A Hero's Best Friend
Athena often appears in myths that feature a great hero or adventurer trying to succeed in a challenging trial. With her intelligence, versatility, and skill, Athena was the natural choice to help a hero aspiring to great achievements. This section details some of the adventures in which Athena stepped in to help a hero.
Diomedes was a famous hero of the Trojan War. His successes, however, were largely due to Athena. As one of the lucky men under her protection, Diomedes made a name for himself as a great warrior.
During the Trojan War, Diomedes fought on the side of the Greeks. He wounded Ares in battle, driving him from the field. Aphrodite was also wounded while trying to help Ares from the field. (Some myths say that Diomedes wounded her, but others say it was Athena.) On the same day, Diomedes also wounded Aeneas (son of the Trojan prince Anchises and an excellent fighter) and killed the Trojan prince Pandarus — a war's worth of work accomplished in one day. Even a great warrior like Diomedes could not have achieved these victories without Athena's aid; he probably would have been killed by Ares if Athena had not stepped in to protect him.
Athena's assistance was not restricted to the battlefield. After the war ended, Athena offered her protection to Diomedes to ensure his safe and speedy voyage home.
Heroes had to be careful: Accepting the aid of one deity could trigger the anger of another. Because Diomedes was helped by Athena in driving her beloved Ares from the battlefield, Aphrodite vowed to get revenge — and did so in a way only the goddess of love could. With Aphrodite's help, Diomedes committed adultery multiple times.
The hero Heracles undertook the Twelve Labors (see Chapter 19). These labors were seemingly impossible tasks — and indeed, no mortal man would have been able to accomplish a single one without the help of an immortal. Luckily for Heracles, he had two advantages: He was the son of Zeus, and he was assisted by Athena. On the other hand, the wrathful Hera, furious at Zeus's affair with Heracles' mother, opposed his every move. The story of Heracles is more than the story of a hero; it's the story of the gods in strife with each other.
Athena proclaimed herself the protector of Heracles throughout his ordeals. She came to his aid several times, offering guidance and always keeping him one step ahead of the game. Heracles' success would have been impossible without the help of the goddess of wisdom.
Jason gained fame through his quest for the Golden Fleece, a quest undertaken to reclaim a throne that was rightfully his. The Golden Fleece belonged to a great flying ram, son of Poseidon and Theophane. The task was intended to be impossible, preventing Jason from claiming his birthright.
As if his near-impossible quest weren't enough, Jason had to overcome several other challenges along the way. This was where Athena came in, giving Jason the bravery and spirit to take on these obstacles. To read about the challenges of Jason's quest and how he rose to meet them, flip ahead to Chapter 19.
Athena wasn't the only deity who assisted Jason. Both Hera and Aphrodite helped him during his quest. In fact, Hera convinced the other two goddesses to offer their assistance.
Perseus, another great hero described in Chapter 19, accepted a mission from King Polydectes to retrieve the head of the Gorgon Medusa, a terrifying creature with hair of snakes and a stare that could turn mortals and immortals alike to stone. Obtaining Medusa's head seemed an impossible task, but Perseus knew with the goddess Athena on his side, he would be victorious.
Athena had her own reasons for wanting Perseus to succeed. To put it simply, she hated Medusa. Athena gave Perseus a polished bronze shield and offered him guidance, and Perseus readily accepted.
When Perseus reached Medusa's lair, Athena told him what to do. Instead of looking at the sleeping Medusa directly — which would turn him to stone — Perseus watched her reflection in his bronze shield. Keeping his eyes on the reflection, rather than looking at Medusa herself, Perseus beheaded the monster.
Perseus knew that he never would have succeeded without Athena, so he showed his appreciation by mounting Medusa's head on Athena's shield. A Gorgon's head was a great aid in battle, because it had the power to paralyze one's enemies. This shield became a symbol of the goddess, and rarely was she depicted without it.
Some myths say that Perseus didn't have to rely on the reflection in the bronze shield to defeat Medusa. He simply kept his eyes shut and trusted Athena to guide his sword, knowing that her hatred of Medusa would not fail him.
The great hero Odysseus was another favorite of Athena's. In fact, she had a respect for him that most deities never felt for mere mortals. Odysseus possessed intelligence, cunning, and a sense of justice that reminded Athena of herself. She showed her appreciation by aiding him throughout the Trojan War and his journey home — quite a task, considering that the war lasted ten years and the journey took another ten years.
The ten-year journey was full of obstacles, but Odysseus remained pious and Athena remained his protector. You may be wondering why such a powerful goddess did not see Odysseus quickly and safely home as she did Diomedes. Unfortunately, Odysseus had managed to get himself on Poseidon's bad side, and earning the enmity of the god of the seas was a problem when he had to cross those seas to get home. (To read about Odysseus's journey, see Chapter 19.)