The Importance of Mythology in Defining Athenian Identity

Throughout this semester, the central question that has been present throughout all of the material we have studied has been: what defines Athens? After reading about the city’s heritage and studying Athenian art and architecture, the thought that I keep coming back to is the importance of mythology in influencing Greek identity. In Athenian pottery, we see detailed drawings of mythological figures, in the Parthenon sculptures, we see the most pivotal events from Greek myths, and in Greek life, we see attitudes and attributes that directly reflect characteristics from popular myths. The images that I have selected all highlight the prominence of mythology in Greek life, art, and architecture.

The above images of the oil flask, column-krater, and amphora are all pieces of pottery that display Greek myths. The oil flask and column-krater are images taken from the digital gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The oil flask depicts Poseidon, god of the sea and brother to Zeus and Hades, in pursuit of the Amymone, the daughter of the king of Argos. The column-krater shows the return of Hephaistos, the god of blacksmiths to the home of the gods after he was cast out by his mother. The amphora from the Kelsey Museum features Herakles, identifiable by his club and lion-skin cloak, performing one of his twelve labors. Herakles is one of the most identifiable characters from Greek mythology, and the story of his twelve labors is well-known. The legend of Herakles is one that defines Athens by presenting a hero that overcomes obstacle after obstacle, demonstrating the endurance and determination of the Athenians. All of these ceramics retell the stories of the Greek gods and god-like figures. Prominently displayed on pottery, these myths will be remembered as long as the pottery survives. Because the myths are important to Athens, so is the pottery.

In the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games, we see Eros, the god of love, hovering above the entire procession (as pictured above). Even though Eros is a mythological character, the producers of the “Klepsydra” believed that his presence was essential to understanding the narrative of Athens. There are other scenes from Greek mythology also present in the opening ceremony, including the image above of Herakles battling the hydra. From the inclusion of myths in the Athenian timeline, it is evident that mythology is integral to understanding Athenian history. In comparison to the city’s history, Greek mythology is just as well-known universally, perhaps even more.

A sketch showing an approximate reconstruction of the east pediment of the Parthenon, depicting the birth of Athena.

In discussing the structures on the Acropolis, archaeologist John Camp describes that, “the pediments [of the Parthenon] were decorated with lively scenes from Greek mythology” (32). As Camp elaborates, characters and events from Greek mythology were prominently displayed on the Parthenon, a building that was itself dedicated to the goddess, Athena. There is no better way for the city to highlight the importance of mythology than on a structure that is visible from everywhere in Athens. The above sketch of the Parthenon’s east pediment depicts the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus. Athena is the goddess of wisdom and handicraft, two traits that are central to Athenian identity and the universal understanding of Athens. Since Athens is known throughout the world as a center of knowledge and wisdom, it seems only fitting that the patron of Athens would be the goddess of wisdom.

Cup branded with an owl, a symbol central to Athens because of its association with Athena. Photo taken at the Kelsey Museum.

Additionally, the image of the owl cup reinforces the strong association between Athens and wisdom. In Athens, the owl is important because it is often carried around by Athena, goddess of wisdom. Even separate from the goddess, the owl is universally thought of as a wise creature. It is clear that these symbols of wisdom motivated Athens to cultivate an identity as a center of knowledge and inspired Athenians to more fiercely embrace the characteristics of intelligence and insight. What is certain from these images is that Greek mythology fuels Athenian culture.

Fundamentally, it is clear that mythology plays a major role in defining the city of Athens. Even though the myths are fictional, they influence Greek identity to a similar extent as actual Greek history does. As time passes, there will be new events that come to define Athens, yet the Greek myths – remembered in part through art and architecture – will remain a constant part of the city’s identity. Greek identity is subject to change over time, but mythology will always be at the heart of what makes Athens Athens.


Works Cited:

Camp, John. The Archaeology of Athens. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

“East Pediment: Birth of Athena.” Parthenon: Gallery of Images, SUNY Oneonta Art Department, suny.oneonta.edu/art-department.

“Klepsydra – Athens 2004 Olympic Games.” Vimeo, 2018, vimeo.com/247738290.

Pernick, Leah. “Amphora with Herakles Battling the Amazons.” 2019. Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

Pernick, Leah. “Drinking Cup (Skyphos) with Owl.” 2019. Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

“Terracotta Column-Krater (Bowl for Mixing Wine and Water).” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Terracotta Lekythos (Oil Flask).” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.