Mētis as Lioness
Victory is only to be won through mētis. There is one unalterable rule for animals and men alike, be they hunting or fishing: the only way to get the better of a polúmētis one is to exhibit even more mētis. The first quality of the hunter is agility, suppleness, swiftness, mobility. The second quality is dissimulation, the art of seeing without being seen. The third quality is vigilance . . . their eyes open and their wits about them. (Detienne and Vernant, 30-31)
As is so often the case when we are in a liminal transition, words fail us. In those moments, sometimes we invite metaphor. And a game that we might have played as children comes to us: if you could be any animal, what would you be? In the late 1970’s, my brother and I often had hours of imagining ourselves as siblings Jayna and Zan from the Justice League series as we played in the woods of rural Maine. Bumping fists and saying together, “Wonder Twin Powers, Activate!” allows one of the sibs to activate the superpower of turning into any animal to fight evil. With delighted nostalgia, I can see freshly that our chosen animal-forms were intuitively chosen for their mētis cunning, just-right to seize victory against our cartoon-inspired foes. Detienne and Vernant note “even when they are caught animals may, thanks to their mētis, themselves remain traps . . . their metis even rival Promethean cunning ‘capable of extricating itself even from the inextricable (33).’ “
Sitting with my clients in their vexing situations, it is a manifesting wonder (power) to hear many of them identify that they wish to be like a predatory cat. Perhaps a panther, a tiger, a wildcat, or a lioness. These cats are the embodiment of mētis. Agile, supple, and swift – all gifts of the cat. She sees without being seen. She is vigilant to perceive all that is available to her piercing attention. These are the qualities needed when one senses that the circumstances are either a trap or a passage. Drawing upon innate superpowers of the lioness allows us to survive the passage with finesse.
For journeying as an animal spirit, Nietzsche comes to mind. In his allegory of Zarathustra, the wise man leaves a place of solitude, stating that he is a “cup that wants to become empty again (1.1).” How Zen! “I found it more dangerous among human beings than among animals; Zarathustra walks dangerous paths. May my animals guide me! (1.10).” Seeking passage through the liminal is a journey of the whole self, with intention, passion, mētis. “What is great about human beings is that they are a bridge and not a purpose: what is lovable about human beings is that they are a crossing over and a going under. . . I love the one who does not hold back a single drop of spirit for himself, but wants instead to be entirely the spirit of his virtue: thus he strides as spirit over the bridge (1.4).”
In the voice of Zarathustra, Nietzsche then offers us the Wonder Twin power of spiritual metamorphosis (1.16).
Three metamorphoses of the spirit I name for you: how the spirit becomes a camel, and the camel a lion, and finally the lion a child.
To the spirit there is much that is heavy; to the strong, carrying spirit imbued with reverence. Its strength demands what is heavy and heaviest. What is heavy? thus asks the carrying spirit. It kneels down like a camel and wants to be well loaded. What is heaviest, you heroes? thus asks the carrying spirit, so that I might take it upon myself and rejoice in my strength.
Many of those that come to sit with me have shown that they have the power of a camel. They are long-suffering carriers of burdens that have been placed on them. Sometimes they chose those burdens willingly, and sometimes they were told that their sole purpose in life was to shoulder those burdens and walk through the wilderness. They labor not only to carry the load but also to carry whatever they might personally need on and in their own bodies: a heroic act of independence that relies on nothing but their own inner strength. And in demonstrating through endurance, they truly come to know a facet of their own power.
But in the loneliest desert the second metamorphosis occurs. Here the spirit becomes lion, it wants to hunt down its freedom and be master in its own desert. Here it seeks its last master, and wants to fight him and its last god. For victory it wants to battle the great dragon. Who is the great dragon whom the spirit no longer wants to call master and god? “Thou shalt” is the name of the great dragon. But the spirit of the lion says, “I will.”
This adversary, this last master – the dragon – has long walked with the camel, often unseen. The dragon has laid the burdens on the camel, saying “Thou shalt,” and the camel’s strength allows it to persevere. The dragon whispers, “there shall be no more ‘I will!'” This is oppression. But just like my clients who have rightly intuited that in passage through extremis they require the soul of a panther, of a tiger, a wildcat or a lioness, Nietzsche affirms:
My brothers, why is the lion required by the spirit? Why does the beast of burden, renouncing and reverent, not suffice? To create new values – not even the lion is capable of that: but to create freedom for itself for new creation – that is within the power of the lion. To create freedom oneself and also a sacred No to duty: for that, my brothers, the lion is required.
Ah, freedom! For life, into the joyful “I will!” We walk through the desert and realize that the courage of perseverance is virtue, but not the only virtue. The courage of the lioness shrugs off the burden in its season and says “No!” to the so-called duty that has been placed on us by the dragons of culture, of family, of trauma, of privation, of career, of ambition. No longer restricted to journeying through burdened perseverance, the camel transforms into the predatory cat. From plodding gait, she becomes agile; from the weary bowed head watching one foot in front of another in endless sand, she lifts her gaze and perceives opportunity; from the heat haze of desert expanse, she eases into the shade and shadows where she can can rest and plot strategy towards victory.
To take the right to new values – that is the most terrible taking for a carrying and reverent spirit. Indeed, it is a preying, and the work of a predatory animal. Once it loved “thou shalt” as its most sacred, now it must find delusion and despotism even in what is most sacred to it, in order to wrest freedom from its love by preying. The lion is required for this preying.
Mētis of the cat rightly guides where and when we are called to throw off the burdens that we carried as a camel. We don’t fail to see the courage of our camel-self’s long-suffering, but in passage through transitions of our own growth, it is our lion-self that claims its freedom and lays down the burdens that we were told we had no option but to bear with grace and fortitude. Now grace and fortitude take their mētis forms. Our senses open to the breadth of the world’s possibilities. We find stillness in the coolness, poised to act, but as an expression of our own will and wisdom rather than mere obedience to tasks given by “delusion and despotism.” This is not a trivial metamorphosis, and so as Zarathustra cried, “May my animals guide me!”
My fond remembering turns back to my young self at play. Wonder Twin powers did not leave Jayna in animal form, as once the snare she set with her twin had caught its dragon, she once again becomes the child. Just so, my brother and I would ease from our animal-forms back into the simplicity of wandering to the kitchen for lunch. But don’t be deceived! We have the superpowers to once again become the animals that are needed, as circumstances call to virtue. So says Nietzsche:
But tell me, my brothers, of what is the child capable that even the lion is not? Why must the preying lion still become a child? The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a wheel rolling out of itself, a first movement, a sacred yes-saying. Yes, for the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred yes-saying is required. The spirit wants its will, the one lost to the world now wins its own world. Three metamorphoses of the spirit I named for you: how the spirit became a camel, and the camel a lion, and finally the lion a child.
Viktor Frankl, a physician from Vienna who survived Nazi genocide, was moved by Nietzsche and frequently echoed the importance of this sacred Yes-Saying as the foundation of Will-to-Meaning. Paraphrasing Nietzsche’s aphorism in Twilight of the Idols, “Hat man sein warum? des Lebens, so verträgt man sich fast mit jedem wie?” Frankl famously says in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Wer ein Warum zu leben hat, erträgt fast jedes Wie,” translated by Ilse Lasch as “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” (My thanks for these details to R. Kevin Hill.) For Frankl, the valley of the shadow of death called forth his mētis wisdom, which he located in the human conscience. Meaning is seized as prey for the cat, and in this freedom of perspective, the camel is unburdened from delusional duties and sidesteps the dragons that pursue her with commands and missives. Discovering the “why” of our lives is not in a single mode of being “cat,” however, but in the power of metamorphosis itself. We can rest and play as a child does, full of potential and at the beginning of a new game. Later, as we choose, we become the lion who defies the dragon. Or shouldering burdens, we camel again for a season. Our capacity for metamorphosis nimbly accommodates Life’s demands with our responsive mētis wisdom.
This is heart-centered movement, and we can look on our own cycles of metamorphosis with love. Remember your nascent child – always present, beautiful in rich potential for growth and cunning. Frankl says: “Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. . . By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized (111).” We can look to another with love, but in this moment, why not invite love for yourself as beloved person, whatever your animal-spirit mode might be today. You are in the precious cycle of becoming, pregnant with what is not yet fully actualized but is called forth in Love and Will and Joy.
And yes, to drink deeply from mētis wisdom, periodically do empty the cup of the burdened camel and move to the nimble, vigilant and free self of the lioness. Or perhaps it is another agile animal-spirit that is summoned forth for your metamorphosis? Come play Wonder Twin powers with me. You are welcome here.
- Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant. Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society. Translated by Janet Lloyd. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1978.
- Freidrich Nietzsche. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Translated by Adrian Del Caro. Cambridge University Press: 2007.
- Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, translated by Ilse Lasch. Pocket Books, 15th ed.
An experienced instructor, clinical supervisor and recipient of multiple teaching awards, inviting joy and insight in training and teaching settings.
A board-certified coach, specializing in executive and professional care for strength-building and creativity at growth edges and in leadership.
An authentic and warm public speaker, weaving interdisciplinary insights and humanistic perspectives to support a deepening sense of community.
Demand meaning in the moments of your life.
Chart a navigation course that is clear-eyed and nimble.
Cultivate the habits of perspective, creativity, and curiosity.
Call forth your fiercest capacities for courageous authenticity.
Janēta Fong Tansey, MD PhD