Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Minerva - Goddess of Skilled Thought and Action

"Perseus Armed by Mercury and Minerva" (detail) by Bordone (c.1550)
Minerva is the Goddess of skillfulness and industriousness, or, to put it another way, Minerva is the divine spirit (numen) of skilled action and skilled thought. Caesar describes Minerva as she who “bestows the principles of arts and crafts”, and so she is the patron Goddess of any profession associated with skilled workmanship, thus carpenters, painters, sculptors, teachers, health care workers, shoemakers, anyone associated with the textile industry, indeed any artisan. Propertius describes Minerva as the Goddess of the chaste arts, and Cicero, Tibullus and Horace all refer to her as a chaste, or maiden, Goddess. Horace calls her “industrious”. She also has another significant aspect, a martial one. Ovid tells us that “fierce wars are waged by Minerva’s hands”, and calls her the “armed Goddess”  who likes “unsheathed swords”. Thus in iconography she is typically identifiable by her helmet. Though Mars is the God of war, he is more commonly associated with the bloody violence of war, whereas Minerva is associated with military strategy (skilled thought leading to skilled action), without which no war can be won.

Minerva as a protecting deity of Rome
In his Treatise on the Laws Cicero describes Minerva as a guardian of Rome. Skilled workmanship, industriousness and intelligent thinking are integral to civilised life, certainly they were integral to Roman life, when it was at its best – hence Minerva’s role as a primary patron deity of Rome. She, along with Jupiter and Juno, was one of the Capitoline Triad – the foremost protecting deities of Rome whose massive temple dominated the city and was the site of the grandest public rituals, including the final rites and offerings made by a triumphant war general. Nor was the Capitoline Triad confined to protecting the city of Rome, but extended to all people who considered themselves Roman, for the “custom of building a triple temple (Capitolium) to the three Gods of the State triad spread outwards from Rome to the Italian coloniae and then the entire empire as well (Beard 2 at 244). In this context Jupiter was revered because he gives us safety, and freedom from hurt, and riches, and abundant resources (Cicero, The Nature of the Gods). Juno was concerned with “the defence and reproduction of the citizen body” (Rüpke at 37), while Minerva was the foremost protectress of civilised life. This not only because she is the Goddess of craftsmanship, industry and the strategy of war, but also through her association with peace – for Minerva is the “bringer of the olive” (Virgil), and so too the olive branch, traditionally extended to enemies in war as a token of peace. Thus she assists in the strategy of war and the strategy of peace. Her association with successful wars, peace and the protection of Rome goes towards explaining  why the Palladium, a miniature statue of Minerva  said to have been seized during the Trojan war (many Romans considered themselves descendants of Troy)  was kept in the shrine of Vesta, in which the sacred flame which signified the protection of Rome was kept alive. According to myth, so long as the Palladium was kept safe within Rome the city could not be conquered. From the 390s onwards Pagan shrines and temples were looted and desecrated across the Roman empire (by Christians) and the Vestal flame extinguished. Perhaps the Palladium was removed or destroyed around this time, for by 410 CE Rome was sacked, for the first time in 800 years, and the fall of the western Roman empire thereby became essentially complete.* 

Minerva's healing aspect
Minerva also has a curative function. In The Nature of the Gods, Cicero records that at least one ancient myth designates her as the mother of Apollo, God of healing, inter alia. Similarly, in his Metamorphoses Ovid describes Minerva as having acted as a mother to Ericthonius, an early king of that other great city associated with civilisation  Athens. On a less mythological note, she is naturally associated with medicine, which requires great skill to administer. Hence she was sometimes known as Minerva Medica (healing Minerva). Likewise, as baths were traditionally associated with healing, it is not surprising  that the great Roman baths which gave a city its name – Bath, in England – were dedicated to Sulis Minerva.

Minerva’s festival in ancient Rome 
Sardonyx cameo of Minerva, circa 1st century CE
The days in the Roman calendar most sacred to Minerva were the 19-23 of March:
“The Quinquatria (so named because they coincided with the fifth day after the ides) … was the anniversary of the temple of Minerva on the Aventine ... four days of sacrifices and competitions, mainly gladiatorial [were held] ... Spinners and weavers, fullers and dyers, shoemakers, carpenters, painters and sculptors, schoolmasters too (who then received the bonus title of minerval, before giving their students a few days’ holiday) thoroughly enjoyed themselves. At that time, too, women created a masterpiece in homage to the divine patroness of the textile industry, whose activities are celebrated on the frieze in Nerva’s forum [Turcan at 67].”
Ovid describes the Quinquatria, and Minerva’s blessings, in detail:
“The first day is bloodless, and it is unlawful to combat with the sword, because Minerva was born on that day. The second day and three besides are celebrated by the spreading of sand [to soak up spilt blood in the arena]: the warlike Goddess delights in drawn swords. Ye boys and tender girls, pray now to Pallas [ie, Minerva]; he who shall have won the favour of Pallas will be learned. When once they have won the favour of Pallas, let girls learn to card the wool and to unload the full distaffs. She also teaches how to traverse the upright warp with the shuttle [ie, to weave], and she drives home the loose threads with the comb. Worship her, thou who dost remove stains from damaged garments; worship her, thou who dost make ready the brazen caldrons [large pots used for boiling] for the fleeces. If Pallas frown, no man shall make shoes well, though he were more skillful than Tychius; and though he were more adroit with his hands than Epeus of old, yet shall he be helpless, if Pallas be angry with him. Ye too, who banish sicknesses by Phoebus’ [ie, Apollo’s] art, bring from your earnings a few gifts to the Goddess. And spurn her not, ye schoolmasters, ye tribe too often cheated of your income, she attracts new pupils; and spurn her not, thou who dost ply the graving tool and paint pictures in encaustic colours, and thou who dost mould the stone with deft hand. She is the Goddess of a thousand works: certainly she is the Goddess of song; may she be friendly to my pursuits, if I deserve it [Fasti].”
As a member of the Capitoline Triad the ludi Romani (originally 13 September, but by the reign of Augustus extended to over half the month of September) were also sacred to Minerva. These games celebrated the anniversary of the foundation of the Capitoline temple. They were so significant that they were also called the ludi magni (literally “great games”) and were particularly well known for their horse and chariot racing in the Circus Maximus, as well as State sponsored gymnastic competitions and theatrical shows.

An example of Minerva’s blessings in contemporary times
I have a friend who professes a special affection for Minerva’s Hellenic counterpart, Athena. This woman is tall and good looking, but, more notably, she is intelligent and hard working – some would call her a workaholic. At work she is ambitious and renowned not only for her highly skilled output but also for her confident manner in meetings – she is seemingly intimidated by no-one, and always projects an attitude of confidence and skill. Outside of work she has many friends, and with them she enjoys intellectual debates over a few civilised drinks with food (including foods made from olives). If one brings up any topic remotely connected to Alexander the Great she is hooked into the conversation immediately – for she has an obsession with this great military leader and his legacy. Although she has a beloved she expresses little interest in marriage. This is a person who is clearly the beneficiary of much that belongs to Minerva’s domain (intelligence, skill, industriousness, and so on), and as if it were not obvious enough that Athena/Minerva is her most natural patron deity, on occasion she wears an owl pendant – owls being traditionally associated with Athena/Minerva.

If we are to sum up the domain of Minerva, we see that she is the Goddess of:
  • Skilled work (such as teaching, health care, artisans, etc).
  • Workmanship/craftsmanship.
  • Visual arts (such as needlework, painting, sculpting, etc).
  • Industriousness.
  • Studiousness.
  • Skilled thought – thus intellect and wisdom.
  • Skilled action.
  • Strategy (especially of a martial kind).
  • Olives, the cultivation of olives representing her agricultural aspect.
"Minerva, Apollo and Mercury" by Girodet (1814)
Thus Minerva dwells at the heart of any civilised society. In our times I think perhaps she is part of another triad – the triad of the arts and the intellect, with Apollo and Mercury being her natural partners. Apollo, for his domain includes music, poetry and dance – in fact he pairs with Minerva as a deity of music (and of healing), for Minerva was said to have invented the flute (Ovid, Fasti); as the skilled Goddess musicians would surely look to her for well constructed instruments, if not skillful playing. Mercury is another partner, for his domain includes eloquent articulation, conversation and writing – and so he pairs with Minerva as a deity of knowledge and thence wisdom. But why be confined by three – Bacchus is surely another patron deity of the arts, for he is associated with theatre, and then there is Vulcan, another deity of skilled craftsmanship, and of course genial Venus, who “caused a thousand arts” (Ovid, Fasti) in aid of lovers seeking to woo.

In ancient times it was apparently the case that Minerva was sometimes depicted as being “swift” (Catullus) and having “eyes like a cat” (Minucius Felix cited by Beard 2 at 29) – this I think is meant to imply her quick intelligence, but Minerva is no slouching intellectual. If we used only two words to sum up her domain they would be “skillful industriousness”, or if just one then “skillfulness”. She is that which spurs us to use our minds to engage with the world, and thence to act skillfully and create skillfully. When we look around us we see that humankind has produced many wonderfully clever things, and all with Minerva’s help. Without the will to work, to create and to use our minds to discover the principles of science we would not be that which we are.

*Alternately, I have seen references online to the Palladium having been taken from Rome by Constantine - the first Christian emperor - upon the founding of Constantinople in 330 but I cannot thus far locate a reputable source for this assertion.

Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 1: A History (Cambridge University Press) 
Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 2: A Sourcebook (Cambridge University Press)
Catullus, The Poems (poetryintranslation.com)
Cicero, The Nature of the Gods (Oxford University Press)
Cicero, Treatise on the Laws (oll.libertyfund.org)
Horace, The Works of Horace (gutenberg.org)
Kamm, The Romans: An Introduction (Routledge)
North, Roman Religion (Oxford University Press)  
Ovid, Fasti (Oxford University Press)
Ovid, Fasti (Penguin Books)
Ovid, Fasti (theoi.com)
Ovid, Metamorphoses (classics.mit.edu)
Propertius, The Love Elegies (yorku.ca)
Rüpke (Ed), A Companion to Roman Religion (Wiley-Blackwell)
Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History (Oxford University Press)
Tibullus, The Elegies of Tibullus (gutenberg.org)
Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome (Routledge)
Virgil, The Aeneid (oll.libertyfund.org)
Zosimus, New History (tertullian.org)

Written by M. Sentia Figula. Find me at neo polytheistRoman Pagan and on Facebook.


  1. My experiences and views of Minerva are far more archaic. While still definitively of the same characteristics as described by the writers of later antiquity, I get more of a sense of primal existence that I don't connect with later representations. Perhaps this is because I'm picking up more of the Etruscan root of her being.