Devouring Wisdom: Why the Sky God ate his first wife

I sometimes think a volume compiling the Greek Myths ought to be labeled Gods Behaving Badly.  No heavenly bad boy exhibits worse behavior than does Zeus, King of the Gods, wielder of lightning bolts, ruler of Olympus. Zeus is father to many gods and heroes by multiple wives and, well, other ladies who struck his fancy — whether they were willing or not.  One did not say no to Zeus, apparently.  His crimes against women included not only rape but cannibalism, as he ended his first marriage by the bizarre act of swallowing his wife.

Zeus

To be fair, Zeus came from a terribly dysfunctional family and it’s possible he just didn’t know any better.  Zeus’ father, Cronus, had castrated and deposed his own father, Uranus, who personified the sky in Greek mythology.  And Cronus had then topped that act by gobbling up most of his own children.   Zeus was rescued from his siblings’  fate when his  mother saved him by tricking his father into swallowing a stone instead of her infant son.  After he grew up, he rescued his brothers and sisters and went to war against his father.  Metis, Zeus’ first wife, gave Cronus a drug which forced him to vomit up Zeus’ siblings. The Gods (Zeus’ generation) defeated the Titans (Cronus’ generation) and Zeus ruled the skies for the remainder of Greek and Roman history.

Since Metis played such a pivotal role in Zeus’ success, why did he repay her so badly? Well, it turns out that just as prophecy had warned Cronus that he would be overthrown by a son, it was foretold of the next generation that Metis would give birth to a son who would overthrow Zeus.  So Zeus solved the problem by swallowing Metis when she was still pregnant with their first child, a girl.

Sometime after this unusual act of domestic violence, Zeus woke up with a whopping headache and subsequently gave birth to a daughter, Athena, Goddess of Wisdom.  She emerged fully grown and fully dressed in battle gear, from her father’s head.  And so, Zeus neatly managed not only to keep his throne, but to steal wisdom from a woman and give birth to it in the form of another.

Who was Metis?

 

 

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Hylas_and_the_Nymphs_(1896)

 

Metis was a water goddess, a nymph, and a daughter of the Ocean (the Titan Oceanus). Even today, the name nymph is associated with sexuality independent of marriage.  In ancient times, these daughters of Ocean were freewheeling nature spirits, often associated with springs.

The nymph Metis was also a clever trickster with magical abilities who evolved by classical times into a more respectable Goddess of Wisdom.   She was said to be an equal to Zeus, unlike his later wife Hera, and Hesiod wrote that she  knew more than did all the gods and humans put together. Another of her names was Prudence, but she showed an unfortunate lack of this virtue in one respect: she was the first to tell Zeus that her son would overthrow him.  So Zeus turned her into a fly and swallowed her.

Metis kept busy while in  Zeus’ interior, hammering away to create Athena’s armor and helmet.  It was this hammering which caused Zeus’ terrible headache prior to his daughter’s unconventional birth.

 

The daughter of wisdom:   Metis’ daughter Athena took over her role as Goddess of Wisdom and became the patron goddess of the city of Athens.  The Athenians chose her as patron after she presented them with the olive tree and built the Parthenon in her honor.  Athena ruled over all the arts of civilization and was a champion of heroes, leader in battle, and patron of craftsmen.   While her mother faded into obscurity, Athena is well remembered.  She became one of the 12 Olympians and her symbol, the owl, is still used to represent wisdom today.

But I have the strong feeling something important was lost in the transition from Metis to the classical portrayal of Athena.  Athena was a good friend to gods and men, but not always to women.  She turned her own priestess, Medusa, from a beautiful woman into a snake headed monster after the latter was raped by Poseidon in her temple. Subsequently she helped the hero Perseus (her half human half brother), defeat Medusa and afterward wore her serpent covered head on her shield.  The relationship between Athena and Medusa is complex and their ancient connection to each other is suggested by the fact that both entities are much more ancient than the times of classical Greece, both are associated with feminine wisdom and both are connected with the symbolism of snakes. (More on this subject to come in a future post.)

It is possible that Athena is deliberately used by patriarchal authors to contain an ancient association of women with wisdom; hence, she is the daughter of  one swallowed Goddess of Wisdom (Metis) and participates in the slaying of another (Medusa) in order to establish her place in the patriarchal order. In the tragic tale of Oresteia, Athena helps to validate male supremacy when she acquits Orestes of the crime of  murdering his mother — not because he hasn’t killed her, but because the act is not a crime.  How did she come to this startling conclusion? Athena accepted the argument of Apollo (acting as defense attorney) that it is not a crime for a man to kill his mother if she has first  killed his father, even if the father started the whole thing by killing the defendant’s sister. (Aren’t these Greek family stories charming?)  Part of Apollo’s argument revolved, sadly, around the “fact” that Athena had no mother.  Poor Metis, how soon they forgot her!

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