Minerva, the Goddess of Wisdom

Minerva, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom represents an image of civilization itself. She is a virgin goddess that also represents poetry, arts, music, medicine, commerce, weaving, trade, war and strategy. Though she represents war, she is not an image of violence, as she depicts defensive war as her only form of violence, which is more noble than her counterpart, Mars, the God of War. Minerva’s Roman counterpart, Athena, is named and depicted extensively in Western culture.

Minerva is often depicted with her sacred creature, an owl, usually referred to as the Owl of Minerva. Though she is female, she is often depicted with an athletic and muscular build, wearing armor and carrying a spear. Ancient Roman writer Marcus Terentius Varro considered her to be ideas and plans for the universe personified.

Minerva appears often throughout Greek mythology including assisting Hercules, assisting Odysseus, appearing in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, inventing the flute, and turning Medusa, once a great beauty, into a monster. The first kind of beauty contest in history is depicted involving Minerva in the myth the Judgement of Paris. In this myth, Paris is tasked by Zeus to choose which goddess is fairest: Hera, Athena (Minerva), or Aphrodite. Each goddess attempted to bribe Paris of their beauty and Athena offered him wisdom and skill in war… Eventually, Paris accepted Aphrodite’s bribe, which she offered the world’s most beautiful woman, Helen of Sparta. He gained the enemy of the Greeks, especially of Hera. The Greeks expedition to retrieve Helen from Paris is the basis for the Trojan War. Ultimately, this tale shows how Paris should have selected Minerva…

At the Acropolis in Athens, there is a temple that was where Minerva and Poseidon could be worshipped, the Erechtheion. This temple, built between 421 and 406 BC, is flanked by Caryatids, maidens made of marble. They are unnamed and continue to be unnamed. At the museum in Athens which they are today, they are referred to as “A, B, C, D, and E.” Under the Ottoman Empire, the temple was turned into a harem. The Caryatids have seen much throughout their history. Their recent laser restoration by the Acropolis Museum brought their appearance new life.

The temple has been recreated throughout Western culture, most notably outside of the Austrian Parliament buildings in Vienna, Austria. Appearances of the Caryatids in architecture also appear in New York City in the SoHo neighborhood. An ancient concept is alive and well in our current civilization, which speaks volumes for the enduring nature of Minerva’s representation.

The Caryatids of the Erechtheion in Athens, Greece . This temple was a place to worship Minerva and Poseidon, the God of the Ocean.
The Erechtheion at the Acropolis in Athens – these Caryatids are reproductions now replaced in 1979, as the originals are on display in the Acropolis Museum in Athens and safe from further weather deterioration. The New York Times described their restoration in this article.
A marble copy of the sculpture of Athena Parthenos that would have been within the Erectheion, by the sculptor Phidias. This copy is at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Cartwright, Mark. “The Varvakeion Athena.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 21 Dec 2014. Web. 11 May 2020.
Torso of Poseidon, the marble structure of Poseidon which would have been in the Parthenon. Poseidon was the other Greek God which Erechtheion honored. This torso is now in the British Museum, which was acquired by Lord Elgin in the 19th century.
One of the original Caryatids of the Erechtheion was sadly removed by a British Lord, Lord Elgin, in the early 19th century. This original Caryatid is available to view at the British Museum in London.
Pallas Athena outside of Austrian Parliament
Caryatids outside of the Austrian Parliament in Vienna, clear recreation of Erechtheion in Athens.
Caryatids in private residential architecture in Vienna
Mosaic of Minerva by Elihu Vedder within central arched panel leading to the Visitor’s Gallery in the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Exhibit Caption: Pictured on this mosaic in the arched panel is the Roman Goddess Minerva–guardian of civilization. She is portrayed as the Minerva of Peace, but according to the artist who created her, Elihu Vedder (American painter, 1836–1923), the peace and prosperity that she enjoys was attained only through warfare. A little statue of Nike, a representation of Victory, similar to those erected by ancient Greeks to commemorate their success in battle, stands next to Minerva. The figure is a winged female standing on a globe and holding out a laurel wreath (victory) and palm branch (peace) to the victors.

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