Myths, Symbols and Facts about Nike – the Greek Goddess of Victory

Nike – Myths and Facts

In Greek Mythology the goddess Nike held a very important place in the society. She was typically associated with speed, strength and victory. Due to this, soldiers and military generals never went out to battle without offering some sort of prayers or sacrifice to the goddess. Nike was not just associated with the army, she was the goddess that ancient Greeks from all walks of life called upon when facing a struggle. It is believed that she acted as the mediator between the gods and men. During the Roman era, the goddess Nike’s equivalent was the goddess Victoria.

Here is a quick look at the origin story, symbols and facts about Nike – the Greek Goddess of Victory.

Nike’s Birth in Greek Mythology

Nike, the winged goddess, was born to the Titan Pallas and the nymph Styx. Nike’s father, Pallas, was the Titan god that handled warcraft. He was the son of Titans Crius and Eurybia; and during the Titanomachy, Pallas fought against the Olympians – a new and powerful generation of gods who were led by Zeus.  In the course of the Titanomachy, Pallas ended up dying at the hands of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare.

The mother of Nike, the nymph Styx, was the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys. Styx is generally depicted as the goddess of the River Styx – the river that separates the living world from the Underworld. Unlike her husband, Pallas, Styx chose the side of the Olympians during the Titanomachy. She even went as far as committing her children – the goddesses Kratos (strength), Bia (Force), Zelus (Emulation), and Nike to the services of Zeus.

Read More: Everything you need to know about Hades – the Greek God of the Underworld

What was Nike’s Role during the Titanomachy?

Nike and her 3 sisters – Kratos, Bia, and Zelus – helped the Olympians secure victory over the Titans during the Titanomachy. As a battle companion of Zeus, Nike served him in different capacities. It is believed that she was Zeus’ divine charioteer. Often in the possession of a golden winged sandals and the staff of Hermes, Nike would circle the battle field, bestowing praises and adulation on the victors during the Titanomachy. This explains how she came to be most associated with the wreath of laurel. The laurel wreath is a symbol of victory, and even to this day, it features prominently in the Olympic Games.

As a result of the above reasons, the goddess Nike was typically associated with not just victory, but strength and speed – traits crucial to winning any battle or any struggle in life.

How did Nike become the Greek goddess of Victory?

Considering the immense role Nike played during the Titanomachy, ancient Greek mythologist began venerating the goddess as a deity that rewarded the victors of any struggle with fame and honor.

Nike often stood by the sides of many ancient Greek statues of the Olympian gods and goddess. The reason why she was placed there was because she symbolized victory. Therefore, having Nike on one’s side, be it man or god, automatically grants the person or god victory. It is also for this reason why she was placed atop famous landmarks and monuments in ancient Greek cities. They believed that Nike could lead the city to victory against their foes.

The placing of statues or symbols of Nike in one’s home was also not an uncommon phenomenon in ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks reasoned that: It was not out of place to add the statue of Nike to one’s personal shrine, considering the fact that every individual had some sort of personal battle or problem that he or she had to go through in life.

Nike’s Depiction and Symbols

Nike Myths and Facts | Nike with the Lyre

Ancient Greeks knew that for someone to serve as the patron goddess of victory, the depiction of that deity had to be done in a manner that showed all the ingredients of victory, i.e. fitness, strength, agility, and youthfulness. As a result of this, the goddess Nike was often depicted as a winged goddess. She could be seen adorned with a gown of gold and other splendid garments.

And because she sometimes served as the messenger of the Greek gods, it was very important that she be portrayed in the best of clothes and ornaments. In view of this, Nike was sometimes pictured with the Staff of Hermes and the golden winged sandals. The myth states that anyone in possession of that staff/rod automatically gained breathtaking speed and agility. It also allowed the holder to move between the land of the living and the land of the dead (i.e. the Underworld/Hades).

Another very important symbol of Nike is the palm branch. In many ancient paintings and sculptors, the palm branch was as a symbol of peace. It could also mean victory in the sense that peace often comes after victory.

Nike’s depiction as a winged goddess in Greek mythology symbolizes agility and change. It means that victory is an ever-moving state of affairs. The goddess Nike had wings so that she could glide her way from one place to another, bringing victory to people that deserve it. Especially on the battlefields, Nike was believed to move about conferring glory and victory on brave and pious warriors. She did this by crowning the victors with a laurel wreath or a palm branch.

What is Nike’s Greatest Power?

Undoubtedly, Nike’s greatest trait has got to be speed and agility. In some ancient texts, she was seen to possess massive amounts of strengths as well; however, it was her sheer speed that allowed her to hover over battlefields swiftly.

During the classical periods, many old gods and goddesses in Greek mythology saw slight changes in their names and roles. For example, Nike was largely considered as an attribute and not necessarily a goddess. Therefore, her name was attached to main gods such as Zeus and Athena. So you could have a goddess like Athena Nike, the deity of victory. There was also Pallas Athena, the goddess of war.

Significance of Hermes in Greek mythology

Nike’s Association with the Olympians

Owing to the massive role that she played during the Titanomachy (the battle between the Titans and the Olympians), Nike came to be seen as a companion of most Olympian gods and goddesses. As a result, Nike did not have a well-established, large cult following like the other gods. Neither were there stand-alone temples dedicated to her. She often appeared on the outstretched hands of Athena and Zeus.

On Mount Olympus, it is believed that Nike committed herself to be beside Zeus. Any form of association with Nike meant that the person or god was destined to win or triumph over a personal battle.

The Temple of Athena Nike – the temple that existed before the Parthenon sprang up – had a statue of Athena. It is believed that Nike (not winged) stood in the outstretched hand of the  goddess Athena.

The depiction of Nike without wings was done to ensure that the goddess remained firmly rooted to the spot/city that she was placed. The Athenians did this in order to ensure that Nike bestowed her blessings only on the city of Athens.

Nike’s Equivalent in Rome – the Goddess Victoria

In ancient Rome, the goddess Nike had similar attributes and role as the goddess Victoria. The ancient Romans also portrayed the goddess Victoria as a link between the gods and men. Thus she was not only responsible for dishing out success and victory, but she was in charge of sending messages from the gods. Roman  emperors  and generals often called on her to grant them speed, strength and victory in all their endeavors.

The Romans took to placing the statue of Victoria (Nike) on top of their Senate because they hoped the goddess would pour her blessings on them.  As a result of this, the goddess Victoria was considered the Patron protector of the Senate in ancient Rome.

Just as she was associated with Zeus and Athena, Rome also associated Victoria with gods such as Jupiter and Mars. She was absolutely beloved and venerated by the Roman army as well. She even had a number of statues on the Palatine Hill in Rome.

11 Facts about the Goddess Nike

The Winged Victory of Samothrace, also known as Nike of Samothrace, can be found at the Louvre Museum in Paris

  1. In the lead up to the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE, the vote from Callimachus was what broke the tie in deciding whether or not to go to war. However, Callimachus was killed during the battle. And after the battle was over, a statue was erected called the Nike of Callimachus. It was erected in honor of the goddess Nike for granting the Greeks victory. Historians believe that particular statue of Nike showed the goddess with wings. Owing to the damage inflicted on the statue during the Persian invasion of Athens in 480 BCE, only a small fragment of the statue remains to this day.
  2. The name “Nike” is believed to have originated from the Greek word “Neikos”. That word means “strife” or “struggle”. In some Indo-European languages, the name came from “Neik” which means “to attack” or “to start something strongly”. This makes a whole lot of sense, considering the fact that Nike was the bringer of victory, i.e. victory in all aspects of one’s life, not just in war.
  3. It was also not uncommon for both ancient Greeks and Romans to pray to Nike to spare them from a bad situation or death. Regarding death, it is believed that when Nike possessed the Staff of Hermes, she had the ability to resurrect dead people. The staff also granted its holder the ability to move seamlessly to and fro the living world and the underworld.
  4. The largest known dwarf planet in Kuiper Belt, Pluto, has a moon called Styx. Astronomers named the moon after Nike’s mother, Styx. Pluto in ancient Roman mythology is the equivalent of Hades, the god of the underworld, i.e. the god of death. The reason why astronomers named it after Styx was because the nymph is typically associated to the River Styx – the river that divides the living world from the underworld.
  5. One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Zeus at Olympia shows Zeus sitting on his magnificent throne watching over the people of Athens. According to descriptions from Pausanias of the 2nd century AD, the Goddess Nike could be seen standing in Zeus’ outstretched right hand. Text and records from ancient Greece state that the Temple of Zeus stood at a whopping 12.4 m (41 ft) tall.
  6. Nike is believed to have a shield that she carries while hovering about in battles. On that shield of hers, the goddess inscribed the names of the winners in a battle.
  7. Another very important fact about the goddess Nike is that: She was often painted or sculpted with a cup or a pitcher in her hands. This symbolizes her readiness to toast to the victor of the battle. Also, Nike has sometimes been linked to the musical instruments Lyre (or Kithara). This is because a victory parade or ceremony can never be complete without some form of singing or dancing.

    Greek Goddess Nike

    The goddess Nike as seen on the Olympic Medals:  from left to right – Beijing 2008, London 2012, and Rio 2016

  8. In the modern Olympics, the Olympic medals given to winners have the image of the goddess Nike. Her image has been on the medals since 1928. In addition to her image, the Olympic medal has the wreath of victory and shield – symbols typically associated with Nike.
  9. According to some ancient Greek texts, Nike was regarded as the daughter of Ares – the Greek God of War.
  10. Famous and global brands such as Rolls-Royce, Honda Motorcycles, U.S. Anti-Aircraft Missile System, and the sports equipment maker, Nike, have one way or the other used the name or the symbols of the goddess Nike.
  11. The Winged Victory of Samothrace—Nike of Samothrace – is the most famous statue of Nike still in existence today. This Hellenistic sculpture of the goddess is believed to have been sculpted in the second century BCE. The 8-foot statue was discovered by Charles Champoiseu on April 15, 1863. It was found on the Greek island of Samothrace (also known as the “Island of Great Gods”) and later sent to France. Today, the statue stands above the Daru staircase in the Louvre— the famous Parisian museum.

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