What Are the Symbols of the Greek Goddess Athena?

Athena was a powerful goddess whose symbols helped define her abilities.

Athena's Symbols - The Owl on Tetradrachm Coins
Athena's Symbols - The Owl on Tetradrachm Coins. Tetradrachmas from Athens showing the obverse with the head of Athena (525-430 B.C.) and the reverse of the owl (182-181 B.C.). CC Flickr User Marshall Astor.

The Greek goddess Athena was the daughter of Zeus and the patron of the city of Athens. Born from Zeus's head, Athena was wise, brave, and resourceful. She is often pictured with various symbols, each of which had its own significance.

Athena's Symbols

While there are over a dozen symbols associated with Athena, these are the most important:

  • Owl. Athena's sacred animal, the well-known owl, is often seen on coins, vases, and statues from Athens, her favorite city. History does not offer specific reasons why the owl is Athena's favorite bird, though their ability to see in the dark suggests that they may symbolize wisdom. The owl continued to be associated with Athena's namesake, the Roman goddess Minerva.
  • The Aegis. The aegis is the name of a shield or breast plate carried by Zeus and often lent to Athena.It was emblazoned with the head of the monster Medusa, which Perseus gave to Athena, his patroness. The aegis was forged by the one-eyed Cyclops in Hephaestus's forge. It was covered in golden scales and roared during battle.
  • Arms and armor. In some depictions, including the famous statue Athena Parthenos, the goddess carries or wears arms and armor. These identify her as the goddess of tactical warfare. Her usual military items include a lance, a round shield, and a helmet.
  • Olive tree. The olive tree was the symbol of Athens, the city for which Athena took responsibility. The olive tree became the symbol of the city, according to myth, because of a contest sponsored by Zeus. He, Athena, and Poseidon stood on the site of the Acropolis and competed for possession of Athens. Poseidon struck his trident on the rock and produced a salt spring. Athena, however, produced a beautiful and bounteous olive tree. The Athenians chose Athena's gift, and Athena was made the patron of Athens.

    Symbols Associated with Athena

    In addition to the symbols described above, there were a variety of other animals that were sometimes pictured with the goddess. Their specific significance is not entirely clear. Some of these include:

    • rooster
    • dove
    • eagle
    • snake or serpent

    Athena's Significance

    As Zeus's favorite daughter, Athena had great power that was often described in works such as Homer's Iliad.

    A virgin, she had no children of her own but occasionally befriended or adopted others. As the patron of Athens, Athena had a large and powerful following, or cult and was worshiped throughout Greece. The Roman goddess, Minerva, is almost identical to Athena.

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    Gill, N.S. "What Are the Symbols of the Greek Goddess Athena?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 15, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-are-athenas-symbols-117195. Gill, N.S. (2017, July 15). What Are the Symbols of the Greek Goddess Athena? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-athenas-symbols-117195 Gill, N.S. "What Are the Symbols of the Greek Goddess Athena?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-are-athenas-symbols-117195 (accessed March 22, 2018).