The 2nd-century traveller Pausanias, when he visited the Acropolis at the end of the 2nd century AD, only mentioned briefly the sculptures of the pediments (gable ends) of the temple, reserving the majority of his description for the gold and ivory statue of the goddess inside.

The east pediment narrates the birth of Athena from the head of her father, Zeus. According to Greek mythology, Zeus gave birth to Athena after a terrible headache prompted him to summon Hephaestus' (the god of fire and the forge) assistance. To alleviate the pain, he ordered Hephaestus to strike him with his forging hammer, and when he did, Zeus's head split open and out popped the goddess Athena in full armour. The sculptural arrangement depicts the moment of Athena's birth. Unfortunately, the centrepieces of the pediment were destroyed even before Jacques Carrey created otherwise useful documentary drawings in 1674, so all reconstructions are subject to conjecture and speculation. The main Olympian gods must have stood around Zeus and Athena watching the wondrous event, with Hephaestus and Hera probably near them. The Carrey drawings are instrumental in reconstructing the sculptural arrangement beyond the center figures to the north and south.