The Story of the Greek Goddess Nike

The Goddess and Messenger of Victory

Stone Carving of the Greek Goddess Nike, Ephesus, Turkey
Nicholas Pitt/Photodisc/Getty Images

If you're attracted to the Greek goddess Nike, you're onto a winner: Nike is the goddess of victory.Throughout her history, she has been allied with the most powerful gods in the Greek Pantheon. And, through her Roman incarnation, she has entered our language as more than the name of a competitive running shoe and an anti-aircraft missle. The Romans caller her Victoria.

Learn more about the goddess, her story, and the mythology surrounding her before you visit the Acropolis of Athens, where she is takes her place besides Athena.

Nike's Origin

The Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses features three waves of leading deities. The primordial gods were the first to emerge from Chaos - Gaia, the Earth Mother; Kronos, the spirit of Time; Uranus, the sky and Thalassa, the spirit of the sea, among them. Their children, the Titans (Prometheus who gave fire to man is probably the most famous) replaced them. In turn, the Olympians -  Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo and Aphrodite - defeated them and became the leading gods.

By now you are probably wondering what all this has to do with Nike. It goes some way to explain her complicated origin. According to one story, she is the daughter of Pallas, the Titan god of war craft who fought on the side of the Olympians, and Styx, a nymph, a daughter of Titans and presiding spirit of the major river of the Underworld.  In an alternative story, recorded by Homer, she is the daughter of Ares, Zeus's son and the Olympian god of war - but the tales of Nike probably predates stories of Ares by millennia.

 

By the classical period, many of these early gods and goddesses had been reduced to the role of attributes or aspects of the leading gods, much as the pantheon of Hindu gods are symbolic aspects of the main gods. So Pallas Athena is the representation of the goddess as warrior and Athena Nike is the goddess victorious.

Nike's Family Life

Nike had no consort or children. She did have three brothers - Zelos (rivalry), Kratos (strenth) and Bia (force). She and her siblings were close companions of Zeus. According to myth, Nike's mother Styx brought her children to Zeus when the god was assembling allies for the battle against the Titans.

Nike's Role in Mythology

In classical iconography, Nike is depicted as a fit young, winged women with a palm frond or blade. She often carries the staff of Hermes, symbolic of her role as the messenger of Victory. But, by far, her large wings are her greatest attribute. In fact, in contrast with depictions of earlier winged gods, who could take the form of birds in stories, by the classical period, Nike is unique in having kept hers. She probably needed them because she is often portrayed flying around battlefields, rewarding victory, glory, and fame by handing out laurel wreaths. Besides her wings, her strengths are her fast running ability and her skill as the divine charioteer. 

Given her striking appearance and unique skills, Nike does not actually appear in many mythological stories. Her role is almost always as a companion and helper of Zeus or Athena.

Nike's Temple

The small, perfectly formed Temple of Athena Nike, to the right of the Propylaea - the entrance to the Acropolis of Athens -  is the earliest, Ionic temple on the Acropolis.

It was designed by Kallikrates, one of the architects of the Parthenon during the rule reign of Pericles, about 420 B.C. The statue of Athena that once stood inside it was not winged. The Greek traveler and geographer Pausanias, writing about 600 years later, called the goddess depicted here Athena Aptera, or wingless. His explanation was that the Athenians removed the goddess's wings to prevent her from ever leaving Athens. 

That may well be, but shortly after the temple was completed, a parapet wall with a frieze of several winged Nikes was added. Several panels of this frieze can be seen in the Acropolis Museum, below the Acropolis. One of them, Nike adjusting her sandal, known as "The Sandal Binder" depicts the goddess draped in figure-revealing wet fabric. It's considered one of the most erotic carvings on the Acropolis.

  • Visit the Acropolis from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., last admission 4:30 p.m.; full-price admission in 2018 is 20€. A special ticket package, good for five days at a full price of 30€:  includes teh Ancient Agora of Athens, the Archaeological Museum of Karameikos, the Archaeological site of Lykeion, Hadrian's Library, the Museum of the Ancient Agora (highly recommended), the slopes of the Acropolis and several other sites. Reduced price tickets and free days are available. Visit the website for full details.
  • Visit the Acropolis Museum from 9 a.m. in winter and from 8 a.m. in summer. Closing hours vary. General admission, available from the museum or online, is £5. Visit the website for full information about hours and prices.

The most celebrated depiction of Nike is not in Greece at all but dominates a gallery of the Louvre in Paris. Known as Winged Victory, or the Winged Victory of Samothrace, it presents the goddess standing on the prow of a boat. Created about 200 B.C., it is probably one of the most famous sculptures in the world.