Classics Athena
Susan Deacy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0196


Athena (variant spelling Athene) has been a topic of scholarly interest since the early days of classical scholarship. This interest has stemmed in some part from the status of the goddess as the principal deity of Athens, the perceived birthplace of Western civilization. The popularity of Athena in scholarship also derives from the range of ancient evidence pertaining to the goddess across various genres, including tragedy, epic, vase-painting and sculpture. A recurring theme in scholarship has been the attempt to understand a goddess that was multifaceted even for a major deity. The diverse aspects of the goddess were once understood in relation to distinct stages of religious history, a recurrent rationale being that, as civilization developed, so did Athena, starting as a nature and fertility goddess, and culminating in the warrior virgin venerated at the cultural pinnacle of classical Athens, but never losing supposedly earlier traits such as connections with the local soil and with animals such as the owl and the snake. When the second half of the 20th century saw a turn toward the pantheon as a network of interacting deities, Athena remained a focus of study albeit not, generally, as a discrete topic but as a power interacting with others across various fields of operation. Recent years have seen a renewed interest in individual deities, Athena included, although most studies tend now to explore how specific contexts, such as local cult and civic identities, create particular representations, rather than to seek overarching explanations for the nature of the goddess. Athena’s role in particular cities and regions has been the subject of much attention, especially Athens and Attica. This work has uncovered aspects of the local goddess that sit uneasily alongside those displayed in Panhellenic sources, including representations of the goddess in a maternal role. Distinctive local features of Athenian myth and cult have been traced, and extensive efforts have been made to trace particular artistic types in Attic vase painting and above all sculpture. The place of Athena in the wider Greek world has also been a focus of a range of scholarship, although the more limited evidence often precludes firm statements concerning local perceptions and their fit with wider Greek aspects. Various aspects of the postclassical reception of the goddess have been the subject of scholarly scrutiny, particularly the potential of the goddess as a symbol of modern femininity.

General Overviews

An excellent concise starting point for an overview of the nature, myth, and cult of the goddess is Parker 2016. Burkert 1985 (in English) and Graf and Ley 1997 (in German) provide overviews of salient traits and evidence. Deacy 2008 explores various aspects of myth and cult and postclassical reception while also assessing various attempts to determine the origins of the goddess.

  • Burkert, W. 1985. Greek religion: Archaic and classical. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Concise overview in a landmark textbook on Greek religion. Valuable for its account of possible origins and of the meaning of the goddess in relation to other deities. See pp. 139–143.

  • Deacy, S. 2008. Athena. Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World. London and New York: Routledge.

    Weighs up various meanings of Athena through a focus on birth myths, possible attempts at determining origins, associations with other mythological and religious figures, Athenian myths and institutions, representations across the wider Greek world, and postclassical receptions.

  • Graf, F., and A. Ley. 1997. Athene. In Der Neue Pauly. Vol. 2. Edited by Hubert Cancik and Helmuth Schneider, 160–167. Stuttgart and Weimar, Germany: Metzler.

    Encyclopedia entry, in German. Valuable for its survey of a range of topics including etymology, myth, function, roles, ritual, and iconography.

  • Parker, R. C. T. 2016. Athena. In the Oxford Classical Dictionary. Digital ed. Edited by S. Goldberg, New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.013.911

    Presents a brief and insightful summary of the nature and roles of Athena. Ideal for an initial overview of the subject. Originally published in 2012, in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by S. Hornblower, A. Spawforth, and E. Eidinow, 194 (Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press).

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