Greek God

Zeus

Zeus was the king of the Greek pantheon, ruling over men and gods alike from his throne on Mount Olympus. Powerful but flawed, his meddling in the lives of both goddesses and mortals made his reign turbulent.

Zeus, Greek King of the Gods (3:2)

Top Questions

  • Why was Zeus the king of the gods?

    Zeus overthrew his father, Cronus, then led his fellow Olympians to victory against the Titans to become the king of the gods.

  • Was Zeus a Titan?

    No. Zeus was the leader of the Olympians. However, Zeus’ father, Cronus, was a Titan.

  • Did Zeus create humans?

    No. The ancient Greeks did not have a standard myth for the creation of humans. In some traditions, however, Zeus instructed the Titan Prometheus to create humans.

  • Why did Zeus swallow his wife?

    Zeus swallowed his first wife, Metis, after it was prophesied that their child would overthrow him as ruler of the gods.

  • How many wives did Zeus have?

    Zeus was usually said to have had three wives, with his last wife being Hera. But Zeus also had countless lovers, both mortal and immortal.

Overview

Zeus was the king of the ancient Greek gods, a mighty deity who presided over the fates of men and gods alike and meted out justice from atop Mount Olympus. Known as “cloud-gatherer,” “aegis-bearer,” and simply “father,” Zeus hurled lightning bolts at his foes, controlled the weather, and enforced order among the gods.

For all his strength, Zeus’ power was not unlimited. While Zeus was chief among the gods, his authority over the pantheon was frequently challenged. He also had his share of flaws, such as his failure to rise above the violent passions and petty quarrels that troubled the other gods, as well as his tendency to meddle in mortal affairs. Fittingly, his hard-won and ever-tenuous rule was characterized by the same bitter divisions and vendettas that plagued the Greek peoples who created him.

Etymology

The name “Zeus” was thought to derive from the Proto-Indo-European root dyeu-, meaning “shining,” and the word dewos, meaning “god.” The latter is the same word that forms the basis of the Greek theόs, the Latin deus, the Old Persian daiva, and the Sanskrit deva, all of which mean “god.”[1] In the original Greek, the name Zeus might have meant either “shining god” or “sky god.”

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    ZeusΖεύς
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [zoos]/zus/

Other Names

Zeus’ Roman equivalent was called Jupiter or Jove.

Epithets

Zeus had many titles and epithets, which often varied by region. His most important epithets included “father of gods and men,” or simply “father.” He was also frequently called “highest” (hypatos or hypsistos) in literature and cult. Zeus’ role as a weather god is reflected in many of his epithets, including Hyetios (“Zeus of the rain”), Ombrios (“rainmaker”), Kataibates (“he who comes down in lightning”), and Keraunios (“thunderer”).

Attributes

In ancient literature, art, and cult, Zeus was typically represented as a god of the sky or weather. He is distinguished by his signature lightning bolts, which the Greeks believed the Cyclopes had fashioned for him. Sometimes Zeus was also shown holding the aegis, an invincible shield.

Though chiefly a weather god, Zeus was invoked in many natural, domestic, and institutional capacities. For example, Zeus was perceived as the protector of the city, or polis, of the home, and of the family.

Family

Lustful Zeus conceived many children with women both human and divine. While he was married multiple times, the bonds of matrimony proved no barrier to his voracious sexual appetites. Zeus first married Metis, a Titan, whom he swallowed when it was prophesied that his child from her would overthrow him. Though he did not know it at the time, Metis was already pregnant with his first child, Athena, who would one day burst forth from Zeus’ head.

With his second wife, the Titan Themis, Zeus sired the three Horae: Eunomia (Order), Dike (Justice), and Eirene (Peace).[2] He sired the three Moirae with her as well (also called the Fates): Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos.[3]

Ultimately, Zeus settled down with Hera, one of his sisters and the goddess who is normally depicted as his companion. Hera was Zeus’ third and final wife, according to most sources. With Hera, Zeus had Hebe (cupbearer of the gods), Ares and Enyo (the god and goddess of war, respectively), Hephaestus, and Eileithyia (goddess of childbirth and midwifery).[4]

Zeus had many other lovers, too, and every one of his relationships produced children. With the Oceanid Eurynome, Zeus had the gods known as the Graces: these were Aglaea (Beauty), Euphrosyne (Laughter), and Thalia (Festivity). With his sister Demeter, Zeus had Persephone.[5] With the Titan Mnemosyne, Zeus sired the nine Muses: Clio (muse of history), Euterpe (music), Thalia (comedy), Melpomene (tragedy), Terpsichore (dance), Erato (lyric poetry), Polyhymnia (choral poetry), Urania (astronomy), and Calliope (heroic poetry). 

Zeus was also the father of several of the most important Olympian gods. With the Titan Leto, Zeus sired Apollo (god of music and poetry) and Artemis (goddess of the hunt). With Atlas’ daughter Maia, he had Hermes. Athena, Zeus’ daughter with his first wife, Metis, was eventually born from his head. Dionysus, Zeus’ son by the mortal Semele, was born from his thigh. According to some sources, Zeus was also the father of Aphrodite by Dione.[6]

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

Family Tree

Mythology

Origins

According to myth, Zeus was the last of the six children born 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 would usurp him as he had his father, Cronus ate his first five children—Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon. Determined to save her next child, Rhea stole away while she was pregnant with Zeus and delivered him in secret. She entrusted the child into the care of her mother, Gaia, the primordial goddess of the earth, who hid him in a cave. To complete this deception, Rhea returned with a stone wrapped in swaddling blankets that she gave to Cronus, who devoured it as he had the others. Rhea’s ruse was a success. 

In the most familiar version of the myth, Zeus was born on the island of Crete, but ancient sources often disagreed on the location of the cave in which he was hidden: some said it was in Mount Dicte, while others said Mount Ida.[7] 

There are different versions of Zeus’ infancy. In one story, he was suckled by the she-goat Amalthea while a troop of armed warriors called the Couretes danced and clashed their weapons to conceal the baby’s cries from Cronus.[8] In another story, Amalthea was the name of the nymph who nursed Zeus. Since Cronus ruled the earth, the heavens, and the sea, Amalthea hid the young Zeus by hanging his cradle from a tree: suspended between the three realms, Zeus was invisible to Cronus.[9]

Rhea presenting a swaddled stone to Cronus

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

Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain

The Trials of the Mighty Zeus

Titanomachy

When he reached manhood, Zeus left Crete to confront Cronus. First, he tricked Cronus into drinking a potion that caused him to vomit up the children he had swallowed. Then, together with his siblings, Zeus set out to overthrow Cronus and the Titans. 

This sparked the conflict known as the Titanomachy. For ten years, the Titans did battle with Zeus and his siblings (as well as Prometheus and Epimetheus, the only Titans to side with the gods). Strained to his limits, Zeus eventually won the conflict not through strength but through strategy. 

Rather than overwhelming the Titans, Zeus resorted to a desperate, extreme measure. He freed the Cyclopes, a race of powerful one-eyed giants, and the Hecatoncheires, primordial beasts with a hundred hands each. Conceived like the Titans by Uranus and Gaia, the Cyclopes and Hecatoncheires were so monstrous that when they were born, Uranus tried to stuff them back into Gaia’s womb.[10] 

In return for their freedom, the Cyclopes and Hecatoncheires helped Zeus and his siblings in their war against the Titans. The Cyclopes even gave Zeus “thunder and the glowing thunderbolt and lightning,” claimed Hesiod, the Greek poet whose Theogony is the densest single source for the mythology of the Greeks.[11]

Zeus Louvre

Attic amphora showing Zeus wielding a thunderbolt and holding an eagle by the Berlin Painter (c. 480–70 BC). Louvre, Paris

Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain

Zeus’ gamble turned the tide in his favor. Now, with his full force assembled, Zeus unleashed his fury. Hesiod renders this 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.[12]

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

Zeus then divided control of the cosmos among his siblings. To Demeter he offered control over agriculture; to Poseidon he granted the seas; to Hades he bestowed the Underworld; and to Hestia he gave the domain of the home and hearth. Zeus eventually took Hera for his wife. Together, the Olympian gods and goddesses—so named because they lived atop Mount Olympus—ushered in a new era.

Typhoeus

Though mighty Zeus had imposed order over his unruly peers, lasting peace proved elusive. It was now Gaia’s turn to stir the pot. Enraged over the defeat and imprisonment of her Titan sons and daughters, Gaia conceived a final child with Tartarus (another of the primordial deities and the personification of the Underworld realm), a monstrous offspring called Typhoeus:[13]

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 [sic] heads flashed fire, and fire burned from his heads as he glared.[14]

Zeus sought the aid of the Cyclopes to fight this new monster, and with their help he soon defeated Typhoeus, hurling him down into Tartarus along with the rest of the Titans.

The Gigantomachy

In another well-known tradition, the goddess of the earth was said to have sent the Giants (also called Gigantes) against Zeus and the Olympians. The Giants were Gaia’s offspring. According to Hesiod, they were born from the blood that spilled when Uranus was castrated by Cronus, along with the Erinyes (the Furies) and the Meliae (ash-tree nymphs).[15] According to Hyginus, on the other hand, the Giants were the sons of Gaia and Tartarus.[16]

Titanomachy AIC

The Battle between the Gods and the Giants by Joachim Wtewael (1608).

Art Institute of ChicagoPublic Domain

The Giants were fantastically strong and arrogant, though not necessarily extraordinarily tall (the quality most commonly associated with the term “giant” nowadays). In later literary and artistic depictions, they had serpentine features, such as scaly feet, snakes for legs, or snake hair.[17]

The war between the Olympians and the Giants, called the Gigantomachy, does not appear in the earliest Greek texts. Neither Homer nor Hesiod describe this war, though they may allude to it.[18] According to the fifth-century BCE poet Pindar, the Gigantomachy was fought on the plain of Phlegra in northern Greece.[19] Both Pindar and other authors assigned a major role in the conflict to Heracles, Zeus’ son by the mortal Alcmene: apparently, there had been a prophecy that only Heracles could defeat the Giants.[20]

The two most powerful Giants were named Porphyrion and Alcyoneus. Porphyrion was killed by either Apollo[21] or Heracles;[22] Alcyoneus was killed by Heracles. The other Olympians, including Athena, Dionysus, and Zeus himself, also participated in the fierce battle. In the end, the Giants were defeated and killed.

The Aloadae

The Aloadae—named Otus and Ephialtes—were sons of Aloeus’ wife Iphimedia by Poseidon. They were prodigiously tall and strong from an early age and wished to attack Olympus so that they could carry off the goddesses as their brides. To accomplish this goal, they piled two mountains, Pelion and Ossa, on top of each other to ascend to Olympus and battle the Olympians. In one version, they even managed to capture and imprison Ares for thirteen months.[23]

Ultimately, Otus and Ephialtes were killed, either by the Olympian gods or accidentally by one another. Some ancient authors confused the Aloadae with the Giants.[24]

Hera’s Revolt

Early in his reign, Zeus was challenged by his wife Hera. Together with Poseidon, Athena, and several other Olympians, Hera rose up against Zeus. While he was sleeping, they stole his thunderbolts and bound him in adamantine chains. 

Zeus was soon saved by Thetis, one of the Nereids and a minor sea goddess. Thetis called Briareus, one of the Hecatoncheires, who released Zeus from his chains. He immediately sprang up, seized his thunderbolts, and cowed the other gods into submission. Zeus punished the Olympians, especially Hera, and made them all swear never to challenge his power again.[25]

Zeus and the Creation Stories

As the supreme god, Zeus had a role in the creation of humankind, though sources disagree on how exactly humans came about. There are two well-known creation stories, and it is not entirely clear how they relate to one another. The first tells of many separate creations, each inaugurating a distinctive age of humankind. According to Ovid, there were four ages: the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age.[26] To these four, Hesiod added a fifth—the Heroic Age, falling between the Bronze and Iron Ages.[27]

In each age, Zeus had a decisive part to play. Zeus was born during the Golden Age, and also brought it to an end by sparking the cataclysmic conflict known as the Titanomachy. Although he did not start the Silver Age, he ended it by destroying the foolish mortals who populated it when they refused to honor the gods. 

Zeus himself created the third race: the strong and warlike humans of the Bronze Age, who were so powerful and aggressive that they destroyed themselves. He created the heroes of the fourth age as well, but most of them died during the Trojan War and the war known as the Seven against Thebes, a mythic conflict featuring Oedipus and made famous by the fifth-century BCE playwright 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. This was an age marred by perpetual strife, folly, and the loss of common morality. 

The second creation myth, the better known of the two, involved Zeus’ erstwhile ally, the Titan Prometheus. One day, Zeus instructed Prometheus to create the first humans. Prometheus complied, molding them out of clay.[28]

All was well until Prometheus deceived Zeus over a matter involving animal sacrifice: he ensured that the gods would forever receive only the less desirable portions of the animal (the bones and fat), while the humans would consume the meat themselves. Zeus would have forgiven this offense, but Prometheus made things even worse by defying Zeus’ wishes and stealing fire from the gods to give to the humans.

In stealing fire, Prometheus had gone too far. Zeus now sought revenge and devised a particularly macabre punishment for his one-time ally—he fastened Prometheus to a rock and had an eagle eat his immortal liver every day. Prometheus’ liver regrew each night, ensuring that this punishment would continue for all eternity.

Jacob Jordaens - Prometheus Bound

Prometheus Bound by Jacob Jordaens (1640). Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne.

Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain

In order to revenge himself upon the humans, Zeus had his children Hephaestus and Athena fashion a woman named Pandora. Before she was sent to earth, Pandora was celebrated by the gods and given priceless gifts, including a sealed jar she was told never to open. 

Eventually, curiosity got the better of her—as Zeus knew it would—and Pandora opened the jar, releasing a host of evils upon the humans, including death (up until this point, humans had been immortal), war, famine, disease, and countless others. By the time Pandora covered the jar, only hope remained, leaving the humans to wander in a hopeless, fallen world.

The Lovers of Zeus

Though Zeus’ marriage to Hera did not end like his prior marriages to Metis and Themis, he continued to take other lovers. Zeus’ many eventful infidelities are important and consequential parts of his legend. Among the immortals, Zeus’ lovers included Leto, Demeter, and Dione, who, according to some traditions, became the mother of Aphrodite. 

Zeus also had many mortal lovers—mostly women, though Ganymede was one famous male exception. Zeus often transformed himself into fantastic creatures to have his way with the women who caught his eye. In one tale, Zeus fell for Io, a priestess of Hera, and came to earth to ravish her. When Hera caught wind of the affair and moved to punish Io, Zeus disguised his lover as a heifer. Hera was clever, however, and appealed to Argus, a giant with a hundred eyes, to spy on the heifer.

Rembrandt-Europa

The Abduction of Europa by Rembrandt van Rijn (1632).

The Getty CenterPublic Domain

Not to be outdone, Zeus countered with a scheme of his own, sending Hermes to lull Argus to sleep and rescue the maiden. Enraged at Argus’ failure, Hera slayed the giant and placed its eyes in the tail feathers of the peacock. She also sent monstrous flies to torment the heifer. Ultimately, Zeus emerged triumphant: he liberated Io from her animal form and went on to conceive many children with her. One of their most notable offspring was Epaphus, ancestor of the mighty Hercules.

In another story, Zeus coveted Europa, the daughter of a herdsman. So as not to arouse suspicion, Zeus transformed himself into a white bull and mingled inconspicuously in the herds of cattle. When the opportunity arose, he forcefully seized his quarry and carried her off to the island of Crete. Europa would go on to rule the island as its first queen and give birth to Minos, creator of the Minotaur.

In one famous story, Zeus fell in love with a beautiful princess of Aetolia named Leda. In order to seduce her, Zeus assumed the form of a swan. In the guise of this vulnerable creature, Zeus was pursued by an eagle and chased directly into Leda’s arms. Having gained her sympathy, he proceeded to seduce the young princess and copulate with her on the very night she had lain with her husband, Tyndareus.

From the two eggs that were fertilized that night—one by Zeus, the other by Tyndareus—four children with uncertain paternities were born: Helen, Clytemnestra, Castor and Polydeuces. When Zeus later chose Paris, the prince of Troy, to judge a beauty contest between Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera, Helen was awarded to the prince as a prize for his services. Paris’ abduction of Helen would go on to spark the Trojan War.

The story of Leda and the Swan was a common motif in Renaissance literature and art, and was later recounted by William Butler Yeats in his famous 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.[29]

Leda and the Swan - P.P. Rubens

Leda and the Swan by Peter Paul Rubens (painted before 1600).

Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain

Zeus’ mortal lovers also included Danae, the mother of Perseus; Alcmene, the mother of Heracles; Semele, the mother of Dionysus; and Callisto, the mother of Arcas.

Zeus and the Greeks

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

In his attempts to maintain peace among his plotting peers, Zeus expressed the same yearning for unity and moral clarity felt by the bitterly divided city-states of the Greek world. Moreover, Zeus’ many sexual exploits—often nothing more than rapes and attempted rapes—laid bare the deeply misogynistic culture of the Greeks.[30] Zeus was not simply the powerful god the Greeks looked to when they gazed at the sky; he was an idealized reflection of themselves.

Worship

As the leader of the Olympian gods, Zeus was worshipped widely throughout Greece and the Mediterranean. His worship was based on temple cult, sacrifice, and prayer. In the Roman world, Zeus was worshipped as Jupiter or Jove.

Festivals

The most important festivals to Zeus in the ancient world were called “Panhellenic,” meaning they were celebrated by all Greeks, not just individual cities. These included the Olympic Games, held at Olympia in the Peloponnese every four years. The games were initiated by elaborate rites and sacrifices that took place in a complex of temples, with the main temple dedicated to Zeus. Zeus was also honored at the Panhellenic games at Nemea, held every two years.

There were also many local festivals to Zeus. In the region of Attica (whose most important city was Athens), Zeus was celebrated in three local festivals that were held annually: the Dipolieia, centered around a bull sacrifice;[31] the Diasia, which comprised local sacrifices and ordinary animal sacrifices;[32] and the Diisoteria, held at the harbor town of Piraeus, which involved animal sacrifice and a procession.[33]

In Crete, where Zeus was believed to have been born, festivals in his honor centered on dances and music that evoked the Couretes (the warriors who had protected him as a baby).

In Arcadia, a strange festival was celebrated in honor of Zeus at Mount Lycaeum. The rites, called the Lycaea, involved cannibalism and werewolf stories.[34]

Temples

Beautiful temples dedicated to Zeus were erected throughout the ancient world. The earliest of these dates to the sixth century BCE. Zeus’ most important temples were located at Olympia, Athens, and Acragas (in Sicily). The temple of Zeus at Olympia was decorated with Phydias’ famous statue of Zeus: sculpted from gold and ivory, it was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Depiction of ancient statue of Zeus at Olympia

Illustration depicting how the enormous statue of Zeus at Olympia may have appeared by Quatremère de Quincy (1815).

Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain

Animal sacrifice was one of the cornerstones of the worship of Zeus in the ancient world. In Olympia, there was even an altar dedicated to Zeus that was built not of stone but from the burned remains of the animals previously sacrificed there.

Zeus was also regarded as a prophetic or oracular god. He had important oracles at Olympia, Dodona (northern Greece), and the Siwa Oasis in Libya. It was said that at Dodona, Zeus spoke through his sacred oak trees.[35]

In Rome, Zeus’ equivalent was Jupiter. Like Zeus, Jupiter was the leader of the gods. His main temple was an enormous structure on the Capitoline Hill in Rome, known as the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (“Jupiter the Best and Greatest”).

Pop Culture

Though he is no longer worshipped as he once was, Zeus’ image has persisted in popular culture. He often appears in the stories of Hercules, such as the 1970 cult classic Hercules in New York, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the Disney animated film Hercules (1997). He is also featured in the acclaimed God of War video game series, where he appears as the father of the hero Kratos. In all of these representations, Zeus’ personality is remarkably consistent—a wise, good-natured father figure with a booming voice and a hearty laugh.

In popular culture, Zeus is often shown as distant and withdrawn from the doings of Hercules and other mortals. In such depictions, he is more akin to modern monotheistic gods than a flawed figure intimately involved in earthly affairs.

References

Notes

  1. Walter Burkert, Greek Religion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 321; Robert S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 499;  “Zeus,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed January 23, 2019, https://www.etymonline.com/word/Zeus#etymonline_v_5015.

  2. Hesiod, Theogony 901ff; Pindar, Olympian Ode 13.6ff; Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 5.72.5; Orphic Hymn 43; Apollodorus, Library 1.3.1; etc. Other sources had different versions of the names and even the number of the Horae. In Attica, for example, there were only two Horae, Carpo and Thallo (Pausanias, Description of Greece 9.35.2). In other sources, perhaps more logically, there are four Horae who correspond to the four seasons of the year: Eiar (spring), Theros (summer), Cheimon (winter), and Phthinopoporon (autumn) (Nonnus, Dionysiaca 38.268ff). Finally, the Roman mythographer Hyginus, likely confusing different deities and traditions, gives two alternative lists of ten Horae: Auxo, Eunomia, Pherusa, Carpo, Dike, Euporia, Eirene, Orthosie, and Thallo; or Auge, Anatole, Musica, Gymnastica, Nymphe, Mesembria, Sponde, Elete, Acte, Hesperis, and Dysis (Hyginus, Fabulae 183). In some sources, moreover, the Horae are children not of Zeus and Themis but of Helios and Selene (Quintus of Smyrna, Posthomerica 10.334; cf. Nonnus, Dionysiaca 12.1).

  3. Hesiod, Theogony 901ff; Apollodorus, Library 1.3.1; etc. In Homer’s epics, however, there seems to have been only one Moira, named Aisa (Homer, Iliad 20.127, 24.209, etc). In some sources, the Moirae have different parents, such as Nyx (“Night”) (Hesiod, Theogony 211ff; Aeschylus, Eumenides 961; Orphic Hymn 59; Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 3.17; Hyginus, preface to Fabulae); Ananke (“Necessity”) (Plato, Republic 617c); or Chaos (Quintus of Smyrna, Posthomerica 3.755).

  4. In some traditions, however, Hera gave birth to Ares and Hephaestus asexually (so that these two gods had no father).

  5. This is the usual tradition, known from Hesiod, Theogony 912ff; Homeric Hymn 2; Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.37.9; Hyginus, preface to Fabulae, 146. But according to Apollodorus, Persephone’s mother was Styx, not Demeter (Library 1.3.1).

  6. See Homer, Iliad 5.370ff; Euripides, Helen 1098; Apollodorus, Library 1.3.1; Hyginus, preface to Fabulae. Hesiod, on the other hand, claimed that Aphrodite was born of the sea foam produced by the severed genitals of Uranus (Theogony 188ff).

  7. Mount Dicte: Virgil, Georgics 4.153; Apollodorus, Library 1.1.6; Servius on Virgil’s Aeneid 3.104; First Vatican Mythographer 104; Second Vatican Mythographer 16. Mount Ida: Callimachus, Hymn 1.51; Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 5.70; Ovid, Fasti 4.207; Lactantius Placidus on Statius’ Thebaid 4.784. Hesiod’s Theogony, the earliest source to tell this myth, has it that Zeus was hidden in Mount Aegeum (468–80). There were other locales that claimed to have been the site of Zeus’ birth or upbringing, including Mount Ida in Troy, Ithome in Messenia, Thebes in Boeotia, Aegion in Achaea, and Olenus in Aetolia.

  8. Apollodorus, Library 1.1.5–7. See also Callimachus, Hymn 1; Strabo, Geography 10.3.11; Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 5.70; Ovid, Fasti 4.207ff, 5.111ff; Servius on Virgil’s Aeneid 3.104; Lactantius Placidus on Statius’ Thebaid 4.784; First Vatican Mythographer 104; Second Vatican Mythographer 16; etc.

  9. Hyginus, Fabulae 139.

  10. This was why Gaia prodded Cronus into plotting against Uranus.

  11. Hesiod, Theogony 504–5, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White.

  12. Hesiod, Theogony 687–712, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White.

  13. Hesiod, Theogony 820–22; Apollodorus, Library 1.6.3; Hyginus, preface to Fabulae. Other sources do not name Typhoeus’ father, while others make him the offspring of Gaia alone (Homeric Hymn 3.305–55; Stesichorus fragment 239) or of Gaia and Cronus (scholia b on Homer’s Iliad 2.783).

  14. Hesiod, Theogony 824–28, trans. Hugh G. Evelyn-White.

  15. Hesiod, Theogony 185. Compare Apollodorus, Library 1.6.1, where the Giants are called the sons of Uranus and Gaia but nothing is said about the castration.

  16. Hyginus, preface to Fabulae.

  17. For example, Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.184, Tristia 4.7.17; Apollodorus, Library 1.6.1; Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.20.9; Servius on Virgil’s Aeneid 3.578; Claudian, Gigantomachy 80ff; Nonnus, Dionysiaca 1.18; Second Vatican Mythographer 53. The geographer Pausanias denied that the Giants were serpent-footed (Description of Greece 8.29.3). Ovid, apparently confusing the Giants with the Hecatoncheires, gave each of the Giants one hundred arms (Metamorphoses 1.182–84).

  18. For example, Homer, Odyssey 7.58–60; Hesiod, Catalogue of Women fragments 43a.65 and 195.28–29 M–W, Theogony 50–52 and 954.

  19. See also Lycophron, Alexandra 115–27, 1356–58, 1404–8; Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 4.15.1; Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.25.2, 8.29.1; scholia AT on Homer’s Iliad 15.27. Others said that the Gigantomachy took place in Pallene, which may have been another name for Phlegra (Apollodorus, Library 1.6.1). Other locations were also suggested: Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples (Lycophron, Alexandra 688–93); the Phlegraean Fields near Naples (Strabo, Geography 5.4.4, 5.4.6, 6.3.5; Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 4.21.5–7, 5.71.4); Megalopolis in Arcadia (Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.29.1); Tartessus in Spain (scholia A on Homer’s Iliad 8.479). Many sources spread the battle across several locations, with it starting in Greece but ranging into parts of Sicily, Italy, Asia Minor, or the Aegean Islands.

  20. Pindar, Nemean Ode 1.67–69, 7.90; Euripides, Heracles 177–80; Apollodorus, Library 1.6.1.

  21. Pindar, Pythian Ode 8.12–18.

  22. Apollodorus, Library 1.6.2; John Tzetzes on Lycophron’s Alexandra 63.

  23. Homer, Iliad 5.385–91.

  24. Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.151–62.

  25. Homer, Iliad 1.398ff.

  26. Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.76–150.

  27. Hesiod, Works and Days 109–201.

  28. Apollodorus, Library 1.7.1. See also Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.4.4; Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.82ff; Juvenal, Satire 14.35; Lucian, Dialogues of the Gods 1.1; etc. But according to Hesiod’s Theogony—the earliest account of the creation of the cosmos—Prometheus was merely a benefactor of humans, not their creator. Curiously, Hesiod did not clearly describe how humans were created or who was responsible for creating them.

  29. The full poem can be found here: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/leda-and-swan.

  30. There is a vast literature on ancient misogyny, including Eva Cantarella’s classic Pandora’s Daughters: The Role and Status of Women in Greek and Roman Antiquity (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987); for an accessible introduction to the misogyny of Zeus in particular, see Lauren Hawkins, “Hipponax and Misogyny in Ancient Greece,” World History Encyclopedia, published online 2012, https://www.ancient.eu/article/188/hipponax--misogyny-in-ancient-greece/.

  31. Porphyry, On Abstinence from Animal Food 2.28.4–31.1.

  32. Thucydides, Histories 1.126.6.

  33. Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians 56.5.

  34. Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.2, 38.

  35. Homer, Odyssey 14.327–28, 19.296–97.

Primary Sources

As the most important of the Greek gods, Zeus is ubiquitous in Greek literature. Yet he is most often present behind the scenes: for example, Zeus and Ares are the only major gods who apparently never (or almost never) appeared as characters in a Greek tragedy. It seems that there were some epics written during the Archaic Period (ca. 800–490 BCE) that described some of the early deeds and battles of Zeus—most notably, the Titanomachy and the Gigantomachy—but these no longer survive.

Greek

  • Homer: Zeus plays an important role in the Iliad and the Odyssey (eighth century BCE) as the wise but sometimes terrifying leader of the Olympians.  

  • Hesiod: Zeus’ origins and rise to power are detailed in the seventh-century BCE epics of Hesiod, including the Theogony and the Works and Days. The Catalogue of Women, a fragmentary epic doubtfully attributed to Hesiod, includes the myths of many of Zeus’ mortal love affairs.

  • Homeric Hymns: Zeus is an important figure in the Homeric Hymns, religious poems about the gods composed around the seventh and sixth centuries BCE. The 23rd Homeric Hymn is dedicated to Zeus, but is only four lines long.

  • Pindar: Zeus’ role in ordering the universe and dispensing justice is central to many of Pindar’s surviving poems (fifth century BCE). Pindar begins many of his Odes by invoking Zeus.

  • Aeschylus: The justice of Zeus is an important theme in many of Aeschylus’ tragedies, especially the Oresteia (458 BCE). The tragedy Prometheus Bound tells the story of how Zeus punished Prometheus for stealing fire from the gods (but Zeus does not appear as a character).

  • Aristophanes: The comedies of Aristophanes do not seem to have ever featured Zeus as a character, though Zeus’ rule over the cosmos is often comically challenged by the protagonists. For example, in Birds (414 BCE), an Athenian named Peisetaerus founds a city with the birds and overthrows Zeus as the ruler of the universe. 

  • Plato: The philosopher Plato discussed the nature of the gods and the truth about Zeus in several of his dialogues, especially the Timaeus (ca. 360 BCE).

  • Apollonius of Rhodes: In the third-century BCE epic Argonautica, Zeus intervenes in the voyage of the Argonauts, addressing them at one point through the sacred oak from which the ship had been constructed.

  • Callimachus: The third-century BCE Hymn to Zeus describes the origins of Zeus on the island of Crete and his worship there.

  • Orphic Hymns: The Orphics were a Greek cult that believed a blissful afterlife could be attained by living an ascetic life. Several of the Orphic Hymns (ca. third century BCE to second century CE) are dedicated to Zeus.

  • Moschus: The epyllion (mini-epic) Europa (second century CE) tells the story of how Zeus carried off the princess Europa.

  • Strabo, Geography: A late first-century BCE geographical treatise and an important source for many local Greek myths, institutions, and religious practices from antiquity.

  • Lucian: Zeus features in a number of Lucian’s satirical writings (late first to early second century CE), including the Dialogues of the Gods.

  • Pausanias, Description of Greece: A second-century CE travelogue; like Strabo’s Geography, an important source for local myths and customs.

  • Quintus of Smyrna: In the fourth-century CE epic Posthomerica, Zeus is occasionally shown interfering in the Trojan War, as he does in the Homeric poems.

  • Nonnus: The epic poem Dionysiaca (fifth century CE) relates the travels of the young god Dionysus and features Zeus as a character.

Roman

  • Lucretius: In Lucretius’ philosophical epic On the Nature of Things, worship of the Olympian gods (including Zeus/Jupiter) is repeatedly ridiculed.

  • Cicero: The Roman statesman Cicero reflected on the true nature of Jupiter and the other gods in some of his philosophical works, especially On the Nature of the Gods (ca. 45 BCE).

  • Virgil: Jupiter (the Roman equivalent of Zeus) plays an important role in the Aeneid (19 BCE), an epic poem that tells of how the Trojan hero Aeneas came to Italy as the ancestor of the Romans.

  • Ovid: Jupiter’s origins, rule of the cosmos, and many love affairs feature prominently throughout the epic Metamorphoses (ca. 8 CE). 

  • Valerius Flaccus: In the epic Argonautica (first century CE), as in Apollonius’ earlier Greek work of the same name, Jupiter intervenes in the voyage of the Argonauts.

  • Statius: Jupiter plays a role in the epic Thebaid (first century CE), as he does in many epics.

  • Silius Italicus: In the Punica, a first-century CE epic about Hannibal’s war against the Romans, Jupiter is featured a few times as a protector of the Romans.

  • Claudian: Jupiter plays an important role in two poems by the fourth-century CE poet Claudian: the Rape of Proserpina and the Gigagontomachy.

Mythological Handbooks (Greek and Roman)

  • Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History: A work of universal history, covering events from the creation of the cosmos to Diodorus’ own time (mid-first century BCE). Contains many references to Zeus and the myths of Zeus.

  • Apollodorus, Library: A mythological handbook from the first century BCE or the first few centuries CE. The myths of Zeus and his rise to power make up much of Book 1.

  • Hyginus, Fabulae: A Latin mythological handbook (first or second century CE) that includes sections on the myths of Jupiter.

  • Fulgentius, Mythologies: A Latin mythological handbook (fifth or sixth century CE) with sections on the myths of Jupiter.

Secondary Sources

  • Arafat, Karim W. Classical Zeus: A Study in Art and Literature. Oxford: Clarendon, 1990.

  • Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

  • Cartwright, Mark. “Zeus.” World History Encyclopedia. Published online 2013. https://www.ancient.eu/zeus/

  • Cook, Arthur Bernard. Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion. 3 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914–1940.

  • Dowden, Ken. Zeus. London: Routledge, 2006.

  • Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. 2 vols. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

  • Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1955.

  • Guthrie, W. K. G. The Greeks and Their Gods. London: Methuen, 1962.

  • Henrichs, Albert, and Balbina Bäbler. “Zeus.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e12216820

  • Kerényi, Károly. The Gods of the Greeks. London: Thames and Hudson, 1951.

  • Kerényi, Károly. Zeus and Hera. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975.

  • Kolotourou, Katerina. “Zeus.” In Encyclopedia of Ancient History, edited by Roger S. Bagnall, Kai Brodersen, Craige B. Champion, Andrew Erskine, and Sabine R. Huebner, 12:7172–74. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. 

  • Lloyd-Jones, Hugh. The Justice of Zeus. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971.

  • Long, C. R. The Twelve Gods of Greece and Rome. Leiden: Brill, 1987.

  • Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. London: Methuen, 1929.

  • Smith, William. “Zeus.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed March 30, 2021. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0104:alphabetic%20letter=Z:entry%20group=2:entry=zeus-bio-1&toc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DA%3Aentry+group%3D51

  • Theoi Project. “Zeus.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Olympios/Zeus.html

  • Zolotnikova, Olga. Zeus in Early Greek Mythology and Religion: From Prehistoric Times to Early Archaic Period. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2013.

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Zeus.” Mythopedia, November 29, 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/zeus.

Kapach, Avi. “Zeus.” Mythopedia, 29 Nov. 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/zeus. Accessed on 3 Dec. 2022.

Kapach, A. (2022, November 29). Zeus. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/zeus

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

    Avi Kapach is a writer, scholar, and educator who received his PhD in Classics from Brown University

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