Of all his children, the gray-eyed Athena was Zeus’s favorite. She alone was allowed to carry her father’s thunderbolt and his great breastplate, called the Aegis. Athena was the only Olympian who was not born of a mother, but sprang directly from the head of Zeus, fully grown and dressed in armor.
Athena was the most complex of the twelve great Olympian gods and goddesses. As the goddess of war, she could perform mighty deeds of battle; at least twice she defeated the war god Ares. Yet war gave her no pleasure. She preferred peace, and would rather settle disputes by wise judgment than by fighting. In this, she was most unlike the wild Ares, who loved battle for its own sake, and was never happier than when he was slaughtering enemies or destroying cities. It was probably Athena’s superior intelligence and strategy in battle that made her stronger than the war god with his mindless fury and love of bloodshed. In peacetime, she put off her armor to dress in graceful flowing robes. Although many of the gods desired to marry her, Athena chose to remain single.
Like all of the other deities, Athena took a deep interest in the affairs of mortals. But unlike many of them, she tended to use her power to make life better for those humans she cared for.
This is a typical gesture: Athena competed with Poseidon, the god of the seas, over a new settlement of people. Which of them should become the patron of the city, to be named after the winner?
In the days when Greece was first being settled, Cecrops was king in Attica, a rugged, triangular little country, good mainly for goat farming and the culture of honey bees, and surrounded on two sides by the sea. Here Cecrops planned a city around a steep rock that jutted from the plain a few miles inland. Down on the shore were two fine harbors, while around spread fertile country watered by two streams. The gods, who were always interested in the affairs of men, approved the idea of Cecrops and gave the new city their blessing, foreseeing that it would become in time one of the famous cities of the world. For this reason there was great dispute among the gods as to which of them should be its special patron. Many claims were put forward by this god or by that, but at last, after much arguing, it became clear that the award should lie between Athena, goddess of wisdom, and the sea god, Poseidon. Between these two the gods decided to have a contest. Each should produce some marvel in the Attic land, and each should promise some gift to the city that was to come. The greater gift should win the city.
When the appointed day came, the judges ranged themselves on the rock, and the two gods came before them. Some say that the twelve judges chosen were the spirits of the Attic hills and rivers, and some maintain that they were twelve Olympian gods. Be that as it may, on one side stood Poseidon with flowing dark-blue beard and majestic stature, carrying in his hand the three-pronged trident with which he rules the waves. On the other side stood Athena, greyeyed and serene, helmet on her golden head and spear in hand. At the word Poseidon raised his trident and struck the ground. Beneath the feet of the judges the whole earth was terribly shaken, and with a mighty rumbling sound it split apart before them. Then appeared the marvel, a salt spring four miles inland where no water had appeared before. To this Poseidon added his gift of sea power, promising the city a great empire, a mighty navy, famed shipwrights, and trading vessels which should make her name known in every corner of the sea.
The judges looked at one another as Poseidon spoke and nodded their heads in approval, thinking the gift indeed a great one and the salt spring and the earthquake fine symbols of Poseidon's power. Grey-eyed Athena said nothing,·but smiled gently to herself as she laid aside her spear and quietly kneeling down appeared to plant something in the earth. Between her hands as she worked, there gradually unfolded a little tree, a bush rather, small and unimpressive, with grey- green leaves and grey-green berries about an inch in length. When it had grown to full size, Athena stood up and looked at the judges. That was all.
Poseidon glanced at the dusty looking bush that had grown so quietly. He looked at the hole that had gaped in the earth with the thunder of earthquake, and he threw back his head and laughed. Round the bay rumbled and re-echoed the laughter of the god like distant waves thundering on the rocks, while far out to sea in their deep, green caverns, the old sea gods, his subjects, ,sent a muffled answering roar. Presently as
silence fell, the quiet voice of Athena spoke to the assembled gods.
"This little shrub is the olive, at the same time my marvel and my gift to the city," she said. "With these berries the poor man will flavor his coarse bread and goat's-milk cheese. With scented oil the rich man will deck himself for the feast. Oil poured to the gods shall be among their favorite offerings. With it the housewife will light her lamp and do her cooking, and the athlete will cleanse himself from dust and sweat. This is the ware merchants will carry in the ships Poseidon speaks of, to gain riches and renown for the city which sells what all men use. Moreover, I will make its people skilled in pottery, so that the jars in which the oil is carried shall themselves be a marvel, and the city shall flourish and be famous, not only in trade but in the arts."
She finished, and the judges cried out in surprise at the richness of her dull-looking gift. They awarded the prize to Athena, who called the city Athens.
Long afterwards when Athens became famous, celebrated for its beauty and wisdom, the Athenians built a great temple in honor of their patron goddess. This temple was called the Parthenon, or temple of the maiden goddess. Though in ruins, it is still standing and is one of the most famous buildings of the world. Round it are two rows of columns and above these a sloping roof. At one end in the triangular space between the slope of the roof and the tops of the columns, a famous sculptor carved a representation of Athena's contest. These statues are nearly all destroyed, and the great gold and ivory image of Athena has disappeared from within the building; but we still have the frieze that went right around the temple, on which is carved a picture of the annual procession of the Athenians in honor of their goddess.
There are the young men mounting their horses, or slowly moving off as the procession starts. There are horsemen and chariots already in column. On foot go lyre-players, making music and singing in honor of the goddess. Men drive cattle for sacrifice, and the fairest maidens of the city are carrying baskets of flowers. A new and beautiful robe is being brought to offer to the image of the goddess of weaving. Apart, the Olympian gods upon their thrones behold the scene, while within the temple priests and priestesses make ready to receive the offerings for the goddess. These things can still be seen, but the original olive tree has long vanished, while even the mark of Poseidon's trident, which used to be shown for centuries, has disappeared.
First the sea god struck the rock with his trident, and immediately a great fountain of water burst forth. Everyone was amazed: even though the water was salty, it was a wonder to see a spring rising from the top of a mountain. Then Athena struck the rock with her spear. From the rocky soil grew a tall olive tree, loaded with fruit. How much more useful that was than a flow of brackish water!
The goddess was made the patroness of the great city, now named Athens in her honor. Ever since that time, the olive tree has been her special tree, and the owl, the symbol of wisdom, her special bird.
It was not only Athens that this goddess protected, but all of civilized life. Think of the innumerable gifts she brought to Earth for the benefit of mortals! She invented the flute and the trumpet for our pleasure, the earthenware bowl for our convenience, and taught all the women’s arts, especially weaving. But she also worked to improve farming, inventing the plough and rake, the yoke to harness oxen, and the bridle for horses. She gave us the chariot and the ship; she first taught us the science of mathematics.
During the Trojan War, many of the Olympians took sides; in fact, it was as much a war among the gods and goddesses as between the Greeks and Trojans. Athena took the side of the Greeks, and long after they had won the war, she continued to help them. She watched after Odysseus during his ten-year journey home from the war, offering him advice and assistance when he most needed it. Among her other favorites, to whom she offered help and comfort during their ordeals, were Heracles, Perseus, Jason, Bellerophon, and Orestes and Iphigenia.
Athena, called Minerva by the Romans, was unique among the deities. She defines heroism in a new way: courage does not necessarily mean fighting, but standing firm for what is right. She can serve as a model for women everywhere. The divine protector of human civilization, the goddess of war who preferred peace, the judge who believed in mercy—this was indeed a gracious goddess, and a wise one.