Archaeologists tell us that the original city of Athens was situated on the Acropolis. Even in classical times, the Athenians still referred to this area as “the City.” The city of Athens and its patron goddess emerge into the light of history as inseparably coupled. In Mycenaean times each city was built around a central palace, and each palace was under the protection of its patron goddess. Athena was the goddess of the palace on the Acropolis. The names of the city and its goddess are essentially the same: Athena was Athens, and Athens was Athena. She was “The Athenian.” The ancient Athenians seem to have exhibited, during much of their history, precisely those virtues which they traditionally attributed to her. This may be because, when the Athenians imagined their goddess, they did so in their own image.
According to the myth, Zeus fell in love with a beautiful titaness, Metis (“Cunning Intelligence”). Although she repeatedly changed her shape to avoid his unwelcome attentions, as was his way, he persisted. In the end he caught up with her and raped her.
An oracle then announced that Metis would bear Zeus two children: first a daughter then, a son, and the son would be mightier than his father. Just as Zeus had once overthrown and dispossessed his own father, Chronos, so he was destined in his turn, to be overthrown by his own son. In a desperate attempt to avoid sharing his father’s fate, Zeus gave Metis a potion of drugged ambrosia, and then swallowed her whole.
Some time afterwards a terrible headache came upon him. In great pain, he sought the advice of Hermes, whose only suggestion was that Hephaestos, the smith of the gods, should open his head in order to allow the cause of his pain to escape. Zeus was so desperate that even this drastic remedy was preferable to doing nothing, and Hephaestos was duly summoned to cleave open Zeus’ head with his mighty axe. When he did so, to the astonishment of all the immortals, Athena sprang out with a great war-cry, fully-formed, wearing armour and bearing arms.
Zeus’ daughter not only became the patron of many arts at that time normally considered masculine preserves, such as ceramics, she was also credited with a distinctly unfeminine warlike nature. When the Olympian gods were faced with a titanic struggle against the giants, Athena played a major role in the war, defeating the giant Enkelados in single combat. She came to be depicted not merely as a virgin goddess, but, as an ancient Roman writer put it, as a virago: as a female capable of playing a leading role in a world dominated by men.
It came to be said that the reason for the birth of this goddess lay in a wager between Zeus and his consort, Hera, as to which of them could generate the better progeny entirely alone and unaided. By herself, Hera managed to produce only the crippled god, Hephaestos and a monster; while Zeus was able to bring forth, in Athena, one of the greatest of the Immortals.
This seems to have been a picturesque reference to a widespread belief, which was to appear later in the works of the philosopher Aristotle: that the father alone is responsible for generating his children, and for providing them with their inherited characteristics, and that their mother affords them nothing more than a temporary shelter and sustenance in her womb during her pregnancy.
This is a striking example of the strong climate of male chauvinism which dominated the early classical period in ancient Greece, which is very evident in myth and legend.