This painting, created by the French artist René-Antoine Houasse (c. 1645–1710), depicts the origin story of a prominent member of the Greco-Roman pantheon of gods. In the upper-center section of the painting, shown with her foot lodged in the head of Jupiter/Zeus, is the goddess who was called Minerva by the Romans. The peculiar circumstances behind this scene can be traced back to ancient Greece, in writings concerning Minerva’s Greek equivalent, Athena—also known as Athene, and sometimes called Tritogeneia and Atrytone. Athena’s bizarre birth was told by the poet Hesiod (c. 8th century BCE), who wrote, “Zeus as king of the gods made Metis his first wife, the wisest among gods and mortal men. But when she was about to give birth to pale-eyed Athene, he tricked her deceitfully with cunning words and put her away in his belly…” (Hesiod, Theogony, between lines 872-906). Zeus’ odd cannibalism of Metis was said to have occurred after he was told of a prophecy that Metis’ children would overthrow him. Therefore, Zeus used a trick from his tyrannical father’s playbook and decided to swallow Metis before she could deliver her children. Nevertheless, being trapped inside the god’s gut did not stop Metis from giving birth to Athena. According to myth, and depicted in the painting, Athena grew up strong and powerful, despite her constricted environment. In time, she became strong enough to dramatically burst from Zeus’ head. On this awkward occurrence for Zeus, Hesiod wrote, “out of his head, he fathered pale-eyed Tritogenia, the fearsome rouser of the fray, leader of armies, the lady Atrytone, whose pleasure is in war and the clamour of battle” (Theogony, between lines 907-936). Such is the scene that René-Antoine Houasse re-created in the painting above.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod, translated by M. L. West. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, 1999, 2008.