“You [Thetis] only among the immortals beat aside shameful destruction from Kronos’ son [Zeus] the dark-misted, that time when all the other Olympian gods sought to bind him, Hera and Pallas Athena..." - Homer, Iliad 1. 397 ff (trans. Lattimore)
I. Lachesis (the lot caster)
Stop me if you've heard this story before. But you haven't, have you? It is not sung in polite gatherings, this story. It is whispered in mystery rites and comes to light only in the darkness of caves and forests, where it began.
When Kronus ruled, they say, there were a million years of peace and prosperity, but Zeus' rule was not as prosperous. Where Kronus had swallowed his rivals whole, Zeus gave them power in exchange for support. His rule was maintained through intricacies – through averted alliances, unacknowledged strength, and placated anger. But even so, Zeus, like his father and his father's father before him was challenged...
He was not challenged by any usurping son, nor by a mighty god, but rather by two goddesses - his own beloved wife and favored daughter.
One might wonder why the queen of the gods and the favorite child of Zeus challenged him, dethroned him, had him withering, bound and demeaned.
Listen...Hera never wanted to be queen -- not of Olympus, not of the world, and certainly not of Zeus.
It was no honor, Hera knew, to be thus chosen. She wasn't chosen because she was the most beautiful of the goddesses like Aphrodite, nor because she was the wisest like Zeus' wife before her. No, Hera was picked because while she belonged to the greatest family among the immortals, she was the least of her sisters. She wasn't the strongest, wisest, or the fairest of Kronus' daughters, wasn't a threat to Zeus. So he may bed her for eternity without ever worrying about her son displacing him. No, he never lusted after her like he did for Demeter, Thetis, or Metis -- willing to risk, even for a moment, everything in his kingdom for her. Instead, he courted her, and she's quite certain that despite having shared Zeus with so many women, she's the only one he ever courted.
He asked her to marry him three times (and thrice she refused him)-- the first time not even five days past since he swallowed Metis to eliminate the threat to his rule -- and Hera refused him. The second time, he did not ask. She was watching the birds on Mount Kokkux when a wounded cuckoo flew into her arms, and she held it close to her breast and whispered to it, willing it to heal. But when her will did not work on it, she sensed that she had been tricked. And her surprise was enough for Zeus to resume his form and overcome her protests, so she became another one of his conquests. Afterwards, he surprised her by offering her the throne of Olympus. Still, she did not want it. She left him behind on that mountain, and went to their mother and Rhea promised to keep her presence from Zeus as only she could.
On the first day she was there, Rhea said, “He will give you many honors.”
“I do not wish them,” Hera said, “Not after how he dishonored me.”
On the second day, Rhea said, “He will give you noble offspring.”
“I do not wish them,” Hera said. “Not unless they grow up to usurp him.”
And this, Rhea understood. She herself had raised Zeus to challenge his father, to overthrow him. Still, on the third day, she said, “He will grant you much power.”
“I do not wish it,” Hera said, and hesitated before adding, “Not if I have to share it with him.”
Rhea smiled at this for she knew a way to Hera’s heart now and knew that she craved power.
When Zeus came to her next, he asked her one more time if she would be his queen.
And Hera said, “I would have you swear an oath first. That you will never again violate me, nor touch me in any way unless I consent to it.”
And Zeus swore by all the gods he could name, not really understanding the promise.
“Swear by the Styx,” Hera said.
And only now did the oath weigh on him and he considered it for a long time before agreeing. When he had sworn the oath, she refused him one more time.
“But you promised to be my queen, with our mother as witness.”
“I will keep my word,” Hera said. “But not yet.”
And now she had him under her power. He could not violate her or force her, and she knew that his delicate balance of power depended on his marrying her. So Hera had power for now, and she had gotten it without giving in to him.
She let him wait for a long time. Three hundred years he waited, and when Aphrodite finally made her way from the sea to Olympus, he was so mad with wanting Hera that he granted Aphrodite her wish of marrying Hephaestus. And in exchange, he asked her to fill Hera’s heart with love for him.
And so they were married, but Hera never forgave him for violating her, and Zeus could never forgot the centuries of humiliation she had put him through.
II. Clotho (the weaver)
The Goddess of Wisdom is wiser than she lets on. Her lovely grey eyes take in all of the world around her, but rarely react to things. She’s aloof, stately, and always independent. She has no permanent companions, and she is a champion of heroes. She has no wish to keep consort with lesser beings. She punishes transgressors, guides and supports the heroes, and if ever there are disputes between the feminine and the masculine, she upholds the teachings of her father. She stands as a symbol of all the power men have and reminds them all that Zeus did not need a woman to give birth to Athena, and that she’s a motherless child.
She herself, however, remembers Metis all too well. Her mother kept her within herself for as long as was needed for Athena to understand the world she was going to go out into one day. Her mother forged her an armor and weapons suited for war, and as Metis worked on this, Athena knows that Zeus felt each strike of the hammer as a debilitating headache, and Metis kept striking that hammer long after the armor, the robes, the shield, and the sword had been finished. And while Athena never wanted to leave her, Metis prepared her for that day. And the Goddess of Wisdom learned well from her mother how to bide her time, how to be patient, but even so, Metis sent her daughter out fully armed and ready to take on the world if there was ever need of it.
Athena is careful not to repeat her mother’s mistakes. Metis was wise, wiser than even Athena herself, but she was passionate, and that was dangerous. Metis helped Zeus take over the world, and when Zeus wanted to marry her, she gladly gave in. And then in the heat of passion, she uttered the words that proved to be her downfall. She told Zeus that their son would rule the world. And Zeus could never live with that threat, and he courted Hera instead.
So Athena knows that she cannot ever present a threat to Zeus or to Hera, whom he now favors so much. Athena is not allowed to hate Hera openly. To do so would be dangerous, to do so would indicate that she remembers the fate of Metis, that she remembers her mother at all. And Athena must never seem to have divided loyalties because she knows that she is Zeus’ favorite (and that he will give her all the powers willingly) only as long as she is an extension of his own self.
When Artemis asks Zeus for independence from men and for eternal chastity, Zeus begrudges her this, but he fears her power just enough that he gives in to her. She is not one to do things with strategy, nor has she the patience to wait for things. But Zeus sees the way Apollo looks at her, sees how she averts her gaze only when there are others present, and he wonders what the offspring of such powerful gods might be able to accomplish, and so he gives in to Artemis, after protest.
Athena, however, does not have to negotiate for her independence. Zeus encourages it. For all that he pretends that she is all his, he remembers Metis and remembers that from her line is there to be a son that will overthrow him.
Persephone’s wish to remain unmarried is answered by Zeus asking Hades to take her as his bride, and when Demeter is able to bring all the gods, even Zeus himself, down to Earth to seek her forgiveness, Athena knows that Demeter could be a worthy ally. Demeter knows the value of patience, of waiting things out until the world itself changes to meet her ends.
Hera, in contrast, is reckless, Athena thinks. She is quickly angered and quickly retaliates, and Athena has seen Zeus fight with her, seen the anger Hera can stir in him, and the passion, too. And this knowledge, this connection, Athena can use to her advantage. So she takes to watching Hera, and learns to admire her.
Zeus is the one who turns Io into a cow to hide his infidelity from Hera, and Hera is the one who guards the cow and leads it away to safety, and this is not lost on Athena. And Athena begins to wonder if there’s an art to Hera’s recklessness, if Hera chooses to play the jealous wife as Athena chooses to be the dutiful daughter while she, too, waits patiently for things to change.
So Athena takes a chance, and finds Hera alone in her garden with her golden apples, and she says, “It is curious that all your work towards destroying Io just led to her being free in a land away from Zeus and reunited with her son. Such a shame.”
Hera’s hands still, and Athena can feel that stillness spreading all over the garden that was a wedding gift to Hera. “Have you come to mock me, Athena?” Hera asks, “To throw Zeus’ infidelities in my face like your father does?”
Athena knows that Hera’s anger is real, but so is her fear. “I think we both know that you can destroy things – people – more efficiently than that.”
“Io proved to be difficult,” Hera says, and Athena feels her own armor going up, knows that Hera is testing her now.
Athena says, “She was a priestess of yours, no?”
“She betrayed me all the same.”
“But that did not matter. You know Zeus’ ways. You know how little consent means to him.”
“It does not matter. She deserved to be punished.”
Hera is determined to keep her thoughts from Athena, and Athena knows that she will need to reveal her own secrets before Hera will trust hers to Athena. So she says, “As did Medusa, I suppose. But neither Io nor Medusa could be deemed unlucky.”
Hera scoffs at that and laughs, and says, “You cursed the lovely Medusa with hair that will turn a man to stone.”
Athena considers her answer carefully and says, “Some might say that I gave Medusa the means to ensure that no man would ever violate her again.”
She sees Hera stiffen and then relax, understanding. And Athena smiles. She appreciates cunning and strategy, and Hera, whose power depends all on how she manipulates and hurts Zeus in turn, is a better strategist than anyone else. They cannot yet talk about Metis or Zeus’ infidelities or Athena’s chastity, but they understand each other.
Hera knows patience, too, Athena learns. She is the only one of the gods who spends significant periods of time in her own temples, listening to the worshippers praying to her. She values them and values her priestesses. She has patience for humanity that few gods do. So when Hera curses Echo to only be able to repeat the words of others, it is not out of impatience.
So Athena asks her about Echo, and Hera says, “Zeus thinks he has my leave to find pleasure elsewhere since I have gone away from him to give birth to my son. And Echo thought that she could keep his affairs from me. I do not think that she would have done me the same favor.”
And this confession is significant, so unexpected that it takes the Goddess of Wisdom several moments to understand its implications, and her gaze drops to Hera’s swollen belly. “What did you do, Hera?”
“The Fates have prophesied that the end of Zeus’ rule will come one day, and the rulers of the past have always been brought down this way.” Hera says, and then confesses, “I lay with Uranus, and Gaia gave me her blessings.”
This unsettles Athena, so much so that she reveals a secret even greater than Hera’s and says, “My mother never thought that she needed a son to rescue her,” and bites her tongue and wonders if she has said too much. Now Hera knows about Athena’s stake in this, knows that Athena remembers Metis.
But then she sees the stricken look on Hera’s face, and she realizes that Hera is not watching for her slips and is not planning to turn them against her one day, realizes that she still does this with Hera, never being quite able to trust anyone, but that’s the art of war, and she knows war. It is only after she has analyzed all of this that it occurs to her where her words have fallen amiss. Hera does not like being compared to Zeus’ lovers, not the ones who came before her, all of whom he desired (destroyed) more. And not the ones after her, whom Hera must never allow herself to see as anything but weak (for having given in to Zeus, even when they didn’t. For not having the power she eventually acquired over him, and for not having to fight that war for an eternity.)
She regards the queen of Olympus carefully, and realizes that in one way, Hera is better – no, wiser – than even her own mother: Hera never chose this. And the queen of the gods sees her marriage as a war, is more cautious in her approach to Zeus than Metis ever was and she knows how to wield beauty, fragility, and compliance as power, an art that not even Athena knows. So Athena learns to see these things as power, too, and Hera acknowledges that maybe, Zeus could be overcome with cunning and not with might.
When Hera gives birth to Typhon, Zeus rages at this outrage and lashes out and exiles him, but Hera is pleased to have displeased him so. And Zeus reminds Hera that only he may give birth to a perfect child alone and without a mate. Hera’s eyes meet Athena’s as Zeus thunders on, and they both remember Metis and remember that she had more to do with Athena’s perfections than Zeus ever could.
This is how it happens, the start of the war to end all wars: It is Hera who remembers to forget to invite Eris to the wedding of her foster daughter (and her rival, if Zeus had his way), Thetis.
“What could you expect to gain out of this?” Athena asks.
Hera smiles, and says, “You plan the conflict, Athena, but leave the distractions up to me.”
“You cannot know what Eris will do to avenge this dishonor.”
“No, but I can count on Eris to live up to her name.”
Athena smiles even though she still has her doubts, but she thinks she would enjoy watching someone else do the thinking.
When the golden apple drops, it drops in the midst of several goddesses. “For the Fairest,” it says. Hestia smiles and steps back from it, too wise to let herself become a part of this. Artemis smirks as she turns away. She knows how this contest will be judged, and the goddess of the hunt would willingly lay with a man before she would let one judge her worth. But neither Hestia nor Artemis is more chaste or more sensible than Athena, who chooses to court this title. As does Hera, who already has all the honors and all the powers that such a title might bring.
“This is meant for me, of course, you’ll agree,” Athena says as she reaches for the apple, and she’s not surprised to find her hand grasped by Hera’s, keeping her from the prize. Their eyes meet over their joined hands, and Athena’s are full of appreciation because she can see exactly where this will lead. And the smugness in Hera’s eyes makes Athena bite her lip to keep from smiling.
Finally, Hera says, “But, Athena, you know all about war and weapons, and would you not say that the arrow is meant for the person it lands the closest to?”
“Only if the archer is a poor marksman, my queen. If a well trained archer had shot it, it would not land close to its target, but on it.”
Seeing that the prize is coveted by Zeus’ beloved wife and favored daughter raises its worth, but only one goddess is brave enough to take them on. As they gently claw at each other’s hands, Aphrodite takes the apple and says, “It does not matter whom it landed closest to nor who thinks it belongs to her. An impartial judgment would demand that a gift meant for the most beautiful go to the Goddess of Beauty.”
Hera’s fingers tighten on Athena’s hand in acknowledgement of their triumph before letting go, and Hera says, “A judgment! Finally, something sensible has been spoken.” And she looks at Athena with distaste as if Athena should have been the one to come up with the suggestion.
“An impartial judge then,” Athena says and turns to Zeus as all eyes turn away from the lovely apple and the lovelier goddesses and focus on the king of Olympus.
Zeus’ eyes glance at the apple and linger on Aphrodite as she holds the apple close to her shapely form, near her heart. And as he continues to gaze at the lovely sea-born goddess, he refuses to judge the contest. For surely, no one can think him an impartial judge. He would favor his own beloved daughter or his queenly wife, and not the goddess he cannot keep his eyes from.
Aphrodite holds his gaze and agrees, “It would be most unfair to me, if Zeus were to judge, as wise and knowledgeable as he is.”
Both Hera and Athena nod solemnly, as if they fully sympathize with Aphrodite’s plight.
And so the role of an impartial judge is passed on to a human, and Hera and Athena are both relieved because they can always count on human stupidity to do the rest of their work for them.
They let Aphrodite go first, who is the first to offer Paris a bribe: the most beautiful woman on earth, an image of Aphrodite herself. And so glazed are Paris’ eyes with Helen’s beauty, so saturated is his brain with her essence, and so filled are his ears with Aphrodite’s promise of Helen’s love that Paris does not even realize the value of the gifts being offered by Hera and Athena. Paris picks Aphrodite, picks Helen, and Athena and Hera have the prize they were after.
So while the gods all take part in the Trojan War, Athena and Hera prepare themselves for another war, one where the stakes are even higher. But it is not a war waged on battlefields with blood and weapons. No, Hera and Athena fight more subtly, and they plan more cautiously.
No one thinks anything of it when Hera and Athena start being seen together, consorting together in some private room because everyone knows that they are united in a common goal in having a common enemy in Paris, in Troy. And they no longer have to hide or punish those who happen to find out their secrets.
They get the idea from Hephaestus, who traps Aphrodite and Ares in an invisible net in order to expose their affair to the gods. And as the immortal gods gaze at the lovers, Hera’s eyes meet Athena’s, and they can never decide whose idea it originally was.
Hera goes to her garden after the spectacle is over, and Athena knows where to find her. Hera says, “We cannot kill Zeus, but trapping him inside a net would give us power over him, to do with him as we like.”
“Just so,” Athena says. “But how would we gain power over Hephaestus and convince him to betray his father?”
Hera smiles, and says, “You already have power over him, Athena. Use it.”
Athena considers this and considers how this is Hera’s way and Aphrodite’s, but she considers this beneath herself.
Hera says, “It is just another tool, another strategy.”
“Would he not betray me, afterwards, when he does not get what he wants?”
“You get the secret from him, and I’ll handle the rest. He’ll never be more loyal to Zeus than he is to me.”
When Athena has the net, she brings it to Hera, and Hera hides it under her marriage bed. She considers borrowing Aphrodite’s girdle – and her charms – from her, but dismisses the notion. Aphrodite has different concerns than Hera and Athena do, but she is clever and it would not be long before she figures out how she has played into their hands, how she continues to do so.
Zeus, however, is too assured of his own powers, too confident in the fact that all the gods love him – or at the very least, fear him – to suspect anything. He comes to Hera’s bed, not suspecting any treachery. It is not that he trusts her, Hera knows, but rather that he trusts in his greater might, despite the oath he took.
So she lets herself wither beneath him one last time, and when he wakes up, she stands above him and smiles benevolently. He smiles back before trying to reach for her and too late, he realizes that he is trapped.
And he roars in anger, struggles against his invisible chains, curses Hera and blesses Metis, who never would have tricked him so. Athena comes rushing to the room, followed by all the gods. Athena braces herself for battle and wonders which gods would fight on her side, besides Hera.
But not a single god steps forward to rescue Zeus, and none questions this state of affair, and Hera naturally takes charge, and orders them out. “Have you no shame? This is a matter between a wife and her husband.”
But Athena watches as the gods listen to Hera, not caring if they can defeat her or not. For now, they will not challenge her rule.
Betrayal comes from the least expected place for Athena, but it is not because she trusts Thetis as Hera does, but rather because she does not – or did not – consider Thetis a threat.
But when Thetis, who refused Zeus’s bed for she loved Hera too much, frees Zeus, the king of Olympus finds his wife on her throne, and remembering his promise to never lay hands on her without consent, he traps her on her gold throne and gives her leave to rule from there for eternity.
And then he comes to Athena for her counsel and asks her what he should do with his wife for she has power over him and he cannot let her keep secrets of her own. And Athena has a choice: she can give up Hera, let her be swallowed whole by Zeus as Metis was, and keep the secrets she learned from her. She doubts it not that she can win this war by herself. Or she can give up Hera’s secrets, give up Hephaestus’ art and his trust, and render Hera powerless so Zeus will keep her and not be threatened by her.
She makes a choice and gives Hephaestus up, and Zeus is content to throw his son out of the sky and into exile, for he finds Hephaestus a threat, but not Hera. Athena knows that Hera will not forgive her for this, but suddenly, it does not seem so important to win this war as much as to have someone to share that victory with.
For Hera, the betrayal of Thetis is as nothing compared to Athena’s. She did not enter into this lightly, had put more thought into this alliance with Athena than into her war with Zeus, and she was prepared to be imprisoned in Tartarus for it, just as long as Zeus was brought down. What Hera doesn’t understand, however, is that they have only lost the first battle. The war rages on.
III. Atropos (the inevitable)
Athena will always remember the words her mother spoke before sending her out into the world, “You must weave your own destiny, daughter.”
“I will certainly weave one better for you than your husband.”
Metis will hold her to that, Athena knows. And she knows that Hera, too, will have to be freed from her prison. But it will take work to gain Hera’s trust again. Hera will hold this against Athena for hundreds of years as only Hera can, but Athena will use that time to weave them a better story. Hera will eventually forgive her for the small betrayal, if it could be called that. And when that happens, they will set another plan in motion, and they will watch the pieces fall into place.
The Fates will always prophesy the end of Zeus’ rule, and Zeus will never not think that he will be overcome by might and power. But Zeus’ throne will crumble under the weight of wisdom and cunning and not by force of destruction and weapons.
For Ares will always be the passion of war – its violence and its recklessness. But Athena, who knows how to bide her time, knows how to plan, how to set things in motion, will wait patiently for all the pieces to fall into their inevitable place. And she will wait for Zeus, too, to fall.