Athena is famous for many things, but her birth, springing fully formed from her father’s head, is a well-known part of her myth, depicted on blackfigure vases from early Greece and mentioned by Homer and Hesiod. Her mother, Metis, is less well-known, although it was she who actually gave birth to Athena, inside Zeus’ belly.
Metis: good or just clever?
It’s easy to see Metis as a personification, since like Sophia her name is her job description. To the ancient Greeks metis was “cunning intelligence”, a characteristc shared by Zeus, Metis and their daughter. Metis’ role in helping Zeus to the throne might suggest an active character like his other adviser, Gaia, but her lack of any religious cult suggest that she was seen as an abstract figure.
When I was researching this post, I found that scholars disagree about what, if any, moral significance you could attach to metis. Norman O. Brown saw it as an amoral force, which both Metis and Prometheus had, forcing Zeus to come up to their standard in cunning in order to maintain his power.
Faraone and Teeter, however, see metis as having a moral content as well, although they note that Hesiod (as you will see below) believes that Metis was a force for good, while Homer saw metis as both skill and trickery. (They also compare Metis to the Egyptian goddess Ma’at – see below for more.)
Metis the Titaness
Metis was one of the Titans, an older generation of gods than Zeus and the Olympians. Her father was Okeanos, god of the ocean that surrounded the earth, and her mother was Tethys, mother of the rivers, clouds and the Okeanides, nymphs of springs and streams. They were of the same generation as Kronos and Rhea, all children of Ouranos and Gaea.
After Zeus overthrew his father, Kronos, who had swallowed (almost) all his children to avoid precisely that fate, it was the goddess Metis who advised Zeus to feed Kronos a purgative to make him vomit up the rest of the Olympians:
But when Zeus was full-grown, he took Metis, daughter of Ocean, to help him, and she gave Cronus a drug to swallow, which forced him to disgorge first the stone and then the children whom he had swallowed,1 and with their aid Zeus waged the war against Cronus and the Titans.
(Pseudo-Apollodorus Bibliotheca 1.2.1)
Many of Okeanos’s children were shape-shifters, just as water can take any form. Pseudo-Apollodorus tells us that Metis used this ability to try to evade Zeus’ lust, although other versions of the story say that she was his first wife:
Zeus had intercourse with Metis, who turned into many shapes in order to avoid his embraces. When she was with child, Zeus, taking time by the forelock, swallowed her, because Earth said that, after giving birth to the maiden who was then in her womb, Metis would bear a son who should be the lord of heaven. From fear of that Zeus swallowed her.1 And when the time came for the birth to take place, Prometheus or, as others say, Hephaestus, smote the head of Zeus with an axe, and Athena, fully armed, leaped up from the top of his head at the river Triton.
(Pseudo-Apollodorus Bibliotheca 1.3.6)
Creation and Pseudo-Creation in Theogony
In a way the story of Metis is central to the Zeus story as laid out in Hesiod’s Theogony, which was a canonical text in the ancient world: how did Zeus avoid the fate of his father and grandfather? Being Zeus,he dodged it through a trick, and in doing so managed to create an equally tricky daughter:
Now Zeus, king of the gods, made Metis his wife first, and she was wisest among gods and mortal men. But when she was about to bring forth the goddess bright-eyed Athene, Zeus craftily deceived her with cunning words and put her in his own belly, as Earth and starry Heaven advised. For they advised him so, to the end that no other should hold royal sway over the eternal gods in place of Zeus; for very wise children were destined to be born of her, first the maiden bright-eyed Tritogeneia, equal to her father in strength and in wise understanding; but afterwards she was to bear a son of overbearing spirit, king of gods and men. But Zeus put her into his own belly first, that the goddess might devise for him both good and evil.
(Theogony 886-900, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White)
So the Metis story could be seen as central to Hesiod’s scheme in the poem, as Zeus legitimates his rule in different ways, including giving honours to Styx and her children, and taking counsel with the primal goddess Gaea. It was Gaea and Rhea who instigated the revolts by their sons against Ouranos and Kronos, so Zeus may have feared similar incitement by Metis, who might be equally softhearted towards her children.
An interesting parallel to Metis’ story comes from Egyptian thought, where the pharaoh was said to ingest the goddess Ma’at, who embodied truth, so that he would always speak truth.
The tiny Metis below Zeus in the image of Athena’s birth resembles the image of Ma’at just above. Egyptian art often shows one person handing another an equally tiny Ma’at, presumably to swallow down. While Ma’at was the goddess of truth and justice, Metis is often translated as “cunning intelligence”, which would seem to be two different concepts.
As we have seen, however, Hesiod says that Metis knew (or could devise) good and evil from inside Zeus, and the recap of Athena’s birth later in the poem also says that Metis was a “worker of righteousness”:
But Hera was very angry and quarrelled with her mate. And because of this strife she bare without union with Zeus who holds the aegis a glorious son, Hephaestus, who excelled all the sons of Heaven in crafts. But Zeus lay with the fair- cheeked daughter of Ocean and Tethys apart from Hera…. ((LACUNA)) ….deceiving Metis (Thought) although she was full wise. But he seized her with his hands and put her in his belly, for fear that she might bring forth something stronger than his thunderbolt: therefore did Zeus, who sits on high and dwells in the aether, swallow her down suddenly. But she straightway conceived Pallas Athene: and the father of men and gods gave her birth by way of his head on the banks of the river Trito. And she remained hidden beneath the inward parts of Zeus, even Metis, Athena’s mother, worker of righteousness, who was wiser than gods and mortal men. There the goddess (Athena) received that (31) whereby she excelled in strength all the deathless ones who dwell in Olympus, she who made the host-scaring weapon of Athena. And with it (Zeus) gave her birth, arrayed in arms of war.
(Theogony 929a-929t) (30), trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White)
Creation and Pseudo-Creation
You’ll notice that in this version Zeus “gave her birth”, taking all the credit for his daughter’s existence.1 This may have been deliberate on Hesiod’s part, because the Theogony is all about the independent creative power of the goddesses, even if they don’t act in other ways.H
Night gives birth to a whole brood of children by herself at the beginning of the poem, and in the verses following the quote above, Hera tells how she has already given birth alone, and proceeds to do it again. Zeus cannot create life out of his body, but when something that “looks like” birth happens (and happens again after he sews the premature Dionysus into his thigh) he can take the credit.
Both Theogony and the Homeric Hymn to Apollo emphasize Hera’s fury at her husband’s pseudo-birth, and how it leads to the birth of the monster Typhon from Hera alone. Another interesting point about Athena’s birth comes from art, where early representations feature the birth-goddess Eilethyia, either alone or as a pair, while later ones have Hephaistos taking an axe to Zeus’ head, increasing the masculine input into Athena’s first appearance.
One vase not only shows Hephestaios, but also Ares among the attendant gods, as well as Dionysus. Thus two of “Hera’s children” are matched with “Zeus’ children”. I wonder if part of Hera’s fury and humiliation at Athena’s birth was occasioned by the knowledge that while her war-god son ruled the frenzy of battle, Athena would go on to be the supreme strategist, combining the strengths of her parents.
In fact, interpretations of Greek myths often seem to blame Ares’ belligerent nature on his mother; perhaps Metis deserves more credit for her daughter.
You can read the myth of Athena’s birth in two different ways. The first version in Hesiod says that Zeus swallowed Metis when she was pregnant, but the second says she conceived after he swallowed her. In that case, she would be the daughter of Metis alone, a possibility which Greek myth strangely fails to take up.
1. This also has an Egyptian counterpart: in the papyrus called The Contendings of Horus and Set, it tells how Set tricked Horus into swallowing his semen, which Set then calls forth to humiliate his opponent. It emerges from his head as a sun-disc. (The Farrelly Brothers in the ancient world?)↩
Brown, Norman O. 1952: “The Birth of Athena,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 83: 130-143
Faraone, Christopher A. and Emily Teeter 2004: “Egyptian Maat and Hesiodic Metis,” Mnemosyne, 4th series, 57/2: 117-208.
The image at the top is a very glam closeup of dandelion seeds. From Pixabay.