Leo Varadkar's Athena comment was 'not jibe at Boris Johnson'

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson reacts as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaks in Dublin, Ireland, September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Phil Noble

Stephen Jones and Aoife Moore

A source close to Leo Varadkar has insisted an offer to be "your Athena" was not intended as a veiled jibe at Boris Johnson over Brexit.

Speaking ahead of his meeting with Mr Johnson in Dublin, the Taoiseach turned to his British counterpart and said securing trade agreements with the EU and US in less than three years would be a "Herculean" task.

As Mr Johnson laughed, he then added: "We want to be your friend and ally, your Athena, in doing so."

According to Greek mythology, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, repeatedly helped Hercules, her half-brother and the son of Zeus.

On one of those occasions, Athena stepped in after Hercules went mad and killed his own children, knocking him unconscious and thus preventing him from murdering his mortal father.

She then, according to legend, helped him complete 12 labours - feats so hard they seemed impossible - to atone for his crimes.

For some learned Twitter users, the comparisons with Brexit were impossible to ignore, with the word Athena trending shortly afterwards.

Many suggested the comments were a barb aimed at a privately-educated PM who studied classics.

However, a source close to the Taoiseach told the PA news agency: "It's well known that Boris is into his classics and literature, and the Taoiseach meant the Herculean reference as a compliment, the entire meeting was supposed to be complimentary.

"He wanted to reference Boris's interests, and meant it as a positive, nothing more should be taken from it than that."