The birth of Athena from the head of Zeus in classical

Four texts, followed by a commentary:

[Note: in order to read the Greek texts it is necessary to have installed font families that support the Greek character set. These are files with the extension *.tff (True Type Fonts). If you use Windows 3.1 please let us know and we'll send you a Greek Support Program, which can be easily installed. Users of other programs will find an excellent site about Greek fonts at the Hellenic Resources Network ]

© A.E.J. Kaal, 2001: viz. copyrightpage


Athena was born from the head of Zeus: she came out of his head full-grown and fully armed, after Hephaistos struck his head with an axe. The myth of the birth of Athena has been rather popular in antiquity. There have been several different versions of it: several classical Greek authors have told the story in their own way and repeated references are made to it; potters have used the motive many times decorating their products with it, and also on shield strips, on Etruscan bronze mirrors and even in sculpture the theme is found: the representation on the eastern fronton of the Parthenon without doubt being a milestone in the series.

How did this myth come into existence? Who is the star in the story: Zeus or Athena? Who was Athena in the eyes of her worshippers and what did the birth myth mean to them? Possibly an analysis of the ancient texts will shed some light on these matters. That is what we want to investigate.

We only will pay attention to the oldest sources in which the myth appears. The later works are not relevant to our purpose because they depend on the older texts: they will only be mentioned insofar they can attribute to a better understanding of the older works. Special attention will be paid to the reception of the myth in the period of Hellenism and later on (viz. 'The Echo of the Myth').


ΟΜΕΡΟΣ, Ιλιας Ε'

870 δειξεν δ'αμβροτον αιμα καταρρεον εξ ωτειλης,
και ρ'ολοφυρομενος επεα πτεροεντα προσηυδα
"Ζευ πατερ, ου νεμεσιζηι ορων ταδε καρτερα εργα
αιει τοι ριγιστα θεοι τετληοτες ειμεν
αλληλων ιοτητι, χαριν δ'ανδρεσσι φεροντες...
σοι παντες μαχομεσθα συ γαρ τεκες αφρονα κοθρην.
ουλομενος, ηι τ' αιεν αησθλα εργα μεμηλεν.
αλλοι μεν γαρ παντες, οσοι θεοι εισ'εν Ολθμπωι,
σοι τ'επιπειθονται και δεδμημεσθα εκαστος...
ταυτην δ'ουτ'επει προτιβαλλεαι ουτε τι εργωι,
880 αλλ' ανιεις, επει αυτος εγειναο παιδ'αιδηλον!

HOMER, Iliad V: 870 - 880

870 He showed him the immortal blood running from his wound
and in a dismal tone without mincing words said:
"Father Zeus, are you not indignant at seeing
these violent deeds? We gods constantly suffer
most cruelly by one another's devices when we
875 show favour to men. With you we are all at war,
for you are father to that mad and accursed maid,
whose mind is always set on deeds of lawlessness.
For all the other gods who are in the Olympus
are obedient to you, and subject to you, each one of us;
but her you do not oppose either in word or in deed,
880 but rather incite her, since this destructive maiden is your own child."

At the beginning of the Iliad Athena is referred to as Pallas Athena, daughter of the aegis-bearing Zeus. Here, in the fifth book we read that Zeus "is father of that mad maid". This quotation of the Iliad without doubt contains a very old tradition: Zeus has brought forth the goddess. It is a set phrase, which we meet again in Hesiod (Theogony 924) and in the Homeric hymn about the birth of Athena (Hymn Hom. XXVIII). In the Homeric hymn to Apollo (Hymn Hom. III) we are told Zeus has generated Athena without Hera (314) and has given birth to her by himself (323). According to its meaning this is just the same.

Homer doesn't mention a birth from the head of Zeus. Didn't he have heard about it? Hesiod mentions it (Theogony 924), and so do the authors of the Homeric hymns. Neither we hear anything about the armour of Athena from Homer. And neither Hesiod does mention this detail. And even the hymn to Apollo doesn't tell Athena was armed when Zeus gave birth to her. Nevertheless it would be to hasty to conclude Homer has not known the tradition of the 'panoply': he doesn't tell the myth, but only makes an allusion to it emphasizing the fact there is a unique relation between Zeus and Athena. Only this is what he needs for his poem.

That Athena is a daughter of Zeus also becomes evident from many epithets, which are used in relation to Athena. She is κουρη Διος, τεκος Διος and θυγατηρ Διος. And also ο(μ)βριμοπατρη suggests Zeus being her father, although it should be noticed that about Zeus never is said he is οβριμος . Also the four times occurring epithet Τριτογενεια has been considered as an epithet referring to the father-daugther-relation between Zeus and Athena (viz. P. Kretschmer, Glotta, 1910, p. 38). A relevant question is if the fact, that Athena is Zeus' daughter must be associated with the miraculous way she is born: we have to notice that Athena shares the title κουρη; with Artemis ( Od. VI, 151), Helen (Iliad III, 426) Aphrodite (Iliad XX, 105), the sourcenymphs (Od. XVII, 240), the Naiads (Od. XIII, 356) and the mountainnymphs (Iliad VI, 420).Θυγατηρ Διοσ is also used to indicate other female figures: Aphrodite (Iliad V, 348), the Muse (Od. I, 10), Artemis (Od. XX, 61), and Persephone (Od. XI, 217). [The expression εκγεγαυια Διος is used for Athena (Hymn VI, 229) as well as for Helen (Iliad III, 199). We don't pay much attention to it because it is found only a few times; its meaning is not very different from Θυγατηρ Διος]. Τεκος Διος is found many times in connection with Athena, both in Iliad and Odyssea (viz. Iliad I, 202; II, 157; V, 115/714; VIII, 352/427; etc.). But also this is no reason to suppose the expression was associated with the miraculous birth story and is used as an expression of affection (but only without genetiv!). With οβριμοπατρη we have to deal a bit longer. "Daughter of ..." is Athena. Whenever Homer is using this epithet for Athena, it concerns Athena, going to war armed with the equipment of Zeus. Always the context is about the same. We quote a passage as it is found in the eighth book of the Iliad (384-391):

ΙΛΙΑΣ Θ 384-391

384 αυταρ Αθηναιη, κουρη Διος αιγιοχοιο,
πεπλον μεν κατεχευεν εανον πατρος επ'ουδει,
ποικιλον, ον ρ'αυτη ποιησατο και καμε χερσιν,
η δε, χιτων'ενδυσα, Διος νεφεληγερεταο
τευχεσιν ες πολεμον θωρησσετο δακρυοεντα.
ες δ'οχεα φλογεα ποσι βησετο, λαζετο δ'εγχος,
βριτυ, μεγα, στιβαρον, τωι δαμνησι στιχας ανδρων,
ηρωων, τοισιν τε κοτεσσεται Οβριμοπατρη.

384 But Athene, daughter of Zeus who bears the aegis,
let fall on her fathers floor her soft robe, richly embroidered,
that she herself had made and and her hands had fashioned,
and put on the tunic of Zeus the cloud-gatherer, and arrayed
herself in armor for tearful war. Then she stepped into the
fiery chariot and grasped her spear, heavy and huge and
strong, with which she vanquishes the ranks of men -
391 warriors with whom the daughter of the mighty sire is angry.

It is remarkable that never Zeus is characterised as οβριμος - tremendous, whereas Athena, when she is said to be οβριμοπατρη in fact always is tremendous. That is also why Ares calls her αιδηλον, and why he complaints about her αησυλα εργα, under which all the gods have to suffer terribly. It seems as if οβριμος originally has been a quality of Athena which only later on has made Zeus οβριμοπατρη. But was Athena really tremendous and warlike from the beginning?

There have been philologists thinking the warlike character of Athena originated in the Indo-European culture because Pallas contains the same stem as Walkure; they took this as an indication of relations with war goddesses like Anat, Ishtar, and others. Archeologists looked for an explanation to her valour in another direction: they have found palaces from the Mycenean era with sanctuaries which possibly were devoted to the cult of a protector guardian goddess. In a house digged up in Mycene (by Tsoundas) a fresco is found with a woman carrying a shield (Viz. Nilsson, GGR I, p. 301, 304 and Pl. 24,1). Also house chapels are found from Minoan times in connection with goddesses with a shield. The shield occurs so many times that there has been suggested it may have been an object of veneration (Viz. Nilson, GGR p. 301). Snakes have been an attribute of these goddesses too. Nilsson remarks about them: "Die Minoische Hausgottin war nicht kriegerisch, sondern eine hausschschutzende Gottin, die sich aus der Hausschlange herausentwickelt hat und die Schlange als Attribut hat" (Nilsson, GGR I, p. 348; et viz. p. 288). Only during the Mycenean culture, when war must have been at the order of the day - since the citadels have been built and so many swords and other weapons have been given to the dead as burrial gifts - the goddess would have been devellopped to a tremendous protector of the stronghold. In lineair-B-script one time is found ... (Viz. Hooker J.T., Lineair-B: an Introduction, Bristol 1980).: is this possibly an early reference to the goddess? The type of the "mighty goddess", which is supposed in the Mycenean time seems to be found back in the Athena as we know her from Homeric and subsequent literature: a goddess which protects heroes and watches over cities and keeps them from destruction. Her power and the way of waging of the war is characterised by prudence, intelligence wisdom and clever strategy (Viz. Rose, Ancient Greek Religion, Ch. III, The Origins of the Gods). Is this in fact is an inheretance from the Mycenean era remains incertain.
Cook for instance recognise in Athena a goddess, like the 'Mountain mother' as we know from Anatolia (Cook, Zeus III, p.224). In his elaborated argumentation (pp. 747-865) many reasons are given for this view. In this conception too the attributes of the goddess play an important role. But a striking fact is, that many of these arguments are of a general character: the snakes in his view are children of the Earth mother, and therefore it is not surprising when they are also dedicated to Athena; the olive is a tree which comes forth from the rock as a manifestation of life power which the Mountain mother grants: so it is not difficult to understand how the olivetree could get the symbol of the flourishing of the city-state of Athens. The goddess manifestates herself in the birds nestling in the rocks as well; this can be seen in the Iliad (V, 778; VII, 58vv; XIX, 350 f.) and the Odyssea (I, 320; III, 371; XXII, 239f.) Only later on, when Athena has been connected with Zeus, the owl comes into prominence, a bird which often is considered as a thunder bird, as for instance on the (late!) coins with a picture of an owl and the lightning (Pergamon, second century B.C.). The plenty of arguments which Cook brings forward is overwhelming but not convincing.

Let us give another suggestion: possibly Homer gives us a distorted image of Athena when he characterizes her as a warlike goddess, and did she actually bear a resemblance to goddesses like Persephone, Ariadne, Helena and other "tree goddesses", which have come to being in a world and an era in which fertility of Mother Earth qualified all religiosity.

In regard to the epithet οβριμοπατρη, and all other epithets related to Athena as a war goddess (αγελειη, λαοσσοος, ατρθτωνη, αιδηλος, δεινη, μεγαθυμος) we must conclude it is not possible to say if she owns the warlike character from origin or from another deity with whom she has been identified later on. It looks as if the question to the origin of Athena has to remain without an answer as long as we cannot dispose of new found material.

Finally we give attention to an epithet which possibly is connected with the birth of Athena: Τριτογενεια. Does it say anything about the relation which exsists between Zeus an Athena? Let us read what has been said by classic authors. The name Τριτογενεια is not found very often: four times in Homer (Iliad IV, 515; VIII, 39; XXII, 183; Od. III, 378), at least once in Hesiod (Theogony 895; 924?: in our opinion the text as it has come down to us is corrupt); once in an inscription (Viz. Inscriptiones Graecae, 14.1389, iii; this inscription is from the Hellenistic period) and the ionic form (Τριτογενη), in the Homeric hymn to Athena. Moreover the name is found in scholia and in the dictionary by Hesychius. An epic poet from Alexandria, Apollonius of Rhodos (end first cent. B.C.) wrote a work "Argonautica". Herein is told how the heroes of the Argo arrive in Libya at the Triton, a lake/river (?) in Libya:


Και νυ κεν αυτου παντες απο ζωης ελιασθεν
νωωυμοι και αφαντοι επιχθονιοισι δαηναι
ηρωων οι αριστοι ανηνυστοι επ αεθλωι
αλλ σφεας ελεηραν αμηχανιηι μινυθοντας
ηρωσσαι Λιβυης τιμηοροι, αι ποτ'Αθηνην
ημος οτ'εκ πατρος κεφαλης θορε παμφαινουσα
αντομεναι Τριτωνος εφ'υδασι χυτλωσαντο.

Ad IV, 1308: "...but as they (the heroes) pined in despair the heroine-nymphs, warders of Libya, had pity on them, they who once found Athena, what time she leapt in gleaming armour from her father's head, and bathed her by Trito's waters."

This is a matter of etymology, which we meet also in a questionable fragment of Hesiodus (Viz. Fragmenta Hesiodea ad. Merckelbach-West, Oxonii 1967, fr. 343, 10-12; this fragment also mentions the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus). Two scholia in connection to this text have been conserved:

Ad IV, 1311:

Τριτων ποταμος Λιβυης, εστι δε και Βοιωτιας. Δοκει δε η Αθηνα παρ'ετερσι αυτων γεγενησθαι, αφ'ου και Τριτογενεια λεγεται.
Ουτω τινες οιδε η το τρειν, ο εστι φοβεισθαι, τοισ δι'εναντιας εμποιουσα.

"Triton is a river in Libya, but also in Boeotia. It seems Athena is born at one of them.
That at any rate is the opinion of some people; others believe the name stands for 'she who causes the trembling, i.e. the frightening at people who encounter her".

The παμφαιουσα (Argon. IV,1310) refers to the armaments of Athena, when she was born. As an comment on IV, 1310 is given:
ημος οτ'εκ πα<τρος> - πρωτος Στησιχορος εφη συν οπλοις εκ της του Διος κεφαλης αναπηδησαι την Αθηνην.

"When she from her father's..: Stesichoros was the first who said Athena jumped from the head of Zeus fully armed."

Stesichoros was an epic lyre poet, living from about 640 - 550 B.C. He borrowed a big deal of the material for his poems from Homer. He was very famous in antiquity. Of his works only a few fragments have survived. If the quoted scholiast would be right in what he remarks about the panoplie, is means that the appearance of Athena fully armed is a product of the fantasy of poets and so doesn't belong to the oldest traditions of the birth myth. But is he right?? (Viz. the comment on the shield strips: some these shield strips are much older than the texts we have at our disposal!) There is only one very old text, mentioning the panoply: the Homeric hymn to Athena. Later on we will see this hymn is a text from the sixth century B.C., so the author of the hymn could have borrowed his information from Stesichoros very well.
What did the scholiast think about the etymology, which connects Τριτογενεια with τρειν? That we do not know. What we know is the opinion of Hesychius from Alexandria (fifth century A.D.).
In his dictionary he writes:
Τριτογενεια - η το τρειν εωγεννθσα τοις εναντιοις
Τριτογενες - επιθετικως η Αθηνα, απο το τρειν ενγενναν τοις πολεμοις,
η τωι παρα Τριτωνι τωι ποταμωι Λιβυης εμφανισθηναι

Tritogeneia: she who makes shiver her ennemies.
Tritogenes : an epithet referring to Athena; derived from 'making shiver' the ennemies, or from 'appear at the Triton', the river in Libya.

There have been made still other attempts to explain 'Tritogeneia'. In the Heketides of Aischylos the fugitives, begging or the gods rescue, shout: Thou Gods in heaven, Thou Gods down in the earth, and Thou, Zeus, the Saviour, the Third... (Aischulos, Heket. 25v.: υπατοι τε θεοι, και βαρυτμοι χθονιοι θηκας κατεχοντες, και Ζευς σωτηρ τριτος...)
Because Zeus is called 'the third' (Τριτος) the suggestion has been made τριτογενεια might refer to this name of Zeus. The sequence in which Zeus is called the third is almost proverbial: the first toast was to heaven Ολυμπιος και Ολυμπιοι, the second toast to Earth ηρωες, and the third to Zeus σωτηρ, the Saviour. He is Almighty, the greatest, because he has disposal of life and death. However it may be, it doesn't bring us closer to an answer on the question to the origin of Athena since the history of the development of Athena starts long before Aischylos and the other sources for this explanation.

In Homer it is evident from many passages that Athena is a daughter of Zeus. And also that Zeus has many daughters. But his relation to Athena is a particular, a very exceptional one. Athena is his favourite daughter, his sweetheart. She is privileged. Probably because she is his own creation. This fact is token from very old traditions: that old, that we cannot indicate anymore the origin. From Homers epic poems we get the impression this fact is connected with a complex of ideas in which Athena is a warlike goddess. At the same time we also get the impression Homer gives a distorted picture of the goddess, because she has to fit in the design of his poems. So, in Homer already we have to do with a poetically interweaving of different elements in a way which cannot be distangled anymore.
Back to the top


886 Ζευς δε θεων βασιλευς πρωτην αλοχον θετο Μητιν
πλειστα θεων τε ιδυιαν ιδε θεωτων ανθρωπων.
Αλλ'οτε δη ρ'ημελλε θεαν γλαυκοπιν Αθηνην
τεξεσθαι, τοτ'επειτα δολωι γρενας εξαπατησας
890 αιμυλιοισι λογοισι εην εσκατθετο νηδυν
Γαιης φραδμοσυνησι και Ουρανου αστεροεντος.
τως γαρ οι φρασατην, ινα μη βασιληιδα τιμην
αλλος εχοι Διος αντι θεων αιει γενεταων.
εκ γαρ της ειμαρτο περιφρονα τεκνα γενεσθαι,br> πρωτην μεν κουρην γλαυκωπιδα Τριτογενειαν
ισον εχουσαν πατρι μενος και επιφρονα βουλην
αυταρ επειτ'αρα παιδα θεων βασιλεια και ανδρων
ημελλεν τεξεσθαι, υπερβιον ητορ εχοντα.
900 αλλ'αρα μιν Ζευς προσθεν εην εσκατθετο νηδυν
ως δη οι γρασσαιτο θεα αγαθον τε κακον τε...
924 Αυτος δ'εκ κεφαλης γλαυκοπιδα Τριτογενειαν [sc. γεινατο]
δεινην εγρεκυδοιμον αγεστρατον ατρυτωνην
ποτνιαν, ηι κελαδοι τε αδον πολεμοι τε μαχαι τε.
Ηρη δ'Ηφαιστον κλυτον ου φιλοτητι μιγεισα
γεινατο, και ζαμενησε και ερισε ωι παρακοιτηι
εκ παντων τεχνηισικεκασμενον Ουρανιων.

Hesiod Theogony 886ff.:

886 Now Zeus, king of the gods, made Metis his wife first,
and she was wisest among gods and men.
But when she was about to bring forth the goddess
bright-eyed Athene, Zeus craftily deceived her
890 with cunning words and put het in his own belly,
as Earth and starry Heaven advised.
For they advised him so, to the end that no other
should hold his royal sway over the eternal gods
in place of Zeus; for very wise children were destined
to be born of her, first the maiden bright-eyed Tritogeneia,
equal to het father in strength and in wise understanding.
But afterwards she was to bear a son of overbearing spirit,
king of gods and men. But Zeus put her into his own belly first,
900 that the goddess might devise for him both, good and evil....
924 But Zeus himself gave birth from his own head
to bright-eyed Tritogeneia, the awful, the strife stirring,
the host-leader, the unwearying, the queen, who delights
in tumults and wars and battles. But Hera without union
with Zeus - for she was very angry and quarrelled with her mate -
bare famous Hephaestus, who is skilled in crafts more
than all the sons of Heaven.

Hesiod lived in the eighth century B.C. He is coming from Askra, a little town in Boeotia. His father came here from Asia Minor to enjoy life in rustic simplicity. To Hesiod this stay in Askra never brought a carefree way of life. In his book "Works and Days" he tells how he feels badly done by his brother, Perses, who spends the inheritance of both of them and bribes the judges as soon as it comes to a trial. Hesiod was urged to make a living for himself by working very harshly since. All these troubles have filled him with bitterness and with pessimism about man and society. From his scriptures a desire to justice speaks on the one hand, on the other a resignation to the fact a man can't get away from awful misery. It is the punishment of the human race by the gods because it goes from bad to worse.

In the Theogony we read first was Chaos; from Chaos Earth, Tartaros and Eros came to being. Chaos generated Darkness and Night, and Earth generated Heaven, Mountains and Sea. Then generations of gods came out. Many of them are personifications or elements of a natural philosophy. At first sight it seems as if Hesiod tries to join the myths together that have been handed down, and to fit them in one system. But on closer consideration it turns out that there is more: in mythical language he tells how Zeus became the great and almighty ruler over the entire cosmos. In fact the Theogony is a cosmography, a description of the world and how it works. Also the position of man herein gets clear: mankind is deteriorating, it is falling lower and lower. That is why the gods punish them time and again. Even when a man is living fair he is not safe: because of the crime of one man many are punished. That is why life is unbearable, even for righteous

people. The part in which the myth of the birth of Athena is interwoven illustrates all these things. Metis is a cosmic principle, a personification of prudence and cleverness, clarity of thinking. That is why she once was a danger to Zeus, but Zeus swallowed her and so made her to a part of himself. In mythical language Hesiod explains that those days have gone that Zeus could have been dethroned. It is generally accepted the story about the devouring of Metis is an invention of Hesiod, just like the thought to connect this idea with the myth about the birth of Athena (Viz. for instance Nilsson, GGR I, 438.4). This does not apply to the information Athena came forth from the head of Zeus. This information has not any function in the story of Hesiod. That of all things Athena came out from the head of Zeus may arouse the impression it has something to do with brainpower, but according to the ancient Greek the head was the center of creative force (κορυφη) and contained the seed (ψυχη) (Viz. Onians, The Origins of European Thought, p. 111, 177ff.).

Conclusion: the tradition Athena came out from Zeus' head must have been at disposal in the days of Hesiod. The tradition about Metis, and how Zeus obtained cleverness (μητις) goes back to Hesiod.

Back to the top

The Homeric hymns.

Before discussing two Homeric hymns which are relevant to our research, it is necessary to say something about the Homeric hymns in particular.
These so called hymns are not written by Homer. Even so they show many features which recall the Iliad and the Odyssea. In almost every line words have been used with a meaning derived from Homer. The themes often are the same as well. The hymns are composed of hexameters, like the Iliad and the Odyssea. In short: when we read these hymns we are reminded all the time to Homer.
Nevertheless also in antiquity it was known that these hymns were not written by Homer. They didn't belong to the classics. That is also the reason why they have not been quoted very often; and why they are not saved as well as the epic poems of Homer. At Thucidides we find quotes of the Delian hymn, which is based on a quite different review from the text we know from the saved manuscripts. And Pausanias already remarks these hymns belong to a special genre (Viz. Pausanias I, 185; II, 13, 3). He compares them with hymns of another genre, the Orphic hymns, and says: the Homeric hymns are long and descriptive, the Orphic hymns are short and have the intention to stir up people (Pausanias IX, 30, 12). It should have been the Lycian poet Olen, who was the first to write such hymns; this Olen is said to be a prophet of Apollo (Pausanias X, 5, 8). A characteristic of Homeric hymns probably is the way old traditions and myths are treated: they have been tied up with each other to colourfull new creations.


307 ον ποτ'αρ Ηρη ετικτε χολωσαμενη Διι πατρι
ηνικ'αρα Κρονιδης ερικυδεα γεινατ'Αθηνην
εκ κορυφηι. η δ'αιψα χολωσατο ποτνια Ηρη
310 ηδε και αγρομενοισι μετ'αθανατοισι εειπε -
κεκλυτε μεν παντες τε θεοι πασαι τε θεαναι
ως εμ'ατιμαζειν αρχει νεφεληγερετα Ζευς
πρωτος επει μ'αλοχον ποιησατο κεδν'ειδυιαν
και νυν νοσφιν εμειο τεκε γλαυκωπιν Αθηνην
η πασιν μακαρεσσι μεταπρεπει αθανατοισι.

323 Πως ετληις οιος τεκεειν γλαυκωπιδ'Αθηνην
ουκ αν εγω τεκομεν?.....................

Hymn Hom. III: to Apollo.
In this passage is told how Apollo has got Typhaon as a present from Hera:
307 Once on a time Hera bare him because
she was angry with father Zeus,
when the son of Cronos bare
all-glorious Athena in his head
310 Thereupon queenly Hera was angry and
spoke thus among the assembled gods:
"Hear from me, all gods and goddesses
how cloudgathering Zeus begins to dishonour me
wantonly, when he has made me his true-hearted wife.
See now, apart from me he has given birth to
bright-eyed Athena who is foremost among
all the blessed gods.

323 How dared you by yourself give birth to
bright-eyed Athena?

Probably this hymn is, after the Iliad and the Theogony the oldest work in which the birth of Athena is told. The dating of the hymn is uncertain, but even so we may assume it is rather old: according to line 270f. horse races didn't take place in Delphi; that is why we may conclude the hymn has been made before the foundation of the amphictyony (586 B.C.); at the end of the hymn we learn the priests in Delphi are from Crete: this may point to an earley dating as well. On the other hand the numerous ionic forms indicate the text has to be dated much later than the Iliad and the Odyssea. It is generally assumed the hymn has been composed towards the end of the eighth century B.C.
The quoted fragments show how some old traditions have been interwoven: there is a tradition about Hera creating Hephaistos without any sexual intercourse (Viz. Marie Delcourt, Hephaistos, p. 31f.); Typhoon, a dragon with one hundred heads, is a creation of Gaia intended to prevent the victory by Zeus in the primeval battle. In the hymn we suddenly are told Hera is the mother of Typhoon and Hephaistos is a child of Zeus and Hera together.
It is clear also the poet changes the content of traditions because it is the only way to let them fit in the story he wants to tell. We read in Homer Hera was hiding Hephaistos χωλον εοντα, because he had a deficiency (Iliad XVIII, 397). When we make the assumtion also Homer considered Hephaistos as a son of Hera alone (West challenges this view in his commentary on Hesiod's Theogony 927; in his opinion Hephaistos is a son of Zeus and Hera together; he refers for it to Iliad I, 578; XIV, 338 and to Od. VIII,312), the motive of Hera to throw Hephaistos from the Olympus is shame. In the Homeric hymn is told she did it for love: "See now, apart from me he has given birth to bright-eyed Athena who is foremost among all the blessed gods." How does he dare to dishonour the mother who sacrificed her own child for marital interests! If so this is something quite different from the other version of the myth about Hephaistos and the reason why he was thrown from Mount Olympus.

About the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus we learn scarcely something we didn't know already after reading the Iliad of Homer and the Theogony of Hesiod. There is no sense to analyse this hymn in search of the development of the myth of the birth of Athena because the poet changes the stories just as he likes it and combines them with each other to a new story.

Back to the top


1 Παλλαδ'Αθηναιην, κυδρην θεον, αρχομ'αειδειν,
γλαυκοπιν, πολυμητιν, αμειλιχον ητορ εχουσαν
παρθενον αιδοιην, ερυσιπτολιν, αλκηεσσαν,
Τριτογενη, την αυτος εγενετο μετιετα Ζευς
5 σεμνης εκ κεφαλης, πολεμηια τευχε'εχουσαν.
χρυσεα παμφανοωντα, σεβας δ'εχε παντας ορωντας
αθανατους η δε προσθεν Διος αιγιογοιο
εσσυμενως ωρουσεν απ'αθανατοιο καρηνου
σεισασ'οξυν ακοντα. μεγας δ'ελελιζετ'Ολυμπος
10 δεινον υπο βριμης γλαθκωπιδος αμφι δε γαια
σμερδαλιον ιαχησεν εκινηθη δ'αρα ποντος
κυμασι πορφυρεοισι κυκωμενος εσχετο δ'αλμα
εξαπινης στησεν δ'Υπεριονος αγλαος υιος
ιππους ωκυποδας δηρον χρονον, εισοκε κουρη
15 ειλετ'απ αθανατων ωμων θεοεικελα τευχη
Παλλας Αθηναιη γηθησε δε μετιετα Ζευς
και συ μεν ουτω χαιρε, Διος τεκος αιγιογοιο
αυταρ εγω και σειο και αλλης μνησομ'αοιδης.


I begin to sing of Pallas Athena, the glorious goddess,
bright-eyed, inventive, unbending of heart, pure virgin,
saviour of cities, courageous, Tritogeneia.
From his awful head wise Zeus himself
bare her arrayed in warlike arms of flashing gold,
and awe seized all the gods as they gazed.
But Athena sprang quickly from the immortal head
and stood before Zeus who holds the aegis,
shaking a sharp spear: great Olympus began to reel horribly
at the might of the bright-eyed goddess, and
earth round about cried fearfully, and the sea
was moved and tossed with dark waves
while foam burst forth suddenly: the bright Son
of Hyperion stopped his swift-footed horses
a long while, until the maiden Pallas Athena had stripped
the heavenly armour from her immortal shoulders. And wise Zeus was glad . And so hail to you,
daughter of Zeus, who holds the aigis. Now I will
remember you and another song as well.

This hymn is dedicated to the birth of Athena. The dating is not certain. In line 5 we read the goddess comes forth from the head of her father's head, fully armed. Subsequent authors say Stesichoros was the first to mention this fact, but we know from representations on shield strips the tradition was known before Stesichoros wrote his poems. The final line is found frequently in Homeric hymns (viz. Allen, Halliday & Sikes, the hymns IXX, XXI and others). But it is questionable if an argument can be borrowed from this fact about the dating of the hymn, since the line can be added at the moment a number of hymns have been compiled. Possibly the hymn is created towards the end of the seventh century B.C.

The text of the hymn raises two problems. Some codices read in line 10 υπ'οβριμης. In 1796 already is suggested in the edition of Ilgen to read θπο βριμης: the thought the Olympus trembles because of the βριμη (violence) of Athena is easier to understand than the statement the Olympus trembles because Athena is οβριμη (tremendous). Βριμη has a long i, οβριμος has not. That is another reason to prefer the version with βριμη.
Another word which raises questions is εσχετο; Baumeister suggests, in his commentary, to read in line 12: εκχυτετο. But doing so the sence of the line would change completely. Even though εσχετο in this line seems a little bit strange, the intention is clear: Helios stops his chariot and the sea stops waving. We prefere not to alter the text and to keep it as it is handed down.

About Athena we are told she is a κυδρη θεος. κυδρος is used frequently in Homer in relation to gods and man. θεος is found referring to a goddess as well (viz. Iliad XVIII, 394). It should be noticed αμειλιχον ητορ εχουσαν belongs to a series of epithets connected to Athena as a wargoddess. That she is παρθενος αιδοιη is said of Artemis too (in the hymn dedicated to Artemis; viz. Allen, Halliday & Sikes, XXVII,2). Generally spoken can be stated παρθενοι refers to goddesses, which are closely related with nature and fertility. In Homer this word is not found connected with Athena.
The meaning of παρθενος is: the young unmarried girl. Mostly from the context it becomes clear the girl still is virgin, but this meaning is not included in the wordt itself (viz. Delling in Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, sub παρθενος, Band V, s. 825). The fact αιδοιη is added shows the word is used here in the current sense; we better not connect this word with the notion of maintainer of right and justice as it has been done in astrological religiosity and speculative philosophy. At the most - we find this also in connection with Artemis - with the notion she is protecting chastity of girls and boys and mutual faithfullness. Why and when Athena is connected with the type of these goddesses, indicated as παρθενος, is not known. Possibly it originates from Minoan times.
Ερυσιπτολις is found in Homer only one time (Iliad VI, 305): from a Trojan woman. So it seems to point to the meaning we prefer: here: "protecting the city-state".
Αλκηεσσα doesn't occur yet in Homer. As far as its meaning it demonstrates a certain affinity to ερυσιπτολις. The agressiveness we encounter in the epithets mentioned before, is lacking in these words.
"Pallas Athena, the glorious goddess, bright-eyed, inventive, unbending of heart, pure virgin, saviour of cities, courageous, Tritogeneia" is a goddess without a face. A number of epithets which in fact do not match each other have been linked together. There has been supposed it should be possible to investigate the character of Athena by analyzing this strange compilation of epithets: wrongly.

Of Zeus is, like in Homer, said he is μητιετα. This epithet may have inspired Hesiod to the story where Metis is put into his belly. Discussing the Theogony we went into this theme at length. Also in regard to Athena, coming out of the head of Zeus has been said a lot: this theme is said to go back to Stesichoros, but probably it is older. The fact that Athena comes forth from the head of Zeus doesn't go back to the brain of a poet either: it reflects how man thought about creativity and procreation. Remarkable in this text is the attention given to the spear, since τευχη is a concept including helmet, shield and spear. Probably this happens imitating Homer (Iliad VIII, 390).

Finally we pay attention to the miraculous phenomena accompagnying the birth of Athena: it seems the hole nature holds his breath when Athena manifests herself. This is a detail we didn't stumble till now. Nevertheless a description like this would suit very well in Iliad or Odyssea since Homer tells himself the Sun is not always running regularly finishing his heavenly path; once Hera urged Helios to dive in Okeanos earlier than usuallywhether he liked it or not (Iliad XVIII, 239f.); Athena once forbids him to rise (Odyssea XXIII, 243f). Helios, stopping his chariot is not an essential element of the birth myth of Athena: on the east front of the Parthenon the birth of Athena has been represented on the moment when the sun is rising and the moon is going down. And in Pindar we read that in Rhodos a golden snow felt when Athena came into the world.

Back to the top


31 ....... ες αμφθαλασσαν νομον,
ενθα ποτε βρεχε θεων
βασιλευς ο μεγας χρυ-
σεαις νιφαδεσσι πολιν,
ανιχ'Αφαιστου τεχναισι
χαλκελατωι πελεκει πα-
τερος Αθαναια κορθφην κατ'ακραν
ξεν υπερμακει βοαι.
Ουρανος δ'εφριξε νιν και Γαια ματηρ...

Pindar, Olympiakoi, Ode VII
In honour of the prize fighter Diagoras from Rhodos

31 (told him to sail from the shore of Lerna)
straight to the seagirt pasture,
where once the great king of the gods
showered the city with snows of gold
when by the skills of Hephaistos
with the stroke of a bronze-forged axe
Athena sprang forth on the top of
her father's head and
shouted a prodiguous battle cry and
heaven shuddered at her and mother Earth...

We don't go at length into the question to the role of Hephaistos with regard to the birth of Athena, since we saw none of the most ancient texts concerning the birth myth impute a role to Hephaistos. On the other hand: from ancient images (viz. shieldstrips) we know Hephaistos is seen in connection with Zeus giving birth to Athena quite early: particularly on the Peloponnesos. It is beyond doubt there have been traditions of which the cleaving of the skull was a component (viz. Nilsson GGR I, Taf 392: satyrs beating the head of a goddess with mallets). Possibly also in this case there has been a poet, feeling free to interweave different traditions to his own liking. A new creation like that might have obtained a certain popularity vry well, inspiring visual artists.

An exploration of the available texts reveals poetry is not a very appropriate basis for conclusions in regard to origin and the development of deities: poets felt free to mould the traditions to their own needs. All we may conclude is Athena already had been developed to a colourfull goddes in the sixth century B.C., probably partly due to the creativity of these poets. Willamowitz suggested the Homeric hymn which is dedicated to Athena, might have been written on the opportunity of the Panathenian games, the annual celebration in honour of the goddess. How this may be, this frame fits without any doubt. In regard to the question who she originally has been, this Athena, sung by the poets as την αυτος εγεινατο μητιετα Ζευς σεμνης εκ κεφαλης and representated by artists at the very moment she comes out from Zeus' head, the ancient texts are not really informative.

Back to the top

These texts will not be examined because they all are derived from the texts mentioned and analysed before.

Apollodoros' Library I,3
Ηρα δε χωρις ευνης εγεννησεν Ηφαιστον. Ως δε Ομηρος λεγει και τουτον εκ Διοσ
εγεννησε. Ριπτε δε αυτον εξ ουρανον Ζευς Ηρα δεθεισηι βοηθουντα. Ταυτην γαρ
εκρεμασε Ζευς εξ Ολυμπου χειμωνα επιπεμψαν Ηρακλει, οτε Τροιαν ελων επλει.
Πεσοντα δ'Ηφαιστον εν Λημνωι και πηρωθεντα τας βασεις διεσωσε Θετις. Μιγνυται
δε Ζευς Μητιδι, μεταβαλλουσηι εις πολλασ ιδεας υπερ του μη συνελθειν, και αυτην
γενομενην εγκυον καταπινει φθασας επειπερ <Γη> γεννησειν παιδα μετα την
μελλουσαν εξ αυτης γενασθαι κορην, ος ουρανος δυναστης γενησεται. Τουτο φοβεις
κατεπιεν αυτην. Ως δ'ο της γεννησεως ενεστη χρονος, πληξαντος αυτου την κεφαλην
πελεκει Προμηθεως η καταπερ αλλοι λεγουσιν Ηφαιστου, εκ κοπθφης, επι ποταμου
Τριτωνος, Αθηνα συν οπλοις ανεθορεν.

Apollodorus gives a convenient summary of the traditional Greek mythology, without making the smallest attempt either to explain or to critisize it. (Vid. Frazer J.G., Apollodorus, The Library, London 1921).

Lucianos, ΠΕΡΙ ΘΥΣΙΩΝ.

...μονην δε την Αθηναν εφυσεν εκ της εαυτου κεφαλης υπ'αυτον ατεχνως τον κεφαλον συλλαβων.

Vid. A.M. Harmon, Lucian, Harvard University Press.

Scholiast referring to Plato - Timaeus: 23e:

...Γης τε και Ηφαιστου
Ζευς Μητιδι συνελθων και γενομενην εγκυον καταπινει, επειπερ ελεγεν παιδα γεννησειν
μετα την μελλουσαν εξ αυτης γεννασθαι κορην, ος δυναστευσει ουρανου. Ως δε ο καιρος
της ταυτης ενεστη γεννησεως, δειται Ηφαιστου προς τουτο συνεργου, ως κατα της κεφαλης
πληξειεν αυτον. επι ταυτης γαρ εκυοφορει το εμβρυον. Οδε ουκ αλλως υπακουσαι κατενευσεν,
ει μη τηι γεννωμενηι συνχωρητειη συνελθειν εις ευνην. Υποσταντος δε του Διος, πελεκει
πληττει τουτου την κεφαλην Ηφαιστος. Και γενναται μεν ουτως εξ αυτης Αθηνα, επιδιωκων
δε αυτην Ηφαιστος αποσπερμαινει μεν εις τον αυτης μηρον, η δε λαβουσα εριον το σπερμα
εξεμαξεν ερριψε τε εις γην. Και ουτως απο του εριοθ και της χθωνος δρακοντοπους ανθρωπος
εγεννετο, Ερυχθονιος τουνομα. Τουτο συν ενταυθα γησιν, οτι Αθηναιοι λεγουσιν γενεσθαι.

Vid. G.C. Greene, Scholia Platonica, Harvard, Pensylvania 1938.

Scholion referring to Pindaros' Olympionikoi: p.m.

Philodemos, ΠΕΡΙ ΘΥΣΙΟΝ: p.m.
He gives a philosophical commentary on the birth of Athena (1st cent. BC).

Back to the top

Forward to the next page


Reaction? Send an E-mail to the author

Birth of the goddess Athena
© A.E.J. Kaal, 2004