Zeus

Zeus was the King of the Gods and the god of the sky, weather, law and order, destiny and fate, and kingship. He was depicted as a regal, mature man with a sturdy figure and dark beard. His usual attributes were a lightning bolt, a royal sceptre and an eagle.

Residence: Mount Olympus
Symbols: Thunderbolt, Eagle, Bull and Oak
Parents: Cronus and Rhea
Siblings: Hestia, Hades, HeraPoseidonDemeter, Chiron
Consort: Hera
Children: Aeacus, Agdistis, Angelos, AphroditeApolloAresArtemisAthenaDionysus, Eileithya, Enyo, Epaphus, Eris, Ersa, Hebe, Helen of Troy, Hephaestus, Heracles, Hermes, Lacedaemon, Minos, Pandia, Persephone, Perseus, Rhadamanthus, the Graces, the Horae, the Litae, the Muses and the Moirai
Roman equivalent: Jupiter

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Zeus de Smyrne, discovered in Smyrna in 1680.

Birth

Cronus had sired several children by Rhea, but had swallowed them all as soon as they were born, since he had learned from Gaia and Uranus that he was destined to be overthrown by his own son as he had previously overthrown Uranus, his father, an oracle that Rhea had heard and wished to avert.

When Zeus was about to be born, Rhea sought Gaia to devise a plan to save him, so that Cronus would get his retribution for his acts against Uranus and his own children. Rhea gave birth to Zeus in Crete, but instead of handing over the baby to Cronus she gave him a rock wrapped in swaddling clothes, which he promptly swallowed.

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Illustratrion of Rhea handing over ‘baby Zeus’ to Cronus. 475 – 425 BC. Attic Red Figure.

Infancy

He was raised in secrecy on Mount Dikte in Crete, where he was nursed by nymphs on the milk of the goat Amaltheia and guarded by the warrior Kouretes, who drowned out the sound of his crying with their shield-clashing battle-dance.

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Terracotta plaque with two of the dancing Kouretes protecting the infant Zeus from his father Cronus. Roman Imperial period, in the Louvre.

Becoming King of the Gods

After coming of age, Zeus forced Cronus to disgorge first the stone then his siblings in reverse order of swallowing. Metis had given Cronus amagical draughtc to force him to disgorge the babies. Then Zeus released the brothers of Cronus, the Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes, from their dungeon in Tartarus, killing their guard, Campe.

As a token of their appreciation, the Cyclopes gave him thunder and the thunderbolt, which had previously been hidden by Gaia. Together, Zeus, his brothers and sisters, the Hecatonchires and Cyclopes overthrew Cronus and the other Titans, in the combat called the Titanomachy. The defeated Titans were then cast into Tartarus. Atlas, one of the titans who fought against Zeus, was punished by having to hold up the sky.

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A copy of a Greek relief of Zeus fighting the Titans, whilst riding a chariot.

After the battle with the Titans, Zeus shared the world with his elder brothers, Poseidon and Hades, by drawing lots: Zeus got the sky and air, Poseidon the Sea, and Hades the Underworld. The ancient Earth, Gaia, could not be claimed; she was left to all three, each according to their capabilities, which explains why Poseidon was the “earth-shaker” (the god of earthquakes) and Hades claimed the humans who died.

Birth of Athena

Zeus fell in love with the goddess Metis, who is described as the “wisest among gods and mortal men”, and seduced her. After learning that she was pregnant, however, he became afraid that the unborn offspring would try to overthrow him, because Gaia and Uranus had prophesied that Metis would bear children wiser than their father. In order to prevent this, Zeus tricked her into letting him swallow her, but it was too late because Metis had already conceived.

Zeus experienced an enormous headache. He was in such pain that he ordered Hephaestus to cleave his head open with the labrys, the double-headed Minoan axe. Athena leaped from Zeus’s head, fully grown and armed.

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Athena is born from Zeus’ head. Black-figured amphora, 550–525 BC, Louvre.

Zeus’s Affairs

Zeus was famous for his extra-marital affairs with immortals and mortals alike and a great many myths have sprung from these lurid affairs.

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Zeus and Io.

Many myths render Hera as jealous of his amorous conquests and a consistent enemy of Zeus’s mistresses and their children by him. For a time, a nymph named Echo had the job of distracting Hera from his affairs by talking incessantly, and when Hera discovered the deception, she cursed Echo to repeat the words of others.

For many of these affairs, Zeus would transform himself into something else, as he did with Hera, to trick his unsuspecting love interests:

  • Aegina, an eagle.
  • Alcmene, Amphitryon.
  • Antiope, a satyr.
  • Asopis, fire.
  • Callisto, Artemis.
  • Cassiopeia, Phoenix.
  • Danae, a shower of gold.
  • Europa, a bull.
  • Eurymedusa, an ant.
  • Ganymede, an eagle.
  • Imandra, a shower.
  • Lamia, a lapwing.
  • Leda, a swan.
  • Manthea, a bear.
  • Mnemosyne, a shepherd.
  • Nemesis, a goose.
  • Persephone, a serpent.
  • Semele, fire.
  • Thalia, a vulture.
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A mosaic of Leda and Zeus as a swan.
Roman-era relief depicting the eagle of Zeus abducting Ganymede, his Phrygian cap denoting an eastern origin, and a river god.
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Ancient Boeotian bell-krater showing Zeus impregnating Danaë in the form of a shower of gold, circa 450-425 BC.