Of all the Greek pantheon, none enjoys better brand recognition than Nike. Unless one is a true history buff, the word Nike is more likely to evoke mental images of sneakers than Greek mythology. It is, of course, no accident that the famous sports brand took its name from Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. Although Nike was not one of the most famous Greek goddesses, in her own right she played a very important role in the early days of mythology and was instrumental in helping Zeus acquire power. So, who was she and what was her role in Zeus’s rise to power?
The Origin of the Goddess Nike
Nike has differing origin stories in two ancient texts. In the Theogony, she is the daughter of a Titan and an Oceanid. Her father was the second generation Titan, Pallas, the first Greek god of battle before Ares took the role. Her mother was an Oceanid, a sea nymph, named Styx. Nike had three siblings: Zelos (Zeal), Bia (force), and Cratus (strength).
In the Homeric hymns, on the other hand, she is briefly described as the daughter of Ares, with no mother mentioned. Since this is just a passing reference to her parentage, she is still most commonly attributed as being the daughter of Pallas and Styx, and this fits her role in mythology best.
Marble Statue of Nike, the Goddess of Victory, at Ephesus, Turkey. Source: ayakochun/Adobe Stock
Nike in the Titanomachy
The Titanomachy revolved around the war between the Greek gods and their predecessors, the mighty Titans. During the war, it became clear to Zeus that if he was going to win, he would need all the help he could get. He called to all the gods, promising honor and power to all those who would side with him against his father, Cronus. He also promised the opposite to any who did not.
The very first gods to declare their loyalty to Zeus were Styx and her four children. During the war, Nike acted as Zeus’s charioteer, guiding his chariot through numerous battles. When the war ended, Nike and her children were richly rewarded by Zeus.
Nike and her siblings became some of Zeus’s most favored gods. They were allowed to dwell with him forever. Nike is often portrayed as standing by Zeus’s side within Olympus. Nike is often described as either an attendant of Zeus, or as being so closely connected to him that she became a facet of his personality.
Pheidias’s statue of Zeus at Olympia, with Nike standing on his right hand. Artistic rendering by the Quatremère de Quincy (1815). ( Public Domain )
The Goddess Nike in the Battle against Typhon
According to Nonnos’s Dionysiaca, in Greek mythology, Nike played a pivotal role in the final days of the Titanomachy. After Zeus and his allies had defeated the Titans and their cohorts, Zeus was faced with one final foe, Typhon.
Typhon had his own complicated backstory, but essentially he was created to be Zeus’s archrival. He was a monstrous, many-headed, many-armed giant, who was as powerful as Zeus, if not more so. He was so intimidating, in fact, that Zeus was hesitant to even face him.
In the story, Athena sent Nike to aid Zeus against Typhon. Nike berated Zeus for his hesitancy and told him to gather his bolts so that he might protect Olympus. In a speech, she recited the names of all the gods who had already fled from Typhon: respected deities like Ares, Apollo, and Hermes.
Nike told Zeus that if he failed to act, he would lose his favorite daughters, Athena and Artemis, who would be enslaved and raped. Very few gods would have dared to speak to Zeus in such brutal terms.
The next morning, when Typhon reissued his challenge, Zeus, thanks to the words of Nike, was ready. Nike led Zeus into battle, and during the fight, used her shield to protect Zeus as he struck Typhon with lightning bolts and freezing rain.
Zeus in combat with Typhon, partner of Echidna. Stamp created from image on 6th century BC pottery ( Lefteris Papaulakis / Adobe Stock)
Zeus was triumphant, and as he left the battlefield, he was closely trailed by Nike in her chariot. In this depiction, Nike was as powerful as she was instrumental in helping Zeus beat Typhon when other gods had already fallen. In the Theogony, another telling of this story, Nike was not mentioned at all. The Theogony painted Zeus in a much more flattering light, and he needed little help beating Typhon.
Depictions of Nike, the Greek Goddess of Victory
Thanks to her association with victory, Nike is one of the most widely depicted Greek goddesses. Images of her can be found on a wide range of coins, and vases. Statues of her were common, as it was usual to construct a statue of Nike to commemorate victories in battle.
Winged Nike, goddess of victory in Greek mythology, on a vessel, circa 480 BC ( Public Domain )
Nike is usually depicted as a beautiful, winged woman. She is typically shown carrying some symbol of victory, such as a wreath, palm frond, or sash. She is also sometimes shown carrying a lyre or incense burner ready to celebrate a victory she has helped. In scenes depicting the war against the titans of Typhon, she is shown as Zeus’s charioteer ready for battle.
Perhaps unfortunately for Nike, her close association with Zeus and Athena ended up hindering rather than helping her. She became so closely associated with them that later writers depicted her as a facet of their personalities, instead of as a goddess in her own right.
After the events of the Titanomachy, Nike largely disappeared from the stories of Greek mythology. When she did appear, she was often just there to judge the victor in competitions between gods and mortals.
This is reflected in how she was worshipped. It appears that Nike did not have her own cult, and very few, if any, temples were dedicated to her. Instead, her worship was often included in the cults of other gods, especially Zeus and Athena. In Athens, for example, she was referred to as Athena-Nike.
Pallas Athena Statue outside Vienna Parliament Building (Yair Haklai / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Regardless, Nike was an incredibly powerful goddess in her own right, depicted as being instrumental in helping Zeus take his throne in Olympus. Nike continues to inspire even to this day. She was sculpted as part of the original Jules Rimet trophy for the World Cup in soccer. Nike also sits on top of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, the Narva Triumphal Arch in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Austrian Parliament building in Vienna, among others.
Top image: Bronze statue of Nike, Greek goddess of victory, on Austrian Parliament roof in Vienna, Austria ( neurobite / Adobe Stock)
By Robbie Mitchell