Symbols of the Greek Goddess Athena

Athena and Zeus statue

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Athena, the patron goddess of the city of Athens, is associated with over a dozen sacred symbols from which she derived her powers. Born from Zeus's head, she was his favorite daughter and possessed great wisdom, bravery, and resourcefulness. A virgin, she had no children of her own but occasionally befriended or adopted others. Athena had a large and powerful following and was worshiped throughout Greece. She is represented most often alongside the following four symbols.

Wise Owl

The owl is considered Athena's sacred animal, the source of her wisdom and judgment. It is telling, too, that the animal most associated with her has such exceptional night vision, symbolizing Athena's ability to "see" when others cannot. The owl was also associated with Athena's namesake, the Roman goddess Minerva.

Shield Maiden

Zeus is often depicted carrying an aegis, or goatskin shield, emblazoned with the head of Medusa, the snake-headed monster whom Perseus slew, making a gift of her head to Athena. As such, Zeus often loaned this aegis to his daughter. 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

According to Homer in his "Iliad," Athena was a warrior goddess who fought alongside many of Greek mythology's most famous heroes. She exemplified tactical strategy and war in the name of justice, in contrast to her brother, Ares, who represented unbridled violence and bloodlust. In some depictions, including the famous statue Athena Parthenos, the goddess carries or wears arms and armor. Her usual military items include a lance, a shield (including at times her father's aegis), and a helmet. Her military prowess made her a goddess of worship in Sparta as well.

Olive Tree

The olive tree was the symbol of Athens, the city for which Athena was a protector. According to myth, Athena achieved this status by winning a contest Zeus held between her and Poseidon. Standing on the site of the Acropolis, the two were asked to offer the people of Athens a gift. 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 patron goddess of the city.

Other Symbols

In addition to the symbols described above, a variety of other animals were sometimes pictured with the goddess. Their specific significance is not entirely clear, but she is often associated with the rooster, dove, eagle, and serpent.

For instance, many ancient Greek amphorae (tall jars with two handles and a narrow neck) have been found decorated with both roosters and Athena. In some myths, Athena's aegis not a goat shield at all, but a cloak trimmed with serpents that she uses as a protective cover. She has also been depicted carrying a staff or spear around which a snake winds. The dove and the eagle could either symbolize victory in war or the meting out of justice in non-combative ways.

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Gill, N.S. "Symbols of the Greek Goddess Athena." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 25). Symbols of the Greek Goddess Athena. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Symbols of the Greek Goddess Athena." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).