Zeus and Metis: the Birth of Athena

“It was like something was banging on the inside of his skull and it was driving him insane, so insane that he ordered Hephaestus to smash him over the head with his axe”

Before I begin, a disclaimer.  Zeus was a bad god.  A very bad god.  He was, amongst many other things (and to be blunt), a serial rapist.  He might have considered himself an irresistible Lothario, but he wasn’t – he was a rapist.  And in the myths this was neither frowned upon nor considered unusual.  In fact, more often than not, the woman was seen to be at fault and suffered the appalling wrath of Zeus’ (eventual) wife, Hera, for having had the cheek of being so damn appealing to her husband.  Whilst I might not comment any further on the patriarchal wrongs of Greek mythology in this blog series (if you do want to read something which challenges misogyny within the Greek myths, check out Nikita Gills’s “Great Goddesses: Life Lessons from Myths and Monsters”), I also – for the record – do not in any way condone the behaviour of the sky god.

Another small point.  One rule that all Greek gods and goddesses had to follow – the main rule – was that they couldn’t show their true form to mere mortals; if they did then whoever saw them would self-implode through stupefaction (or something like that…albeit that rule only seemed to work half the time).  That didn’t stop the gods from pursuing their mortal love interests though; they just had to be a little bit creative to get their way.  Some might say that in their creativity they significantly crossed the line on many occasions, but then who am I to question the way of the gods.  In any event, be warned!

Back to the story; where were we?  Oh yes, Zeus had just defeated the Titans and had the world at his feet.  Now he needed a wife.  His eyes initially fell on Metis, a Titaness and the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys (who you may recall, wisely stayed out of the War of the Titans).  Metis had helped Zeus during the war by concocting the potion that forced Cronus to throw up Zeus’ siblings, and now Zeus thought she could help him in other ways.  She was also equally beautiful and wise and so would make the perfect wife.  The two were wed.

They were happy for a while, but then a prophecy from the oracle of Gaia put a spanner in the works (is it just me, or do these prophecies do nothing but cause trouble).  According to the prophecy, Metis would give birth to two very powerful children: Athena and an unnamed son.  The latter would one day overthrow Zeus, as Zeus had Cronus and as Cronus had Uranus (a family tradition if you will).

Unfamiliar with more traditional methods of birth control, Zeus decided that he needed to think of a way to rid himself of his wife.  It was a tricky task when Metis was far more cunning and clever than Zeus.  She was not, however, quite as devious or sly.

Zeus was not loyal to Metis and he regularly forced himself upon other women.  Metis knew about her husbands antics and, whilst she didn’t approve, she found other ways of punishing Zeus rather than seeking vengeance on those whom he had inflicted himself upon; whenever Zeus entered the marital bed and started gently rubbing Metis’ shoulder, Metis would shape-shift into an animal and slither, fly or crawl away to avoid his advances.  It was a successful tactic and one which kept Zeus at bay time and time again.

Zeus, whilst a bit of an oaf, was not a fool.  He knew what Metis was up to, and he decided to use it against her.  He knew that she was proud and competitive and so he challenged her to a shape-shifting competition.  Metis, thinking she probably had the edge on her husband, agreed and they spent the evening transforming into different animals, each one more challenging and difficult than the last.  They were equally matched and neither could get the better of the other.  Tired and exhausted they decided to call it a draw.

Zeus then boldly stated, “I bet I can transform into a smaller animal than you.”  Metis disagreed; they had been equals when it came to the larger animals, but there was no way he could beat her at this.  She chided Zeus, and to prove that he was wrong turned herself into a fly…which Zeus promptly grabbed from the air and swallowed.

Problem solved.

Or not.  As we know, the gods have strange digestive tracts and Metis was still very much alive.  She was also pregnant with Zeus’ child, Athena.  Undeterred by her predicament, Metis set to work creating a safe environment to give birth.  Not only that, she forged armour and a helmet in the pit of Zeus’ stomach for Athena to wear when she was born.

Zeus could tell something was up, and it wasn’t just his IBS flaring up again, no this was something far more sinister and no amount of Rennies would sort it.  The pain was unbearable.  As Metis gave birth the pain intensified and travelled into Zeus’ head.  It was like something was banging on the inside of his skull and it was driving him insane, so insane that he ordered Hephaestus to smash him over the head with his axe (a quite remarkable feat given that Hephaestus hadn’t actually been born yet – the timeline of the Greek myths can get quite convoluted at times).  Hephaestus obliged his father and out sprang Athena, fully grown and dressed ready for battle.

Zeus put a plaster on his head and drank a glass of water to recover from his ordeal.  He then greeted his daughter and welcomed her to the high table at Mount Olympus (breathing a sigh of relief that it wasn’t his son).  Metis remained in Zeus’ stomach and provided counsel for him for the rest of his life; despite all she’d been through she still remained loyal to her husband.  With Metis trapped for eternity, Zeus needed a new wife (I’d love to see what he put in his divorce papers), so he put on his best shirt and lucky underpants, and he went on the hunt once more.

To be continued…

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