If you think of someone as being clever and thoughtful, you might refer to them as being wise. These persons are often praised for their ability to respond adequately to stressful situations or complex problems.
The ancient Greeks liked to take it a step further. The word that they used to refer to a person as just described resembled something like a god. Indeed, it is related to one of the earliest figures in Greek mythology.
So what’s the word? Well, to refer to someone as a wise person, the ancient Greeks would use the word metis. It refers to one of the daughters of Oceanus and Tethys, who are both very foundational gods in Greek mythology.
The Metis myth informs us how to live wise, how to be creative, and how to be cunningly clever.
Who Was the Goddess Metis in Greek Mythology?
Metis is known as a Greek mythical figure that is, thus, the epitome of wisdom. Since she is one of the daughters of Oceanus and Tethys, it means that she is one of the female Titans. In short, being a Titan means that you are one of the first gods or goddesses to exist, even before the better known Olympian gods, led by the infamous Zeus.
As with many Greek gods, her first appearance was in an epic poem. In this case, it was a poem by Hesiod. In one of his homeric poems by the name of Theogony, she was described with the Greek word ‘metieta‘, which means wise counselor. More specifically, she was the counselor of Zeus.
Yes, although born before Zeus, she would eventually build up a close relationship with the god of thunder as a counselor and faithful lover. Either as his first wife, or as a person that was his secret lover while he was married to Hera. Indeed, she was either Zeus’ first choice or second choice. Why we can’t say for sure is something that we will discuss a bit later on.
For certain, however, she was his counselor during the Titanomachy, the great war fought between the Titans and Olympians for control of the universe.
The Name Metis, or ‘metis‘ to Describe a Character
If we translate the name Metis from ancient Greek to English, it most resembles something like ‘craft’, ‘skill’, ‘wisdom’, or ‘magical cunning’. Other qualities whereof she is considered the archetype are deep thought and prudence. The combination of wisdom and cunningness meant that she had nuanced trickster powers, like the ones Prometheus possessed.
Her trickster powers would be expressed through her ability to take on many forms. By doing so, she was able to see situations from different perspectives, for example from the perspective of an animal. This would help her with making clever and wise decisions.
The very combination of wisdom and cunningness is something that was highly regarded in ancient Greece. For example, Odysseus was praised for having these qualities. Also, the average Athenian liked to think of itself as being characterized as ‘metis‘. More on that later.
Our goddess was known as one of the Okeanides (in modern writing, Oceanides). This might sound fancy, but she was one of a stunning three thousand Okeanides. To add, the Okeanides were the sisters of Potamoi, the river gods, which added another three thousand to the family. So although it’s still a limited group, she wasn’t the only one out there.
A family indeed, since one becomes an Okeanides or Potamoi by being birthed by Oceanus and Tethys. Maybe the illusion of time was lived differently in ancient Greece, but to give birth to a total of six thousand children seems like something that takes more than just one lifetime.
In its simplest form, Okeanides are nymphs who preside over the sources of all the freshwater on this earth: from rain-clouds, to subterranean springs, to the fountain in your city center. Metis is therefore closely related to the source of life.
Also, Metis was one of the elder Oceanids, together with her eight sisters who were all Titans. The other Titans went by the names of Styx, Dione, Neda, Klymene, Eurynome, Doris, Elektra, and Pleione. In most cases, these particular Titans are seen as the heavenly goddesses of the clouds, all personifying some sort of divine blessing.
Zeus Swallows Metis
According to the mythology sources that have survived since ancient times, the story of Metis came to an end after Zeus began to swallow her. This sounds a bit weird without context, so let me explain.
Why did Zeus Swallow Metis?
As explained earlier, Metis refers to wisdom, skill, and magical cunning. This also meant that Metis had ample mental powers to inform even the mightiest of gods. Indeed, Zeus owed his life and ascent to power largely to her, since she was known to be Zeus’ wise counselor. Amongst others, she helped him defeat his father, Cronus, in his rise to power.
But, after another wise counsel, Zeus realized that Metis is herself a very powerful woman. This, he thought, she could use to battle against him anytime she wants to. But, man will be man, and it didn’t inhibit him from laying with her.
So, eventually Metis got pregnant. At first Zeus wasn’t aware of it, but eventually Metis would tell a prophecy to Zeus that would change the relationship between the two.
Metis prophesied to Zeus that she would get two children from him. The first one would be a maiden by the name of Athena. According to Metis, Athena would be equal with regards to her fathers strength and wise understanding. The second one, however, would be a son that would be stronger than his father, for certain taking his place and becoming the king of gods and men.
So, Zeus was frightened. If you ask why Zeus swallowed Metis, the answer was exactly that: he was afraid that the children of Metis would defeat him and take his power.
From here, we can go in two directions.
The first direction is described by Hesiod in his piece Theogony. Hesoid describes that Metis was the first wife of Zeus, but also that Zeus was afraid of losing ‘his’ kingship. He describes Zeus as a sole king, but this fact is somewhat contested. In other stories his brothers Poseidon and Hades are also believed to have a significant level of power.
Anyway, Hesiod described that Zeus was afraid of his wife. But, it was still his wife so he had a great level of respect for her. Therefore, he would charm Metis with his words instead of brutally getting rid of her.
Since our Greek goddess was able to convert into any form or being, some believe that Zeus convinced her to transform into an insect. This way, she could easily be set down in his stomach. No harm done. Or, well, maybe the least amount possible in this situation.
All and all, it’s a bit more of a delicate story than just Zeus swallowing Metis because he was afraid. That’s more in line with the other version of the story, as described by Chrysippus.
So on the other hand, Chrysippus believes that Zeus already had a wife, namely Hera. Metis, in this case, was the secret lover of Zeus. Maybe because there was a bit more distance between the two, Zeus decided to swallow her down as a whole in a response to the prophecy about the children. No compassion indeed.
The story as described by Chrysippus is therefore a bit more sinister.
The birth of Athena
What Zeus forgot whilst swallowing Metis, however, was that she was already pregnant with one of the children. Indeed, she would give birth to the first child, Athena, inside Zeus.
To protect her, Athena’s mother made a fire that would enable her to hammer a helmet for her daughter. These actions would cause so much pain, which eventually accumulated in Zeus’ head. It goes without saying that he was willing to go to great extent to be relieved.
While suffering next to the river Triton, he asked Hephaestus to break open his brain with an ax. This, he thought, was the only way to get rid of the pain. His head broke open, and Athena leaped from the head of Zeus. But, Athena was not just a child. She was actually a full grown woman armored with the helmet that was made by her mother.
Some sources describe Athena as a motherless goddess, but this is evidently far from true. Maybe it’s because Metis remained in Zeus’ belly after giving birth.
She had been weakened through her efforts and the birth of her child, which decreased her relevance in Greek mythology. But, she loved Zeus so much that she couldn’t leave him. So, she stayed in his belly and would continue to provide him with counsel.
READ MORE: Athena: Greek Goddess of War and the Home
What is Metis the Goddess of?
Now you know the story of Metis. But, it might still be a bit unclear what she actually is the spiritual leader of. Based on the meaning and significance of her name, it should come as no surprise that she is considered the Titan goddess of wisdom. Yet still, it might be better to look at her as an archetype for people who want to live a wise life full of creativity.
This also explains why Metis is both a god, and an ancient Greek word that was actually used to refer to the characteristics of the goddess. So, to see what Metis was the goddess of, we should turn to the meaning of her name.
To refer to the word instead of the goddess, I have put the word in italics throughout the text: metis. This way, it hopefully isn’t too big of a puzzle.
What Does metis Encompass?
Characterizing yourself with metis, as the Athenians did, implies a lot of things.
First, it means that you have embodied certain things that help you to respond adequately and calmly to a situation. Therefore, metis allows you to craft a response to a certain complex situation. It means that you can quickly grasp what is going on in a situation, after which you trust your skills and knowledge to see what actions should be taken.
Oftentimes this is based on pattern recognition. It is not for nothing that mostly older people are referred to as being wise: they have experienced things more often than younger people.
People who like to make things more complex than they actually are refer to this idea as the rhetorical art of cunning. At least the cunning part relates this concept back to our goddess.
Building on the embodied way of responding, the term is more than merely being able to recognize patterns and formulate a response. It also means that you can perform several different skills at the same time, leading to the most creative results and responses.
To add, in ancient Greece it was quite literally related to the idea of thinking like a crab or octopus: exploring ways of moving and responding that are necessarily different from the ‘usual’. That is, if we take the human animal as a norm. This is also why our Greek goddess is able to transform into different forms and animals.
So all and all, metis encompasses a combination of creativity, intelligence, artistry, and feeling for justice.
Metis in Contemporary Thought and Research
The concept of metis is still very relevant today. It is actually used in a whole range of research fields. Two of them are disability studies and feminist studies.
For starters, it is a concept that is used and explored in the field of disabilities studies. This is mostly related to the Greek god of fire, Hephaestus. Although almost any Greek god had a stunning appearance, this god was a little less lucky. Some might even call him ugly. On top of that, he had at least one clubbed foot.
While non-disabled persons might see this as a problem, scientists are now exploring why this was not the case for the ugly god.
Hephaestus used his metis to formulate adequate responses to the situation at hand. Since he necessarily had a different experience with the world than the other gods, he was praised for his cunning wisdom. The researchers are now using this idea to describe how disable people respond to particular situations, explaining the value of the perspective of disabled persons.
The second field which uses metis as a concept of research is feminist studies. Let it be clear, this regards the elaborate field of study that researches the power relationships between different lived realities, including (but definitely not limited to) the relationships between men and women. As opposed to disabilities studies, this field relies a bit more on our goddess Metis.
The use of metis draws similarities as what we saw in disability studies. That is, it is used to describe a situation from a certain perspective.
In feminist studies, metis is seen as a complex but very coherent body of mental attitudes and intellectual behavior. As a quality, it enables someone to formulate a response that is not related to larger structures of power.