If there is one Olympian deity of which there exists no statue, then surely that is that of the goddess Metis, Zeus’ first wife. A daughter of the primordial water titans Oceanus and Tethys, Metis was the first goddess of wisdom and knowledge, her name signifying a quality combining wisdom as well as cunning, a combination highly prized by Greeks of all ages.
Highlighting the femininity of sagacity, her name is cognate with the Latin “mentis” whence the English “mental” is derived. This, then is a cerebral goddess, possessed of infinite knowledge.
It was her mental powers that made her indispensable to her husband, Zeus. Proving correct the adage: “Behind every successful Olympian god there is a slighted and disgruntled Olympian goddess,” Zeus owed his life and ascent to power, largely to Metis, for it was she who, provided Zeus with strategic advise as to how to defeat the Titans.
According to Apollodorus, she also revealed to Zeus the precise ingredients of the emetic he administered to his father Kronos, compelling him to disgorge his children from their abdominal incarceration.
Having defeated his father and ascended the throne of the gods, Zeus began to see the wise and knowledgeable Metis not only as a helpmeet and indispensable adviser, but also as a threat to his own power.
This did not inhibit him from laying with her. Metis conceived a child and it was, according to Hesiod’s Theogony, at this point that Metis, in all honesty and in the interests of full disclosure, revealed to Zeus a prophecy, that she would beat:
“first the maiden bright-eyed Tritogeneia (Athena), equal to her father in strength and in wise understanding; but afterward she was to bear a son of overbearing spirit, king of gods and men.”
In a variant version of the myth, it is the Great Mother Goddess Gaea who reveals the prophecy to Zeus, for solidarity with the sisterhood had not yet been invented, an act replete with irony, as it would later be Gaea who, in league with Tartarus, would combine to produce a son, the dreaded serpentine monster Typhon, in order to challenge Zeus’ authority, suggesting that at least in the consciousness of our ancient forebears, even the great Mother’s powers could only work through male agency.
Having defeated his father, who in turn had emasculated his own father with an adamantine sickle, Zeus was not about to allow his power to be jeopardised.
Instead of, however, planning to restrict or do away with his future progeny, in the manner of his father and grandfather, he instead resolves to nip the problem in the bud.
It is Metis who is to blame, for it his she who has the power to bring forth his usurper. Zeus therefore transforms himself into a fly and promptly swallows her up.
In Apollodorus, Metis is not Zeus’ wife but rather his unwilling sexual partner, who transforms into a variety of guises in order to escape him. Whether a victim or rape or not, her loss of self is occasioned only through an act of violence.
In swallowing up his wife, Zeus is not only solving the problem of his removal from power. He is also rendering Metis, a female of arguably greater knowledge, skill and foresight than he, invisible.
What is more, he is appropriating that female knowledge and power for himself, in the manner of a hostile corporate takeover, completely divesting Metis of her personhood.
As Hesiod explains in the Theogony, “Zeus put her away inside his own belly so that this goddess should think for him, for good and for evil.”
Her cognitive powers are now his own, to be exploited according to his own terms and without having to defer to her or treat her as an equal.
Metis is also divested of her gender, because Zeus not only takes over her identity, henceforth assuming the title of Metieta (Μητίετα), ”the wise counsellor,” according to Homer, but also appropriates her capacity to bear children.
For having swallowed his wife, it is Zeus who becomes pregnant with their child Athena. Metis, enclosed within Zeus, cannot conceive ever again, completely disempowering her and her creative energies.
By the time Athena is born, Metis has become completely subsumed within Zeus. As Hesiod says: “And she remained hidden beneath the inward parts of Zeus, Metis, Athena's mother, worker of righteousness, who was wiser than gods and mortal men,” and she is portrayed in art as a small winged spirit abiding underneath his throne, alive and yet incapable of autonomous existence.
The goddess Athena's subsequent birth, sprung fully armed, with armour created by Metis, from Zeus' head, reveals the creation of a novel kind of woman: denatured, born without a mother, the instrument and embodiment of her father's will, born of aggression and repression and absolutely and blindly devoted to her father's rule; possessing her mother’s skills, but as a feminine tool of the patriarchy and a weapon of the prevailing order.
Metis’ complete sublimation is effected by the incidence of Athena’s birth. In castigating Zeus for treating Athena as his favourite, the god of war Ares states in the Iliad that αὐτὸς ἐγείναο “you gave birth to her,” whereas many of the ancient poets referred to her as “the motherless goddess,” completely ignoring the existence of the hapless Metis.
Yet Metis, even within the dank, close prison of Zeus’ form, is not completely without potency. It is Athena’s banging together of the spear and shield her mother made while in Zeu’s mind that gives her father the splitting headache which occasions her birth.
Do we read this as a metaphor of the pangs of conscience?
If so, they are short lived. Athena will go on to kill her friend Pallas and appropriate her identity, just as her father did to her mother, being known among her worshippers as Pallas Athena.
Dr Sheila Embry provides a novel interpretation of the Metis myth. She holds that Zeus swallowing Metis is a metaphor for the recapitulation of the lives of many first wives of successful men.
According to her, these women provided the means and the strategy through which their particular Zeus reached the top and then swallowed them up. In this metaphor, the woman is usually the daughter of Titans, a member of the class to which her husband aspires, or even aspires to supplant.
She may be better educated and brighter than he is. She may provide introductions, ideas and strategy to further his goals. Once his ambitions are realized with her help, she becomes involved in home and children, diminishing her role in his life significantly.
After a divorce she disappears from sight socially. She has become Metis swallowed up by Zeus.
Whatever interpretation one gives to the myth of Metis, the concept of the potent woman, silenced and denatured by the patriarchy has underlain the Greek discourse from its very cosmogony.
It is a narrative that can be identified in our own migrant experience, within our own community institutions and beyond.
In giving the voiceless and the disempowered a voice, the myth of Metis is as relevant as ever before.
Dean Kalimniou is a lawyer, author and heavily involved in the Greek-Australian community.