honor.
Athena’s contest with Arachne is another popular myth. Arachne was an unrivalled weaver — for a human, that is. People assumed that her skill must have come from being taught by Athena. Arachne, however, claimed her gift as her own, and gave out that Athena could come and compete with her if she dared. Athena, in the guise of an old woman, brings her a warning and gives her an opportunity to retract her boast, but Arachne insults her instead. Athena reveals herself, and they set to weaving.
Arachne impudently chooses the flaws of the gods as her theme, and though her weaving is with flaw, her choice of subjects draws Athena’s wrath. Athena destroys the tapestry and breaks the loom. Arachne tries to hang herself, but Athena is too quick and turns her into a spider so that she will weave and spin without cease, and this explains the name arachnid.
Besides these brief encounters, Athena’s patronage of Odysseus forms an important element of the Odyssey. It is she, in the guise of Mentes who appears at the beginning of the story and sets Telemachus off on the search for his father.