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athena: How Was Athena Born?

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How Was Athena Born?

How Was Athena Born?

Discover how a fully-grown goddess leapt out of her own father’s head! Athena’s birth is truly unique…

Athena’s birth had to be counted among the most unusual in mythology.

Athena was the daughter of Zeus and, according to some myths, his first child. While he was married to the Titaness Metis, however, Athena was often said to have not had a mother.

The reason for this is because of the unusual way in which Athena was born.

Because of a prophecy that said his first wife would have a son who was stronger than him, Zeus turned Metis into a fly and swallowed her alive. He hoped that if she never became pregnant he could avoid fate.

Zeus was partially right. Metis was already pregnant, but with a daughter instead of a son.

Tortured by pounding headaches, Zeus had his skull broken open to remove the source of the pain. To his surprise, his grown daughter emerged dressed in full armor and holding a sword!

The bizarre birth of Athena was a momentous event in Greek mythology not only for the goddess it produced. By giving birth to his daughter, Zeus had in fact avoided the prophecy of his own downfall and ended two generations of violent conflict for succession.

The Incredible Birth of Athena

Before he married his sister, Hera, Zeus took a wife from the Titanesses. Metis was the Titan goddess of wisdom and invention.

Metis was an Oceanid, one of the three thousand daughters of Oceanus and Tethys. Her three thousand brothers were the river gods that lived around the world.

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Metis had helped Zeus to free his siblings, who had been swallowed by their father at birth. She gave him the purgative that forced Cronos to vomit them up so that they could fight against him and his brothers.

When the Olympians won the war, Zeus thanked Metis for her assistance by making her his queen. The marriage was doomed to be a short one, however.

The new king of the gods received a troubling prophecy about his wife. He was told that Metis would have two children and the second, a son, would overthrow him just as he had overthrown his own father.

Like Cronos, Zeus was anxious to avoid the prophecy. He knew from his own experience, however, that nothing could be done to avoid fate once a child had been born.

Rather than waiting for Metis to conceive the son that would someday take his throne, Zeus avoided the threat by swallowing Metis herself. He turned his wife into a fly and swallowed her shortly after they were married.

Unbeknownst to him, his wife had already become pregnant with the first child foretold by the prophecy.

Trapped in Zeus’s head, Metis began crafting armor and weapons for her unborn child. Zeus did not know that it was her hammering that caused his sudden headaches.

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After months of pain, the king of the gods reached a breaking point. He ordered Hephaestus, the god of smiths, to smash his head open to relieve the constant pounding pain.

Of course, such an injury would not kill a god. Zeus hoped that breaking open his head would release whatever evil force was causing his increasingly painful headaches.

Hephaestus obeyed his father’s command and brought his largest hammer down on Zeus’s head. The god king’s skull split open with a crack.

What came out, however, was not an evil force as Zeus had supposed. Instead, Athena emerged from her father’s broken skull.

The goddess was born fully grown, exceptionally beautiful and wise from the moment she came forth. She was also, thanks to her mother’s work within Zeus’s head, dressed in a gleaming set of full armor.

Zeus healed immediately and was no longer plagued by headaches. Metis, it can be surmised, did not survive the ordeal.

Athena immediately became a favorite of her father and one of the most beloved deities of the Greek pantheon. While her mother was named, the unusual circumstances of her birth led most people to characterize her as being born from Zeus himself without a mother.

My Modern Interpretation

Before marrying Hera, Zeus was constantly in fear of losing his position. After swallowing Metis, he then avoided a relationship with Thetis to avoid a similar prophecy.

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There was good reason for Zeus to be concerned about having a son more powerful than himself. The Greek version of the creation myth was one of violent succession.

The universe had first been ruled by Uranus as the king of the primordial gods. When he angered Gaia by imprisoning six of their children, she convinced his sons to take revenge.

Uranus was castrated by his youngest son, Cronos. The twelve divine children of Gaia and Uranus took power as the Titans, with Cronos as their king.

He, however, received a prophecy that one of his children would someday overthrow him and take his throne. In an attempt to avoid this fate, he swallowed each of his children as soon as they were born.

His wife and sister Rhea, however, was anguished by the loss of five children. When her sixth child, Zeus, was born she hid him in a cave and tricked her husband into swallowing a stone instead.

Zeus had returned to free his brothers and sisters. After ten years of war, he deposed his father and imprisoned him in the dark pit of Tartarus.

According to the prophecies surrounding his early marriage, Zeus was doomed to continue the cycle. Metis’s son would one day overthrow him and a new generation of gods would come to power.

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Unlike his father and grandfather, however, Zeus was successful in changing fate. Metis never had a son.

The birth of Athena and the marriage of Zeus and Hera ended the cycle of succession that had plagued two generations of gods before them. The Olympians held on to power and Zeus never had a son who was strong enough to challenge his kingship.

The unusual birth of Athena was an important moment in Greek mythology because it ensured Zeus and the Olympians retained power. In fact, with the addition of Athena to their number the Olympians became more powerful than they had been before.

Part of Athena’s prominence could be ascribed to the fact that she was thought of as the child of only Zeus.

Of course, this status often put her at odds with Hera, and some legends point to the birth of Athena as the beginning of marital discord between the king of the gods and his wife. The relative weakness of Hera’s own children put further strain on that relationship.

On the whole, however, Athena’s incredible birth was seen as a momentous event in the mythology of Olympus. In ending the cycle of succession, Zeus had also brought forth one of the Greek world’s most well-loved deities.

In Summary

Athena was born, fully grown and dressed as a warrior, from the head of her father, Zeus.

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After taking power from his own father, Zeus had married the wise Titaness Metis. The marriage was short-lived, however, as the new king learned of a prophecy that said that Metis would one day give birth to a son who would overthrow his father.

After both his father and grandfather had been violently ousted by their sons, Zeus was anxious to avoid the fate that awaited him if he had a son by Metis. To end the succession cycle, he turned his wife into a fly and swallowed her.

Zeus did not know that Metis had already conceived a child, however. Trapped within his head, she began to forge arms and armor for her unborn child.

The constant hammering gave Zeus terrible headaches. Not knowing that Metis and her pregnancy were the cause, he ordered Hephaestus to break his head open to remove the mysterious source of the pain.

Athena emerged from her father’s head when it was cracked open. She was born fully grown and fully dressed for battle.

The birth of Athena was important not just because of her own role in the Greek pantheon. The birth of a daughter instead of a son marked the end of the violent cycle of succession among the early gods and ensured that Zeus and the Olympians were secure in their positions.

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Mike Greenberg, PhD

My name is Mike and for as long as I can remember (too long!) I have been in love with all things related to Mythology. I am the owner and chief researcher at this site. My work has also been published on Buzzfeed and most recently in Time magazine. Please like and share this article if you found it useful.

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