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The Ancient Use of God/Goddess Surnames

Author: Jack Campbell
Posted: February 1st. 2015
Times Viewed: 3,693

The power of a God’s Epithet or Surname is all in how you see your God or Goddess and maybe your own faith. What are surnames? Why were they used and why you could use them now? Most major Greek Gods have surnames. It was a name given to that God or Goddess to focus on an area of choice. The Goddess Athena has around 100 different surnames. While Athena was well known as the Goddess of Wisdom and War, she also has many other surnames. When speaking of the Goddess of the City, Athena would be called Athena Ageleia.

There could also be surnames that focus on a hero that the Goddess may have protected or was their child, for instance, Artemis Saronis “the Gnarled Oak”. Those who followed Artemis Saronis did so because they believed an ancient oak tree trunk was the embodiment of the Goddess. Those who followed this form of Artemis believed that the Woodland King Saron the hunter died while pursuing a doe into the sea. He was then buried under the very same trunk that was said to have been the Goddess. There are many examples of surnames for many Gods and Goddesses with similar stories. Then you have Gods and Goddesses who share surnames much like Ambulia or Ambulian. According to Commentary of Books: II-IV: Corinth, Laconia, Messenia Elis by Pausanias, Sparta worshiped both Zeus and Athena under the surname of Ambulian as the Delayer of Death.

There are some examples that surnames changed with time as well. Athena Archegetis (The Founder) took the place of Athena Polias (City Protector) . In the book Religion in Hellenistic Athens by Jon D. Mikaison, the author cites that this change happened because Athena was changing her focus towards industry and not the defense of the city. After the Chremonidean War, the surname Polias was not commonly used. Athens did not fare well in the war and because of this, Athena was seen to have not protected the Athenians. So those who followed Athena changed her focus from the City Protector to The Founder. (i.e., same Goddess just a different focus for her followers) .

The main question someone might ask is, “why in a world of Polytheism would surnames or epithets mean anything”? One possibility is that it could let people know where you come from and what temple you prayed at. If I were to tell you my Goddess was Hera Akraia, then I am telling you where my temple is and how I celebrate my faith to Hera. Another way to look at it is that both Apollo and Athena have surnames for healing, yet there is a Greek God for healing named Asclepius. In some cases, Asclepius, Athena Alea of Healing and Apollo Paean “the healer” Asclepius’ father would all be in the same temple. There could be a few reasons for this overlap. While Asclepius was known as more of a ‘hands on’ healer, Athena would send you a dream on how to heal yourself.

This is the part where I could be wrong (or you could have your own opinion) , but it’s just how I view it. My goddess is Athena without question. She is who I devote myself to. However, to believe in Athena is to believe in a world of many Gods and Goddesses. My viewpoint is that worshipping some Gods requires more out of you than others. Athena, Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Artemis, and so on are main Gods and Goddesses. To devote yourself to Athena is not just a small time event, she requires a lot of attention and I am not saying this in a bad way. Your altar might have many Gods and Goddesses on it, but Athena is who you ask for the most help and it is going to be Athena you ask for help when you need help healing. Sure, you might say something to Asclepius, but it’s still going to be Athena in the end that you speak to the most about the issue.

Athena requires so much attention that it’s hard to be truly devoted to her and another key Goddess like Artemis or Hera. You can, but those goddesses have such huge personas and are so vast that you may not give either of the Goddesses the focus they truly need to be part of your life. However, it does not mean you can’t work with other Gods and Goddesses. When I have a hard time sleeping, even though in Homer Odyssey Athena had put Penelope to sleep, it’s not her I call upon. I call upon Hypo, the god of deep sleep. There is a difference, at least to me, between working with Hypo and another Goddess like Athena. Hypo does not require the type of attention that Athena requires to help you. When I ask for Hypo help, I make sure to thank him the following day with incense and that is enough to please him.

So why should we use surnames if I want Athena the Protector rather than just call upon Athena when I need help? I really like the example from Adam’s Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form by Michael Sims concerning the calling upon Athena Alcis “the Strong”. It is the same as the World War II posters of the women with strong arms raised in the air denoting that they could handle anything that men could. One of the posters shows Rosie, her upraised arm, and the statement, “We can do it.” When the chips are down, when you need help getting though a task, or when you’re falling asleep in your car with only five more minutes until you get home, many of us ask our God or Goddess for help. However by calling upon Athena the Strong I am asking for the strength to get done what I need to get done.

There is a difference in saying, “Athena please give me the help I need to get home” than “Athena the Strong please give me the strength I need to get home.” The next time you read Homer, notice how many times he changes epithets for the same Gods or Goddesses in his legends. Another use for surnames is in ‘instant magic’ or maybe asking for the help of your God or Goddess without needing their whole attention. When asking for the help of Athena the Strong, you’re asking for an aspect of Athena, not all of her. You’re asking a small part of Athena for help or for just a small part of Athena to notice your need.

There is a reason behind this; each epithet lets you focus on a different aspect of that God or Goddess. As the reader of Homer, the image in your mind changed based on his presenting the same God or Goddess with a change in the surname. When I am calling upon Athena the Strong, and not just Athena, I am asking Athena to help me be strong and that is all. There is a difference between the two. Research your Gods and Goddesses and learn their surnames and try it for yourself.

As before, please feel free to message me. I would love to hear how other people view the use of surnames for help. Even if you disagree with me, I would love to know.

Cook, A. (1964) . Zeus, a study in Ancient religion.. New York: Biblo and Tannen.

Adam's Navel: A natural and cultural history of the human form. New York: Viking

Mikalson, J. (1998) . Religion in Hellenistic Athens. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Jack Campbell

Location: Jacksonville, Florida


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