How Zeus Became Wise by Swallowing a Goddess

It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Zeus would turn out to be a wise and just king. After all he came from a line of gods who were tyrants and acted to protect their own power. In fact he started out that way himself. Then something changed.

The story actually starts with his grandparents, Ouranos the sky and Gaia the earth. Ouranos valued his control over the cosmos. Whenever Gaia bore a child Ouranos buried the children in the earth so they would not challenge him. He filled Gaia until she groaned with pain. She appealed to her children to assist her. None wanted to challenge Ouranos until Kronos, who was offended at his father’s treatment of the Earth. He hid while Ouranos descended to lie with her and then leaped out and castrated him.

Having taken the kingship, Kronos married Rhea, and for a time they were happy. Kronos at first loved the children Rhea bore him – that is, until Ouranos and Gaia warned him that one of his children would surpass him. So he swallowed five of his children. When Zeus was born Rhea tricked Kronos and gave him a stone to swallow instead. Gaia hid Zeus until he grew. Then Gaia gave Kronos a potion that caused him to vomit up his sons and daughters. Zeus raised an army, defeated Kronos and locked him in prison.

Zeus started out on the same path as his father and grandfather. He used his thunderbolt to smite with anger. He chased goddesses and Titans and human women, deceiving them so they would lay with him. Just as they had warned Kronos, Ouranos and Gaia warned Zeus that Metis would bear him two children, a thoughtful daughter who would be his equal, then a haughty son who would surpass Zeus and become king of the gods.

Hesiod tells the story of what happened next. There are two versions. In Theogony Zeus hears this prophecy as Metis is about to bear his daughter Athena. He deceives Metis and places her in his belly. In the second version, a fragment captured by Chrysippus, Zeus gulps Metis, who then becomes pregnant with Athena.

When Apollodorus told the tale he explained why Zeus had to deceive or seduce Metis before ingesting her. Metis came from a family of known shapeshifters. There are two ways to conquer shapeshifters: hold onto them until they exhaust their repertoire of shapes, or trick them into taking a shape that can be conquered. In Theogony Zeus seizes Metis, in the second version Zeus may have tricked Metis into a form such as a bee so he could swallow her.

Hesiod’s version of Metis is very different from the one we meet in Homer. In the Homeric poems “metis” means cleverness, like the tricks Odysseus plays to navigate the perilous journey home. On the other hand Hesiod calls Metis:

  • the one who of the gods and men knew most
  • very prudent
  • exceedingly wise
  • author of justice

Two scholars make the case that this form of Metis derives from the Egyptian/Kemetic Ma’at. Christopher Faraone and Emily Teeter examine the Egyptian influence on Hesiod. It is clear that Hesiod heard Egyptian myth and saw Egyptian images. Faraone and Teeter point out that Metis and Ma’at are both anthropomorphized goddesses and abstract concepts.

The idea that Zeus “gulps” Metis points to another connection. Egyptian religious imagery portrays powerful pharaohs as making offerings to the gods. These offerings include incense, food, drink, and little images of a seated Ma’at. The gods were said to “eat” and “drink” Ma’at. Kings are the possessors of Ma’at and proclaim that they uphold Ma’at; their righteousness is what justifies their rule. Faraone and Teeter note that kings take the name of Ma’at to bolster their claims to the throne.

Metis lives within Zeus and advises him about what is morally right and wrong. This changes the character of Zeus. Before ingesting Metis his counsel is similar to the crooked counsel of his father Kronos and hints at the insane violence of his grandfather Ouranos. After Zeus places Metis where his violent emotions arise, his counsel becomes calm and wise. From that point in Theogony he no longer deceives goddesses and women. Instead he placidly marries a succession of wives, beginning with Themis, “Right Order”, with whom he fathers a succession of daughters (the Hours and the Fates) who uphold the social order.

Now that he is calm and wise the other gods consent to his rulership. This however is not the end of the story. Remember that Metis was either pregnant when swallowed or became pregnant after being swallowed. In any case she gave birth to the goddess Athena. Zeus felt a pressure in his head and complained about it; Hephaestus struck his head and Athena emerged, fully grown and dressed in armor.

This happened on the banks of the river Triton near Libya. That detail is important because it places Athena near the town of Sais where the Egyptian/Kemetic goddess Neith had a great temple. The ancients said Athena was a version of Neith. Both goddesses are weavers and warriors. Neith herself was one of the several deities said to have created the world from the waters of chaos.

There are several ways we can read the story of how Zeus became wise.

First, the reign of Zeus is an improvement on over the behavior of his father and grandfather. The cosmos is now set on a steady course and justice rules rather than might. Zeus accomplished this feat by absorbing the powers of a goddess. At the very least we can say that male rulership requires female guidance to create peace and prosperity.

We can point out that Zeus behaved as his male line was wont to do, by dominating his wife and suppressing the children who might surpass him. He arrogates to himself the wise counsel that belonged to Metis; now he takes the credit for the very quality that fit him to rule, but he did not possess it himself, he stole it. We can also see that Athena bears the wisdom of Metis and is the equal of Zeus. In ancient Greek myth she then acts to uphold his rule, a clear marker of male-centric society. Is this necessary or appropriate in the contemporary era? As we make new myths we may consider the idea that it may be just and necessary for Athena to succeed to the queenship.

We should also point out the colonialization in the myth. Zeus swallows Metis-as-Ma’at, the source of order in the cosmos. Greek philosophy and sense of justice derives from the Egyptian – the Greeks themselves tell us this. We must also remember that Athena bears the standard of Neith. The Athena who ascends to the throne of Zeus is black.

Reference: Faraone, Christopher A. and Emily Teeter. “Egyptian Maat and Hesiodic Metis.” Mnemosyne, Fourth Series, Vol. 57, Fasc. 2 (2004), pp. 177-208. Published by Brill. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4433545

Learning about choice from an interactive game

Last night I played straight through a game. It’s an interactive novel called Creatures Such As We. I was searching for a game that wasn’t a shooter or an endless runner or a puzzle but a story. I also wanted a game where women were actually people and not just props to be killed or prizes for the winner.

Creatures Such As We promises that is inclusive, set in a beautiful environment, and philosophical. It also offers a choice of playing for free with ads or paying to play without ads. That was my first clue that game creator Linnea Glasser built in choice from the very beginning. I love to support artists and I hate ads so I chose to pay.

I was a bit surprised that the game was entirely text based. That’s probably because I only play inclusive philosophical games and there are not all that many of those. There’s Tengami and Monument where the fantasticly beautiful landscape is the point, but they’re puzzle games and I don’t enjoy solving puzzles, instead I find a walkthrough so I can get to the next unfolding box.

Looking for an interactive novel with a visual element I found a page that let me sort by “female protagonists”. Even though I’ve seen every one of Anita Sarkeesian’s videos I was quickly appalled at what counted as a female point of view character: a child or teen, silly or waiflike or buxom, who cooks or designs clothes or sells things on the street. I rapidly decided I could do without images.

Back to Creatures Such As We. When I dove into the story I was completely hooked and played straight through. Each time I was offered a choice it included a choice I could make. I could pick my age – and one age was close to retirement! I could pick my race and one choice was multiracial. I could pick my gender and one choice was other. In the game-within-a-game I fought monsters but could use talk as my weapon, so there was a non-violent path through the maze. Although the game falls into the category of dating simulator there is an option to just be friends. At the end of the game I could choose a different ending. Since there were so many choices I thought about replaying but I decided not to do it. The other choices were not as right for me as the ones I made. When the game was done I was done.

This was such a satisfying experience. I want a lot more experiences like that! I want experiences that let me play with being a different age and race and gender. I want to be immersed in a fantastic environment. I want my choices to steer the story. I want to feel like I don’t just live someone else’s story, I get to live my own.

It struck me that the choices offered in this game are the exact choices I look for in magic. I don’t want to have to step into the “Female” box and find my role limited to “Intuitive Priestess Of The Moon Mother Gate of Life”. I don’t want to have to step into the “Male” box and be “Intellectual Priest Of The Sun Striving To Be Worthy Of My Father”. I don’t want to have to be “white/light/good/educated” or “black/dark/evil/ignorant”. I don’t want to have to be constantly striving for renewal of my youth.

When you think about it, why should magic ever take away choices? Shouldn’t magic done properly open up choices? Make us more free, more whole, more able to steer the stories of our lives in a way that satisfies our deepest needs?

I am working to articulate a magic which uses most of the symbol set of the Western Magical Tradition, the elements and planets, while freeing them from the symbol sets of gender and race that put people into limited boxes. I want to construct a magic that lets us map the story of our lives as elegantly as Linnea Glasser mapped an interactive dating game.

If you play the game let me know if you liked it! Let Linnea know too.

Essential reading for the modern sacred prostitute

From Wikimedia

Are you a Qedishtu, a sacred prostitute? Deena Metzger wrote about them thirty years ago. As far as I know she was the first person to use the term in the context of contemporary practice. Because we are quick to forget the contributions of women I want to draw attention to her work.

Here is the opening paragraph of Re-Vamping the World: On the Return of the Holy Prostitute:

Once upon a time, in Sumeria, in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, in Greece, there were no whorehouses, no brothels. In that time, in those countries, there were instead the Temples of the Sacred Prostitutes. In these temples, men were cleansed, not sullied; morality was restored, not desecrated; sexuality was not perverted, but divine.

In the essay Metzger calls on women to take up the calling of the sacred prostitute as the gateway to the divine. This work, she says, redeems those who have lost connection with the divine. “The contemporary Holy Prostitute must be willing to try to bring the sacred to the one who is defiled; she must be the one to take in ‘the other’ – the one who makes love with ‘the other’ in order for him to be reconnected with community.”

When I first read this essay I had both historic and feminist critiques of these ideas. I understood that Canaanite priestesses were called prostitutes by Israelite prophets as a condemnation, not an accurate description; that Greek temple brothels were staffed with slaves; that there were never temple prostitutes in Egypt at all. I objected to the idea that women’s sexuality existed to serve men, even in the cause of bringing men to the divine.

On the other hand, I know from revealed experience that Metzger is speaking about something real. Shortly after I discovered the goddess Qadesh in the pages of academic texts she appeared to me in a dream. She told me she was the daughter of Asherah. She showed me a stone room painted gold with an altar on which burned incense as an offering to the goddess. She told me I should bring the men to this room and tell them about the goddess.

Thirty years later I see Metzger’s work differently. I recognize her poetic evocation of temples of prostitution as mythic history, creating an authorization for the work she was called to explore. Her subsequent work led her in different directions; since she wrote the essay she has worked as a speaker, writer, counselor, advocating for nature and animals, balancing solitude and community. She’s 81 now and you can find her work here, at deenametzger.net.

Although called by Qadesh, I haven’t used the term “qedishtu” to describe my work. In Ecstatic Ritual, Practical Sex Magic I use the Greek term “hetaera” to describe the sex magician, imagining both men and women embodying deity for one another in sacred touch. Also as an ordained priestess of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica I regularly perform the Gnostic Mass which frames sexuality as a sacred path to the divine.

All my magical life I’ve resisted the equation of woman with feminine with passive and so Metzger’s celebration of receptivity doesn’t speak to me, but I find common ground with her when she talks about spirit. “If we become the world through love, then love is essentially a political act. If we become world reaching to the gods, then love is essentially a spiritual act that redeems the world.” We reach the gods when we recognize them in each other through the lens of love.

If you are interested in the path of the Qedishtu as a student or practitioner, Metzger’s foundational work deserves a look. You can find her essay in the anthology To be a Woman edited by Connie Zweig.