Athena, Greek goddess of both knowledge and war, had an unconventional birth. Unlike her fellow Olympians, Athena was born fully grown -- and fully armed. Both masculine and feminine, she burst from the head of her father Zeus, the ruler of the gods in Greek mythology.
Born of Deceit
In “Theogeny,” the Greek poet Hesiod described the ill-fated marriage between Zeus and his first wife Metis, the Titan goddess of wisdom, good counsel and cunning. Soon after Zeus began his affair with Hera, the woman who would become queen of the gods, Zeus became obsessed with the fear that Metis would bear him a son stronger and wiser than himself. Hesiod wrote that Zeus “put (Metis) in his belly, for fear that she might bring forth something stronger than his thunderbolt” -- echoing how his own father, Kronos, had swallowed Zeus’ siblings after a prophecy foretold Kronos would be ousted by his own son. (Zeus’ mother saved him from his father; it was Metis who later crafted a plan to force Kronos to vomit the children he had consumed.) Depending on the telling of the myth, Metis either was or became pregnant when Zeus swallowed her.
Birth of Athena
There are differing versions of Athena’s birth, although the event is always described as a violent one. According to Hesiod, Athena simply sprang from Zeus’ head, fully armed. But a third-century Greek scholar known as Pseudo-Apollodorus wrote that to relieve Zeus’ suffering, either Titan god Prometheus or Olympian god Hephaestus split Zeus’ head with an axe, freeing Athena. Ancient Greek poet Pindar maintained that Hephaestus, a skilled blacksmith, crafted the bronze-bladed axe himself so he could open Zeus' skull to relieve the pressure he felt. This freed Athena, Pindar wrote, and the goddess jumped into the world with a loud battle cry.
Athena and the Gods
Second-century Greek teacher Philostratus the elder wrote that Athena immediately inspired awe in many of the gods, and became a particular favorite of her father. Despite his fear, Zeus was described by Philostratus as feeling pride in his offspring.
Legacy of Athena
Athena became known as the goddess of heroes, and was believed to have aided epic warriors Odysseus and Hercules. The goddess was famed for never taking a partner or a lover, and was referred to as a virgin. She is commonly depicted as wearing battle regalia, including a helmet, spear and shield.
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