Minerva Is Often Identified With The Greek Athena, But Her Origins Ran Deeper
Minerva was an important goddess in the pantheon of the ancient Romans. She was worshipped primarily as the goddess of wisdom. Nevertheless, she was also believed to be the goddess of trade, the arts, and warfare. Furthermore, Minerva’s domains included medicine, poetry, and handicrafts. In fact, Minerva ruled over so many different aspects of life that the poet Ovid referred to her as the ‘goddess of a thousand works.’ Minerva is often identified as the equivalent of the Greek goddess Athena.
Was Roman Goddess Minerva Originally an Etruscan Goddess?
Minerva is thought to have been originally an Etruscan goddess. Her name, for instance, is almost identical to Menrva the Etruscan goddess of the arts. The worship of Minerva seems to have been adopted by the Romans later on, who associated the goddess’ name with the Latin word mens which means ‘mind’. Later still, Minerva became identified with the Greek Athena and it was at this time that Minerva became associated with war, an area traditionally under the domain of Mars (his Greek equivalent being Ares).
Mars with Minerva as War Goddess. (Thorvaldsen Museum / CC BY-SA 1.0)
What Was Minerva’s Origin?
In Roman mythology, Minerva was regarded to be the daughter of Jupiter (whose Greek equivalent was Zeus) and the story of her birth is the same as that of her Greek counterpart Athena. In this myth, Jupiter receives a prophecy that the child of Wisdom (Metis in the Greek version of the myth) will be more powerful than him. In order to safeguard his position as king of the gods, Jupiter marries the goddess, has sexual intercourse with her and swallows her. Wisdom, however, was already impregnated by Jupiter, though it seems that none of the gods nor even Jupiter himself knew.
The Birth of Minerva
Nine months later Jupiter suffers from an excruciating headache. The king of the gods calls for Vulcan (Hephaestus in Greek mythology) to relieve the pain. In order to do so, Vulcan cleaved Jupiter’s head open with an axe. To their great surprise, a fully-grown maiden leapt out of Jupiter’s head. She was fully armed for war, wearing armor and a helmet, with a shield in one hand and a spear in the other. The maiden was none other than the goddess Minerva.
The Birth of Minerva. (artshop77 / Public Domain)
Minerva Was One of the Most Powerful Gods
Minerva occupied a central place in the public religion of ancient Rome. This is most clearly seen in the goddess’ status as one of the Capitoline Triad. This powerful triad of gods comprised of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva and derived its name from their temple on Rome’s Capitoline Hill. Temples dedicated to the Capitoline Triad were known as capitolia and were built on hills or other prominent areas in Roman cities, not only in Italy, but also in the provinces.
Sculpture group with "Triad Capitoline" Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, from a roman villa in Guidonia. (MM / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Minerva’s Guidance Blended with Other Gods
Moreover, in certain areas of the Roman Empire, Minerva blended with local deities to become a hybrid goddess. One of these, for instance, was Sulis-Minerva, a combination of Minerva and the Sulis, a local wisdom goddess worshipped by the people of Britannia. Additionally, there were also temples dedicated to Minerva alone. One of these, for example, is the Temple of Minerva Chalcidica or Minervium which was built by Pompey. Later on, the site was Christianized and a church, Santa Maria sopra Minerva (Saint Mary above Minerva) was built above the alleged ruins of the temple. Excavations in modern times, however, have shown that the Minervium was in fact close to but not directly under this church.
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Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. (Peter1936F / CC BY-SA 4.0)
How Did the Worshipers Honor Minerva?
There were a number of festivals celebrated in honor of Minerva. One of the most important was the Quinquatria, which was held from the 19 th to the 23 rd of March. The festival was celebrated primarily by the artisans and was treated as a holiday by this class. On the first day of the no blood could be shed, though gladiatorial battles were held at the end of the festival’s last day. Performances by orators, poets, and theaters were also provided during the festival. Another festival, the Minusculae Quinquatria was held on the 13 th of June and was mainly celebrated by flute-players.
The Glorification of Minerva. (Szilas / Public Domain)
Minerva’s Influence Could Not Be Stifled by The Rise of Christianity
Needless to say, the worship of Minerva went into decline following the rise of Christianity. Nevertheless, her influence as the goddess of wisdom can still be seen today. For instance, a statue of Minerva stands in the center of Rome’s La Sapienza University. Additionally, many institutes of higher learning, including the University of Lincoln (UK), the University of Albany (USA), and the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science (Germany) have an image of Minerva on their seal or logo. Oddly, during the early 20 th century Manuel José Estrada Cabrera, the president of Guatemala, attempted to promote a ‘Cult of Minerva’ in his country. Today, however, only several ‘Hellenistic temples’ in parks around Guatemala are testament to the existence of this curious movement.
Minerva by Johan Sylvius. (Digital Museum / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Top image: Minerva as Patroness of Learning and of the Arts. Source: Thorvaldsen Museum / CC BY-SA 1.0
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