Metis: The Greek Goddess of Wisdom

Metis was a Titaness and a Greek goddess of wisdom, prudence, and deep thought. She was known for her intelligence and cunning nature and was often associated with wisdom, smart advice, and strategic planning.
As a goddess of wisdom, she embodied the concept of using intelligence and careful planning to navigate difficult situations. One of the most well-known stories involving Metis is her relationship with Zeus, the king of the gods.

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, 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 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.

She was his counselor during the Titanomachy, the great war fought between the Titans and Olympians for control of the universe.

The Meaning of the Name Metis, or ‘metis

When translated from ancient Greek to English, Metis name 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.

READ MORE: 11 Trickster Gods From Around The World

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, such as that 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 themselves as being characterized as ‘metis‘.

Okeanides

Metis 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. The Okeanides were the sisters of Potamoi, the river gods, which added another three thousand to the family.

READ MORE: Water Gods and Sea Gods From Around the World

In its simplest form, Okeanides are nymphs who preside over the sources of all the freshwater on this earth: from rain clouds and subterranean springs to the city fountains. 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 swallowed her.

Why Did Zeus Swallow Metis?

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 having a relationship with her.

So, eventually, Metis got pregnant. At first, Zeus wasn’t aware of it, but Metis would tell Zeus about a prophecy that would change the relationship between the two.

READ MORE: Zeus Family Tree: The Family Tree of the King of the Gods

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 regard to her father’s strength and wise understanding. The second one, however, would be a son that would be stronger than his father, take his place and become the king of gods and men.

So, Zeus was frightened. He was afraid that the children of Metis would defeat him and take his power and swallowed the pregnant Titaness.

From here, there are two directions.

Hesiod’s Theogony

The first direction is described by Hesiod in his piece Theogony. Hesiod describes that Metis was the first wife of Zeus, but also that Zeus was afraid of losing ‘his’ kingship. He describes Zeus as the 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.

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 response to the prophecy about the children.

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 that he was willing to go to a 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.

What Does ‘metis’ as a Character Trait 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.

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.

In ancient Greece, it was quite literally related to the idea of thinking like a crab or octopus: exploring ways of moving and finding responses that are necessarily different from the ‘usual’.

So, metis encompasses a combination of creativity, intelligence, artistry, and a feeling of justice.

Metis‘ in Contemporary Thought and Research

The concept of metis is still very relevant today. It is used in a whole range of research fields. Two of them are disability studies and feminist studies.

Disability Studies

It is a concept that is used and explored in the field of disability studies and 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 disabled people respond to particular situations, explaining the value of the perspective of disabled persons.

Feminist Studies

The second field which uses metis as a concept of research is feminist studies which elaborates the field of study based on the power relationships between different lived realities, including (but definitely not limited to) the relationships between men and women. As opposed to disability studies, this field relies a bit more on the goddess Metis.

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.

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