Mike is a freelance writer and researcher who enjoys exploring history, urban legends, myths, rabbit holes and old folk stories.
Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom, justice, crafts, and strategy. In many ways, she played a similar role in Roman culture as the goddess Athena did for the Greeks.
As one of the Capitoline triad and patron of the Quinquatras festival, she was undeniably one of the most important goddesses in the Roman pantheon, and her influence continues to this day.
Here we'll discuss the many legends and stories associated with Minerva and her historical and mythological origins.
Who Is Minerva?
According to Roman mythology, Minerva is the virgin goddess and daughter of Jupiter. Legends show her to be incredibly wise and talented, as well as gifted in battle. However, her stories also depict her as self-conscious and easily jealous.
Unlike most Roman Goddesses depicted as elegant maidens, Minerva is typically shown to be tall, muscular, and athletic. She is often shown wearing a woolen tunic known as a chiton, armor, and a helmet. Various depictions show her with a spear in one hand and a gorgon-decorated shield in the other.
Once Minerva became associated with the Greek Goddess Athena, her primary symbol became the owl (known as the owl of Minerva), representing her wisdom. The olive branch is also commonly associated with Minerva, reflecting her grace in victory and her supposed creation of the olive tree. The snake has sometimes been associated with Minerva also, likely due to her role in the story of Medusa.
Variations of Minerva Worship
Minerva is sometimes referred to with a prefix or suffix to her name. In some cases, this is due to her synchronization with deities in areas invaded by the Romans. For example, the British Goddess Sulis became known as Sulis Minerva following the Roman invasion. Such was a common practice among Romans and Greeks, who often saw the deities worshiped by other cultures as the same as their own.
Minerva would also go by different names depending on the particular role she played as a patron:
- Minerva Medica – patron of doctors
- Minerva Armipotens – patron of strategy
- Minerva Castitis – patron of olive trees
- Minerva Luscinia – patron of music
The Origins of Minerva
Again, Minerva is closely associated with the older Greek goddess Athena. However, the scholarly conses is that she originated from the indigenous Etruscan goddess Menrva, whose name derives from meminisse, meaning 'to remember.'
Of course, the mythological origins of Minerva are far more fantastical. It is said that the god Jupiter forced himself upon and then swallowed whole the shapeshifting goddess Metis after remembering a prophecy that his child would one day defeat him.
However, Metis survived inside Jupiter's body, where she forged weapons for her daughter. Understandably, the constant forgery left Jupiter with a terrible headache, leading him to ask the god Vulcan to split his head with a hammer. And from this blow, Minerva emerged fully clad in armor.
Minerva and Arachne
One of the most well-known stories involving Minerva is her competition with the weaver Arachne.
The story goes that there once lived a mortal named Arachne, whose weaving skills were so excellent that the nymphs would come out from their natural environments to see her work. However, Arachne's talents also made her overly self-confident, and she boasted that she could best even the gods.
Hearing this, Minerva appeared to Arachne as an older woman and offered her a final chance to go back on her boasts and ask forgiveness. When Arachne did not, Minerva rid herself of her disguise and challenged Arachne to see who could weave the best tapestry.
For her tapestry, Minerva showcased her competition with Neptune and the Gods looking down on the mortals. Around its edges were depictions of mortals challenging the Gods and losing. Arachne wove a tapestry of all the shortcomings of the Gods, including their attempts at trickery.
Angered by the contents of Arachne's tapestry, Minerva declared herself the winner and touched her opponent on the forehead. With this touch, Arachne felt a great shame in challenging Minerva and hung herself. Then, feeling bad for Arachne, Minerva revived her. However, as punishment for her actions, Minerva restored Arachne as a spider so that she would forever remember her foolishness while hanging from her web.
Minerva and Medusa
The legend of Medusa was passed down to the Romans from the Greeks. And in the later Roman retellings of the story, Minerva plays a critical role.
As the story goes, Medusa was once a beautiful human and a priestess of Minerva. However, when Minerva discovered Medusa kissing the god Neptune in her temple, she turned her into a monster with snakes for hair and whose eyes turned all those she saw into stone.
In some versions of the story, Medusa had not meant to kiss Neptune, who had thrown himself upon her. But Minerva, overcome with jealousy, showed little compassion.
Later, when Perseus defeated and beheaded Medusa (by using a shield with Minerva's image), he delivered the head to Minerva, who placed it on her Aegis as a form of protection in battle.
Legends Claim That Minerva Invented and Then Threw Away The Flute
Some old stories credit the Goddess Minerva with inventing the flute. But it is said that despite her love for music, Minerva was embarrassed by how the instrument made her cheeks puff when she played it—something the deities Venus and Juno noticed and mocked her for terribly.
As a result, Minerva threw the instrument into a riverbed, where it was later found by a satyr before coming into human hands.
Minerva vs. The Gods
According to some tales from Roman mythology, the Gods held a competition to see who could create the most useful item for the mortals. Neptune made a horse, undeniably a beneficial creation. However, Minerva ultimately won by creating the olive tree, which may seem surprising until you consider how vital the olive tree was (and still is) to Mediterranean cultures.
Despite her ancient origins, today, Minerva remains a symbol of wisdom, justice, and creativity for many. And her image is still used worldwide on seals, emblems, and statuary. For example, she appears on the US army and Navy/marine corps medals of honor and is also depicted on the seal of California.
Statues of Minerva can be found in cities such as Liverpool, England; Guadalajara, Mexico; Ballarat, Australia; and many more. And her image is particularly prominent among colleges, universities, and other educational establishments.
Cartwright, M (2014). "Minerva." World History Encyclopedia, https://www.worldhistory.org/Minerva/.
Macculloch, J.A. (2005). Religion of the Ancient Celts. Taylor & Francis Group.
Rhys, D (n.d.). "Minerva: Roman Goddess of Wisdom." Symbol Sage, https://symbolsage.com/minerva-roman-goddess/.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Mike Grindle