As a child I was very impressed with Athena, who I came to know as a goddess of wisdom though I could not understand then what wisdom had to do with war. My mother used to take me up to London to the museums during my school holidays and it was a sculpture of Athena that impressed me most.
Nowadays, I know that in the ancient Greek religion (8th to 6th century BCE onwards) she was not only a goddess of wisdom but also of courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, mathematics, strength, the arts, crafts and skill. She became later the goddess of philosophy in Classical Greece during the late 5th century BCE. She also stands for Truth, Justice and Moral values.
Her war aspect was not that of violence, bloodlust and slaughter (those belong to Ares, her brother) but of the disciplined, strategic side of war. She disliked fighting without purpose and preferred to use wisdom to settle predicaments. The goddess only encouraged fighting for a reasonable cause or to resolve conflict.
Although the rise of Christianity in Greece largely ended the worship of Greek deities and polytheism in general, Athena resurfaced in the Middle Ages as a defender of sagacity and virtue mixing again her warrior status with her representation of wisdom. Later on she was adopted as the personification of the miracles of freedom and republic during the French Revolution. In the modern period, she is used as a symbol of various universities around the world (Brazil, Germany, USA, etc.).
The Medusa head on Athena’s chest is interesting as Medusa means “sovereign female wisdom,” and Medusa was originally an aspect of the goddess Athene, the Serpent-Goddess, from Libya.