Even the most unbiased aficionado of Greek mythology would be hard-pressed to find therein an immortal that didn’t have “weird” as his (or her) middle name-and that is putting it mildly. By “weird” I do not mean the fire-breathing, part-lion, part-goat, part-snake variety, but (to the ancient Greeks at least) household names for power, sagacity, and beauty. Could it be just coincidence that some of these extraordinary personages of Greek mythology had experienced bizarre gestational circumstances and births? Could it be that in the nature vs. nurture debate, Greek gods cast the definitive (albeit totally fictitious) vote in favor of nature?
Aphrodite, Greek goddess of beauty and sexual yearning was born of blood, gore, and a family feud of titanic (literally!) proportions. It all started when Father Sky (Greek god Ouranos, i.e. Uranus) and Mother Earth (Greek goddess Ge, i.e. Gaia) had their umpteenth tiff over a minor little detail: Uranus hated his children with Gaia and kept them imprisoned deep inside her (read: bowels of the earth). When Gaia had had enough with all the pain and agony this arrangement caused her, she created a big, sharp sickle out of flint and made a simple request of her sons-namely, to castrate dad. Only her son Cronus (Kronos in Greek), the youngest of the Titans, agreed to help her. Cronus ambushed Uranus and cut off his genitals with Gaia’s sickle. From Uranus’ spilled blood arose the Giants, the Furies, and the nymphs of the ash tree. Uranus’ severed genitals fell into the sea and stayed there for a while until white foam started to form around them. Out of this foam emerged the most beautiful woman in Greek myth: Aphrodite. (Given the circumstances of her birth, is there any chance Aphrodite might have suffered from penis envy?)
Athena was the daughter of Zeus and Metis, a primordial goddess of magic and wisdom. Athena was conceived the good old-fashioned way, and all was well until Zeus remembered a prophecy about Metis bearing children more powerful than their father. Deeply troubled by the prospect of being overthrown by a tot, Zeus took the only option available to him and swallowed Metis, fetus and all. What he didn’t count on, however, was that Metis would keep gestating her baby inside Zeus, and even make the baby some clothes, armor, and weapons while she was at it. At full term, Zeus started having excruciating headaches. What to do? Hephaestus, the Greek god of craftsmanship, cleaved Zeus’ head open with an ax, and out came Athena (It’s a girl!), armed and dangerous, giving forth a war cry so loud that the heavens and the earth shook and trembled. (Now you know why Athena was the Greek goddess of wisdom: She was brainy. Literally.)
Unlike Athena, Dionysus (Greek Dionysos), god of wine, revelry, and ritual frenzy, had a mortal mother, Semele, a beautiful princess of Thebes. Zeus seduced Semele, and she got pregnant. Enter Hera, Zeus’ wife. Now, if there was one thing that miffed Hera more than Zeus having a mistress, it was Zeus having a pregnant mistress. Hera disguised herself as a sweet old lady and befriended Semele. They hung out and chatted about odds and ends-like friends do. It was a matter of time before Semele revealed to her old “friend” the identity of her baby’s father. Hera’s jaw dropped. “No way! He is pulling your leg! You know what men are like… Have him prove it to you!” The gullible Semele asked Zeus to reveal himself to her in all his divine glory. Zeus knew that no mortal would ever survive the sight of a god in all his glory, and tried-in vain-to change her mind. Semele perished in the dazzling, all-consuming fire of Zeus’ divinity-but not before Zeus salvaged the fetus from his mother’s womb and sewed him into his thigh. Dionysus was born from his father’s thigh a few months later, in perfect health and high spirits. Two of the epithets (titles) of Dionysus reflect his gestational adventures: He is called dimetor (= the one with two mothers, i.e. twice-born) and eiraphiotes (= the in-sewn one). (Apparently, there is no limit to what a stitch in time can save…)