Athena: How Shakespeare’s plays invoke the Greek goddess of wisdom and battle strategy

Minerva (the Roman name for Athena) and the owl
James Northcote. Minerva and the owl. Print by G.W. Bonner, early 19th century. Folger ART File S528c3 no.48 (size M)

We continue our “Shakespeare and Greek Myths” series with another major goddess of the Grecian pantheon, Athena. Also called Athene, Pallas, and Minerva (her Roman name), this patron of Athens was the deity devoted to wisdom, the law, and strategy as well as a supporter of the arts. Often aligning herself with heroic quests and military maneuvers, she is associated with a number of famous stories, leading to many allusions both direct and indirect within Shakespeare’s plays.

Athena’s origins, like Aphrodite’s, are both mysterious and dramatic. In a common version of the story, Zeus, the king of the gods on Mount Olympus, was struck with an intense headache and found a remedy by splitting open his own head.  From thence sprung, fully formed and fully armed, his daughter Athena. How she got into his head and how exactly she got out varies by source, but what remains constant is that it’s Zeus’s head that finally bore her, and perhaps that is why she is associated with wisdom. Shakespearean characters invoke her numerous pseudonyms when faced with matters of justice or wisdom.

MARCUS: Sit down, sweet niece.—Brother, sit down by me. [They sit.]
Apollo, Pallas, Jove, or Mercury
Inspire me, that I may this treason find.
Titus Andronicus (4.1.66-67) 

SCHOOLMASTER: Persuasively, and cunningly. [Wind horns.] Away, boys! I hear the horns. Give me some meditation, and mark your cue. [All but Schoolmaster exit.] Pallas, inspire me!
Two Noble Kinsmen (3.5.107-110) 

LUCENTIO (referring to Katherine’s sister, Bianca): Hark, Tranio, thou mayst hear Minerva speak!
Taming of the Shrew (1.1.85) 

Ottavio Rossi. Le memorie bresciane… 1616. Folger DG70.B8 R7 1616 Cage

Though Ares was considered the god of war, Athena’s cleverness and birth in armor also aligned her with matters of combat, as is shown in depictions of the goddess in battle. Ancient pottery depicts a scene from the Gigantomachy, a battle for control of the cosmos between the giants (born of Gaia and Uranus) and the Olympian gods, where Athena is defeating the giant Enceladus. Other works of art highlight her relationship with heroes, including showing her aiding Hercules (also known as Alcides) in his labors.

AARON: I tell you, younglings, not Enceladus
With all his threat’ning band of Typhon’s brood,
Nor great Alcides, nor the god of war
Shall seize this prey out of his father’s hands.
Titus Andronicus (4.2.97-100)

Closely linked to Athena were the monstrous Gorgons. Winged sisters with venomous snakes for hair whose eyes could turn humans to stone, they pop up again and again in Athena’s history.

CLEOPATRA: Though he be painted one way like a Gorgon,
The other way’s a Mars.
Antony and Cleopatra (2.5.144-145) 

Some say the Gorgons were children of Gaia, and that Athena killed one and fastened its head to her shield. Another story says that the most famous of them, Medusa, became a Gorgon after Athena cursed her as a punishment. Medusa would eventually be slain by Perseus who, acting on advice from Athena, carried a mirrored shield by which he could see (and slay) the monster without risking her stony looks. According to this tale, he gave Athena the head, which she then attached to a shield, which goes to show how different stories can overlap and overtake each other when charting the course of the gods.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the destructive power of the Gorgon’s gaze to describe the horror of King Duncan’s murder.

MACDUFF: Approach the chamber and destroy your sight
With a new Gorgon.
Macbeth (2.3.82-83)

Macbeth's murder of Duncan
Alfred Roffe. Macbeth’s murder of Duncan. ca. 1888. Folger FPa47

Jason, Orestes, and Odysseus are other heroes whose side Athena took at various times. However, while she could be a boon to heroes, she also displayed the petty cruelty so common to many of the Olympians.

One victim of her disproportionate anger was Arachne, a young woman skilled in weaving who boasted that her skill overshadowed Athena’s. The goddess (by some reports, disguised) challenged Arachne to a weaving contest and had to admit she was, in fact, only second best. Sore loser that she was (and possibly enraged that Arachne’s tapestry was an unflattering depiction of the gods), Athena beat Arachne, who then hung herself from shame. Athena transformed Arachne into a spider, forever more to weave her exquisitely fine tapestries.

TROILUS: Within my soul there doth conduce a fight
Of this strange nature, that a thing inseparate
Divides more wider than the sky and Earth,
And yet the spacious breadth of this division
Admits no orifex for a point as subtle
As Ariachne’s broken woof to enter.
Troilus and Cressida (5.2.174-181) 

Fitting for a goddess whose weaving was praised, Athena herself threads through Shakespeare’s works, either directly through her invocation or indirectly through references to the many myths in which she plays a part.