Tuesday, 21 October 2014

"The ludicrously named Head of Zeus"

Publisher homepage link
The birth of any deity serves as a good place to start an account of that deity - birth myths both describe a particular stage in a god's 'life' and express what that god 'was'. What, then, does Athena's birth express about Athena?

One thing it shows is that there were as many Athenas as there were representations of the birth of the goddess. There is no 'right' version or 'wrong' version - instead what we have are sources that, for varying reasons, describe the goddess as Zeus-born, motherless, the daughter of specific mothers (not just Metis), the offspring of gods other than Zeus - including Poseidon, Hephaistos, Brontes, the Nile and Pallas - who tried to rape her, and whom she killed and flayed. And this list is not exhaustive. What is more - the relationship created between Zeus and Athena varies - from an image of closeness to conflict and many things in between.  When anyone claims to be relating "the Greek myth" of Athena's birth, warning bells should start to ring.

Intrigued to discover that a new publishing how should call itself Head of Zeus, I went to their website, clicked 'About Us' and found that: "if you want to know why we are called Head of Zeus, enquire here." What's "here" is an explanation from the Chairman including the following:
According to Greek myth, Zeus, an incorrigible philanderer, is told by one of his many girlfriends that she is pregnant. He thereupon swallows her in order to conceal the evidence of his infidelity from his long-suffering wife Hera. But the unborn child, unlike her unfortunate mother, is immortal. In due course Athene is delivered, fully formed and armour clad, from a cyst on her father's head, and adopted as their patron deity, first by the citizens of Athens and latterly by a nascent publishing enterprise in Clerkenwell Green.
According to which Greek myth? Zeus is "an incorrigilble philanderer," but Metis is not invariably "one of his many girlfriends" - sometimes she is, but in Hesiod she is the first wife of the god. The reason given for the swallowing doesn't fit with ancient accounts. Hera can be furious at the birth of Athena, but not because Zeus is trying to cover up his infidelty, but because he puts its product on show - though I can see that one might equally argue that Zeus could be covering up his infidelity by trying to pass of the offspring of his relationship with Metis as his own, self-born, child.

"The unborn child, unlike her unfortunate mother, is immortal".  This would work largely for Dionysos whose mother Semele is blasted to death - but also immortality - in the birth story of that god; but Metis is immortal. That's why Zeus swallows her in some accounts: so that she will be kept away inside himself for all time, to prophecy for him, and/or so that she will not produce any future offspring. In many sources Athena is, indeed, born "fully formed and armour clad" but born from a "cyst"?

This account of Athena's birth is offered with the authority of "according to Greek myth," but includes details that don't match ancient Greek versions. Thus it is wrong - but all versions are wrong in some ways: there never was a single version of the myth of Athena. Instead each teller would shape it to suit particular needs - just as Head of Athena does. They write their own foundation myth leading to the appearance of an audacious young deity who is first the symbol of Athens and thereafter the patron of a "nascent" publisher.

Their title is "ludicrous" - to quote from the industry commentator the Chairman quotes at the opening of his piece. Athena's birth is equally "ludicrous" - for Jane Harrison for example it looked a suspiciously artificial attempt to mesh together two opposing conceptions of a female deity (e.g. Themis p.500 - further refs to follow).  But it provides an interesting instance of a contemporary adaptation that, like ancient accounts and like centuries of postclassical receptions, uses a myth to serve some purpose - here to show that a newly-formed publisher is following an august tradition of Athena as a new-born addition to a pantheon, but also an apparently timeless symbol of classical and Western civilisation.

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