Nike, the winged goddess whose name means victory, is one of the most enduring symbols from Greek mythology. Soaring over battlefields, she brought victory to men and gods alike. Evoked to celebrate and encourage success, she has featured prominently in art from ancient times to the modern day.
So who was Nike and how did a minor god become such a prominent feature of our culture?
Goddess of Speed and Strength
Nike was a goddess of more than victory. Fast on foot and on wing, she was known for speed and strength. Though she was most often evoked for with athletic contests and battles, she was believed to bring victory in all areas of life.
During war, Nike would soar over the battlefield, granting glory to worthy winners. A laurel wreath was worn as a symbol of her blessing, a wreath worn by Roman emperors as a reminder of their success.
Nike was not always seen as a goddess in her own right. She was sometimes seen as an attribute of Zeus, the king of the gods, or of Athena, goddess of wisdom. In this role, she was shown as a small figure held in the deity’s hand.
Over time, Nike came to be seen as a mediator between gods and humans, someone who could grant success to those who appealed to her. Some even spoke of multiple Nikai, a host of victories.
The Appearance of Nike
Like most Greek goddesses, Nike was usually portrayed as a beautiful woman in flowing robes. She had wings, allowing her to fly across the battlefield.
Nike carried a variety of different items symbolic of her role. Sometimes she had a lyre on which to play songs in celebration of victory, sometimes a laurel wreath to crown the victor, sometimes a cup carrying a libation, a drink to be poured away in honour of the gods. As the god who brought news of victory, she sometimes carried the staff of Hermes, the divine messenger. Coins and mosaics also show her carrying a palm branch, another symbol of victory.
Much of the art around Nike shows her celebrating a victory, either raising a trophy or hovering over the victor.
In some cases, Nike is shown driving Zeus’s chariot, a nod to her most famous role in legend, fighting in the war against the giants.
Nike and the Other Gods
As with many Greek myths, there are different versions of Nike’s origins. According to one, she was the daughter of Ares, the god of war, and an unknown mother. But the more popular legend places her at the heart of the struggle between gods and Titans.
According to this legend, Nike’s father was Pallas, the son of the Titan Crius and Eurybia, daughter of Gaia, the divine embodiment of the Earth. Nike’s mother was Styx, daughter of the Titan Oceanus, an embodiment of the ocean.
Nike lived on Mount Olympus with her three brothers, who represented similar qualities to her. Zelus was the personification of rivalry, Cratos the embodiment of strength and dominance, and Bia the representative of power and force. All were close to Zeus. Bia used his strength to bind the titan Prometheus to a rock, part of his punishment for stealing fire from the gods.
Thanks to her role in war, Nike was also often connected with Athena, the goddess whose interest in wisdom extended to military strategy.
Nike in Legend
According to one commonly repeated myth, when Zeus led the Olympian gods into war against the Titans, Styx was the first to take his side. She brought her children, including Nike, to help him. He gave Nike a golden chariot, in which she drove him to war.
As Zeus’s charioteer, Nike carried him to victory across the battlefields of the Titanomachy, the war against the Titans. At the end of the war, Zeus became the supreme deity, with Nike and her siblings acting as his throne guards. They made their home at Mount Olympus, becoming part of Zeus’s newly formed pantheon.
Nike took up the reins of Zeus’s chariot again during the Gigantomachy, the war of the giants, and to help put down the uprising of the monstrous Typhon. As Typhon advanced on Mount Olympus, nearly all the gods fled. Only Zeus and Nike stood against him, Nike offering words of comfort that bolstered Zeus’s spirits and helped him defeat Typhon.
Nike in Culture
Nike was often portrayed on coins and statues in the ancient world. Some of these have survived, becoming among the most iconic art in the world.
One of the most famous is the Nike of Samothrace, also known as Winged Victory, discovered in 1863 and now found in the Louvre Museum, Paris. This was probably built around 203 BC to celebrate a naval battle, and the goddess was portrayed stepping off a ship.
The Athenians raised a statue known as Nike Apteron - Wingless Victory. The statue did not have Nike’s usual wings, symbolising the fact that she would not fly away, and that victory was a permanent presence in Athens.
The Romans, who called her Victoria, built a statue to her in their senate house. This became the flashpoint for conflict between Christians and pagans as Rome’s religious character changed in the 4th century.
In the 20th century, Nike has regained her position as a powerful symbol of sporting success. Since 1928 she has featured on Olympic medals. She also appears on the Jules Rimet trophy, the original prize for football’s world cup. Most famously, the sportswear brand Nike embraced her name as a symbol of speed, strength, and athletic prowess.
Because of her speed, Nike has also been a symbol of motor vehicles. Rolls Royce’s Spirit of Ecstasy hood ornament is inspired in part by her. The winged logo of Honda motorbikes references her myth. And a memorial to the engineers of the RMS Titanic, who died fighting to keep the sinking ship afloat and so give others time to escape, shows Nike surrounded by those same engineers, triumphant even in death.
Just like in ancient times, Nike is a symbol of triumph in sports and beyond.