Nike was the Greek goddess of victory. She was more a personification of victory than an actual character and consequently did not appear in stories. However, her symbolic importance to the Greeks in connection with battles, athletic contests, and even weddings was considerable. Many surviving representations in stone and pottery depict her dancing, running, or flying.
While one source suggested that Nike was the daughter of Polemos, the personification of war, and another related that she was the child of Zeus, king of the gods, the best-known account of her origins was provided by Greek poet Hesiod (fl. 800 BCE). He wrote in Theogony that Nike's mother was the underworld Styx River and that her father was the Titan Pallas. Nike's siblings, in this account, were Zelus (Aspiration), Bia (Force), and Cratos (Power). Hesiod recounted that Styx and her children were the first to join Zeus in the war against the Titans that established the sovereignty of the Olympian gods. Zelus appeared solely in connection with this myth; Cratos and Bia, however, played roles in other stories carrying out the will of Zeus. They appear, for example, in the tragedy Prometheus Bound by Greek dramatist Aeschylus (525–456 BCE).
Nike was associated with Zeus and with his daughter Athena, goddess of arts and war. Indeed, the two female deities were sometimes combined into a single figure: Athena Nike. Phidias (fl. c. 490–430 BCE) erected a great statue of Athena inside her chief temple, the Parthenon, built on the Acropolis in Athens between 447 and 432 BCE. The sculptor included a little winged Nike fluttering in the palm of Athena's hand. Several decades after the completion of the Parthenon, the Athenians constructed a small temple of Athena Nike on a bastion above the entrance to the Acropolis. Around the temple ran a balustrade decorated with little Nikai (the plural of Nike) engaged in preparations for a sacrifice. Athena appears several times among them.
For the Greeks, Nike was a symbol of military victory. They prayed to the goddess for success in battles—if victory was forthcoming, they regarded it as indication of her favor. On the temple of Athena Nike, some of the Nikai are depicted building trophies of the kind Greek armies customarily left on the battlefield as tokens of their victory. These were cairns, or mounds, constructed of broken weapons and armor gathered from the fallen enemy. Such ritual objects were the concrete embodiments of Nike's favor for the winning side. No victorious Greek army would have left the battlefield without building such a trophy. They were also put up on nearby shores after sea battles.
The ancient Greeks' greatest military triumph was the naval victory over the Persians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE. Writing about the battle, Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484–425 BCE) related how the Greeks remembered an oracle which promised them that "the day of freedom" would be granted by "Zeus and Lady Nike." To give thanks for the victory, the Greeks dedicated a statue to Nike at Delphi.
Besides wars and battles, Nike was important on other occasions when people sought victory, including lawsuits and athletic and musical competitions. Several works by Greek dramatist Euripides (c. 486–c. 406 BCE) end with a prayer by the chorus for Nike to attend to them through life and continue to crown them—in other words, to ensure their success.
Like other figures in the Greek pantheon, such as Mnemosyne (Memory), Thanatos (Death), and Polemos (War), Nike was a personification of an abstract force and not a developed personality in the manner of deities such as Zeus and Athena. However, the distinction between person and personification was not always clear. For example, at certain moments Polemos seemed to be a minor divinity in his own right and appeared as a character in a play by Aristophanes (c. 450–c. 388 BCE). Personifications tended to develop into personalities as stories were told about them, whereupon they became objects of cult worship and were represented in art. Nike did not appear in any stories and was not the object of cult worship—the Greeks prayed for victory and offered battlefield trophies to her if they were successful, but these were tributes to a symbol rather than a person.
Yet Nike did become something of a personality through artistic representation. Greek artists frequently represented her in paintings on pottery, in small bronze figures, in stone sculptures and terra-cottas, and on jewelry, coins, and seal rings. The goddess was nearly always shown with wings, dressed in flowing garments, and in motion. On early pottery paintings she is depicted running; in later representations she is often swooping down to touch the earth. One of the greatest sculptures of the deity, Nike of Paionios (c. 420 BCE), stood high on a pillar at the sanctuary of Olympia on the Peloponnese peninsula, supported by her bare toes which just grazed the base.
In other representations, such as those on Sicilian coins that commemorated racing victories at the Olympic Games, Nike flies over chariots with her wings outspread. Another portrayal of the goddess is the eight-foot- (2.4-meter-) high Winged Victory of Samothrace (c. 190 BCE), which shows Nike touching down on the prow of a ship. The statue, which now stands in the Louvre, in Paris, France, commemorated victory in a sea battle. Nike's Roman counterpart, the goddess Victoria, was also frequently represented by artists and sculptors. Roman Emperor Augustus (63 BCE–14 CE) placed Victoria's most important altar in the Senate House in Rome in 29 BCE. In the world of commerce, in 1972 the name Nike was adopted by a U.S. company that has since become one of the world's leading manufacturers of sportswear and sports equipment.
See also: ATHENA; EROS; MNEMOSYNE; TITANS; ZEUS.
- Bulfinch's Mythology. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2006. .
- Theogony and Works and Days. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. , and M. L. West, trans.
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