Athena springing in full armor from Zeus' head

Raphael's fresco "The School of Athens" (1510-11) represents a high Renaissance view of what it might have been like to stroll around with the likes of Plato and Aristotle in Athens (Plato & Aristotle are the two central figures).

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In ancient Greece, "Athenaeum" was originally the general name applied to all temples dedicated to Athena, the goddess of knowledge, wisdom, the arts, industry, and justice. Grey-eyed Athena, who has been called the mind of god, is also the goddess of prudent intelligence. Athena was Zeus's, the king of gods and men, favorite child, she had sprung fully-grown and in full armor out of his head and represented her father's intellectual powers. Her mother was Metis, an oceanid and goddess of wisdom, the King of the Gods became enamoured with Metis and chose her as his first wife. She was of all beings "the most knowing" or 'most wise', as the word metis is interpreted, or "of many counsels" as translated in the sense of the Homeric epithet polymetis. Metis also means 'thought' or 'thinking'.

As Metis was about to give birth to the Goddess Athena, Zeus deceived his pregnant wife with cunning words and assimilated her into his own body. That is, Zeus was impregnated with 'thought' and 'intelligence,' and as a result of that impregnation, Athena was born from his head. Athena is the favorite daughter of Zeus; and that's why he let her use his insignia: the terrible shield, the aegis and his devastating weapon, the ray. Her symbols are the owl and the olive tree. The most used expression to describe her is "the bright eyed". In poetry she is the incarnation of Wisdom, Reason and Purity.

Athena was the founder and protector of the city of Athens to which she gave her name (Athena in Greek). Athens, or Athena the goddess's namesake city, became the ancient world's philosophy, arts and sciences center par excellence. The center of men's development of their new intellectual powers, what some have called a new, unheard of before or anywhere else on earth way of using the brain, which produced a new type of individualized, independent consciousness and a new type of civilization. This new type of consciousness was able to break away from the set and fixed matrices of the traditional and customary ways of viewing the world and perceiving reality that characterized all earlier great civilizations. Athena was (and still is) the patroness as well as the symbol of these newfound intellectual abilities of man.

From early on in the history of Greece poets, philosophers, and orators used to gather at the Athenaeums, or temples of Athena, to read and discuss their work. All types of scholars and intellectuals gathered at the Athenaeums to exchange ideas and, in time, many were given salaries so that they could pursue and share scholarly endeavors. They were, quite possibly, the first teachers in history to be paid for their services. The largest of these temples and, at the same time, major intellectual and education center, was built in Athens, Greece, where the most celebrated poets of the time often assembled to read their compositions and enlighten the masses.

After the Romans conquered the Greeks in the second century BC, they borrowed heavily from them in almost every field of human endeavor, particularly in matters cultural and philosophical. They identified Athena with their own goddess Minerva. Hadrian, Emperor from 117 to 138 AD, the most Graecophile of the Roman emperors, established an Athenaeum in Athens as a proto-university circa 135 in an era of preservation and renewal of ancient Greek culture. He also established an Athenaeum in Rome. Built in the form of an amphitheater, the Roman Athenaeum provided a convenient location for talented and learned Romans, rhetoricians and poets, to follow their Greek predecessors in reading their works in public, in critiquing the works of others, in exchanging ideas on any subject under the sun, and in engaging in Socratic dialogue in various branches of general liberal education and philosophy.

During the Renaissance, among the many useful creations and concepts of classical ancient times to be "reborn" after centuries of darkness and shadow was the pursuit of secular enlightenment. Once again an Athenaeum became admired as a place of study and learning, where people could explore hypotheses, exchange ideas, and sound off on any topic they chose, all without the fear of being accused of sacrilege.

Seeking to emulate the Greeks, later generations have created Athenaeum forums and societies for the promotion of learning. Over the centuries the term has applied to numerous academies and learned societies. Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Moore established the most famous of these, the Athenaeum of London, in 1824. Members included individuals known for their scientific or literary attainments, artists of eminence in all classes of the fine arts, and noblemen and gentlemen distinguished as Liberal patrons of science, literature, or the arts.