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Shakespeare & Beyond

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.


How about the inclusion of Hermes in Shakespeare.

kathryn murdoc — December 22, 2021