In Roman mythology, Minerva was a goddess jack-of-all-trades. She oversaw many realms that involved art and deep thought. She was regarded as the goddess of “all activities involving mental skill,” such as science, medicine, wisdom, handmade items, skilled professions, and trade. Later, she was seen as a goddess of war.
She was believed to have invented Roman numerals, or numbers, as well as a variety of musical instruments. Many researchers believe that the worship of Minerva in Rome was an extension of the cult of Athena, the Greek goddess with whom Minerva is equated. She may have been introduced to Italy by the Etruscans, who called her Menerva or Menvra. She was said to have had golden hair.
Myths & Stories
Minerva plays a role in many of Rome’s myths. For instance, in the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Minerva is jealous of the lowly human Arachne’s ability to craft objects of wool, as Arachne’s skill rivals her own. Nymphs, humans, and others would travel great distances to view Arachne’s creations and to watch her work.
Minerva had taught Arachne this skill, but she was jealous of her teacher in turn and would give Minerva no credit. Instead, she invited Minerva to compete with her in weaving. Therefore, Minerva disguises herself as an old woman and advises Arachne to entreat Minerva’s forgiveness. When Arachne refuses, Minerva reveals herself and the contest begins. Both woman and goddess weave beautiful tapestries on their looms.
Minerva once again tries to teach Arachne a lesson by weaving into her tapestry scenes of humans losing to gods in various contests, and even her own failure against the god Neptune. Obstinate Arachne replies with weavings of the gods’ less than honorable activities, such as seducing both mortals and immortals. When finished, Minerva could find no flaw in Arachne’s tapestry, yet she “tore up the embroidered tapestry with its stories of the gods’ shameful deeds.”
Then, she beats Arachne’s face with a wooden weaving tool. Arachne tries to strange herself with a noose, but Minerva does not let her perish. Instead, she turned her into a spider through the use of a magic herb, saying she and her descendants would always hang and always weave. Today, spiders are known as “arachnids” due to this myth.
Along with Jupiter and Juno, Minerva was worshiped as part of the Capitoline Triad, or trinity. They shared a temple on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. A temple devoted exclusively to Minerva was located on the Aventine Hill. This shrine served as a meeting place for the guilds of craftsmen, actors, and poets. Physicians worshiped this goddess as the patroness Minerva Medica.
Minerva was worshiped as a goddess of war alongside the god Mars. After a number of conquests on the Roman Empire’s eastern border, a temple to Minerva was built in Pompey – no doubt funded by the spoils of war. Her worship in Rome reached a peak in the first century A.D. when she was claimed as a special, personal protector by Emperor Domitian.
Two events dedicated to Minerva were marked on the Roman Calendar. The first was known as the Quinquatria, celebrated by students and artisans on March 19-23, just after the Ides of March, made famous by the assassination of Julius Caesar and subsequent play by William Shakespeare. On June 13, a shorter observance called the minor Quinquatrus was celebrated. The Quintratrus was also the time of school holidays and when fees for schooling became due. Thus, Minerva was seen as a patron of schoolchildren as well as the skilled workers they would someday become. Minerva shared her festivals with the war god Mars. She was often identified with Nerio, the Sabine goddess who became the consort of Mars.
Today, a church called Santa Maria sopra Minerva is located in a former temple to Minerva. Minerva’s interest in the sciences and pursuit of wisdom still lives in the moniker of the Japanese MINERVA space exploration robot. MINERVA, in this case, is an acronym for MIcro/Nano Experimental Robot Vehicle for Asteroid.