Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was believed to have been born fully grown from the head of her father Zeus. The front side of this black figure amphora (ca. 560-540 BCE) depicts said scene of her birth. This terracotta amphora with added red and white slip presents Zeus, the king of Greek gods, as the central figure sitting majestically on his throne holding his thunderbolt and scepter. Athena’s miraculous birth is observed by Zeus’s other children, Greek deities Hermes, Apollo, Ares and Eileithyiai, as indicated by their attributes. The vase characterizes the myth very accurately. Fearing that his first wife, Metis, the goddess of crafty thought and wisdom, would bear offspring wiser than he himself, Zeus swallowed Metis while she was already pregnant with Athena. However, Zeus afterwards experiences a headache so painful that it attracts the attention of other deities with males and females on the vessel differentiated by darker and lighter skin coloring, respectively. The vessel depicts Zeus grasping the robes of Eileithyiai, the goddess of childbirth and midwifery, as Athena is born. Despite Eileithyiai’s not being a major goddess of the Greek pantheon, Athena’s miraculous and unusual birth is emphasized by the fact that there are two Eileithyiai’s assisting Zeus with her hands raised in gestures of epiphany. Additionally, according to various sources of Greek mythology, Ares or Hermes may have used an axe to cleave Zeus’s head to release Athena. Thus, Ares, god of war, is portrayed behind Eileithyiai with his characteristic helmet, spear, and shield while Hermes, god of commerce, is the figure farthest on the left wearing his brimmed hat with wings. It is said that the deities were so awestruck by Athena, depicted in armor with her helmet and shield, that Apollo, the sun god, stopped his chariot in the sky. Apollo is illustrated standing between Zeus and Hermes, holding his lyre.
Additionally, this scene depicted on the vessel is echoed by the description of Athena’s birth from Hesiod’s Theogony: “From his own head he gave birth to owl-eyed Athena, the awesome, battle-rousing, army-leading, untiring lady, whose pleasure is fighting and the metallic din of war.” This description resonates with the vessel’s scene of the wise Athena springing from Zeus’s head, fully grown and armed, ready for battle. The maker of the vase would have been familiar with Hesiod’s account of the myth because not only do the images on the vase match up with the text, Hesoid’s early and authoritative position in Greek literature prompted his works (ca 8th c. to 7th c. BCE) to become symbolic of the very beginnings of Greek literary tradition for many later Greeks, perhaps even inspiring the maker of this vase.
Furthermore, the depiction of a chariot scene on the back side of the vase increasingly stresses the importance of Athena to the ancient Greeks. Although at the time of this vase’s creation, the four-horse chariot, quadriga, was no longer used as transportation or in warfare, it remained popular in chariot races held at games. This frontal rendering of a quadriga has the trace horses looking away while the pole horses face each other. The charioteer, a male, as depicted by dark skin, is dressed in a long white gown with a low-flying bird nearby, a possible association with Athena and omen of victory or defeat. This back side might be alluding to the Panathenaic Games, a major festival held every four years in Athens in ancient Greece in honor of Athena. These games incorporated athletic competitions such as chariot racing, as depicted on this vessel’s back side, which is extremely fitting as the chariot was one of Athena’s numerous inventions.
In fact, this vase may be one of the many Panathenaic amphorae containing olive oil that were ceremoniously awarded as prizes to winners of the Panathenaic Games. Since the winner of the chariot race was awarded 140 of these large ceramic vessels full of olive oil, this vase may have likely been an amphora for such purposes. If so, this amphora made in Athens and its imagery would have been extremely appropriate in honoring Athena and her miraculous birth through the context of the Panathenaic Games dedicated to her name. The winners of the chariot races, upon seeing the amphora’s imagery, would believe they were blessed with Athena’s favor, the patron goddess of the Greek city of Athens.