Minerva: Roman Goddess of Wisdom and Justice

Minerva is a name that everyone will be familiar with. The Roman goddess of wisdom, justice, law, and victory is an extremely important part of the Roman pantheon and plays many important roles, such as the patron and sponsor of the arts and trade and even military strategy.

While her association with war and battle was perhaps not as overt as was the case with her Greek counterpart Athena, the ancient goddess did still play a part in strategic warfare and was revered by warriors for her wisdom and knowledge. By the time of the later Republic period, Minerva had begun to overshadow Mars where battle strategies and war was concerned. Minerva was also a part of the Capitoline Triad, along with Jupiter and Juno, and was one of the protectors of the city of Rome. 

Origins of Roman Goddess Minerva

While Minerva, goddess of wisdom and justice, is considered to be the Roman counterpart to the Greek goddess Athena, it is important to note that Minerva’s origins were more Etruscan than Greek. Like with many other Roman deities, she took on aspects of Athena after the conquest of Greece. She is believed to have first become a significant figure when she was incorporated into the Capitoline Triad, which was probably from Etruscan religion as well. 

Minerva was the daughter of Jupiter (or Zeus) and of Metis, an Oceanid and the daughter of two great Titans Oceanus and Tethys. According to some sources, Jupiter and Metis were married after she helped him defeat his father Saturn (or Cronus) and become king. The birth of Minerva is a fascinating tale borrowed from Greek myth

What was Minerva Goddess of?

So many things fell under the domain of Minerva that at times it can be difficult to answer what exactly she was the goddess of. The ancient Romans appear to have revered her and sought her patronage for any number of things, from warfare to medicine, philosophy to the arts and music to law and justice. As the goddess of wisdom, Minerva seemed to have been the patron goddess of areas as widely diverse as commerce, battle tactics, weaving, handicrafts, and learning. 

Indeed, she was considered to be a role model for the women of Rome in all her virginal glory and was a primary deity for school children to pray to. Minerva’s patience, wisdom, quiet strength, strategic mind, and position as a fount of knowledge was supposed to epitomize Roman culture, marking them as the superior force in the Mediterranean and further abroad as they set about their mission to conquer the world. 

Meaning of the name Minerva

‘Minerva’ is almost identical to the name ‘Mnerva,’ which was the name of the Etruscan goddess from whom Minerva originated. The name may have derived from either the Proto-Indo-European word ‘men’ or its Latin equivalent ‘mens,’ both of which means ‘mind.’ These are the words from which the present English word ‘mental’ has originated. 

The Etruscan name itself could have been derived from the name of an older goddess of the Italic people, ‘Meneswa,’ which meant ‘she who knows.’ Given that the Etruscans were a non-Italic group, this just goes to show how much syncretism and assimilation there was among cultures of a neighboring area. An interesting similarity can also be found with the name of the old Hindu goddess Menasvini, a goddess known for self-control, wisdom, intelligence, and virtue. This gives credence to the idea that the name ‘Minerva’ has Proto-Indo-European roots.

Minerva Medica

The goddess also had various titles and epithets, the most important of which was Minerva Medica, meaning ‘Minerva of doctors.’ The name by which one of her primary temples  was known, this epithet helped cement her position as the embodiment of knowledge and wisdom. 

Symbolism and Iconography

In most depictions, Minerva is portrayed wearing a chiton, which was a long tunic usually worn by the Greeks, and sometimes a breastplate. As the goddess of war and battle strategy, she is also usually depicted with a helmet on her head and spear and shield in hand. In the same manner as Athena, Minerva had a rather athletic and muscular physique, unlike the other Greco-Roman goddesses.

One of the most important symbols of Minerva was the olive branch. Although Minerva was often considered the goddess of victory and the one to pray to before either battle or sports championships of any kind, she was also said to have a soft spot for those who were defeated. Offering an olive branch to them was a sign of her sympathy. Till this day, lending a hand in friendship to your former enemy or rival is called ‘offering an olive branch.’ The goddess of wisdom was said to have created the first olive tree and olive trees have remained an important symbol for her.

The snake was also one of the symbols of the Roman goddess, as opposed to later Christian imagery where the snake is always a sign of evil.

The Owl of Minerva

Another significant symbol of the goddess Minerva is the owl, which came to be associated with her after her assimilation with the attributes of Athena. The nocturnal bird, noted for its sharp mind and intelligence, is supposed to depict Minerva’s knowledge and good judgment. It is called ‘The Owl of Minerva’ and is almost universally found in depictions of Minerva.

Associations with Other Deities

As with many of the Greek goddesses after the Roman religion began to take on many of the aspects of Greek civilization and religion, Athena, the Greek goddess of war and wisdom, lent some of her attributes to Minerva. But Athena was far from the only deity to influence the beliefs and mythology of the ancient Romans.  

Etruscan Goddess of War, Mnerva

Mnerva, the Etruscan goddess, was believed to be descended from Tinia, the king of the Etruscan deities. Believed to be a goddess of war and the weather, perhaps the later association with Athena later came from her name, since the root word ‘men’ means ‘mind’ and could be linked with wisdom and intelligence. She is often depicted in Etruscan art hurling a thunderbolt, an aspect of her that seems not to have transferred to Minerva. 

Minerva, along with Tinia and Uni, the king and queen of the Etruscan pantheon, formed an important triad. This was believed to be the basis of the Capitoline Triad (so called because of their temple on Capitoline Hill), which featured Jupiter and Juno, the king and queen of the Roman gods, along with Minerva, Jupiter’s daughter. 

Greek Goddess Athena

While Minerva does have several similarities with the Greek Athena which influenced the Romans to associate the two, it is important to note that Minerva was not born out of the idea of Athena but existed earlier. It was first in the 6th century BCE that Italian contact with the Greeks increased. The duality of Athena as the patron goddess of the feminine pursuits like handicrafts and weaving and the goddess of tactical intelligence in warfare made her a fascinating character.

The Greek goddess was also considered the guardian of the powerful Athens, the city named after her. As Athena Polias, the goddess of the Acropolis, she presided over the most important site in the city, filled with great marble temples. 

Like Athena, Minerva as part of the Capitoline Triad was considered a protector of the city of Rome, although she was widely worshiped throughout the Republic. Athena and Minerva were both virgin goddesses who did not allow either men or gods to woo them. They were well-versed in warfare, extremely wise, and patron deities of the arts. They were both associated with victory in battle. 

However, it would be a disservice to Minerva if we were only to think of her as an extension of Athena. Her Etruscan heritage and her connection to the indigenous people of Italy predated her associations with the Greek goddess and were equally important to the development of Minerva as she came to be worshiped later.

Mythology of Minerva

There were many famous myths about Minerva, Roman goddess of war and wisdom, and she featured in many of the classic oral tales about the wars and the heroes that formed an important part of the culture of ancient Rome. Roman mythology borrowed heavily from Greek mythology in many cases. Now, so many years down the line, it is difficult to discuss one without bringing up the other.

Birth of Minerva

One of the stories of Minerva that came to the Romans from Greek myths is about the birth of the Greek Athena. The Romans absorbed this into their mythology and thus we have the story of Minerva’s unconventional birth.

Jupiter learned that his wife Metis would give birth to a daughter who would be the most intelligent of all the gods and a son who would overthrow Jupiter, in true Greco-Roman fashion. This could not have been a surprise to Jupiter since he had overthrown his father Saturn to take his place as king of the gods, just as Saturn had overthrown his father Uranus. To prevent this, Jupiter tricked Metis into turning herself into a fly. Jupiter swallowed Metis and thought that the threat had been taken care of. However, Metis was already pregnant with Minerva.

Metis, trapped inside the head of Jupiter, angrily began to create armor for her daughter. This caused Jupiter immense headaches. His son, Vulcan, the smith of the gods, used his hammer to split open Jupiter’s head to look inside. At once, Minerva burst from Jupiter’s forehead, all grown up and dressed in battle armor. 

Minerva and Arachne

The Roman goddess Minerva was once challenged to a weaving competition by the mortal Arachne, a Lydian girl. Her weaving skills were so great and her embroidery so fine that even the nymphs admired her. When Arachne boasted that she could beat Minerva at weaving, Minerva grew very angry. Disguised as an old woman, she went to Arachne and asked her to take back her words. When Arachne would not, Minerva took up the challenge.

Arachne’s tapestry depicted the shortcomings of the gods while Minerva’s showed the gods looking down upon humans who attempted to challenge them. Angered by the contents of Arachne’s weaving, Minerva burned it and touched Arachne on the forehead. This gave Arachne a sense of shame for what she had done and she hanged herself. Feeling bad, Minerva brought her back to life but as a spider to teach her a lesson.

To us, this may sound like cheating of the highest order and underhanded tactics on the part of Minerva. But to the Romans it was supposed to be a lesson on the foolishness of challenging the gods. 

Minerva and Medusa

Originally, Medusa had been a beautiful woman, a priestess who served at the temple of Minerva. However, when the virgin goddess caught her kissing Neptune, Minerva turned Medusa into a monster with hissing snakes in place of hair. One look into her eyes would turn a person into stone. 

Medusa was slayed by the hero Perseus. He severed the head of Medusa and gave it to Minerva. Minerva placed the head on her shield. The Medusa head reputedly spilled some blood on the ground from which was created the Pegasus. Minerva eventually managed to catch and tame Pegasus before giving it to the Muses. 

Minerva and the Flute

According to Roman mythology, Minerva created the flute, an instrument that she made by piercing holes in a boxwood. The story goes on to say that she became embarrassed about how her cheeks puffed up when she tried to play it. Not liking the way she looked while playing the flute, she threw it away in a river and a satyr found it. Perhaps partly because of this invention, Minerva was also known as Minerva Luscinia, which means ‘Minerva the nightingale.’

By our modern sensibilities, none of these stories show Minerva in a very positive light or as the epitome of wisdom and grace. In fact, I would say that they show her as a rather arrogant, spoiled, vain, and judgemental figure. Still, we must remember that not only were times different but the gods could not be judged on the same basis that mortals are. While we may not agree with the Greco-Roman ideals of the wise and just goddess, that was the image that they had of her and the attributes they provided her with.

Minerva in Ancient Literature

Continuing with the theme of vengeance and an unholy temper, Minerva plays a prominent role in Roman poet Virgil’s masterpiece, The Aeneid. Virgil implies that the Roman goddess, with a great grudge against the Trojans because of Paris’ rejection of her gift, hatched the plan of the Trojan Horse and planted it in Odysseus’ head. Having succeeded in destroying Troy, Minerva was very annoyed by the Trojan warrior Aeneas and his founding of Rome. 

However, Aeneas carried a small icon of the goddess. No matter how Minerva tried to pursue him to prevent the founding of Rome, he escaped her clutches. Finally, mollified at what Minerva thought was his devotion, she allowed him to bring the small statue to Italy. The legend was that while Minerva’s icon remained within the city, Rome would not fall.

Minerva’s competition with Arachne is a subject of one of the stories in Ovid’s Metamorphosis.   

Worship of Goddess Minerva

One of the central Roman deities, Minerva was an important object of worship within the Roman religion. Minerva had several temples throughout the city and each was dedicated to a different aspect of the goddess. She also had a couple of festivals devoted to her.

Temples of Minerva

Like many of the other Roman gods, Minerva had several temples spread across the city of Rome. Most prominent was her position as one of the Capitoline Triad. The temple for the trio was the temple on Capitoline Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome, dedicated in name to Jupiter but which had separate altars to each of the three deities, Minerva, Juno, and Jupiter. 

Another temple, founded at about 50 BCE by the Roman General Pompey, was the Temple of Minerva Medica. No remains of this particular temple have been found but it was believed to have been situated on the Esquiline Hill. There is now a church on the supposed site of the temple, the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. This was the temple where she was worshiped by physicians and medical practitioners.

The other major temple of Minerva was on Aventine Hill. Situated near the guilds of the artisans and craftsmen, the Aventine Minerva was of Greek origin. It was where people came to pray for inspiration, creativity, and talent.

Worship in Rome

Worship of Minerva spread throughout the Roman empire, even outside the outskirts of the city. Slowly, she grew more important than Mars as the goddess of war. However, the warrior aspect of Minerva was always less important in the Roman imagination than it was with Athena for the Greeks. She was at times portrayed with her weapons lowered or without weapons to signify her sympathy for the fallen.

As an important part of the Roman pantheon, Minerva also had festivals devoted to her. The Romans celebrated the Quinquatrus Festival in March in honor of Minerva. The day was considered an artisans’ holiday and was of special importance to the artisans and craftsmen of the city.  There were also competitions and games of swordplay, theater, and the performance of poetry. A smaller festival was celebrated in June by the flute-players in honor of Minerva’s invention.

Worship in Occupied Britain

Just as the Roman empire had adapted the Greek gods into their own culture and religion, with the growth of the Roman Empire, many local deities began to be identified with theirs. In Roman Britain, the Celtic goddess Sulis was thought to be a different form of Minerva. The Romans were in the habit of viewing local deities and other gods in the areas they conquered as simply different forms of their own. Sulis being the patron deity of the healing hot springs in Bath, she was associated with Minerva whose connection with medicine and wisdom made her a close equivalent in the minds of the Romans.

There was a Temple of Sulis Minerva in Bath which supposedly had a fire altar that burned not wood, but coal. Sources suggest that the people believed the deity could heal all kinds of diseases completely, including rheumatism, through the hot springs. 

Minerva in the Modern World

The influence and visibility of Minerva did not disappear with the Roman empire. Even today, we can find a very large number of Minerva statues littered throughout the world. As a font of knowledge and wisdom, Minerva continued to serve as a symbol for a host of colleges and academic institutions into the modern age. Her name was even associated with various government matters and politics.

Statues

One of the most well-known modern day depictions of Minerva is the Minerva Roundabout in Guadalajara, Mexico. The goddess stands on a pedestal atop a large fountain and there is an inscription at the base, saying, “Justice, wisdom and strength guard this loyal city.”

In Pavia, Italy, there is a famous statue of Minerva at the train station. This is considered a  very important landmark of the city. 

There is a bronze statue of Minerva near the top of Battle Hill in Brooklyn, New York, built by Frederick Ruckstull in 1920 and called Altar to Liberty: Minerva.

Universities and Academic Institutes

Minerva also has statues in various universities, including the University of North Carolina in Greensboro and the State University of New York in Albany. 

One of the most well-known Minerva statues is in Wells College in New York and it is featured in a very interesting student tradition every year. The senior class decorates the statue at the beginning of the year to celebrate the coming school year and then kisses her feet for good luck on the last day of classes at the end of the year.

The Ballarat Mechanics Institute in Australia not only has a statue of Minerva at the top of the building but a mosaic tile of her in the foyer as well as a theater named after her.

Government

The state seal of California features Minerva in military garb. It has been the state seal since 1849. She is shown looking out over San Francisco Bay while ships sail along the waters and men dig for gold in the background. 

The US Military has also used Minerva at the center of the Medal of Honor for the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard. 

A very important hospital in Chengdu, China, is called the Minerva Hospital for Women and Children after the patron deity of medicine.

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