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N.S. Gill

Myth Monday* - Why "Pallas" Athena?

By March 8, 2010

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You may have noticed the very popular Greek goddess of wisdom, warfare, and crafts, Athena, is often referred to as Pallas Athena or even, Pallas without the Athena. Pallas is the name of other figures in Greek mythology, so it can be confusing.

Photo: Nike offering an egg to a snake entwined around a column topped with the Palladion.
PD Courtesy Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

Plato explains Athena's use of the name Pallas, in his Cratylus dialogue, as derived from a Greek verb for shaking or dancing (pallein):
Socrates. There is no difficulty in explaining the other appellation of Athene.

Hermogenes. What other appellation?

Socrates. We call her Pallas.

Hermogenes. To be sure.

Socrates. And we cannot be wrong in supposing that this is derived from armed dances. For the elevation of oneself or anything else above the earth, or by the use of the hands, we call shaking (pallein), or dancing.

Hermogenes. That is quite true.

Socrates. Then that is the explanation of the name Pallas?

Hermogenes. Yes; but what do you say of the other name?

Socrates. Athene?

Hermogenes. Yes.

Socrates. That is a graver matter, and there, my friend, the modern interpreters of Homer may, I think, assist in explaining the view of the ancients. For most of these in their explanations of the poet, assert that he meant by Athene "mind" (nous) and "intelligence" (dianoia), and the maker of names appears to have had a singular notion about her; and indeed calls her by a still higher title, "divine intelligence" (Thou noesis), as though he would say: This is she who has the mind of God (Theonoa);- using a as a dialectical variety e, and taking away i and s. Perhaps, however, the name Theonoe may mean "she who knows divine things" (Theia noousa) better than others. Nor shall we be far wrong in supposing that the author of it wished to identify this Goddess with moral intelligence (en ethei noesin), and therefore gave her the name ethonoe; which, however, either he or his successors have altered into what they thought a nicer form, and called her Athene.

The OCD's explanation comes from the works attributed to Apollodorus: Athena took the name of Pallas from a friend she accidentally killed or from a giant she overcame. The following is the story of Athena's accidental slaying of her friend.

The story told about Pallas and her namesake, the Palladium, is as follows : They say that when Athena was born she was brought up by Triton, who had a daughter Pallas; and that both girls practised the arts of war, but that once on a time they fell out; and when Pallas was about to strike a blow, Zeus in fear interposed the aegis, and Pallas, being startled, looked up, and so fell wounded by Athena. And being exceedingly grieved for her, Athena made a wooden image in her likeness, and wrapped the aegis, which she had feared, about the breast of it, and set it up beside Zeus and honoured it.

But afterwards Electra [one of the Pleiades, pursued by the gods; see Orion], at the time of her violation, took refuge at the image, and Zeus threw the Palladium along with Ate into the Ilian country and Ilus built a temple for it, and honoured it.

Such is the legend of the Palladium.

From Sir James G. Frazer's 1921 translation of Apollodorus The Library (Apollodorus 3. 12. 3)

* There is already much material on this site on the topic of mythology (especially, Gods and Goddesses and The Stories of the Ancient Greeks). In Myth Mondays I attempt to bring up an element of mythology that is either timely or less well known.

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