Introducing Nike: Greek Goddess of Victory

Nike of Samothrace, statue at the Louvre

In Ancient Greek mythology, Nike was the Goddess who personified Victory.  Personifications weren’t rare in Greek religion. For example, Arete was the Goddess of excellence and virtue, and Aeltheia was the spirit of truth. Sister of Kratos (Stregth), Bia (Force), and Zelus (Zeal), the Greek Goddess of Victory was famous for her grace, strength and speed.

Red image on black vase of the Goddess of Victory pouring a libation.
The Goddess of Victory pouring a libation, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard University

1. Bringing fame and glory to all victors

The Greek poet Hesiod described the Goddess as ‘beautiful-ankled Nike’, and she was almost always represented in Greek art as a beautiful, winged woman. Her main role in life was to fly around battlefields, rewarding victors. The winning soldiers received a wreath of laurel leaves, symbolizing fame and glory. But she also visited and crowned outstanding athletes and heroes.

Stone carving of Nike, Greek Goddess of Victory, holding a wreath
Stone carving of Nike bringing a wreath, at the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, Turkey

2. The Goddess of Victory and Zeus

Nike and her siblings had a privileged relationship with Zeus, the most important God of the Pantheon. One of the most celebrated representations of the Goddess of Victory was the magnificent 5th century BC statue of Zeus at Olympia. This larger-than-life statue was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Decorated with gold and ivory, Zeus held a statuette of Nike in his left hand. Ever heard of the Olympic Games of ancient Greece? As their name suggests, they took place at Olympia. And of course, the Goddess of Victory needed to be there in her role as the bestower of prizes.

Statue of Zeus holding Goddess of Victory
Reconstruction of the Statue of Zeus at Olymia, holding the Goddess of Victory on his hand

3. The Goddess of Victory and Athena

Nike was also very close to Athena, Goddess of Wisdom and War. The Parthenon, on the Acropolis of Athens, was the most famous temple dedicated to Athena (it’s also part of our Treasure Hunt at the British Museum!). Inside the temple, Athena appeared in another huge statue of ivory and gold, holding the Goddess of Victory in her right hand. Unfortunately, both Zeus and Athena’s statues are lost to us, but some Roman copies and the descriptions by Pausanias give us a glimpse of their magnificence.

Statue of Athena holding Nike on her hand
Reconstruction of the Statue of Athena Parthenos, holding Nike on her hand

4. Nike in Greek art

Very often Nike appeared on her own. She was a famous subject in Greek pottery of the 4th and 5th centuries BC. And she also appeared on Greek coins. In addition, when the Greeks won important battles, they dedicated big statues of the Goddess of Victory, thanking her for the positive outcome of the war. The oldest surviving Nike in Greek Sculpture is from Delos. The statue shows the typical pose of archaic sculpture: she is strictly frontal, and her knees and elbows create sharp angles. This was the only way the artist knew to portray swift and violent movement. But get ready for some outstanding improvements!

Statue of Nike from Delos, with arms and legs bent at sharp angles
Archaic Statue of the Goddess of Victory from Delos, ca. 550 BC, National Archaeological Museum of Athens

5. Nike’s most beautiful portrait

After experimenting for some years, Greek artists learned how to portray realistic movement. How better to appreciate their skills than in the famous Nike of Samothrace? This statue, today at the Louvre, is one of the most celebrated sculptures of the ancient world. It probably commemorated a naval battle (although we don’t know which). Here, the Goddess of Victory is descending from the skies to land on the prow of a triumphant fleet. Her graceful balance and flowing drapery convey a sense of action and triumph.

Nike of Samothrace, Louvre
Side view of the Nike of Samothrace, between the 3rd and the 1st cent. BC, Louvre

6. Honouring Nike today

The Nike of Samothrace is, of course, featured in our Treasure Hunt at the Louvre. In 2018, we even built a whole treasure hunt with Nike as the centerpiece, for a corporate client. Can you guess who? Hint: it was an American multi-national corporation, famous for sneakers and sportswear, who take their name from our favourite Goddess of Victory…

We never launched this Nike-themed treasure hunt (which covers athletes and all thing sport) to the public, but plan to do so as soon as we’re ready to celebrate our victory over coronavirus!

But we’re not the only ones showing our appreciation for Nike of Samothrace. In 1964, she made an appearance in Godard’s Bande à Part, in a wonderful scene in which three naughty New Wave teens run through the halls of the Louvre. More recently, this single lady even had a cameo in a Beyoncé video, filmed at the Louvre, where dancers undulate like waves on the stairs below her.

Nike of Samothrace, Louvre
Nike of Samothrace, frontal view, Louvre

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One Comment on “Introducing Nike: Greek Goddess of Victory

  1. Grazie mille Anna for another insightful post on Greek mythology. I love that the Louvre Nike statue was put together like a puzzle, as archaeologists kept finding new pieces of the original statue, but never its head.

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