The goddess Athena was said to have been born in a very unusual way. After complaining of terrible headaches, Zeus had his head split open to reveal a fully grown and armored goddess.
While most people said that Athena had been born without a mother, Zeus was married before her birth. When a prophecy said her son would overthrow him, though, the king of the gods had swallowed his first wife in the form of a fly.
This wife was named Metis, and later myths gave some details of her personality and relationship to Zeus. She was a goddess of wisdom and good counsel who had helped Zeus in the war against his father.
The story is so unusual that it stands out among the many stories of Zeus’s lovers and children. As it turns out, this may be because the mother of Athena was not originally a part of the story in the first place.
When the gods of Olympus first took power and made Zeus their king, he married one of the Titanesses. His wife Metis was an Oceanid, one of the daughters of the Titan Oceanus.
She was often regarded as the goddess of good counsel and wisdom. When Zeus had retired to challenge his father’s rule, Metis had devised the plan to free his siblings so that they could fight by his side.
Shortly after their marriage, however, Zeus was given a prophecy that he found greatly disturbing. He was told his new wife would have two children, a daughter and a son, and that his son would one day overthrow him.
Both Cronus and Uranus had been overthrown by their sons, so with this prophecy it seemed as though the cycle would continue for another generation. Zeus, however, decided to change fate by learning from his father’s mistakes.
Gaia had told him that the son of Metis would lead to his downfall, but she also told him how he could prevent that from coming to pass.
Cronus had swallowed his children after birth, which had allowed Zeus to be hidden away and eventually free his brothers and sisters. To prevent Metis from having a son stronger than him, he could never let that son be born at all.
Zeus turned Metis into a fly and swallowed her. While Cronus had swallowed his children, Zeus believed that swallowing Metis would keep any children from being born at all.
What Zeus did not know was that Metis was already pregnant with the first child Gaia had said Metis would have. After months of terrible headaches, Zeus split his head open to relieve the pain and gave birth to Athena from his own skull.
The goddess was born fully grown, dressed in armor and carrying weapons. The headaches that had made Zeus have his head broken open to relieve the pain had been caused by Metis forging her daughter’s armor and hammering metal inside his head.
The birth of Athena signaled the end of the succession cycle in Greek mythology. Because she was a female, she could challenge her father’s position as king.
Metis, however, was usually given little credit for her role in the birth. In fact, most writers referred to Athena as having been born without a mother at all.
This was not only because Metis had not survived until her daughter’s birth. Dionysus, for example, had been sewn into Zeus’s thigh during gestation but Semele was still considered his mother.
Instead, the attitudes toward Athena and her birth may indicate that Metis was not originally part of the story.
Metis was described as the Titan goddess of wisdom because she had given Zeus the purgative that freed his siblings. That story, however, was a later addition to the legend from a time in which many writers were elaborating on more simple ancient tales..
In earlier tales, Zeus either devised the plan himself or had help from a nameless aid. Metis was added in later, perhaps to explain how she and Zeus were first connected.
Hesiod made the claim that Metis was exceedingly intelligent, but he linked her wisdom and resourcefulness to that of her daughter. He even claimed that Athena herself had given her mother the hands she needed to make the famous armor.
Athena appears to have taken over her mother’s role as the goddess of wisdom. While many gods took on aspects of their parent’s domains, it was rare for a new god or goddess to completely supplant a parent in the way Athena did.
Evidence seems to point, therefore, to the idea that Athena took her wisdom from Zeus’s role rather than that of a mother. As the god of law Zeus was associated with wise decisions and, following the conventions of Greek mythology, it would make sense for his daughter to take on a more specific version of this.
The Titaness’s name provides another clue that she may have been a later addition to the story of Athena’s birth. Meteita, or “wise counsellor,” was a title often applied to Zeus himself.
It seems likely, therefore, that the earliest stories of Athena had not included a mother figure at all. She was truly born from Zeus alone and took on the attributes of her father as Meteita.
Metis was another aspect of Zeus. The description of Athena as being born to Zeus Meteita was taken over time to mean she was the daughter of the god and a separate goddess of wisdom.
Other details of the story lend further credence to this interpretation.
Versions of the story claimed that either Hephaestus or Prometheus had been the one to split Zeus’s head open on his command and release Athena.
As the smith god, Hephaestus was associated with cunning, ingenuity, and invention. Prometheus was similarly famous for his foresight, wise counsel, and intelligence.
By associating either of these two gods with the tale of Athena’s birth, the early Greeks would have supported the idea that the event was a confluence of wisdom and cleverness, the traits Athena would develop.
The creation of the character of Metis took these elements of the story and turned them into a single character. Before her invention, Athena was more literally the embodiment of the wisdom that came from Zeus’s own head.
In Greek mythology, Metis was the mother of Athena. The Titan goddess of good counsel, wisdom, and cunning had been the first wife of Zeus.
Gaia, however, told her grandson that having a child with Metis would lead to his own downfall. After bearing a daughter, Metis would have a son that would take power from Zeus just as he had taken it from his own father.
To avoid this fate, Zeus turned Metis into a fly and swallowed her. Some time later their daughter, Athena, was born from his head.
There are many clues that point to Metis being a later addition to the story, though.
The name Metis is taken from an epithet for Zeus himself, and it would have been unusual for a new goddess’s power to be virtually identical to that of her mother. The similarities to Zeus’s own story further lead historians to believe that Metis was a later addition to the story of Athena’s motherless birth.