Minerva: cultivating wisdom

As we mark our 200th issue, it seems an appropriate time to visit our namesake, the Roman goddess Minerva. A deity of wisdom and war, born fully grown, and armed, from the head of her father Zeus/Jupiter, Minerva – and her Greek counterpart Athena – played an important part in Greek and Roman religion.

Image: Rijksmuseum [CC0]

A similar goddess, also associated with an owl, was worshipped by the Mycenaeans and Cretans, and consulted by them for wisdom in leadership. For the Etruscans, she was Menvra, a goddess of applied wisdom and practical thought. In both the names Minerva and Menvra (‘Athena’ may just reflect her role as the patron deity of Athens), we see the Indo-European prefix men-/min-, which appears too in the early references to the goddess, and in our words ‘mental’ and ‘mind’ today.

The owl of Minerva has long been considered a symbol of wisdom, invoked, for example, by German philosopher Hegel. The goddess is depicted frequently in Greek and Roman art – and in numerous sculptures, paintings, and engravings since – wearing her helmet (often adorned a griffin, signifying mental and physical strength) and with her aegis, bearing the protective image of a gorgon. The sort of outfit one might expect for a strategising warrior goddess.

Rather than her warlike aspects, the Romans more fully embraced her qualifications as a goddess of the city and civilisation, who taught humans a range of skills. She invented the flute (but threw it away because she didn’t like how it made her cheeks puff out), and was associated with pottery, carpentry, and weaving, as well as growing fruit trees, especially olives – all of which helped ancient economies flourish.

While there is much to admire about a goddess of wisdom and crafts associated with a feathered friend, there is, as is often the case, a much darker side to the deity. She turned Medusa (who had been raped in a temple of Athena) into a gorgon, and after a contest with the skilled weaver Arachne, in which the mortal woman produced a tapestry showing the misdeeds of the gods, drove her to suicide, repented, and brought her back to life as a spider.

In Athens, Athena had the magnificent Parthenon; in Rome, Minerva’s temple was on the Capitoline Hill, reflecting her special status in the city. As Philip Matyszak writes, ‘There she was ensconced with Juno and Jupiter; the three gods were known collectively as the Capitoline Triad, the embodiment of the forces that had raised Rome to greatness.’ A church in the Umbrian town of Assisi has preserved the façade of an ancient building known as the Temple of Minerva (there is also evidence that suggests it was dedicated to Hercules, a favoured hero of the goddess). Today, the building is devoted to the Virgin Mary. ‘This is appropriate,’ notes Matyszak, ‘for, in the Middle Ages when the temple was repurposed, Mary was given many of the attributes of Athena, including guiding her followers to victory in battle.’

Further reading
The Gods and Goddesses of Greece and Rome: a guide to the classical pantheon by Philip Matyszak was recently published by Thames & Hudson (ISBN 978-0500024188; £30).