LLR Books

MINERVA.




[Sidenote: Birth of Minerva.]

Although immortal, the gods were not exempt from physical pain. One
day Jupiter suffered intensely from a sudden headache, and, in hopes
that some mode of alleviation would be devised, he summoned all the
gods to Olympus. Their united efforts were vain, however; and even the
remedies suggested by Apollo, god of medicine, proved inefficacious.
Unwilling, or perchance unable, to endure the racking pain any longer,
Jupiter bade one of his sons, Vulcan, cleave his head open with an ax.
With cheerful alacrity the dutiful god obeyed; and no sooner was the
operation performed, than Minerva (Pallas, Athene) sprang out of her
father's head, full-grown, clad in glittering armor, with poised
spear, and chanting a triumphant song of victory.

                        "From his awful head
    Whom Jove brought forth, in warlike armor drest,
    Golden, all radiant."

                                    Shelley.

The assembled gods recoiled in fear before this unexpected apparition,
while at the same time a mighty commotion over land and sea proclaimed
the advent of a great divinity.

The goddess, who had thus joined the inhabitants of Olympus, was
destined to preside over peace, defensive war, and needlework, to be
the incarnation of wisdom, and to put to flight the obscure deity
called Dullness, who until then had ruled the world.

  [Illustration: MINERVA. (National Museum, Naples.)]

    "Ere Pallas issu'd from the Thund'rer's head,
    Dullness o'er all possess'd her ancient right,
    Daughter of Chaos and eternal Night."

                                       Pope.

Minerva, having forced her unattractive predecessor to beat an
ignominious retreat, quickly seized the scepter, and immediately began
to rule in her stead.

[Sidenote: Naming of Athens.]

Not long after her birth, Cecrops, a Phœnician, came to Greece, where
he founded a beautiful city in the province since called Attica. All
the gods watched his undertaking with great interest; and finally,
seeing the town promised to become a thriving place, each wished the
privilege of naming it. A general council was held, and after some
deliberation most of the gods withdrew their claims. Soon none but
Minerva and Neptune were left to contend for the coveted honor.

To settle the quarrel without evincing any partiality, Jupiter
announced that the city would be intrusted to the protection of the
deity who would create the most useful object for the use of man.
Raising his trident, Neptune struck the ground, from which a noble
horse sprang forth, amid the exclamations of wonder and admiration of
all the spectators. His qualities were duly explained by his proud
creator, and all thought it quite impossible for Minerva to surpass
him. Loudly they laughed, and scornfully too, when she, in her turn,
produced an olive tree; but when she had told them the manifold uses
to which wood, fruit, foliage, twigs, etc., could be applied, and
explained that the olive was a sign of peace and prosperity, and
therefore far more desirable than the horse, the emblem of war and
wretchedness, they could but acknowledge her gift the most
serviceable, and award her the prize.

To commemorate this victory over her rival, Minerva gave her own name
of Athene to the city, whose inhabitants, from that time forth, were
taught to honor her as their tutelary goddess.

Ever at Jupiter's side, Minerva often aided him by her wise counsels,
and in times of war borrowed his terrible shield, the Ægis, which she
flung over her shoulder when she sallied forth to give her support to
those whose cause was just.

                  "Her shoulder bore
    The dreadful Ægis with its shaggy brim
    Bordered with Terror. There was Strife, and there
    Was Fortitude, and there was fierce Pursuit,
    And there the Gorgon's head, a ghastly sight,
    Deformed and dreadful, and a sign of woe."

                       Homer (Bryant's tr.).

The din of battle had no terrors for this doughty goddess, and on
every occasion she was wont to plunge into the thickest of the fray
with the utmost valor.

[Sidenote: Story of Arachne.]

These virile tastes were, however, fully counterbalanced by some
exclusively feminine, for Minerva was as deft with her needle as with
her sword. In Greece there lived in those olden times a maiden by the
name of Arachne. Pretty, young, and winsome, she would have been loved
by all had it not been for her inordinate pride, not in her personal
advantages, but in her skill as a needlewoman.

Arachne, in her conceit, fancied that no one could equal the work done
by her deft fingers, so she boasted far and wide that she would have
no fear to match her skill with Minerva's. She made this remark so
loudly and so frequently, that the goddess was finally annoyed, and
left her seat in high Olympus to come down upon earth and punish the
maiden. In the guise of an old crone, she entered Arachne's house,
seated herself, and began a conversation. In a few minutes the maiden
had resumed her usual strain, and renewed her rash boast. Minerva
gently advised her to be more modest, lest she should incur the wrath
of the gods by her presumptuous words; but Arachne was so blinded by
her conceit, that she scorned the well-meant warning, saucily tossed
her head, and declared she wished the goddess would hear her, and
propose a contest, in which she would surely be able to prove the
truth of her assertions. This insolent speech so incensed Minerva,
that she cast aside her disguise and accepted the challenge.

Both set up their looms, and began to weave exquisite designs in
tapestry: Minerva choosing as her subject her contest with Neptune;
and Arachne, the kidnapping of Europa. In silence the fair weavers
worked, and their webs grew apace under their practiced fingers. The
assembled gods, the horse, the olive tree, seemed to live and move
under Minerva's flashing shuttle.

    "Emongst these leaves she made a Butterflie,
    With excellent device and wondrous slight,
    Fluttring among the Olives wantonly,
    That seem'd to live, so like it was in sight:
    The velvet nap which on his wings doth lie,
    The silken downe with which his backe is dight,
    His broad outstretched hornes, his hayrie thies,
    His glorious colours, and his glistering eies."

                                    Spenser.

Arachne, in the mean while, was intent upon her swimming bull, against
whose broad breast the waves splashed, and upon a half-laughing,
half-frightened girl, who clung to the bull's horns, while the wind
played with her flowing tresses and garments.

              "Sweet Europa's mantle blew unclasp'd,
      From off her shoulder backward borne:
    From one hand droop'd a crocus: one hand grasp'd
      The mild bull's golden horn."

                                   Tennyson.

The finishing touches all given, each turned to view her rival's work,
and at the very first glance Arachne was forced to acknowledge her
failure. To be thus outstripped, after all her proud boasts, was
humiliating indeed. Bitterly did Arachne now repent of her folly; and
in her despair she bound a rope about her neck, and hung herself.
Minerva saw her discomfited rival was about to escape: so she quickly
changed her dangling body into a spider, and condemned her to weave
and spin without ceasing,--a warning to all conceited mortals.

[Sidenote: Worship of Minerva.]

Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, was widely worshiped. Temples and
altars without number were dedicated to her service, the most
celebrated of all being the Parthenon at Athens. Naught but the ruins
of this mighty pile now exist; but they suffice to testify to the
beauty of the edifice, which served, in turn, as temple, church,
mosque, and finally as powder magazine.

    "Fair Parthenon! yet still must Fancy weep
    For thee, thou work of nobler spirits flown.
    Bright, as of old, the sunbeams o'er thee sleep
    In all their beauty still--and thine is gone!
    Empires have sunk since thou wert first revered.
    And varying rites have sanctified thy shrine.
    The dust is round thee of the race that rear'd
    Thy walls; and thou--their fate must soon be thine!"

                                     Hemans.

Statues of Minerva--a beautiful, majestic woman, fully clothed and
armed--were very numerous. The most celebrated of all, by the renowned
Greek sculptor Phidias, measured full forty feet in height. Festivals
were celebrated in honor of Minerva wherever her worship was
held,--some, the Greek Panathenæa, for instance, only every four
years; others, such as the Minervalia and Quinquatria, every year. At
these festivals the Palladium, a statue of the goddess, said to have
fallen from heaven, was carried in procession through the city, where
the people hailed its appearance with joyful cries and songs of

praise.