Who’s Pallas?

Or: Greek mythology is a mess

The stories of the ancient Greeks are a mess, as this look at (the various people called) Pallas demonstrates. We should embrace the chaos.

Josho Brouwers

One of the interesting features of the Greek pantheon is its messiness. The Olympian deities, led by Zeus, did not spring into being out of nothing: they are the children of an earlier generation of gods, the Titans, who were themselves descendants of primordial deities who had emerged from Chaos.

The Titans, led by Cronus, had overthrown their parents and seized control of the world. They, in turn, were eventually overthrown by Zeus and his brothers and sisters in the Titanomachy, the war between the Titans and the Olympians. The latter cast most of the Titans into Tartarus, the deepest chasm in the Underworld. You get the impression that life as a deity is fraught with risks, with ups and downs.

This messiness is one of the things that makes the stories of the ancient Greeks so interesting. The existence of earlier generations of gods infuses the tales with a sense of history. The only constant, after all, is change: nothing lasts forever. Even Zeus’ reign is fraught with uncertainty: while he managed to overthrow his father, defeat an onslaught of giants, and even bury the fierce and monstrous Typhon, there’s this sense that his reign could, sooner or later, be ended.

Indeed, Zeus once received a prophecy that his first wife, Metis (“wisdom”) would bear him a son who would end his rule, just like Zeus had overthrown his father Cronus. To prevent this, Zeus devoured Metis, an act that mirrored how Cronus had devoured his offspring to prevent them from ending his reign. Later, Zeus suffered from a severe headache: Hephaestus, the divine smith, cracked open Zeus’ head and the goddess Athena emerged from the wound, fully grown.

Athena essentially succeeded her mother and became the new goddess of wisdom. But she was also equipped with helmet, spear, and shield – all accoutrements associated with war. Athena was thus a warrior-goddess, too, the personification of careful warcraft and strategy, directly opposed to Ares, the embodiment of strife, bloodlust, and the chaos on the battlefield. (Although this dichotomy between Ares and Athena shouldn’t be overstated!)

Athena is often associated with name Pallas. In his epic poems, Homer refers to the goddess frequently as “Pallas Athena”. By the time of the poet Pindar (ca. 522-ca. 443 BC), it was common to use Pallas as a synonym for Athena. The word itself is often translated as “maiden”: Athena was, like her half-sister Artemis, a virgin goddess. But it may also derive from the ancient Greek verb pallô, i.e. “to brandish or shake (a spear)”, which likewise befits Athena.

But the ancient Greek myths are messy, so there’s more to Pallas than meets the eye. According to Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca (3.12.3), Athena had a childhood friend, a girl called Pallas. They were both raised in the arts of war. At some point, they had a falling out and came to blows. Fearful for the fate of his favourite child, Zeus interfered and distracted Pallas, who was struck down by Athena. Immediately, Athena was overcome by grief and made a wooden statue in Pallas’ likeness, the Palladium, which was later kept at Troy.

Cassandra clutches what is perhaps meant to be the Palladium, a wooden statue in the image of Athena or, alternatively, a statue made by Athena that represents her friend Pallas. The Lesser Ajax is trying to drag her away, while her father despairs. Roman fresco from the atrium of the House of Menander in Pompeii.

To confuse matters even more, there are also several other figures in Greek mythology who are called Pallas – and they’re all male. One Pallas, associated with Attica, attempts to conquer Athens with the support of his sons (the Pallantides), but is stopped by the hero Theseus. Sources for this story are often late (e.g. Diodorus 4.60.4-5). Another was a son of Lycaon and a teacher of Athena’s (Diodorus 1.33.1), who founded the city of Pallantion in Arcadia (Pausanias 8.3.1).

Then there’s a giant called Pallas who took part in the Gigantomachy, the war of the giants against Zeus and the other Olympians. This war took place after the Titanomachy and is often confused with it. Athena defeated Pallas and supposedly fashioned the Aegis out of his goat-like skin (Bibliotheca 1.39). Furthermore, the Aegis (“goatskin”) is worn by Athena, but also associated with Zeus; in the tale of Athena’s killing of her childhood friend, Zeus is said to have distracted the young Pallas using the Aegis!

Another Pallas is the son of Crius (Kreios), one of the Twelve Titans, and Eurybia, a daughter of Pontus (the Sea) and Gaea (Earth). His brothers are Astraeus (the Titan deity of the dusk) and Perses (possibly “the destroyer”). Fittingly, Pallas (“Warrior”?) was the Titan god of war, who married Styx (“Hatred”), the embodiment of an important river in the Underworld. According to Hesiod’s Theogony, the children of Pallas and Styx are Zelus/Zelos (Glory), Nike (Victory), Cratus/Kratos (Power), and Bia (Force) – all embodiments of concepts associated with warfare. (The Homeric Hymn 4 to Hermes refers to Pallas as the son of Megamedes (“Great Lord”), another name for Crius, and says he’s the father of Selene, the goddess of the moon, ll. 100ff).

By the second century AD, the giant Pallas and the Titan Pallas had become conflated: Pseudo-Hyginus writes, in his preface to his De Astronomica, that Pallas is a giant who’s married to (the embodiment of the river) Styx, and then adds a number of children the ones originally listed by Hesiod, including Fontes (Fountains) and Lacus (Lakes). (Of course, I here ignore characters who are obviously meant to be completely different people, like Evander’s son Pallas in Virgil’s Aeneid.)

At this point, it’s easy to throw up one’s arms and believe that anything goes when it comes to Classical myth. But life isn’t neat and tidy, so it’s normal that stories that came into being over a long period of time, and were told among a large group of people, are messy. There is no Editor-in-Chief to wrangle the Greek myths into a coherent whole, nor should we want there to be one.

Embrace the chaos. Don’t mind the mess. Enjoy your stay.