Okay, I know that last week I said I was going to go into Asclepios’ life and death this week, but…actually, there really isn’t much to tell, and I already told what little there was at the beginning of the story of Admetos and Alcestis. So I thought I should get to finishing up with the general theogony. I’m not entirely pleased with either of my available choices regarding the birth of Hephaistos, but it seems that among the Archaic sources, Homer makes Zeus the father, and Hesiod makes him fatherless, and when it’s a contest between those two, I have to go with Homer, so…yeah, going with that version. The reason I’m making his birth so closely correspond to Athene’s in time is to make Hera’s complaints/actions next week make a little more sense…if any of this can rightly be claimed to make any kind of “sense.”
And I’m gonna go ahead and put in a “read more” tag right away, ’cause this gets a little PG-13 (in concept, not in language) pretty much from the word “Go.” (Which is odd, considering it’s building up to the birth of a virgin goddess…)
It didn’t take long before Zeus tired of having his sister as his wife. Not that he was tired of sleeping with her — Zeus never got tired of having sex, no matter with whom! — but he got tired of sleeping with her exclusively, and he was soon fooling around all over the place.
In fact, at first, he had so many mistresses that he literally forgot which immortal maids he had bedded, and which he hadn’t.
So when Metis approached him and warned him that he was headed towards his father’s and grandfather’s mistake, and that he would soon be deposed by his own son, Zeus panicked. He couldn’t remember if he had slept with Metis or not, but he was positive that she meant that she was carrying his son, and that she knew her son was going to overthrow him.
It’s said that children often mimic their parents, even when they know their parents were doing the wrong thing. Even when they were the victim of their parents’ misdeeds.
And it must be true, because the first thing Zeus thought of when he came to the conclusion that Metis’ unborn son was going to destroy him was to eat the child.
But how could he eat a child that hadn’t been born yet?
After what his father had done to his siblings, Zeus knew that Metis would never let him anywhere near her infant son. If he wanted to get rid of the child, he’d have to get rid of the mother as well.
The one small part of his mind that wasn’t frightened out of its wits reminded him that he wasn’t even sure she was pregnant, since he couldn’t remember sleeping with her. (The idea that she might be pregnant with a daughter hadn’t occurred to any part of him.) But the rest of his mind reminded that calm, rational part that Metis was also the wisest of the Titanesses, the embodiment of wisdom and forethought. If he ate her, he would gain all her wisdom and composure for himself.
That sold it.
Metis was going to have to be devoured.
Zeus became so lost in thought that Metis noticed his distraction. “What is the matter with you?” she asked. She was afraid that he was trying to find a way back into her bed. Once had been more than enough for her, and she planned on teaching her daughter to stay well away from men — and gods — because they were nothing but trouble.
Zeus smiled at her weakly. “I was just thinking,” he assured her.
“Not your strong suit,” Metis sighed. “You need more practice. What were you thinking about?”
“I was just wondering if these forms we have are really the best ones,” Zeus answered, coming up with a plan. “They feel useless and clunky sometimes.”
Metis just stared at him. For long enough that Zeus began to fear she was already on to his scheme. “What is it this time?” she asked. “What female do you want to have sex with that isn’t shaped like we are? A horse?” Kronos had taken on the form of a horse once, fathering the centaur Cheiron on a daughter of Oceanos, and Metis could easily imagine that the son might sink even lower than the father…
“Don’t be disgusting!” Zeus exclaimed, shocked. With all the beautiful women, why would he have to look anywhere else for pleasure?
“Then what did you mean?” Metis asked, not convinced in the least. She knew perfectly well that Zeus as he currently was was incapable of thinking with anything above his waist.
“I was admiring the gift of flight, and wondering how it felt to have wings,” Zeus laughed.
“I’m not sure how to respond to that,” Metis admitted. People acting illogically were her one major weakness…
“I’m not sure I’ve mastered transformation enough to take on the form of something with wings,” Zeus said, with a humble blush, as if he was ashamed of such a weakness.
“It can take practice to control the flight,” Metis agreed. “You’d have to get used to it slowly. Something simple is always best at first, like a bird.”
“I would think something small like a bug would be simpler,” Zeus commented.
“Not at all. Insects are very complex, and have strange eyes that view the world very differently than our eyes do,” Metis told him. “Don’t even think about turning into one until you know what you’re doing.”
“Really? I’ve never noticed an insect’s eyes up close.”
Metis sighed. “All right, here. Take a good look.”
She turned herself into a fly, and then zipped up to hover in front of Zeus’ face, so he could get a good view of her multifaceted eyes. But those eyes were soon showing her — many times over! — the most terrifying sight of Zeus opening his mouth and lunging towards her!
Metis didn’t have time to fly away, and Zeus was able to swallow her whole.
Zeus was convinced that he had saved himself from a terrible fate. And, after several months, he suddenly felt himself growing wiser, as if someone inside him was whispering information to him.
He didn’t know it, but that was Metis, whispering to their newborn daughter, Athene, all the wisdom she would need in her new life.
About the same time that the whispering began in Zeus’ head, his wife Hera gave birth to a son. The son, Hephaistos, had a crooked and shriveled leg, and his face was hideous to look at. None of the gods wanted anything to do with him, and Zeus couldn’t stand even looking at him. Privately, he was quite sure he couldn’t have fathered such an ugly creature, but he didn’t say anything to Hera about it. Instead, he just avoided the growing boy, as well as avoiding his mother.
But some time later, Zeus began to have pounding headaches. It sounded like the ringing of metal, loudly vibrating from within his skull.
It couldn’t be coming from inside his head, Zeus reasoned. It had to be coming from somewhere on the outside.
And when he wandered the halls of his palace on Mt. Olympos, he eventually began to hear the same ringing from one of the corridors furthest from his throne room.
When he followed the sound, he found Hephaistos had set up a forge, and was making a beautiful golden throne, while his mother looked on, her eyes glued to the gold, and unwilling to look at her ugly son.
“What is this racket?” Zeus demanded. “You’ve been giving me a headache for days!”
“I’ve only been at this since this morning,” Hephaistos answered, putting his tools down.
The ringing didn’t stop in Zeus’ head. It was getting worse. In fact, it could be heard from the outside now.
“That’s not me,” Hephaistos said, taking up his crutch and hobbling over. “It sounds like there’s something inside…” He pressed his ear up against his father’s head, then picked up his heaviest hammer. “We need to get it out of there.” Then, without further warning, Hephaistos bashed Zeus in the side of the head with that huge hammer.
Zeus’ head split open, and Athene leapt out, fully clad in a bronze helmet and armor. She emerged small, but by the time she landed on the ground beside her father, she was fully the same size as the other goddesses, and just as beautiful. (If not even more so.) “It’s about time you let me out, Father!” she exclaimed, turning to look at him, even as Zeus’ head began to heal closed again. “It was very cramped, growing up in there.”
“What…? Who…?” was all Zeus could say. (Considering his skull still hadn’t grown back together yet, he was doing better than you or I would have done!)
“I am Athene, Father,” the young goddess explained.
Zeus didn’t fully understand, but he suspected she must have been Metis’ child — where else could she have come from? — and either way, she seemed a good, respectful child, and was certainly easier on the eyes than Hephaistos, so he welcomed his new daughter to Mt. Olympos, and was soon gathering the other gods to introduce her.
Yeah, that was awkward at the end there. So many of these stories just aren’t designed to be told in this manner!
Anyway, there are actually versions where Zeus swallows Metis just to get her wisdom, and ones where Athene is spontaneously born from him without a mother at all, and even one where Athene is the child of Metis and one of the Cyclopes, so…I tried to have some uncertainty in there, even while picking sides, if that makes any sense.
Oh, and the bit at the beginning about him having forgotten which immortal women he’d slept with and which he hadn’t? Part of that was to justify him not being sure if Metis was pregnant with his child or not, and part of it was an excuse so I won’t feel obliged to make up a story about every single time he screwed around. There are a lot of children of Zeus in Greek myth, many of them with no actual tale attached to their conception. (Particularly the minor ones fathered on immortal mothers.)