Questions while viewing Greek myths and rituals through the lens of Pausanias, I: Did Athena, goddess of Athens, belong only to the Athenians?

2020.04.17, rewritten 2020.04.23 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. In conversations about the ancient world, my sorely-missed friend Emily Vermeule was fond of asking this rhetorical question: in Mycenaean times, was Athena a goddess who was worshipped only in Athens? And there can be variations on such a theme. For example, I have an underlying question, formulated from a diachronic point of view. That is to say, I have a question that is formulated from the standpoint of an outside observer who is trying to view, over time, whatever evidence remains. And there are many obstacles that block such a diachronic view in this case, since the stretch of time to be studied is vast, extending from the second millennium before our era all the way into the first millennium and even later. That said, here is my question, as already worded in the subtitle of this post: did Athena, goddess of Athens, belong only to the Athenians? And there is a related question: was Athens the only place that was ever named after Athena? Further, here is yet another related question, with specific reference to the “classical” Athena as visualized in the illustration that introduces my comments: did this goddess always look like that?

Statue of Athena in the reproduction of the Parthenon in Centennial Park, Nashville, Tennessee.
Statue of Athena in the reproduction of the Parthenon in Centennial Park, Nashville, Tennessee. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


§1. Addressing these questions is not all that easy, but a re-reading of Pausanias, a traveler who lived in the second century CE, makes things somewhat easier for me. In my commentary-in-progress on information recorded by this author about the myths and rituals he observed in the course of traveling across a vast stretch of space inhabited by a vast variety of Greek-speaking people in his time, I have come across some new ways of finding possible answers.

§2. To start, I return to the question posed by Emily Vermeule: in Mycenaean times, was Athena a goddess who was worshipped only in Athens? Turning to Pausanias for a possible answer, I think we can find, by way of information that we learn from this traveler, some traces of a Mycenaean phase for the worship of Athena—not only in Athens but also throughout those regions of the Greek-speaking world that had once been dominated by a social order known to archaeologists as the Mycenaean Empire.

§3. In over twenty connected essays I produced for Classical Inquiries about Hēraklēs (they are all listed in the Bibliography at, starting with Nagy 2019.07.12 and then proceeding all the way to 2019.12.20, then restarting with Nagy 2020.02.14 and then proceeding all the way to 2020.04.03), where I was concerned mostly with Mycenaean phases in the evolution of myths about this hero, it was clear to me all along that the most important goddess connected with Hēraklēs in these myths was Hērā. But it was also clear—and made clear enough, I hope, in those same essays—that the second most important goddess connected with this hero during that same Mycenaean phase was Athena.

§4. In my commentary-in-progress on Pausanias, linked to APRIP = A Pausanias reader in progress, online at, I have already come across some traces of such a Mycenaean phase in my analysis of myths and rituals, as reported by our traveler, involving the connectedness of Athena with Hēraklēs. But now my interest extends beyond this connectedness. For my commentary on Pausanias, one of my many objectives is to broaden the scope of inquiry for ongoing analysis of myths and rituals in general. So, in the case of Athena, to start with this goddess as my first example, my long-term objective will be to study all possible traces of a Mycenaean phase in the evolution of myths and rituals involving Athena in general, combined in some contexts—hardly in all—with her protégé Hēraklēs.

Minerva and Hercules opening the Doors for Victory (1651). Oil on panel. Christiaen van Couwenbergh (1604–1667). Image via Wikimedia Commons.


§5. As a preview of comments, to be serialized in postings to come, about possible traces of a Mycenaean Athena to be found in passing references made by Pausanias, I offer here three samplings of such references. As we will see here as also in later postings, the Mycenaean version of Athena that slowly emerges is a far cry from the “classical” Athenian version of the goddess as visualized in the illustration that introduces my preview.

§6. In what follows, I list the three passages from Pausanias, the first two of which I have already analyzed in previous postings. In the case of the third passage, I offer a new translation, followed by new commentary, further below, at §7:

1.18.2           commentary already in place:

1.27.3           commentary already in place:

1.30.4           ‘There is also pointed out a place [khōros] called the Kolōnos Hippios [‘Tumulus of Horses’], the first point in Attica, they say, that Oedipus reached—these things that are said do differ from what is in the poetry [poiēsis] of Homer, but they say these things in any case—and an altar [bōmos] of Poseidon Hippios [ ‘(controller of) horses’], and of Athena Hippiā [‘(controller of) horses’], and a hero-shrine [hērōion] of Peirithoös and Theseus, Oedipus and Adrastos. The grove [alsos] and shrine [nāos] of Poseidon were burned down by Antigonos when he invaded Attica.’

§7. Commentary on Pausanias 1.30.4

I see here a most revealing set of details that point to a Mycenaean role of Athena. We have just learned that the epithet Hippiā is applied to the goddess by the natives of Colonus, just as they apply the epithet Hippios to the god Poseidon. This epithet, which I translate in both cases as ‘controller-of-horses’, is I think referring primarily to the skill of charioteering. At a later point in his write-up, at 8.46.1, 4–5, Pausanias is commenting on a statue of Athena that had been safeguarded by the people of Tegea in Arcadia—until they were robbed of their prized possession by their Roman conquerors; they then replaced that statue of Athena that was lost to Rome by taking another statue of Athena from another site that was sacred to her—in this case, from a neighboring Arcadian dēmos or ‘district’ by the name of Manthouria, as we read further in Pausanias 8.47.1. We learn there that the goddess represented by this statue was called Hippiā by the local Arcadian population that worshipped her, and that she was addressed this way, as ‘controller of the horses’. Pausanias then proceeds to give the reason for worshipping Athena as Hippiā. In the mythology of these Arcadians, he reports, Athena went to war as a charioteer in their local version of a widespread myth traditionally known as the Battle of the Gods and Giants. With these details in mind, I now turn to relevant evidence in Mycenaean Greek as written in the Linear B texts found at Knossos and at Pylos. In these texts, as we are about to see, the comparable forms Athānā and hikkʷeiā are attested in contexts that correspond to the contexts of Athēnē and Hippiā as reported by Pausanias. In analyzing these texts and contexts, I mostly agree with the relevant argumentation presented in a paper jointly authored by Joann Gulizia, Kevin Pluta, and Thomas Palaima (2001). The authors, hereafter abbreviated GPP, concentrate on two texts: the tablet V 52 from Knossos, which they date around 1400 BCE, and the tablet An 1281 from Pylos, unambiguously dated around 1200 BCE.

§7a. We start with the Linear B tablet V 52 from Knossos. The specific context of this text, according to GPP, can be traced back—with some certainty—to the Room of the Chariot Tablets or RCT, as it is known to archaeologists. This context, as we will see, is relevant to a detail mentioned by Pausanias at 1.30.4: according to our traveler, as I have already noted, the goddess Athena is worshipped as Hippiā or ‘charioteer’ at Colonus. But what about the goddess in the text of tablet V 52, situated in the context of the Room of the Chariot Tablets? She is mentioned prominently, in the first line of V 52, where we read a-ta-na-po-ti-ni-ja. The second element, -po-ti-ni-ja, spells potniāi, dative case of potnia, corresponding to classical Greek potnia (πότνια), meaning ‘mistress, lady’. As for the first element, a-ta-na-, it can be interpreted as spelling either Athānāi or Athānās—so, either the dative or the genitive case of the name Athānā, corresponding to the classical Greek name Athēnē. A big question remains, though: is this Mycenaean name Athānā (1) the personal name of the goddess Athena or (2) a place-name, referring to the citadel of Athens, a primary residence of the goddess? In the paper of GPP, a persuasive argument is made for the second of these two alternative explanations. Crucial for their argumentation is a fact that I have highlighted in my own work: the fact is, as I showed at §§4–9 in Nagy 2015.09.10 with reference to Odyssey 7.78 and with bibliography referring to earlier phases of my relevant work, the singular form Athēnē can refer in Homeric Greek to the citadel of the goddess Athena in what later became, already well before the classical era, the city of Athens. Accordingly, if we follow the interpretation preferred by GPP, the wording of the first line in the tablet V 52 can be interpreted this way: ‘to the Lady [potnia] of Athens’, where a-ta-na- spells Athānās, in the genitive case, while po-ti-ni-ja spells potniāi, in the dative. Alternatively, if we were to read a-ta-na- as Athānāi, in the dative case, then we could interpret the wording this way: ‘to the Lady Athena’. Either way, in any case, the referent would be the goddess Athena, in a Mycenaean phase of her evolution.

§7b. But more can be said about such a Mycenaean Athena as a charioteer, to be matched with the role of the “classical” Athena at Colonus as Hippiā. Here we turn to the Linear B tablet An 1281 from Pylos, dated around 1200 BCE. We read in this text the noun po-ti-ni-ja, spelling potniāi, in the dative case, and meaning ‘to the Lady [potnia]’. Although the name of the goddess who receives the offering is not indicated, the identity of the divine referent here is most likely to be the goddess Athena. As we see from the analysis of GPP (p. 456), the noun po-ti-ni-ja that we see in the text of this tablet is described by way of the epithet i-qe-ja, which can be interpreted as hikkʷeiā, in the dative case—so, adjective hikkʷeiāi describing and agreeing with the noun potniāi. As observed by GPP (again, p. 456), this Mycenaean Greek epithet hikkʷeiā would be the equivalent of hippeiā in classical Greek. Thus the combination of po-ti-ni-ja and i-qe-ja in the text of this tablet can be interpreted to mean this: ‘to the Lady [potnia], controller-of-horses [hikkʷeiā]’—or, to word it more specifically, ‘to the Lady, Charioteer’.


Annotations loading . . .

We're trying out a new look. 🎉 Let us know what you think! Hide.