The king of the gods of the ancient Greeks, mighty Zeus presided over the fates of men and gods, meting out his justice from his perch atop Mt. Olympus. Known as “cloud-gatherer,” “aegis-bearer,” and simply “father,” Zeus hurled lightning bolts at his foes, controlled thunder and the weather, and enforced order among the gods. And yet for all his strength, Zeus’s power knew limitations.

While Zeus was chief among the gods, his authority over the pantheon never went unchallenged, nor did he himself rise above the violent passions and petty quarrels that troubled the other gods, and the mortals whose affairs they were thought to govern. Fittingly, his hard fought and ever-tenuous ascendancy was characterized by the same bitter divisions and vendettas that plagued the Greek peoples who created him.

Etymology

He was called “Zeus,” a name that derives, albeit in uncertain ways, from the Proto Indo-European root dyeu-, meaning “shining,” and the word dewos, meaning “god.” It is the same word that forms the basis of the Greek theόs, the Latin deus, the Old Persian daiva, and the Sanskrit deva, all meaning “god.”1 As the Greeks used it, the name Zeus might have meant literally “shining god” or perhaps “sky god.”

Family

In his time, lusty Zeus conceived many children with a range of women human and divine. He was married often, but the bonds of matrimony were no barrier to his voracious sexual appetite. Zeus first married Metis, a Titan, whom he swallowed when it was prophesied that his child from her would overthrow him. He did not know it at the time that Metis was already pregnant with first child Athena, who one day burst forth from Zeus’ forehead.

Wives and Progeny

There were many more. With his second wife, Themis the Titan (often identified as one of the Oceanids because she was the daughter of Oceanus), Zeus sired the three Horae (goddesses of), Eunomia (Order), Dike (Justice), Eirene (Peace), Tyche (Prosperity) and the three Fates.

With his third wife, the Oceanid Titan Eurynome, Zeus had the gods known as the Graces. They were Aglaea (Beauty), Euphrosyne (Laughter), and Thalia (Festivity). With his fourth wife, his own sister Demeter, Zeus had Persephone.

With the fifth, the Titan Mnemosyne, he had the nine Muses, who were Clio (muse of History), Euterpe (Music), Thalia (Comedy), Melpomene (Tragedy), Terpsichore (Dance), Erato (Lyric Poetry), Polyhymnia (Choral Poetry), Urania (Astronomy) and Calliope (Heroic Poetry). With his sixth wife, the Titan Leto, he sired Apollo (the god of music and poetry) and Artemis (goddess of the hunt).

Zeus it seems was a hard god to get along with. Ultimately he settled with Hera, another of his sisters, and the goddess who is normally depicted as his companion. With Hera, Zeus had Hebe (cupbearer of the gods), Ares and Enyo (the god and goddess of war), Hephaistos, and Eileithyia (goddess of childbirth and midwifery).2

Zeus also reproduced with mortal women, such as Alcmene, with whom he sired Heracles

Mythology

Origin

According to myth, Zeus was born the last of six children to the Titans, Cronus and Rhea. He came into being at a chaotic and uncertain time. Cronus had just seized control of the heavens from his father, Uranus, one of the primordial deities and the overlord of the sky. Fearing that his own children might usurp him as he had done his father, Cronus ate his first five children—Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon.

Determined the save the next, Rhea stole away while she was pregnant with her sixth child and delivered him on the island of Crete. She entrusted the child to the care of her mother Gaia, the primordial goddess of the earth, who hid Zeus in a cave on Mt. Dikti.

Bas-relief of a Roman altar depicting Rhea presenting a swaddled stone to Cronus Public Domain.

To complete the deception, Rhea returned with a stone wrapped in swaddling blankets and gave it to Cronus, who devoured it as he had the others. Unbeknownst to his father, the child came of age on Crete in the company of Gaia and the Nymphs.

As the story continues, when he reached manhood, Zeus left Crete to confront Cronus. First he freed the Titans imprisoned by Uranus (like Cronus, the other Titans envied their father’s power and had tried unsuccessfully to usurp him). In return, the Titans gave Zeus “thunder and the glowing thunderbolt and lightning,” claims Hesiod, the Greek poet of the eighth century BCE whose Theogony is the densest single source for the mythology of the Greeks.3

Using his new weapons, Zeus overwhelmed Cronus, forcing his jealous father to vomit up the children he had swallowed. To Demeter he offered the control of agriculture, to Poseidon he gave the seas, to Hades the Underworld, and to Hestia the domain of the home and hearth. Zeus eventually took Hera for his wife. Together the Olympian gods and goddesses—so named because they reigned on Mt. Olympus—ushered in a new era of rule.

The Trials of the Mighty Zeus

The peace won by Zeus was short-lived, for the Titans, eager as always to seize control of the cosmos for themselves, rejected Zeus’ rule, sparking the conflict known as the Titanomachy. For ten years, the Titans did battle with Zeus and the Olympians, who also enlisted the help of Prometheus and Epimetheus, the only Titans to not rebel.

Strained to his limits, Zeus eventually won, not by virtue of his strength, but by means of a stratagem. Rather than overwhelming the Titans, Zeus in his desperation resorted to an extreme measure: he freed Kottos, Briareos and Gyges, the Hecatoncheires, primordial beasts with a hundred hands each.

Conceived like the Titans by Uranus and Gaia, the Hecatoncheires were so monstrous that when they born Uranus tried to stuff them back into Gaia’s womb (this was the slight that induced Gaia to prod Cronus into plotting against Uranus). He settled on banishing them to Tartarus, the dark and misty realm of the underworld where the wicked were cast down in punishment.

Zeus’ gamble turned the tide in favor of the Olympians. And with his full force assembled Zeus unleashed his fury. Hesiod renders the scene in dramatic detail:

Then Zeus no longer held back his might; but straight his heart was filled with fury and he showed forth all his strength. From Heaven and from Olympus he came forthwith, hurling his lightning: the bolts flew thick and fast from his strong hand together with thunder and lightning, whirling an awesome flame. The life-giving earth crashed around in burning, and the vast wood crackled loud with fire all about. All the land seethed, and Ocean’s streams and the unfruitful sea. The hot vapour lapped round the earthborn Titans: flame unspeakable rose to the bright upper air: the flashing glare of the thunder-stone and lightning blinded their eyes for all that there were strong. Astounding heat seized Chaos: and to see with eyes and to hear the sound with ears it seemed even as if Earth and wide Heaven above came together; for such a mighty crash would have arisen if Earth were being hurled to ruin, and Heaven from on high were hurling her down; so great a crash was there while the gods were meeting together in strife.4

In his victory, Zeus banished the Titans to Tartarus, and set the Hecatoncheires to keep eternal watch over them.

Once again mighty Zeus imposed his order over his fractious peers, and once again lasting peace proved elusive. Now it was Gaia’s turn to stir the pot. Enraged over the defeat and imprisonment of her sons and daughters, the Titans, Gaia conceived a final child, this time with Tartarus (another of the primordial deities and the personification of the Underworld realm), a monstrous offspring, called Typhoeus.

”From his shoulders grew an hundred heads of a snake, a fearful dragon, with dark, flickering tongues, and from under the brows of his eyes in his marvellous heads flashed fire, and fire burned from his heads as he glared.”5 Zeus now sought the aid of the Cyclopes and with their help, he defeated Typhoeus, hurling him down to Tartarus.

Zeus and the Creation Stories

As the supreme god, Zeus had a role in the creation of humankind, but the sources are confusing and contradictory about what it was. There are two broad stories and it is not entirely clear how they correspond to one another. The first is in fact characterized by many separate creations, each inaugurating a distinctive age of humankind. According to Ovid there are four ages: the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. Hesiod had a fifth age, the Heroic Age, falling between the Bronze and Iron Ages.6

In each age, Zeus played a decisive role. Born during the Golden Age, Zeus also brought it to an end by sparking the cataclysmic conflict, the Titanomachy. Although he did not start it, he ended the Silver Age, destroying the foolish mortals who peopled it because they refused to honor the gods. Zeus himself created the third race, the strong and warlike humans of the Bronze Age, who it turns out were so strong and warlike that they destroyed themselves.

He created the heroes of the fourth age as well, but most of them also died during the Trojan War and the war known as the Seven against Thebes, a mythic conflict featuring Oedipus and made famous by the eponymously-titled, fifth-century-BCE play by Aeschylus. Zeus also created the people of the final age, the Iron Age, the era of the classical city-states and the time in which Hesiod himself lived, an age marred by perpetual strife, and folly, and the loss of common morality.

The second creation myth, the better known of the two, involves Zeus’ erstwhile ally, the Titan Prometheus, whose assistance during the Titanomachy helped the Olympians emerge victorious. In this version of the myth, Zeus instructed Prometheus to make the first humans, which he did by molding them out of clay. Zeus’ daughter, Athena (goddess of wisdom, law, and civilization), then breathed life into them.

All is well until Prometheus, a trickster figure, deceived Zeus over a complicated matter involving animal sacrifice (the upshot was that the gods were forever deprived of the tasty meats from the animals humans sacrificed). In his anger, Zeus took fire from humans, only to have Prometheus steal it back and return it.

Zeus was enraged and he devised two particularly macabre punishments for those who had embarrassed him. First he fastened the insolent Prometheus to a rock and had an eagle eat his immortal liver, which regrew every night so that the eagle could return for its daily meal.

For humans, Zeus had his children Hephaistos (the god of metallurgy and the kiln) and Athena fashion the woman named Pandora. Before she was sent to earth, Pandora was feted by the gods and given gifts of priceless value, including a sealed jar, which she was told never to open.

Eventually, curiosity got the better of her, as Zeus of course knew it would, and Pandora opened the jar, releasing a host of evils, including death (at this point humans were immortal), war, famine, disease, and many others. By the time Pandora covered the jar only Hope remained, and so humans were left to wander in a hopeless and fallen world.

Leda and the Swan

Zeus’ many eventful infidelities are important and consequential parts of his legend. In one famous story, Zeus fell in love with a beautiful princess of Aetolia, named Leda. In order to seduce Leda, Zeus assumed the form of a swan and sought her out. In the form of that vulnerable creature, Zeus was pursued by a predatory eagle, who chased him into the arms of Leda.

Zeus indeed seduced the young princess and copulated with her on the same night she laid with her husband, Tyndareus. From the two eggs that were fertilized on that night—one by Zeus, the other by Tyndareus—four children with uncertain paternities were born: Helen, Clytemnestra, Castor and Pollax.

Later, after Zeus chose Paris, the prince of Troy, as the judge in a beauty contest among Athena, Aphrodite and Hera, Paris was awarded Helen as a prize for his service, and her subsequent abduction sparked the Trojan War. The story of Leda and the Swan became a common motif in Renaissance literature and art, and it was famously told by William Butler Yeats in the poem “Leda and the Swan”:

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.7

Other Myths

Two very similar tales feature Zeus becoming enamored with mortal women. In the first, Zeus coveted the daughter of a pastoralist. Here again Zeus transformed himself into a white bull, mingling inconspicuously in the herds of cattle until he forcefully seized Europa and carried her off to the island of Crete. She became the first queen of Crete and gave birth to Minos, creator of the Minotaur.

In the second myth, Zeus fell for Io, a priestess of Hera, and came to earth to ravish her. When the wife of Zeus soon caught wind of the affair and set forth from Olympus to punish Io, Zeus disguised his lover as a heifer. Shrewdly, Hera appealed to Argus, a giant with a hundred eyes to spy on the heifer.

Zeus countered with a scheme of his own—he sent Hermes to lull Argus to sleep and rescue the maiden. Shifting her anger to Argus, she slayed the giant and placed its eyes in the tail feathers of the peacock. She also set monstrous flies to torment the heifer. But ultimately, as always, Zeus emerged triumphant, liberating Io from her animal form and conceiving with her many children, such as Epaphus, one of the ancestors of the great Heracles.

Zeus and the Greeks

Zeus’ exploits and triumphs tell much of the Greeks who worshipped him. A being both powerful and just, Zeus embodied the spirit of the Hellenes at their best—as warrior-poets whose martial vigor was matched by their dedication to the law and order of the polis (city-state).

In his attempts to maintain peace among his plotting and competing peers, Zeus expressed the yearning for unity and moral clarity among the bitterly divided city-states that made up the Greek world. Even Zeus’ many sexual exploits—often nothing more than rapes and attempted rapes—laid bare the deeply misogynistic culture of the Greeks.8 Zeus was not simply the powerful god the Greeks looked to when they gazed at the sky; he was the ultimate image of themselves as they wanted to be.

Pop Culture

Though you won’t likely find believers in Zeus, his image persists in popular culture. He appears often in the stories of Hercules, such as the 1970 cult classic Hercules in New York, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger (an Oscar snub if ever there was one!), and the Disney animated film Hercules (1997).

More recently he is featured in the acclaimed God of War video game series, in which he plays the father of the hero Kratos. Yet in all these, Zeus is the same—a good-natured and wise father figure with a booming voice and a hearty laugh. In popular culture, Zeus is distant and withdrawn from the doings of Hercules and the mortals, in some ways more like the god of the modern monotheistic traditions than the flawed figure who was intimately involved in earthly affairs.

References


  1. “Zeus,” Online Etymology Dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/Zeus#etymonlinev5015 (accessed January 23, 2019). 

  2. A very helpful summary of Zeus’ reproductive partners and children, gleaned from the Theogony of Hesiod, can be found at https://www.ancient-literature.com/greecehesiodtheogony.html (accessed January 21, 2019). 

  3. Hesiod, Theogony, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Book II:492-506. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/348/348-h/348-h.htm (accessed on January 20, 2019). 

  4. Hesiod, Theogony, Book II: 687-712. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/348/348-h/348-h.htm (accessed on January 20, 2019). 

  5. Hesiod, Theogony, Book II: 820-868. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/348/348-h/348-h.htm (accessed on January 20, 2019). 

  6. Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book I: 76-150. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/21765/21765-h/files/Met_I-III.html#bookI (accessed on January 20,2019); Hesiod, Works and Days, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, 109-201. http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/works.htm (accessed on January 20, 2019). 

  7. Accessible at https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/leda-and-swan

  8. There is a vast literature on ancient misogyny, including the classic Eva Cantarella, Pandora’s Daughters: The Role & Status of Women in Greek & Roman Antiquity (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987; a accessible introduction to the misogyny of Zeus in particular is Lauren Hawkins, “Hipponax & Misogyny in Ancient Greece,” https://www.ancient.eu/article/188/hipponax--misogyny-in-ancient-greece/ (accessed January 22, 2019).