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The birth of Athena

10 May 2021 | Greek

Athena is one of the most celebrated deities in all the western world, and it’s easy to understand why: she was strong, intelligent, resourceful and mostly fair. Her conception was unusual and she played a fierce and ruthless role during the Trojan war.

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Hesiod wrote in his epic Theogony about her birth, just after Zeus was crowned the king of the Olympian gods. The new monarch married the titaness Metis, an Oceanid daughter of the titan Oceanus.

Athena’s father, Zeus, was the youngest and most prominent of the Olympian gods and had just defeated his father, Cronus, and his uncles during the war against the titans for the control of the universe.

The Titanomachy, as it was called, was an apocalyptic event. Some say that it was based on a real life chain of events caused by the eruption of a volcano located at the centre of the famous island of Santorini, a blast so massive that scholars say that its quake could be felt in California. This volcano is active until this day.

Metis, her mother, was part of the thousands of nymphs, all of them daughters of the titan Oceanus with his sister Tethys, called Oceanids. Metis was known for being much wiser and to have had offered to help the young Zeus, right before the war between Titans and Olympians. 

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At that time, Cronus, the father of the first 12 Olympians, had swallowed 11 of his children with Rhea after learning about the prophecy that one day he would be overthrown by one of his sons.

Metis, knowing that Zeus planned to rescue his siblings to fight by his side against his father, offered Cronus a poison that made the Titan vomit his children, culminating later on in the prophecy’s fulfillment. From this alliance, love was born between Zeus and Metis.

But as in all the Greek stories: if it’s all good, something is wrong

Both parents were incredibly gifted and all was well for a while. Metis got pregnant from Zeus and the promise of a long reign was finally settled. Nothing seemed to break the new peace set in the cosmos.

It was then that a disturbing prophecy came to Zeus’ knowledge. He was appalled to learn that he would suffer from the same fate as his father’s and should be overthrown by one of his sons with Metis. Uneasy by the news, the Olympian sketched a plan to keep his kingship, he would not lose what he so effortly conquered.

The plan was to challenge Metis to a shapeshift contest. Metis was a skilled shapeshifter and would not back off on such a great opportunity to show her skills to the Olympus, so she accepted the tournament. 

They’ve changed into a variety of big animals, one bigger or stronger than another. Eagles, bulls, deers, horses, moose and lions. They’ve changed to all sorts of animals and fought with beaks, teeths and claws to exhaustion, none of them could seem to be able to win. At the end, Zeus recognized Metis as equally skilled in turning into big animals, but what about the small ones? How small could they transform into? 

The proud Metis didn’t hesitate

She straight away accepted the new challenge and got ahead of herself turning into a quite small fly. She was now so small that she could be easily swallowed if you should breathe too hard or to be pushed far away with a weak sneeze.

That was precisely what Zeus wanted. Right away she found herself inside her husband’s stomach. Zeus had committed a terrible crime and did to her what he most hated and what made him confront his father: he had swallowed Metis.

Inside the god’s belly, she blended with him in mind, bringing him wisdom. Metis, as an immortal being, would never die and would be trapped inside Zeus for all eternity. Although she was disappointed with her fate, she also felt glad because she truly loved Zeus and that was a way to be with him all the time.

She would counsel him whenever he needed and they would almost become one powerful wise universal being, quite fit to rule the gods.

After some time, weird things started to happen

A long time has passed since Zeus had swallowed his first wife, he even had other affairs (so many) and marriages including the one with his present wife, his sister, the goddess Hera. 

Since the event with Metis, he had nothing else but more and more wisdom, until someday he started to feel a huge headache he couldn’t bear, nothing seemed to ease the massive pain. He asked many gods to help, but it was in vain. Just when Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths and fire, came up to rescue that everything changed.

The skilled Hephaestus analysed the situation and concluded that the only way they could get rid of the pain was to open Zeus’ head and let whatever was in there come out.

As crazy as that may sound, that was exactly what they did. Hephaestus took a labrys – a sort of Minoan small axe – and, with a single swing, opened the god’s head. 

An even more odd thing happened after that. As soon as Hephaestus opened the wound, a grown up, dressed with armor, shield and spear, woman came out of Zeus’s forehead. She was fabulous and looked like she was up to any task. Athena was born, ready for battle.

Athena, the strong

Her strong presentation to the world displays her on point personality. Athena was a product of strength, strategy, intelligence and action, all at the same time. She reflected very much both of her parents and their symbiotic relationship.

Many are the stories of Athena, sometimes almost an angel to the rescue, sometimes like a non stop hammer, crushing her enemies with the most violence possible. During the Trojan war, where she sided with King Aggamenomn, she used all her power to bring victory to the Greeks and even helped the Greek hero Diomedes, hurting physically Aphrodite and Ares in battle.

In another occasion, after the Trojan war, she showed her bellic nature to king Odyssious when he felt pity for his rival Ajax, the great, by saying:

To laugh at your enemies: what sweeter laughter can there be?

She became the goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, strategic and defensive warfare, mathematics, strength, strategy and the arts.

Athena could be kind or unforgiven, and that was what made her one of the most beloved and feared goddesses of all ancient world.

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