A man. Perhaps the manliest of men that has ever been dreamed up by history or by imagination. He sat. A colossal statue crafted from marble, ivory and gold. Stern, implacable, massive and most of all strong. He was one of the wonders of the ancient world. The statue of Zeus at Olympia. He sat because he had to. If the statue were alive and stood he’d take the top right off the temple; stone plinths, ceramic tiles and all. His shoulders were broad, his gaze fixed and direct. He bristled with all the strength, all the Power (with a capital P) of masculinity.
Zeus, god of the sky and of thunder, represented order and civilisation. Ultimate power, judgement and control over the world. He was also a serial adulterer, egomaniac, rapist and wife beater. But he held the power of the thunderbolt. And, as far as gods are concerned, might is right.
Gods in ancient Greece had “epithets” – little phrases they were known as. Apollo was “Shining Apollo” or “Apollo who strikes from afar”, Poseidon was “The Earth-shaker”, Athena was “Grey-eyed” or “Aegis-bearer”. These descriptions turn up again and again. Zeus has quiet a few. He is “Zeus who brings thunder”, he is “Wide-seeing Zeus”, he is “Zeus protector of guests” and a whole bunch of other stuff, but one that comes up so so very often is “Zeu Pater” – Zeus the father. Or “Zeus father of gods and men” – he gets that a lot. In fact the Roman god “Jupiter” is just a strange Italian slurring of “Zeu Pater”. Say it over and over again fast and you’ll get it.
Enough etymology, though. Zeus the Father. Father ey? Well he certainly had a lot of children. He had children – human and god – all over the place. So in a genetic sense he certainly was a father. But what sort of DAD was Zeus in mythology?
Among the Greek pantheon, it’s hard to find many stories of Zeus being much of a dad, or doing much fathering at all. Mind you given that the first thing his own father, Chronos, tried to do when he saw him was to eat him, is it really any wonder? Chronos had already eaten his first 5 children, the only thing that saved Zeus was that his mum swapped him with a rock. True story. Well… true myth that is. And whatever else you say about Zeus, he didn’t try to eat his own children, so he’s one up on his old man.
To Zeus Fatherhood meant authority. Fatherhood meant wisdom. Fatherhood meant protection. Fatherhood meant control. Fatherhood meant being the head of the family. And Zeus’ family was the world.
What fatherhood didn’t mean, and I say this with absolute certainty, was raising children. There’s no “Nappy changing Zeus” or “Baby rocking Zeus”. There’s not even a “kick the footy with the little tacker Zeus” or “Have a man-to-man chat Zeus”. There’s certainly not a greek god of dad-jokes, and if there was Zeus isn’t it.
You see, Zeus is a manly man. Well a manly god. Well a godly manly thing, and the manliest of man-god-things doesn’t change nappies. It doesn’t rock them to sleep, cuddle them or kiss them better.
But still, I wonder what that big statue would do if it was handed a baby. Screaming, helpless and so needy that sometimes it feels like a leach which pulls energy, emotion and sanity from you the longer it stays around. Would he have held it? Cuddled it close to him? Would he have talked to it, whispering? Asked what was wrong? Check the nappy? Find a bottle? Let it suck his finger? Or would he be scared of it? Petrified and helpless in the onslaught of children while his eyes flit around looking for a woman to pass it to?
It’s a little more complicated than all of this though, because it turns out Zeus, man-god of manitude, is one of the few male beings in myth to “give birth”. It happened twice. He once had a splitting headache, so he get a sharp axe and split his own head open, and out popped the goddess Athena (how she got there is complicated). He also had a baby growing in his inner thigh once, the god Dionysus. His story is a little on the strange side too…. Go google it, it’s hard to explain. It’s a bit strange, and more than a little bit kinky – like much of Greek mythology, but to the point.
Zeus. Father. If he’s “father”, what of fatherhood? What of the echoes down the ages through civilisations that ring through our heads like cultural back-ground radiation. Does it still effect our own concepts of boy, man and father? If so how?
These are complicated questions in an age where men, well some of us, are trying to redefine manhood. Where men are claiming more responsibility for child-raising over and above providing and protecting their children. Where men want to be present and active in their children’s lives from the moment they are born. Where the norm is for men to be in the delivery room, to be part of medical and family decisions that our fathers would not have been part of. Zeus gave birth in a weird and wacky way, but he was never at the birth of any of his children. Never held the. That woman’s hand, never cut a cord, never beat off visiting family in the hospital afterwards. That wasn’t his way, and it wasn’t the way of the time.
What I’m really trying to get at here is that the word “father” (like the word “mother”) comes with a lot of cultural baggage, a lot of history and a lot of preconceptions. Preconceptions that affect us all. They influence us whether we accept them or reject them, because they are things we follow or things we rail against. The figure of Father Zeus’ influence on fatherhood through the ages can be felt through history. Many of the precepts of manhood that we still obsess over today: strength, dominance and virility, are there in this mythological figure. As are their consequences such as domestic violence and higher rates of suicide among men.
So how do we move past the monolithic figure of Zeus. Of constructs of manhood based around strength, silence and stillness? The answers are simple, but not easy. We let ourselves feel. We let ourselves talk. We listen. We understand.
Now all we have to do is overcome cultural conditioning that goes back thousands of years to find a way to do it.
But not always easy.
Zeus casts a long shadow.