The cult image of Athena Nike is referred to in literary sources three times: in a fragment of Heliodoros, an Athenian antiquarian of the 2nd century B.C.; and in two passages of Pausanias, writing in the later 2nd century after Christ. The statue is mentioned as well in a late 5th century decree bearing on the cult. The fragment of Heliodoros survives in a lexicographic entry of Harpokration, which citation reads in full:
Νίκη Ἀθηνᾶ: Λυκοῦργος ἐν τῷ Περὶ τῆς ἱερείας. ὃτι δὲ Νίκης Ἀθηνᾶς ξόανον ἄπτερον, ἔχον ἐν μὲν τῇ δεξιᾷ ῥόαν, ἐν δὲ τῇ εὐωνύμῳ κράνος, ἐτιμᾶτο παρ᾽Ἀθηναίοις, δεδήλωκεν Ἡλιόδωρος ὁ περιηγητὴς ἐν α ᾽Περὶ ἀκροπόλεως.
(Nike Athena: Lykourgos in concerning the priestess. That the Athenians venerated a wingless of Nike Athena, a pomegranate in the richt hand, a Helmut in the Leith, is attested by the periegete Heliodoros in Book I of concerning the Akropolis.)
Pausanias refers to the statue only in passing, first in discussing a cult image of Enyalios at Sparta and again before a votive image of Nike at Olympia:
Τοῦ ναοῦ δὲ ἀπαντικρὺ πἐδας ἐστὶν ἔχων Ἐνυάλιος, ἄρχαῖον. Γνώμη δὲ Λακεδαιμονίων τε ἐς τοῦτό ἐστιν ἄγαλμα καὶ Ἀθηναίων ἐς τὴν Ἄπτερον καλουμένην Νίκην, τῶν μὲν οὔποτε τὸν Ἐνυάλιον φεύγοντα οἰχήσεσθαί σφισιν ἐνεχόμενον ταῖς πέδαις, Ἀθηναίων δὲ τὴν Νίκην αὐτόθι ἀεὶ μενεῖν οὐκ ὄντων πτερῶν. Τόνδε μὲν ἐισιν αἱ πόλεις αὖται τὰ ξόανα <τὸν> τρόπον ἱδρυμέναι καὶ ἐπὶ δόξῃ τοιαύτῃ
(Opposite this temple is an ancient image of Enyalios in fetters. The notion of the Lakedaimonians about this image is that, being held fast by the fetters, Enyalios will never run away from them; just as the Athenians have a notion about the Victory called Wingless, that she will always stay where she is because she has no wings. That is why Athens and Sparta have setup these images after this fashion.)
The written sources refer to the goddess of the sanctuary by several different titles. Her proper title is Athena Nike, first attested on the inscribed Archaic altar of the cult and commonly used in official contexts through the 5th and 4th centuries and into the Hellenistic period. Fifth-century texts of a less formal nature often call the goddess simply Nike, and indeed this short form, seemingly colloquial at first, appears to have become increasingly accepted and to have led even to the popular confusion of Athena Nike, a form of Athena, and Nike, the personification. This is implicit in the term apteros, "wingless", first attested in Heliodoros. The modifier is superfluous for an audience who understands the image as Athena: it would be exceptional for Athena to have wings. It is for those who rather see her as the normally winged Nike. "Wingless", used simply as an adjective in Heliodoros, is for Pausanias the very title of the goddess: τῶν δὲ προπυλαίων ἐν δεξιᾷ Νίκης ἐστὶν Ἀπτέρου ναός. "On the right of the Propylaia is a temple of Wingless Victory." It appears that by Roman times the popular usage had fully supplanted the original cult title.
The body of evidence on the cult statue of Athena Nike, archaeological, epigraphical, and literary, gains strength above all from its internal consistency. A number of sources could of them selves be differently interpreted. Brought together, however, their voice is compelling: the xoanon of Athena Nike dates from the foundation of the Stage I sanctuary. Saved from the Persian Sack, it was returned to the bastion in Stage III, installed on a new base.