The element that sets humankind apart from all other species is that they possess wisdom. And a trait that sparked our evolution and brought us where we are today.
One is sure to find a Goddess of Wisdom within the pages of ancient folklore. Mythologies worldwide have reserved a special place for these powerful deities as guardians of sagacity.
In Greek Mythology, the armor-clad goddess, Athena, was bestowed with the title of Goddess of Wisdom. Each tale about Athena applauds her courage, beauty, and above all, intellect. Many of her gifts to the Ancient Greeks, from the olive tree to the craft of weaving, still exist as integral parts of human civilization.
Bonus Read: Explore the rich culture of ancient Greece through 11 of its most famous myths.
In all her majesty, Athena is one of the most important Olympian gods to have existed in the mythological realm.
Athena’s Origin Story
There have been several alternate stories about her miraculous birth. Like most Greek gods, Athena’s birth was no ordinary affair. In some stories, she is said to be born off Zeus without a mother.
#1. Zeus and Metis
Zeus’s first wife was an Oceanid by the name of Metis. A prophecy had declared that Metis would bear Zeus’ two children. One would be Athena, while the other would be a child so powerful that he would eventually overthrow the King of the gods.
So, Zeus took a page out of his paternal ancestors’ books and swallowed Metis, who was pregnant with Athena. Soon, Zeus started experiencing excruciating headaches. It reached a point where Hephaestus, the god of forges and fire, struck Zeus with a double-headed Minoan ax, and out came a fully-grown Athena from the god’s head.
Instead of getting upset, her astonishing entrance in armor with the face of a determined warrior filled Zeus with immense pride, and she soon became his favorite child.
#2. Daughter of Pallas
Yet another story regards Athena as the daughter of Pallas, the winged giant. But as the story goes, Pallas later tried to violate Athena’s chastity, and as a result, got killed. She proceeded to use the giant’s skin as a protective cape and fastened its wings at her feet.
#3. Poseidon and Tritonis
In a Libyan adaptation of the birth of Athena, she is the daughter of Triton and Tritonis. Triton was a sea god from Libya who is identifiable with Greek god Poseidon, whereas Tritonis was the nymph goddess of lake Tritonis in Libya, that’s North Africa. Both had two daughters named Athena and Pallas. Regrettably, Pallas was accidentally killed during a mock battle between the sisters.
Etymology of Athena
The name Athena has aroused many discussions regarding its etymology. Some of the interpretations are:
- Throughout history, the origin of Athena’s name has raised one question: Was Athena named after Athens, or was Athens named after Athena? Modern-day scholars have finally concluded that the goddess of wisdom was named after the city. Athens was home to a sisterhood called Athenai, meaning loyal devotees of the goddess.
- The famous Greek philosopher, Plato, mentions Athena in his work Cratylus. According to him, Athena might have its origins in the Greek word a theonóa, or “this is she who has the mind of God,” which insinuated her divine intelligence. In due course of time, it metamorphosed as Athena.
- In the second-century A.D., author and orator Aelius Aristides derived Athena’s etymology from natural elements like aether, air, earth, and moon.
Symbols and Associations
Athena’s appearance has always portrayed strength and bravery. Her various symbols are reminiscent of the traits identifying her.
The goddess of wisdom has featured in various art pieces throughout history. She is often shown battle-ready donning a helmet, spear, and her trusted shield, Aegis.
The symbols and their meanings are listed below.
Primarily carried by Zeus, the Aegis was sometimes lent to Athena. It was crafted in Hephaestus’ forges by the Cyclopes. The shield induced fear in the hearts of all whose eyes fell upon it with the head of Gorgon Medusa at its center and scales spread across the rim. On the battlefield, the shield would let out a ferocious cry loud enough to send the enemies scurrying.
In some versions, Aegis is described as a protective cape of animal skin. Moreover, the name Aegis means a violent storm, a divine shield, or a garment made of goatskin.
Her portrayals show a helmet with a magnificent plume adorning her head. This accessory signifies war and battle strategy, two of Athena’s main attributes.
Considered to be Athena’s sacred animal, the owl is symbolic of her divine wisdom and faultless judgment. Since the animal is known for its impeccable vision at night, Athena is lauded for her ability to see what others might overlook.
#4. Olive Tree
The tree was a gift from Athena to Athens, which later adopted the tree as their symbol. Historically, an olive branch has been a sign of peace and non-violence.
#5. Additional Symbols
The goddess of wisdom is also associated with doves, eagles, tigers, leopards, lions, and the flower Tiger Lily. These stand for imperial power, fierceness, and female courage.
As one of the twelve Olympian gods, Athena’s myths are plenty and wrought with values of friendship, love, hatred, and vengeance. The Greek gods have established their affinity to drama, and our goddess of wisdom is no less.
#1. Athena as the Virgin Goddess
Like Artemis (the moon goddess) and Hestia (goddess of the hearth), Athena identified as a virgin goddess. She never got entangled in matters of love or passion. Instead, she valued intellect above everything else.
At some point, Hephaestus tried to take her by force only to have the powerful goddess fight him off. Due to this, the god of forges spilled his semen across the earth’s surface and impregnated Gaia.
However, the lack of interest in childbearing did not mean Athena had no children. Erichthonius was born from the soil when Hephaestus spewed his seeds on earth. In turn, Athena took it upon herself to foster the young child who would later become a legendary ruler of Athens.
Also Read: Do you know about the virgin moon goddess, Artemis? Her temple is now counted amongst the Seven Wonders of the World.
#2. Patron of Athens
The city of Athens became the start of a feud between Athena and the god of the seas, Poseidon.
Athens was a prosperous city making both the gods fight for its patronage. Cecrops, the first king of Athens, conducted a contest between the two gods where each had to gift the city with something valuable. While Poseidon struck open a rock to create a seawater stream, Athena awarded them an olive tree.
Cecrops agreed that the olive tree was more beneficial for the city since it would give fruit, oil, and wood. Eventually, Athena won the contest and got crowned as the patron goddess of Athens.
#3. Athena and Arachne
Arachne was a mortal woman who had extraordinary skills at weaving. Such was her pride that she considered herself better than Athena, the goddess of handicrafts.
When Athena came to know of Arachne’s self-praise, she gave her a chance to repent. Arachne refused, which fueled the goddess to challenge her to a weaving match.
Athena weaved a magnificent tapestry about the terrifying fate of those mortals who dared challenge gods. On the other hand, Arachne was weaving stories about unjustly treated mortals by the gods. Her insolence enraged Athena to such a degree that she tore the tapestry made by Arachne and turned her into a spider. Since then, Arachne’s curse was to weave for the rest of eternity.
#4. Athena and Medusa
Medusa was a Gorgon gifted with exquisite beauty. She had devoted her life to being a loyal priestess of Athena. Once, Poseidon saw Medusa and instantly fell for her charms.
Although being Athena’s devotee, Medusa rejected his advances. The god of the seas could not contain his rage and decided to rape Medusa on the steps of Athena’s temple. Afterward, he vanished but left behind a vulnerable Medusa to deal with Athena’s wrath.
As expected, instead of consoling the victim, Athena punished her priestess on accounts of betrayal. She was cast off to a distant island with a cursed beauty. Once a fair maiden with golden locks, Medusa turned into a monster with cracked skin and snake hair. Anyone who laid eyes on her would instantly turn to stone.
Goddesses of Wisdom from Around the World
Ancient Greek civilization was not the only one to personify wisdom and intelligence.
Here is a list of goddesses hailing from cultures spread across the four corners of the globe.
In Japanese mythology, the Buddhist goddess of wisdom goes by Benzaiten or Benten. Inspired by Hindu goddess Saraswati, this deity encompasses all things that flow. For instance, music, words, water, and eloquence are all listed under her domain.
Moreover, Benten is an integral part of the Lotus Sutra, a Mahayana Buddhist text.
Danu is the goddess of wisdom, inspiration, fertility, and wind in Celtic mythology. Her name originates from the Irish word dan, meaning knowledge or poetry.
She is often related to the Children of Danu or Tuatha dé Danann, a group of divine entities skilled in magic and sorcery. Her role as a wisdom goddess reflects in her character as a teacher who imparts skills to children.
Bonus Read: Are you ready to dive into the lost myths of Celtic mythology?
Also known as Eset or Aset, this Egyptian deity is the goddess of wisdom, medicine, marriage, and magic. She was often compared to Athena.
The essays and works of art featuring Isis portray her as a lover of philosophy and wisdom. According to an ancient Egyptian manuscript called Turin Papyrus, Isis is a clever, eloquent, and exceedingly wise deity.
Before the Olympian goddess Athena, her titan mother Metis was considered the goddess of wisdom, prudence, and craftiness.
Because Zeus ate Metis in a fit of insecurity, Athena was known as the motherless goddess. Consequently, ancient myths have no mention of the titan goddess. However, Zeus was called Mêtieta or The Wise Counselor.
According to the Sumerian legends, Nisaba is the goddess of wisdom, writing, communication, and divine scribes. She was also known as Nidaba or Naga.
Further, her name translates to “she who teaches the divine laws,” expanding on the perception that she invented literacy to relay divine commandments to the human race. Near the farms around the ancient river of Euphrates, Nisaba was worshipped as the goddess of cereals and needs.
The deity’s name is rooted in two Sanskrit words – Sara, meaning essence, and Swa, meaning self. Thus, while she was called the goddess of intellect and creativity, she also represented the spirit of self.
As the goddess of knowledge and learning, she is admired by teachers and students. In addition, her form is depicted as dressed in white while sitting on a lotus of the same color.
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Often referred to as The Ruler of Books, Seshat was considered the goddess of knowledge, measurement, and time. She was married to the Egyptian god of wisdom, Thoth, and they were together the part of the sesb or divine scribes.
Mostly, Seshat wears a plain sheath dress veiled in panther skin. Moreover, she would wear a horned headpiece, a star, and a carved palm rib symbolic of the passage of time.
Tara, or the one who fuels all life, is a deity from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She is considered a bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism. In other words, a person who is on their way to enlightenment.
On the other hand, Vajrayana Buddhism sketches her as the female buddha who has attained complete enlightenment.
Deities embody aspects of human existence that we strive to achieve, and wisdom, intelligence, and enlightenment have dictated how we think or act. Though their symbols and appearances may vary across cultures, the essence of a goddess of wisdom remains intact.