December 17, 2012, by Alan Sommerstein
Nativity plays (striking a seasonal note)
If you’ve got dozens of gods and goddesses, who didn’t exist from eternity but came into being by a procreative process (though they didn’t necessarily have both a father and a mother, and weren’t necessarily born in the conventional manner), you’re likely to have some interesting divine birth stories; and if you also have a strong theatrical sector, sooner or later several of these stories are likely to be put into dramatic form. And the ancient Greeks certainly did this on quite a big scale. We know of at least nine gods (no, make that seventeen) whose birth-stories were dramatized in comedies produced at Athens: in alphabetical order, Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis, Athena, Dionysus, Hermes, the Muses (all nine of them), Pan, and the big daddy of them all, Zeus himself.
Zeus was, in fact, the father of fourteen or fifteen of the other sixteen deities in that list (about Aphrodite’s parentage more than one story was told). Most of the mothers were goddesses, but one was human (Semele, the mother of Dionysus), and Athena had no mother at all. There had been one, but Zeus, for strong reasons of self-preservation, swallowed her up, and Athena had to be born out of Zeus’s head (as in the featured image – from a sixth-century Athenian vase, British Museum B424 – in which the god Hephaestus acts as midwife, splitting Zeus’s skull with an axe). Hermippus, an older contemporary of Aristophanes, made a play out of this, in which he may or may not have given Zeus the line (Hermippus, fragment 70) “Would you please scratch my head?” He also may or may not have made Zeus look and talk like the leading Athenian politician of the day, Pericles, whom many people considered to be swollen-headed (in more senses than one) and somewhat inclined to forget that he was only human.
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