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Ancient Greek mythology, religion and art
Nike (Νίκη) was the Greek goddess and personification of victory in war and sport. Her Roman equivalent was Victoria.
She is thought by some scholars to have been a daemon who only later came to be considered as a goddess, a belief which reached its height in the Hellenistic period and continued by the Roman worship of her as Victoria.
As with other deities, she was at some point appended to the complicated divine genealogies, of which there are several versions. According to Hesiod, her father was the Titan Pallas, and her mother the nymph Styx (daughter of Okeanos and Tethys). Her sister was Bia (Force), and her brothers Kratos (Strength, Supremacy) and Zelos (Zeal, Rivalry). 
Styx and her chilren sided with Zeus in the great battle against the Titans, and after lived with him on Mount Olympus. The battle, known as the Gigantomachy, was depicted several times by Greek artists, notably on the frieze around the Great Altar of Zeus
(early 2nd century BC) on the Pergamon Acropolis.
It may be significant that there are no known myths in which Nike is a main protagonist; she always plays a supporting role, for example as the chariot driver for Zeus.
She was closely associated with both Zeus and Athena, and statues were made of these major deities accompanied by a diminutive and subordinate Nike.
Famously, the Athenian sculptor Pheidas
made a colossal chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Athena Parthenos holding Nike in her right hand for the Parthenon
, and another of Zeus holding Nike for the Temple of Zeus in Olympia. The latter was named by Philo of Byzantium as one of the Seven Wonders of the World
In the Sanctuary of Athena Polias Nikephoros
(Athena of the City, Bringer of Victory) in Pergamon stood the Library of Pergamon which housed a statue of Athena Parthenos
(circa 200-150 BC), based on Pheidias' original in Athens. Although the arms of the statue are missing, it is thought that this figure also held a Nike in her hand.
It is not clear what part Nike took in human victories, although one poet wrote: "Nike ... in gold-rich Olympus, you stand beside Zeus and judge the outcome of prowess for immortals and mortals." 
Usually in Greek myth and literature, other gods are shown helping or hindering combatants in battles and competitions: Hephaistos
and Athena aided Achilles at Troy, Athena helped Perseus against the Gorgon Medusa
, and Pan
caused chaos among the Persian invaders at Marathon (see Athens Acropolis gallery page 5
). Nike is usually depicted flying to deliver victory, often carrying the victor's laurel wreath (see photo below
), a palm or a trophy. Like Hermes
, she appears to be merely the messenger of Zeus and other gods.
Like Hermes too, she seems to be constantly busy and on the move. In the balustrade relief panels of the Temple of Athena Nike
on the Athens Acropolis, she is shown busily rushing around to serve Athena.
It is no wonder that at some point she was given wings to help her with her hectic work schedule. According to an ancient commentator on Aristophanes' comedy Birds
, the sculptor Archermos of Chios
(mid 6th century BC) was the first to represent Nike with wings (see photos below
). She became one of the winged deities, along with Hermes, Eros, Iris and Nemesis; Hypnos, Thanatos, the Gorgon Medusa and the hero Perseus are also often shown with wings in ancient Greek and Roman art.
However, Pausanias reports that the cult statue (xoanon) in the Temple of Athena Nike had no wings and the goddess was known as Nike Apteros (Νίκη Ἄπτερος, Wingless Victory). His explanation for this is that the Athenians deprived her of wings so that she could never leave them. 
It is unclear whether the statue and temple were dedicated to Nike or Athena as Nike (i.e. Nike assimilated by the Athena cult, and Athena assuming her role as the bringer of victory). If the temple was originally dedicated to Nike alone, the statue may have been a very ancient cult image (or a copy of one) predating depictions of the goddess with wings.
The Byzantine encyclopaedia, the Suda
, had the following to say about Nike and her wings:
"Athena Nike: Lykourgos in the speech On the priestess
mentions her. That the xoanon of Nike, wingless, holding a pomegranate in her right hand and a helmet in her left, was worshipped by the Athenians Heliodoros the Periegete
has shown in the first book of his On the Acropolis
Alternatively she stands allegorically for the notion that even winning is completely dependent on thought; for thought contributes to victory, but being thoughtless and impetuous while fighting leads to defeat.
When she has wings she symbolizes that aspect of the mind that is sharp and, so to speak, swift-winged; but when she is depicted without wings she represents that aspect of it that is peaceful and quiet and civil, that by which the things of the earth flourish, a boon of which the pomegranate in her right hand is a representation. Just as the helmet in her left is a representation of battle. Thus she has the same capability as Athena." 
Nike was depicted on many coins, vase paintings and reliefs. Most of the statues, or parts of statues, of the goddess which have so far been found are thought to have either been set up on columns as part of victory monuments, or were aktroteria which decorated the corners of temple roofs.
|References to Nike|
on My Favourite Planet
|The Temple of Athena Nike on the Athens Acropolis|
Athens Acropolis gallery pages 11-12
|Relief of winged Nike on Kuretes Street, Ephesus|
Ephesus gallery pages 14
|Statues of Nike from Samothraki, including
the "Winged Victory of Samothrace"
Travel guide to Samothraki
This guide and the gallery are currently being
completely rewritten. The updated version
should be online by the end of 2016.
Marble head of a statue of Nike.
2nd century AD copy of an original
by Paionios, 5th century BC.
Agora Museum, Athens. Inv. No. S 2354.
Head of a statue of Nike
from the Villa of Dionysos,
Dion, Macedonia, Greece.
Copy of a 5th century BC original.
Dion Archaeological Museum.
Marble relief of Nike adjusting her sandal,
known as «Σανδαλίζομἐνη» Νίκη
(the Sandalbinder), from the balustrade
(south parapet) around the bastion of
the Temple of Athena Nike on the
Athens Acropolis. Circa 410 BC.
Acropolis Museum, Athens.
Inv. No. Acr. 973.
Archaic statue of winged Nike.
Parian marble. Found at the Temple of
Artemis, Delos in 1877. The earliest known
free-standing statue of a Nike, probably
by Archermos of Chios, circa 550 BC.
National Archaeological Museum, Athens.
Inv. No. 21. Height 90 cm.
|The Scholia (commentary) of Aristophanes' play Birds mentions Archermus, artist, father of Bupalus and Athenis (or Athenidos), said to have been the first to represent Victory with wings:
"Only more recently have Nike and Eros acquired wings. For some say that it was Archennos [sic] the father of Boupalos and Athenis, others that it was Aglaophon the Thasian painter who made Nike winged, as Karystios of Pergamon relates."
There are varying translations of the Scholia. "Archennos" is thought to have been an error or misreading by those who copied the manuscripts.
See: John Williams White, The scholia on the Aves of Aristophanes, 574, pages 120 and 368. Ginn and company, Boston and London, 1914. At archive.org.
An inscribed statue base signed by Archermos and Mikkiades (perhaps Archermos' father), found near to the Nike at Delos, was thought to belong to the statue (see photo below), leading archaeologists to believe they had discovered the first winged Nike by Archermos. However, the base was later thought to have supported a sphinx. The inscription:
Μ̣ικκι̣ά̣[δης τόδ’ ἄγ]α̣λ̣μ̣α καλὸν μ̣’ [ἀνέθηκεν καὶ υἱὸς]
Ἄ̣ρχερμ̣ος θ[υσ]ί̣η̣σιν ℎ(ε)κήβο[λον αὖθ’ ἱλάσασθαι]
οἱ Χῖοι Μέλ̣α̣ν̣ος πατρώιον ἄσ[τυ λιπόντες]
Inscription SEG 19:510.
It has been translated in several ways, for example:
"Farshooter [Apollo, receive this] fine figure [... worked by] the skills of Archermos, from the Chian Mikkiades..."
John Boardman, Greek art, page 91. Thames and Hudson, London, 2012 (4th edition).
The statue may have stood on a column as a votive offering or as an akroterion (roof ornament). The wing tips, parts of the lower arms and right hand, the lower left leg and both feet are missing. The lack of the bottom of the sculpture makes it impossible to be certain of the type of base to which it was attached.
Nike's head and upper torso are frontal, while her lower body and legs are shown in profile. She is shown with arms and legs bent in what appears to be a running or kneeling position, typical in Archaic depictions of flying deities and other mythical figures, for example the Gorgon Medusa (see also photos below). The pose is often referred to as the "Knielauf" (literally knee-run) schema, a phrase coined by German archaeologists.
She wears a peplos and chiton, with her lower right leg exposed. On her head she wears a stephane (crown) with holes for attaching metal ornaments. The holes in her ear lobes probably held earrings. Her hair has elaborately carved curls around the brow, and falls in tresses over her shoulders and breasts. She has the "Archaic smile" seen on kouros and koure statues of the 7th - early 5th century BC (see examples on Samos gallery pages 4 and 5).
The inscribed statue base from Delos associated with the statue of winged Nike above.
According to the inscription, it was a base for a statue by Archemos of Chios.
Parian marble. Around 550 BC.
National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Inv. No. 21a.
Archaic bronze plaque from the Athens Acropolis,
with a relief of a winged Nike in the "Knielauf" position.
Probably a decoration of a bronze vessel.
National Archaeological Museum, Athens.
|Marble Archaic statue of winged Nike from the akroterion of the Archaic
temple of Apollo in Delphi. Marble, 515-505 BC. Height 113 cm. Found
during excavations around the temple and the Sacred Way in 1894 and 1895.
Nike is shown in the conventional running/flying position and has wings attached
to her lower left leg. It has been suggested that the figure may be by Antenor.
Delphi Archaeological Museum. Inv. No. 1872.
Fragments of a painted terracotta akroterion depicting winged Nike, from
the poros (limestone) temple of Athena Pronaia, Delphi, circa 500 BC.
Delphi Archaeological Museum, Greece.
Fragment of the painted terracotta head of the Nike akroterion above.
Delphi Archaeological Museum, Greece.
Stamped terracotta relief with a winged Nike carrying prizes for a chariot race.
From Akragas (Agrigento), Sicily, 6th - 5th century BC.
One of a number of rim fragments of locally made louteria (λουτήρια, large basins
on pedestals for ritual washing), with stamped reliefs depicting racing four-horse
chariots alternating with Nikes. The scenes are separated by Doric columns. The
louteria were also decorated with continuous friezes showing battles with Centaurs.
Agrigento Regional Archaeological Museum, Sicily.
Another fragment of a louterion (λουτήριον) from Akragas showing a running/flying winged Nike.
Agrigento Regional Archaeological Museum, Sicily. Inv. No. C. 315.
A similar fragment of a louterion from Selinous (today Selinunte), Sicily, about 520-500 BC.
British Museum. Inv. No. GR 1923.4-17.1.
|"The Varvakeion statuette" of Athena Parthenos holding Nike in her right hand.
Pentelic marble. 2nd - 3rd century AD, Roman period copy of the statue
by Pheidas, circa 447-439 BC, which stood in the Parthenon.
Found 18 December 1880 near the Varvakeion School,
in the Athens suburb of Psychiko.
National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Inv. No. 129.
photo, left: © Konstanze Gundudis
Marble statue of winged Nike running or flying.
Akroterion from the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios
in the Ancient Agora, Athens. Circa 400 BC.
Height 129 cm. Discovered in 1933 by
archaeologists of the American School
of Classical Studies in Athens.
Agora Museum, Athens. Inv. No. S 312.
Bronze head of Nike from the Ancient Agora,
Athens. 420-415 BC. Thought to be one of
the series of "Golden Nikai" made in the time
of Perikles. Part of the Athenian state gold
and silver reserves was hammered into
sheets which covered statues or busts of
Nike. In the case of financial necessity the
sheets could be removed and made into coins.
Agora Museum, Athens. Inv. No. B 30.
A dedicatory relief from the Athens Acropolis of a winged Nike crowning Herakles
or a victorious athlete, and with her left hand on Athena's shoulder. 420-410 BC.
Acropolis Museum, Athens. Inv. No. Acr. 1329.
See also a 2nd century AD clay disc depicting Nike crowning Hermes.
Relief showing Nike driving a four-horse chariot.
Detail of a fragment of an Athenian decree for Arybbas, king of the Molossoi of Epirus.
From the Athenian Acropolis. 343/342 BC.
The decree granted hospitality and privileges to Arybbas, son of Alketas, after he was
dethroned by Philip II of Macedonia and fled to Athens. The relief and laurel wreaths on the
marble stele are reminders of Arybbas' equestrian victories at the Olympian and Pythian games.
From the Athens Epigraphical Museum. Now in the Acropolis Museum, Athens. Inv. No. EM 1 3291.
A fragment of an Archaistic relief with Apollo and Nike.
Pentelic marble. Hellenistic period.
Apollo, carrying a lyre, holds out a bowl into which winged Nike pours a libation.
Barracco Museum, Rome. Inv. No. MB 188. Purchased in Rome.
A plaster copy of the "Winged Victory of Samothrace" in Samothraki Archaeological Museum.
The statue of the Winged Victory of Samothrace (Νίκη της Σαμοθράκης, Niki tis Samothrakis)
depicted Nike standing or landing on the prow of a warship. The sculpture is thought to have
been made by Pythokritos of Rhodes, circa 220-185 BC, as part of a monument to
commemorate a victory in a naval battle, and stood above the cavea (audience seating
area) of the theatre at the Sanctuary of the Great Gods.
The original statue, now in the Louvre, Paris (Inv. No. MA 2369), was made of Parian marble,
and the ship's prow and the base (not included with the copy on Samothraki) are of gray marble
from Lartos, Rhodes (lithos lartios). There is also a copy in Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
A winged Nike blowing a trumpet on the prow of a warship.
|A gold stater minted by Demetrios Poliorketes to commemorate
his naval victory over Ptolemy. Salamis, Cyprus, circa 300-295 BC.
Bode Museum, Berlin.
The similarity of the images of Nike on such coins to the statue of the Winged Victory of Samothrace have led scholars to search for a connection between them.
Tetradrachm of Demetrios
Poliorketes. Salamis, Cyprus,
circa 300-295 BC. A winged
Nike blowing a trumpet on
the prow of a warship.
Altes Museum, Berlin.
Winged Nike Akroterion from the Hieron, in the the Sanctuary of the Great Gods, Samothraki.
Proconnesian marble, 120-100 BC.
Samothraki Archaeological Museum, Paleopolis, Samothraki.
|This was the third Nike statue found at the Sanctuary of the Great Gods (the first was the "Winged Victory of Samothrace", see above). It was discovered by American archaeologists of New York University in 1949, carefully buried 9 metres north of the southwestern corner of the Hieron.
The winged figure wears a chiton, with a himation draped over the lower body, and a sandal on her left foot. Her right arm was raised, and in her left hand she may have held a phiale (libation bowl).
The statue has often been described as being made of Parian marble. However, recent analysis has proved that the marble came from the island of Proconnesos (today Marmara, Turkey). It is thought that the statue was damaged in the first century BC and replaced by the Nike statue now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Photo taken at the exhibition "Samothrace, the island of the mysteries of the Great Gods",
Acropolis Museum, Athens, 20 June 2015 - 10 January 2016.
Lycian limestone block with a relief of Nike. Winged Nike, holding a victory weath in her left hand,
flies towards the left. Behind her a female figure holds a small round object (an offering of fruit?).
From Xanthus (Kinik), Lycia, Southern Turkey. Severe style, second quarter of the 5th century BC.
Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
Statue of winged Nike from
an akroterion (roof decoration)
in the Pergamon Asclepieion.
Roman period, 2nd century AD.
Bergama Archaeological Museum,
Terracotta statuette of winged Nike flying.
From Myrina, near Pergamon. 200-150 BC.
Antikensammlung SMB, Berin. Inv. No. TC 8192.
Purchased in Myrina by the collector
Alfred J. Lawson in 1888.
A running/flying four-winged Nike carrying a victor's wreath. 550-500 BC.
Detail of an Attic black-figure amphora made in or near Athens for the Cypriot market.
From Site E, tomb 78, Amathus (Ἀμαθοῦς), on the south coast of Cyprus.
Amathus was excavated November 1893 - March 1894 by A.H. Smith and John Myres,
as part of the Turner Bequest Excavations on Cyprus (1893-1896).
Nike, wearing a flat band (taenia) on her head, a short tunic and fawn skin (nebris), runs to the
right with outstretched legs and wings. The original report on this amphora describes the figure
as a Boread, and a similar figure on the other side as a Harpy.  Both figures are incised and
painted in the black figure technique on a red ground, with added white and purple paint.
British Museum. GR 1894,11-1.161.
Small altar with a relief of a winged Nike carrying a wreath
and a palm leaf. Provenance unknown. 2nd century AD.
Thasos Archaeological Museum.
Basalt statue of Nike from Der'a,
Hauran, southern Syria. Roman
period, late 2nd century AD.
Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
Inv. No. 2408 T. Cat. Mendel 1399.
Detail of an Attic red-figure oichonoe showing Nike at an altar by the Eucharides Painter.
Made in Athens around 490-480 BC. Found in a well at the Athenian Agora.
Winged Nike, wearing a stephane (crown) and a himation over a long chiton, bends over a flaming
altar. With her right hand she sprinkles incense on the altar from a box held in her left hand.
Agora Museum, Athens. Inv. No. P 15010.
Winged Nike and Eros above the handle tang of a bronze mirror.
Made in southern Italy, perhaps at Locri, around 480 BC.
British Museum. GR 1923.5-14.1.
Silver phiale (φιάλη, libation bowl) with relief decoration, showing five four-horse chariots
driven by Nikai, carrying Athena, Herakles, Ares, Hermes and Dionysos. The scene represents
the apotheosis of Herakles: the hero is taken to Olympus to join the ranks of the gods.
Made in southern Italy, around 300 BC. From a hoard of Greek silver phialae,
dated to the 3rd Century BC, found in the late nineteenth century in Èze,
southern France. Acquired in 1891 from the dealers Rollin & Feuardent.
Diameter 20.6 cm, weight 393.6 gm.
British Museum. GR 1891.6-27.3 (Silver 8).
Nike on a coin of Menander (Μένανδρος), the Greek ruler of Afghanistan-Pakistan 155-130 BC.
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Inv. No. HCR4605.
Fresco of a statue of Nike driving a two-horse chariot in
an architectural setting, above the pediment of a building.
In situ in "Sede degli Augustali", Insula VI, Herculaneum.
|Victory goddess on a celestial globe, plaster cast of the "Victoria of Calvatone".
The original was a Roman statue of gilded bronze, 161-165 AD,
commissioned by M. Satrius Maior to commemorate the victory of
Emperor Marcus Aurelius and his brother. It has been missing since 1945.
Altes Museum, Berlin.
Original from Calvatone, Italy. Acquired in 1841. Inv. No. Sk 5.
Plaster cast: Abguss-sammlung, Freie Universität, Berlin. Nr. 87/33.
Bronze plaque in the form of a naiskos with a relief of Nike-Nemesis.
From Thessaloniki. 3rd century AD.
National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Stathatos Collection.
A running/flying winged goddess as a bronze attachment for a vessel.
Made in southern Italy, Perhaps in Taranto, around 570 BC.
British Museum. GR 1867.5-8.767 (Bronze 495).
A running/flying winged goddess as a bronze attachment for a vessel.
Made in southern Italy, Perhaps in Taranto, around 500 BC.
British Museum. GR 1824.4-97.21 (Bronze 491).
Bequeathed by R. Payne Knight.
||Notes, references and links
1. Hesiod on Nike's family, Zeus and the Gigantomachy
"And Styx the daughter of Ocean [Okeanos] was joined to Pallas and bare Zelus (Emulation) and trim-ankled Nike (Victory) in the house. Also she brought forth Cratos (Strength) and Bia (Force), wonderful children. These have no house apart from Zeus, nor any dwelling nor path except that wherein God leads them, but they dwell always with Zeus the loud-thunderer.
For so did Styx the deathless daughter of Ocean plan on that day when the Olympian Lightener called all the deathless gods to great Olympus, and said that whosoever of the gods would fight with him against the Titans, he would not cast him out from his rights, but each should have the office which he had before amongst the deathless gods. And he declared that he who was without office and rights under Cronos, should be raised to both office and rights as is just.
So deathless Styx came first to Olympus with her children through the wit of her dear father. And Zeus honoured her, and gave her very great gifts, for her he appointed to be the great oath of the gods, and her children to live with him always. And as he promised, so he performed fully unto them all. But he himself mightily reigns and rules."
Hesiod (8th - 7th century BC), Theogony, lines 383-403. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White.
2. Nike as judge
"Nike, giver of sweetness, to you the father, son of Ouranos, on his high bench has granted glorious honour, so that in gold-rich Olympos you stand beside Zeus and judge the outcome of prowess for immortals and mortals: be gracious, daughter of thick-tressed, right-judging Styx; it is thanks to you that Metapontion ... is now filled with the celebrations and festivities of strong-limbed youths, and they sing the praises of the Pythian victor."
Bacchylides (Greek lyric poet, 5th century BC), "For Alexidamus of Metapontion, victor in the boys' wrestling match at Pytho (Delphi)". Ode X, Fragment 11, British Museum Papyrus 733.
David A. Campbell, Greek lyric poetry: a selection of early Greek lyric, elegiac and iambic poetry. Bristol Classical Press, 1982.
J. M. Edmonds, Lyra Graeca Volume III, Book VII: Victory songs, 38 (X), pages 174-185. The Loeb Classical Library. William Heinemann, London; G. P. Putman's Son, New York, 1927.
Richard Claverhouse Jebb, Bacchylides: The Poems and Fragments, Ode X (XI), pages 208-212 and 321-335. Cambridge University Press, 1905.
3. Pauanias on Nike Apteros
Pauanias, describing the entrance to the Athens Acropolis, wrote:
"On the right of the gateway [Propylaia] is a temple of Wingless Victory."
Pausanias, Description of Greece, Book I, Chapter 22, section 4. At Perseus Digital Library.
Later, he comapres a cult figure of Enyalius [Ares] in Chains in Sparta, with the Wingless Nike in Athens:
"Near is a temple of Hipposthenes ... Opposite this temple is an old image of Enyalius [Ares] in fetters. The idea the Lacedaemonians express by this image is the same as the Athenians express by their Wingless Victory; the former think that Enyalius will never run away from them, being bound in the fetters, while the Athenians think that Victory, having no wings, will always remain where she is."
Pausanias, Description of Greece, Book III, Chapter 15, sections 7-8. At Perseus Digital Library.
4. Nike in the Souda
The Suda or Souda (Σοῦδα), a Byzantine encyclopaedia of the ancient Mediterranean world, written in the 10th century AD.
See: Suda On-Line
Heliodoros the Periegete, Heliodoros Periegetes, also known as Heliodorus of Athens (Ηλιόδωρος, Heliodoros, Gift of the Sun), a 2nd century BC Athenian author, thought to have written fifteen books on the Athens Acropolis around 150 BC. His works, now lost, were used as a source by several ancient authors, including Pliny the Elder and possibly Plutarch.
5. Nike on a black-figure amphora from Amathus, Cyprus
Arthur H. Smith (1860-1941), Excavations at Amathus. In Alexander S. Murray, Arthur H. Smith, Henry Beauchamp Walters, Excavations in Cyprus, pages 87-126, plates IV and XIV. British Museum, London, 1900. At Heidelberg University Library.
Description of the amphora on page 110, figs. 161 and 162.
|Photos on this page were taken during
visits to the following museums:
Berlin, Altes Museum
Berlin, Bode Museum
Athens, Acropolis Museum
Athens, Agora Museum
Athens, National Archaeological Museum
Delphi Archaeological Museum
Dion Archaeological Museum, Macedonia
Samothraki Archaeological Museum, Thrace
Thasos Archaeological Museum, Macedonia
Herculaneum Archaeological Site
Rome, Barracco Museum
Italy - Sicily
Agrigento Regional Archaeological Museum
Bergama Archaeological Museum
Istanbul Archaeological Museums
London, British Museum
Oxford, Ashmolean Museum
Many thanks to the staff of these museums.
|Photos and articles © David John|
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